In just over two weeks, I will travel with a group of global activists to India to see projects funded by American Jewish World Service and hear the stories of our grantees, their challenges and vision. To help prepare myself, I just finished reading Katherine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers. I admit I do not often read non-fiction, but Ms. Boo truly brought the people she followed to life as though they were characters straight from a classic novel. I felt the same regarding setting and even plot (the individuals’ stories). This book has made me reevaluate how I feel about the genre. If you write or read non-fiction, this book is well worth picking up. If you don’t read non-fiction – it is still worth the read and is so accessible in Ms. Boo’s writing. I listened to the audio during my commute and walking my dog – it is a superb rendition.
Ms. Boo follows the lives of a number of people who live in Annawadi, a makeshift slum that is both side-by-side and overshadowed by beautiful, pristine hotels and the Mumbai international airport, all within a stone’s throw of each other. Their stories reflect everything that seems so wrong in India, but it is told without condescension and judgment. Crime and corruption live alongside hope and the driving desire for dignity.
The dichotomies are everywhere. As Patralekha Chatterjee shares on DNA India: ”More Indians have access to a mobile phone than to a toilet. Everyone knows that. The issue became a major talking point in 2010 when a report by the Ontario-based UN University’s Institute for Water, Environment and Health pointed out that while India had roughly 366 million people with access to improved sanitation in 2008, a far greater number, 545 million, had cell phones.”
It is the irony and frustration of a beautiful land and incredible people, more a continent than a country, several nations under one flag and within one border. But everywhere you go, you find a society immersed in a deep history, rich philosophies, and pulsating culture. I spent several months there when I was younger and, in many ways, I never left.
While the memories have faded, the sensory assault dulled, Katherine Boo brought me back to the streets of India, even as I negotiated the BART public transport commute and long walks with my dog along the water looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz . Back in the early 90’s I was a tourist on a spiritual journey to India to find myself. Two decades later, I prepare to return as a global human rights activist, working for a transformational non profit organization, and traveling with inspiring philanthropists driven to help make a better world for those most marginalized.
To read about AJWS work in India, please click here. One of our main projects is the struggle to end child marriage. Despite a law making it illegal, 47% of girls in India are married before they reach 18.
Shashi Tharoor summed up best what I am feeling: “India shaped my mind, anchored my identity, influenced my beliefs, and made me who I am. … India matters to me and I would like to matter to India.”
Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, The First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. His latest novel is Sacrificial Flame, the fourth in the series.
Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+