19 February 2015

To Survive or To Strive [Book Club]

[We are continuing our Thursday book club discussions on Behind the Beautiful Forevers. If you missed the first few, here are the posts on the prologue and Part 1 and on Part 2.]

If the subtitle of this book outlines its contents, then part 3 chronicles death. There is so much in these few chapters--the loss of life, of freedom, of principles, of friendships. Reflecting on the value of life weighs on my heart like a scale tipping away from frivolous cares and finally feeling the heaviness that lies carry--the burden that most shoulder, beneath which some collapse, and from which only few find freedom.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers vividly pictures a frantic approach to life, a struggle for survival or of striving to step up. And while this physical push is real and undeniably awful, it also gives us a tangible feel to the depravity of our souls. Today, let's look at how these characters live then dissect the lies that force them into this false dichotomy of surviving versus striving.

How Do We Live?

Psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a pyramid of human needs. His theory was that people could not advance to the higher tiers of the pyramid unless the foundations were completely cared for.

We can see where the characters from this book would be in this diagram, and it makes sense to say that Sunil and Sonu cannot think past finding enough trash to keep from starving each day. It also makes sense that Asha and Manju can pursue self-esteem and belonging since they have risen above the other families in the slum community regarding basic needs. But are these the only ways we can live life? Is the one choice to survive? And the other to strive?

The small scavengers live in fear and sickness. The wounded man lies broken in the gutter, crying for help that never comes. The fun-loving thief finds a place to sleep outdoors and is murdered. Should their lives be summed up with survival? Could they never look past the next meal or the next sleep?

And did Asha and Manju have another option besides trying to rise to the middle class, copying the idiosyncrasies of those with more money, desperately working to be like those who garner more respect and more power?

Once again, Abdul stands up as a definite objection to these seeming absolutes. He demonstrates another choice. Even though his "conversion" had no religious clutch, he proved that there is another dimension to our needs: the spiritual. He was able to re-enter his life after being released from juvenile prison but with a new perspective, a new focus.  Here is an example of how our spiritual need permeates all levels of this pyramid, offering a new type of life that is neither surviving or striving.

Abdul does not find it--does not find Christ--but he begins looking for that refinement to his nature. But if he had, how would his life have changed? How would any of these individual's circumstances change with a spiritual awakening? It's likely that nothing would change in their situations; they would remain in the same tier of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, but that doesn't mean nothing changes in a person when faith replaces sin. On the contrary, faith in Jesus ignites change from within: a new confidence and trust in God that is evidenced by love, joy, and peace.

So how do we live? Even in the middle or high class, people could say they are either surviving or striving. They are either barely making it work with their responsibilities and bills and relationships or they are working hard to boost themselves up higher on the social ladder. Surviving or striving? No, the Bible says "to live is Christ"--that is the choice that pries our anxious hands from work and lays them open in faith. That is the choice that truly defines the degree to which our needs our met. That is the choice that names the One who can and often does clothe and feed us but more directly and ardently nourishes our souls.


  • Consider the conflicts that these characters face: corruption, lust, insecurity, duty, etc. How would faith "fix" these? Can it? Does it need to?
  • Abdul's openness to the Master's teaching could be credited to his prison placement: comfortable, removed, alone. Had he been working a normal day at the scales, would he have been as moved? Similarly, can someone in the bottom tier of Maslow's chart receive the gospel even while starving or dying?

What Lies Do We Believe?
So much darkness creeps from these pages--showing us the deception that detours us in our comfortable houses and them in their Mumbai slum. Here are some:

Lie: I must show everyone how much I've achieved.
Asha in her hometown, flaunting her new "wealth" and position

Lie: If only I can get into that group, I'll be happier.
Asha trying to rise to the middle class, even with affairs
Manju trying to blend in with others from the city by copying their style and manners

Lie: I don't need to inconvenience myself because someone else will help.
Sunil, Rahul, Zehrunisa, and Mr. Kamble leaving the injured man alone in the mud

Lie: If I am spiritual (or moral), God/gods will look out for me.
Kalu favoring the god Ganpati


  • What other lies were motivators in these chapters?
  • What would be the counter-truth to each of these lies?

We looked at motivators today--needs and lies. Please comment below with your response to either this post or other themes in Part 3 of the book. You're invited to join this discussion on Behind the Beautiful Forevers. 

Abide in Him,

At the request of readers, I've started a Facebook group to facilitate discussions on non-Thursdays and to encourage more casual remarks and questions. Please join us there!

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