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Book showcases real lives in Mumbai slums

In her Mumbai shack, Manju Waghekar wonders if she will regret revealing the grim secrets of corruption, alcoholism and death among her friends and family for a searing new book on life in an Indian slum. Manju, 23, is a central figure in "Behind the Beautiful Forevers", a true story that reviewers have hailed

books Updated: Mar 13, 2012 06:34 IST

In her Mumbai shack, Manju Waghekar wonders if she will regret revealing the grim secrets of corruption, alcoholism and death among her friends and family for a searing new book on life in an Indian slum.

Manju, 23, is a central figure in "Behind the Beautiful Forevers", a true story that reviewers have hailed as an instant classic and a ground-breaking account of modern poverty.

Written by American journalist Katherine Boo, the book paints an intimate and often shocking picture of a community where rats are fried for dinner, suicide is common, sex is a commodity and one woman drowns her child.

Manju's own mother, Asha, is exposed as a corrupt "slum boss" who sleeps with men to gain influence and who has mysterious connections with thuggish police and crooked politicians.

Her father is depicted as an absent drunkard, her best friend dies by eating poison, and the innermost secrets of her heart are split onto the page.

"I have read the book, and I liked it even though it made me cry," Manju, who speaks good English, told AFP in Annawadi, a slum located next to Mumbai's international airport and tucked behind the five-star Hyatt Regency hotel.

"It is truth, not fiction," she says. "Everyone in Annawadi knows. If I don't say these things about my family, someone else will, so why let them gossip?"

Manju teaches at school for five hours a day as well as giving free language lessons and studying for an MA degree in English literature on a University of Mumbai correspondence course.

She, like several other people featured in the book who spoke to AFP, has unshakeable faith in Boo, who visited Annawadi daily for extended periods between 2007 and 2011.

"What she has written is what I am," Manju says. The passages about her mother Asha are more sensitive territory, and Manju has not yet told her every detail of the contents of the book, which was published in February.

"But the allegations are true," Manju says shyly. "I mean her extramarital affairs and the corruption. This is how life is here. She is a single mother and did these things as there was no other option. She protects us."

Manju says her mother will soon chose a husband for her but that she wants to continue teaching and become a principal. She also dreams of visiting the beaches of Goa one day.

The book has been called "exquisitely accomplished" by the New York Times and "the most astonishing non-fiction account of the underbelly of urban Indian life" by India's Business Standard daily.

Whether it will have a positive or negative impact on Annawadi's 3,000-plus residents is uncertain, but such a gripping narrative about life among the 335 ramshackle huts is set to provoke strong reactions from readers worldwide.

Manju's mother Asha is not bothered by the fuss, even though she is aware that the book describes how she used her non-profit organisation to claim thousands of dollars from the government to fund fake schools.

Sitting on the floor of the family shack in a beautiful sari and gold jewellery, she waves away specifics by explaining she does not read English.

"It doesn't make a difference to us as our lives will be the same," she says. "Without support from a husband, whatever little I can do for my family I do, that is the story of one single woman bringing up three kids in a slum.

"The only thing that I am worried about is if anyone misuses this information, for example my daughter is getting married soon. If someone helps us, then that is fine."

The book's main storyline revolves around an incident just around the corner from where Asha and her children live, when a one-legged woman named Fatima died after setting herself on fire.

Fatima's neighbours, the Husains, were blamed for her death, which occurred during a dispute about renovations to a wall between their two huts.

Sitting beside the same wall, Akhtar Husain explains that his parents and brother Abdul were dragged into a court case that lasted years due to endless legal delays and policemen demanding bribes.

"Our family would have tea and coffee with Katherine (Boo) often," Akhtar says. "She was here when Fatima died and she witnessed the embalming.

"We are OK about the book as Katherine always told us 'I am a writer and I want to know how you live your lives'."

"Behind the Beautiful Forevers" -- named after the slogan on an advertisement for Italian tiles used to hide the slum -- has attracted inevitable comparisons to the more upbeat novel and film "Slumdog Millionaire".

The parallels should perhaps worry Annawadi residents, as media attention over the Oscar-winning 2008 movie was intense and highly disruptive for the child actors still living in Mumbai's shanty towns.

But Akhtar, 18, who can read some English, finds it hard to believe Boo's book could change his life.

The men of Annawadi work as rag-pickers, stone-breakers or labourers, while women clean, cook and look after children, and he says: "Local politicians won't read it, only foreigners will.

"Anyway, the slum next to us has the same stories, we are not different from anyone else. I only hope the bits about police violence will make them improve themselves."

Boo, who won a Pulitzer prize for her newspaper journalism, believes that the people of Annawadi and other slums may gain from the publicity surrounding her work.

"One reason I named names and documented misdoings was that shining a light on injustices may make things better in the long run," the 47-year-old told AFP via email.

"When the slum was invisible, unspeakable violence got covered up, innocent people were accused of heinous crimes and ill people were sent to hospitals where the primary impulse of doctors was to extract money."

But one quiet voice of dissent comes from Ganesh, Manju's 18-year-old brother. He fears for his family and his humble home as they are exposed to the harsh glare of the outside world.

"For me, personal things should not be put in public view," he says.