"Life, death and hope in a Mumbai undercity" is the subtitle of this book by Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist. She examines hopes and struggles in Annawadi, a slum that borders the Mumbai International Airport — some of the huts separated only by a sheet, no running water except from a public tap, situated near a lake of open sewage, within sight of luxurious airport hotels.
Names and events are real. Boo immersed herself with several families, became close to various members, and researched official documents for verification, for almost four years. Members of Annawadi families become major characters in the book, fascinating in their struggles and memorable, whether the outspoken mother who positions herself to become slumlord (an unofficial position but the person chosen by police and politicians to run the settlement according to their interests), or a son who just hopes for a clean job in one of the luxury hotels, perhaps putting toothpicks into cubes of cheese.
Few people in Annawadi have steady, paying jobs. Culling through garbage for resalable items is a typical choice. Hard work by Abdul, one son in a family of nine children, allows his family to rise above the subsistence level. Abdul is nondescript, an advantage in escaping the attention of the airport police when he and others raid the discard bins of employees cafeterias. Pilfering building supplies and scrap metal for resale is even more lucrative.
The "beautiful forevers" of the title are the Italian tiles advertised on a hotel sign visible from the slums. Abdul's mother, with more money than her neighbors now, has decided to pave the floor of their tiny hut with the Italian tiles as a step toward the middle class.
That dream is quashed when Abdul and his father are implicated in the death of an outlandish woman, "the One Leg" who enjoys profitable afternoons with other men when her husband is at work. Now the story enters the painfully slow Indian system of justice.
With Abdul and his father in jail, the family has no income. Yet the mother must pay off officials for everything from fewer beatings to having her son falsely declared a minor so he can be tried in juvenile court, which sentences to a somewhat less horrible prison than the one for adults.
The case proceeds with a few pieces of testimony presented at a time, with the next session set weeks ahead. Cases drag on for months. As the trial nears an end, the judge is abruptly reassigned to a court in a different city, to the family's despair, reflecting the sheer frustration which is part of everyday life for the powerless.
My hat is off to Katherine Boo for a magnificent book based on super investigative reporting, portraying her characters just as they are, and creating a book that is very hard to put down.