“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope In a Mumbai Undercity” A book by Katherine Boo

This is an astonishing book. It is astonishing at several levels: as a worm’s-eye view of the “undercity” of one of the world’s largest metropolises; as an intensely reported, deeply felt account of the lives, hopes and fears of people traditionally excluded from literate narratives; as a story that truly hasn’t been told before, at least not about India and not by a foreigner. But most of all, it is astonishing that it exists at all.

Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American reporter who has worked for The Washington Post, among other publications, spent three years and four months (from November 2007 to March 2011) following the lives of some of Mumbai’s most deprived citizens, the dirt-poor residents of a squatter slum on the periphery of its international airport. Annawadi, in the shadow of luxury hotels, is “a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one-third of the planet’s poor.” It’s built on swampy land and abuts a sewage lake, but is home to a motley collection of marginal Indians desperate to make a living out of the detritus of the city’s economic boom. These are the footnotes to the success story of what was briefly called “Shining India,” the poor people who are usually, in most other accounts, treated as a collectivity, the object of economists’ analyses, politicians’ promises and ideologues’ outrage. In “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” Boo humanizes them as individuals with their own stories to tell.

Overcoming the obstacles to effective reporting posed by her class, gender, ethnicity and language, Boo follows their lives and experiences in an effort to understand the problems of poverty from the bottom up. The result is a searing account, in effective and racy prose, that reads like a thrilling novel but packs a punch Sinclair Lewis might have envied.

book cover

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

By Katherine Boo

Random House, 288 pages

Buy the book

The narrative teems with larger-than-life figures that Boo instantly draws you to: Abdul, a Muslim teen with a single-minded talent for scavenging recyclable garbage, which “had bestowed on his family an income few residents of Annawadi had ever known”; Asha, who uses political and police connections to climb out of poverty while raising her beautiful daughter, Manju, the slum’s “only college-going girl,” to escape the life of compromises she has led; Fatima, a one-legged neighbor of Abdul’s family, prone to violent rages; Kalu, a boy with the spunk to steal the scrap he then sells to Abdul; and Sunil, a smelly and nerveless ragamuffin with a head for heights.

Their stories unfold as Annawadi comes to vivid life, accompanied by a host of lesser but equally indelible characters — the dying man trying to raise money for the operation that might save him, the policewoman seeking to extort money in return for tailoring her case files, the passionate teacher at a juvenile detention center, the young woman who swallows rat poison because “this was one decision about her life she got to make.” And then there’s Abdul’s father, who “had developed an irritating habit of talking about the future as if it were a bus” that one could run after even if one kept missing it. The raw pathos to the stories of the characters in “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is of the kind usually found in great fiction, except that, as Boo confirms, they are all real, down to their names.

So is Annawadi, with its noxious sights and smells, its mounds of refuse and lean-to hovels, its fetid garbage that is almost a living presence in this book. Boo, who has an Indian husband, has not just lived with its people and got to know them; she has penetrated the dynamics of their relationships, acquired insights into their psyches, breathed the polluted air that suffuses their fears. Her empathy for the slum-dwellers, striving against impossible odds to earn enough for “the full enjoy” they can only dream about, is total. She reports their hopes, their diversions, their vices, and their shocking deaths with the matter-of-factness that comes to those inured to suffering.

Boo keeps herself entirely out of the narrative until an author’s note at the end, which gives her account an intimacy and immediacy that is unchallengeable. Her research is meticulous and worthy of the most demanding sociologist; her understanding of “India, a land of few safe assumptions,” is impossible to quarrel with, since the book is devoid of the commonplace errors about India that litter most Western attempts to understand the country’s complexities.

To see long excerpts from “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” at Google Books, click here.

So when Boo writes in graphic detail about corruption and police abuse, she does so through the eyes of the poor people who are so often reduced to statistics in well-meaning human rights documents and development paradigms. She writes movingly of “a system in which the most wretched tried to punish the slightly less wretched by turning to a justice system so malign it sank them all.” Sometimes her justified indignation, coupled with her talent for the telling metaphor, can lead her to stylistic excess: “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage,” she writes. “Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

But indeed, as Boo points out, the very corruption that elite Indians see as an obstacle to India’s progress appears to the slum-dwellers as an aspect of “the distribution of opportunity in a fast-changing country that they loved.” Otherwise they are assailed by the arbitrariness of life: “In Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they avoided. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.” In this sordid drama, the poor are too busy fighting each other for the scraps: “The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”

This is not a reassuring message for those of us in India striving to change the country. Boo’s last sentence asks a haunting question: “If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?” It is a question that Indians try to answer every day as we build our country, and Katherine Boo has earned the right to ask it too.

Shashi Tharoor is an elected member of India’s Parliament, a columnist and novelist, and the author, most recently, of “The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cell Phone: Reflections on India, the Emerging 21st-Century Power.”

© 2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group

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