On Black Friday, I finished reading Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. It is a classic example of narrative nonfiction. It is so good that it won the 2012 National Book Award. While reading this book, you will find yourself asking, “Is this real?” Real, it is.
The book details the lives, pressures, and grinding poverty faced by the inhabitants of one noxious slum in Mumbai that abuts a sewage lake. The real life cast shares the same characteristics of many people in our own lives: honesty and vanity, pluck and desperation, earnestness and callousness, cruelty and forgiveness.
Read this book and you will want to give thanks again and again for all the comforts of your own life.
Just as importantly, Boo exposes how poorly run governments and corporate institutions create and sustain grinding poverty through corruption and nonchalance. In India, according to Boo, corruption is an endemic cancer gnawing away at the lower-classes. Corruption slams the door on one’s best efforts and denies hope, which is all many in the undercity have.
Technically, corruption may not be rampant in the United States, but that does not mean we do not have a corrupt system. America has perfected a system of governance that allows corporations to have significantly more influence over public policy than you or me. We seem to have lost our sense of the public good.
That me-first drive was on full display on Black Friday. So, as I finished reading Boo’s tale of the soul-crushing, infinite poverty of a Mumbai undercity, it clashed vividly with stories of Americans waiting overnight in long lines to buy the latest electronic gizmo or save 25% on a new television that is only slightly larger and only slightly flatter than the one they already own.
Most Americans are fortunate enough to not live in undercities, but American poverty and homelessness are still quite real. We have become adept at not seeing what we do not want to see. Instead, in our consumer-driven economy, on the day after we give thanks, Americans focus on 30% price savings on a new gadget. We have so much to be thankful for, but I just cannot help but think that Americans have no sense of what Thanksgiving really means.