‘Behind the beautiful forevers’ and the futility of undirected anger

February 2, 2013

India

I was a sophomore in college when I read Night, Eli Weisel’s searing account of Auschwitz. I finished the slim paperback in one sitting, promptly threw it across my dorm room in disgust, and began to weep angrily. I had learned about the Holocaust in high school history class, had seen the images of skeletal men with shaved heads and Nazi’s goosestepping and Hitler waving his fist and spitting out incomprehensible words, but I had never understood the deliberate, systematic nature of the persecution and murder of so many millions of people.

My earlier understanding of World War II was as an inevitability, like a tornado or earthquake, a thing that can’t be prevented and can’t be stopped–one can only lament over the destruction it leaves behind. The reality of World War II was that it had taken the participation and compliance of many people, each choosing, sometimes on a daily basis, to do terrible and destructive things.

When I finished reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the beautiful forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, a very different, modern human tragedy, I wept as well, but it was less out of anger than sadness. I didn’t know who or what to be angry at, exactly.

I could blame ‘the global marketplace’, that force which, not unlike a hurricane or earthquake, is unpredictable and capable of great and terrifying things. “The market” reacted badly to this or that piece of news; “the markets” are holding steady in the face of whichever election or bank collapse just occurred. No, the market was too vague, too big to hold accountable for every small and huge injustice alike. Neither did I know what cause to rally behind, save any which determines to treat humans humanely.

Behind the beautiful forevers tells the story of of several families living in Annawadi, an enormous and unforgiving slum behind the airport in Mumbai, India. It’s a riveting book that transcends the unrelentingly dark circumstances of its subject. Katherine Boo won the 2012 National Book Award for non-fiction, and has received the attention and acclaim she deserves, but I don’t know what, exactly, her book will do to improve anything for the people living in Annawadi or in any of the slums across major Indian cities. People talk about awareness a lot, as if simply by bringing awareness to difficult or even horrible situations, something will inevitably be done to fix them. That’s the hope, but is it the reality?

In puzzling this over I was reminded of another excellent and thought-provoking book, Emma’s War, about the complications of war and aid and relief in Sudan. It’s been a while since I’ve read it, but I recall an episode in which the author encountered a Dutch nurse who’d been in Sudan for ten years and was about to return home to the Netherlands. The nurse seemed emotionally and physically spent and mourned the fact that she hadn’t been able to ‘do’ much to change anything. And then she gestured to the young boy in her company who, it turned out, was going home with her. Taking him to a safe place was the one thing she could do, the one way she to knew to affect change. Perhaps it’s Dutch modesty but she seemed to think, astonishingly, that it was a small thing.

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