Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the most disturbing book I have read in a long time.

Although it reads like a well-written novel, it is the non-fictional account of the lives of several families living in the Annawadi slum at the edge of the Mumbai airport. The slum is located behind a sign that advertises tile flooring with the motto: Beautiful Forever. That's where the title comes from.

The author, Katherine Boo, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist. She spent three years in Annawadi where she developed relationships with several families and followed their stories. She did extensive interviews and other research for the book which is subtitled "Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity."

Residents of Annawadi are mostly refugees from rural areas who were unable to sustain themselves there and were drawn to the bustling, emergent economy of Mumbai. They literally live on the cast-aways of the more affluent as they pick through garbage daily looking for re-cyclables they can sell. Annawadi itself is likely to be recycled into middle class housing and other projects deemed more appropriate for the area around the international airport by city officials.

The families Boo follows include the good, the corrupt, the selfish, the intelligent, the greedy, the disabled, the beautiful, and the despised. Although the caste system of India is breaking down as it evolves into a modern state, the barriers are still there. Corruption infects every aspect of  their lives in ways that those of us blessed to live in America cannot begin to imagine.

In her concluding chapter, Boo writes "Poor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional...It is easy from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good and that many people try to be...." 

This is the message that is so disturbing that at one point in the narrative I set the book aside for a few days. Without providing a spoiler, I will only say that when I returned to finish the book I was relieved to find that my worst fears about the outcome of a tragic situation for one of the families was not realized and a small bit of hope revealed.

Beyond the Beautiful Forevers reveals the hidden and marginalized society living beneath the glittering facade of the new Mumbai. By implication, similar "under-cities" exist wherever the global economy is emerging and changing traditional cultures.

Boo concludes, "If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything straight?"  This is not a hopeful message, but it is an enlightening and important one.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

El Jefe Presents "The Brains of the Confederacy"

Judah P. Benjamin

Some of you long-time Gentle Readers of QG will recall that in those rare times when El Jefe is not dazzling his clients in his alter ego as "Dr. Debt", he is an avid amateur historian with a particular interest in the Civil War. He writes regular book reviews for the Civil War Times and has a couple of published articles to his credit.

So from time to time he is tapped as a speaker by local groups interested in the history of the Civil War. Last night he spoke to one of them on the subject of Judah P. Benjamin, the brilliant Jewish lawyer from Louisiana known as "The Brains of the Confederacy." I went along because I always enjoy his lectures and love hearing all the praise he gets for them.

Here's the story about how El Jefe became interested in Benjamin in the first place. 

As a student at Yale, El Jefe worked in the rare books library for an elderly professor. Upon his graduation, the professor, who was Jewish, gave him as a memento of their time together a two dollar Confederate bill which had the picture of Judah P. Benjamin on it. He told him that this was the only piece of American currency that featured a picture of a Jew and he thought El Jefe would be interested because he was from the South and Benjamin had studied at Yale prior to the Civil War.

My job at the lecture was to pass that two dollar bill around the audience.

Benjamin, a little-known but fascinating historical character, is particularly interesting to attorneys because he was one of the leading lawyers of his day. Before the war he was a senator from Louisiana, twice turned down appointments to the U.S. Supreme Court,  and served in Jefferson Davis' cabinet as Attorney General, Secretary of War and Secretary of State.  

When accused by another Senator of being "a Hebrew with Egyptian principles" because he owned slaves, Benjamin replied: "It is true that I am a Jew and when my ancestors were receiving the Ten Commandments from the immediate Deity, amidst the thundering and lightnings on Mt. Sinai, the ancestors of my opponent were herding swine in the forests of Great Britain." 

Although he did own slaves, Benjamin was not a die-hard defender of the institution of slavery. He tried, in vain, to persuade the confederacy to recruit slaves into the army by promising them freedom in return for their service.

With the fall of the confederacy, he fled to London (he was able to claim British citizenship because he was born in the West Indes) and achieved great success as a barrister and Queen's Counsel. Benjamin was a man who enjoyed an optimistic outlook on life that enabled him to overcome obstacles and tragedies that crushed others.

Before last night's talk, El Jefe shared his presentation with several of his Jewish law partners who were fascinated with it. He was asked by several folks afterwards for copies for other friends. It may also make its way into a Jewish-interest publication.

If you are interested in reading more about Judah P. Benjamin than you can find in Wikipedia, I recommend this book which was used by El Jefe as his primary resource and which I also read and enjoyed.