Behind the Beautiful Forevers & Khagina
As a fan of South Asian literature, I have long been wary of outsiders attempting to pass off anecdotes as exposés, or of writers who imagine their individual experience to represent a larger portion of the Subcontinent. The truth is, South Asia is a huge place, as diverse in terrain as it is in culture, and it is impossible for any one person to classify all of it. Longtime reporter Katherine Boo seems well aware of this challenge in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, her latest book, which explores "life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity."
Traversing time but not space – Annadwadi's residents have so little money, they can barely go beyond a nearby airport, and that only to steal scraps to resell – Beautiful Forevers provides a glimpse into the lives of a few neighboring Mumbai families. Through this lens, Boo investigates India's legal, health, education, transportation, and sanitation systems, among others. She speaks of corruption and stress and disease and pain, and the beauty of it is that she herself is not present in any of it.
An American in India, Boo manages to avoid the cardinal sin of expository reporting: passing judgment. As she explains in the afterword, she spent several years with the residents of Annawadi, one of Mumbai's many slums, conversing, observing and recording. What results is a biography of a microcosm in one of the world's most populous cities. Non-fiction though it may be, Behind the Beautiful Forevers presents each person as a character, each event as a plot twist. This is no dull report on the state of Mumbai's poor; it is perhaps the greatest example of "show, don't tell" I have ever had the pleasure to read.
By taking a longitudinal approach, Beautiful Forevers succeeds in demonstrating the highs and lows of the slum's individuals. Their actions drive the story, which is peppered with thoughtfully placed details, naturally addressing societal and personal issues, making this not a book about an Indian slum but rather the tale of a few people trying simply to survive, and hoping to achieve more.
What I loved about this book was that its subjects were never pitied – Boo was quick to deftly slip their negative qualities in with their positive ones – and, as such, never treated as victims. It is easy for any outsider to see a destitute person and assume that bitter life circumstances must have landed him there. On the contrary, recognizing the impact of each decision taken by these people not only makes for a better story, it respects their individual agency as well.
In large cities, there are often elements that seem extraneous, unworthy of notice, unlikely to be missed. Without these elements, though, the face of the city as well as its inner workings would certainly transform – and not necessarily for the better. In honor of the tiny cogs that contribute to the functioning of society's machine, I present to you khagina (pronounced khaa-gee-nuh), a favorite dish of mine that combines eggs with random pantry staples that somehow come together to create something beautiful.
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 1 large onion (chopped)
- 1 large tomato (chopped)
- 2 serrano peppers (minced and seeds removed)
- 1/2 teaspoon ginger paste
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic paste
- 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder (or to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon turmeric powder
- 1 tablespoon chopped cilantro
- 4 eggs
Heat oil in a large frying pan. Saute onions, stirring occasionally.
When onions start to look brown, add chopped tomato. Fry until tomatoes break down, then add chopped green chilis, ginger paste, garlic paste, salt, red chili powder and turmeric powder. Stir to combine.
Once vegetables and seasonings are well combined and softened, break four eggs directly into the pan. Using a cooking spoon, break eggs and scramble all ingredients together.
Once eggs are cooked, mix in cilantro and remove from heat. Serve with toast or Indian flatbreads such as chapati or paratha.
Source: I received this as a gift (by way of an Amazon gift card intended to fill up my Kindle).