I had been intending to read Behind the Beautiful Forever’s by Katherine Boo for more than a year but somehow had never got around to it. As well as seeing several highly positive reviews of it I have heard Boo talk at a couple of literary festivals to a packed and rapt audience. Last week it finally moved to its rightful place at the top of the pile: It has been well worth the wait. Boo has delicately and seamlessly pieced together a narrative about the lives of people living in the squalid Annawadi makeshift settlement that exists in the shadows of luxury hotels near Mumbai’s new Sahar International Airport.
Boo is a highly acclaimed journalist who has won the Pulitzer Prize for her work on The Washington Post. After marrying an Indian she became interested in telling the story of Annawadi, which is home to more than 3,300 of the poorest people on the earth. At the beginning, she was acutely aware of what she saw as the potential impediments to writing the non-fiction book; she wasn’t Indian, did not understand the language well; and was not steeped in the culture. In the end it was the journalistic challenge that led her to spend months at a time over several years in Annawadi overcoming the impediments by: Time spent in the community, attention to detail, sourcing thousands of public documents … and checking and re-checking until even the inhabitants “were bored with me.”
So intricate and complete is the story that it is frequently hard to believe that the Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not a novel, that the stories are true. Over successive visits to the slum she amassed an extraordinary cache of written notes of conversations, official documents (many released under India’s relative new access to information legislation) audio and videotapes. One of the young garbage pickers became her most perceptive and active video operators.
Although she manages to give an over-view of life in Annawadi, a settlement of 335 huts, she focuses on three families. Zehrunisia Husain’s family has been tenaciously clawing their way up, with the aim of getting out of the slum. They buy and sort the garbage brought to them by the army of collectors and scavengers then sell it on at a profit. And they have done relatively well; already having put down a deposit on a block of land. But Zehrunisia’s determination to do better, and her harsh treatment of those less fortunately than her, is a source of resentment in the community.
She decides she cannot wait for her new life outside Annawadi and wants to give their hut a make-over. She is determined to have Italianate tiles like the ones advertised on the huge wall that hides Annawadi from the hotels – tiles that, according to the sign, symbolize the promise that life will be Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever. But it is the last straw for her neighbor Fatima, known as One Leg, whose fortunes have dropped just as the Husain family’s have risen. And the lengths Fatima is prepared to go to exact her revenge have devastating repercussions on Zehruisia’s family, particularly her son Abdul, but also on Fatima herself.
And there is Asha, who has gained power in the slum by her cunning and her work for the extreme right wing Shiv Seha party. Asha despairs at her boys acceptance of their lot so all her energy and aspirations are focused on her gentle, caring daughter, Munju, who believes can get them to the “others half” of society.
There is an almost Dickensian touch to Boo’s descriptions, not just the scrupulous detail of the unimaginable poverty in which people can still exist – and occasionally thrive – but the tenacity of spirit that sees of people luxuriate in the tiniest of improvements to their lives and the occasional act of true generosity. There is great humanity but no mawkish narrative of the deprivations and squalor that are everyday life. “Slum dwellers,” says Boo, “are neither mythic nor heroic. … Certainly not passive”
She exposes the way in which cruelty and corruption (particularly official police corruption) are endemic at every turn in the life of Annawadi: bribes are demanded, vicious beatings inflicted, murders are commonplace, death certificates routinely falsified to cover up official incompetence or institutionalized theft at hospitals. Boo believed that writing about the way in which public documents were deliberately altered, or made to disappear, by corrupt officials validated the experiences of the poor that otherwise were otherwise eradicated.
Ironically, in the end, the catalyst for real change in the community comes not from society rebelling at the human disgrace of the living conditions, but when an animal welfare lobby group launches a noisy publicity campaign after a bizarre incident that results in the death of two horses which had been kept in Annawadi.
“What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society … whose capabilities are given wing by the market and our government’s economic and social policy; whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that child have grown up to be less poor. The forces of justice had finally come to Annawadi; that the beneficiaries were horses was a source of amusement to Sunil and the road boys. They weren’t thinking about the un-investigated deaths of Sanjay and Kalu, the boys broadly accepted the basic truths that in a modernising increasingly prosperous city their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces and their deaths would matter not at all.
“The boys were simply puzzled by the fuss since they considered Robert’s horses … the most lovingly tended creatures in the slum. The activists had made their anger about the horses register an Annawadi … everyone had a wrong he wanted righted; the water shortage, brutal for three months now; the question of voter applications at the election office; the worthlessness of government schools; the fly-by-night contractors who ran off with their labourers pay.
Slum dwellers rarely got made together, not even about the airport Authority, instead powerless individuals blame other powerless individuals for what they lacked; sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes, like Fatima, they destroyed themselves in the process.
When they were fortunate they improved their lot by beggaring the choices of other poor people. What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere too. In the age of global marketing capitalism hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived which bunted the sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite. They competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional ad this under city strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of society at large.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is published by Random House. It was winner of several international prizes including the National Book Award