I’ve just read–two years after everyone else–Katherine Boo’s powerful book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. It won the 2012 National Book Award, and a blurb on the back cover of the just-released softcover edition says, “Reported like Watergate and written like Great Expectations.” I usually ignore those blurbs, but in this case, it’s an extremely apt summary.
Boo goes–literally–behind the scenes in the Annawadi slum of Mumbai, India–a jumbled, filthy and impoverished area hidden from the view of westerners and better-off Indian citizens by concrete walls built to “protect” Mumbai’s airport and its adjacent luxury hotels. [The title of the book refers to a series of billboard ads plastered, end-to-end, onto the concrete barrier. The ads promote high-priced, designer floor tiles that promise to be “BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER”]
Boo’s reporting centers on a few of Annawadi’s residents: 17-year-old Abdul–who sorts trash picked up by others and sells it by the pound to recyclers; Asha, a striving, 40-year-old whose ambition is to rise above the squalor of Annawadi, which she accomplishes, bit by bit, by becoming a local fixer by day and a call girl by night. Manju and Meena, 15-year-old girls whose futures are dictated by the social norms of arranged marriages; Fatima, viciously beaten by her husband, berated by society for a birth defect that left her one-legged–her out-of-control, self-destructive rage created havoc in her small corner of the slum; and Sunil, Sonu, Kalu and other teenagers and adults who survive by scavenging the enormous, rat-infested garbage dump and sewage lake around which the Annawadi slum has grown.
They are ignored by their government, they are invisible to the rich people who fly into and out of the airport whose throwaways are Annawadi’s life blood, and they are brutalized by a legal system that is violent and corrupt at every level.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers offers an intimate, unvarnished look at a life that is simply unimaginable to someone like me. As you turn the pages, you get to know people in Annawadi who subsist on pennies per day and spend hours standing in line for the trickle of water provided at sporadic times at public spigots. You see them striving to become what they describe as “first-class” people, desperately trying to decipher the behavioral codes that they believe could open the doors to a better life. They are ignored by their government, they are invisible to the rich people who fly into and out of the airport whose throwaways are Annawadi’s life blood, and they are brutalized by a legal system that is violent and corrupt at every level. They are helpless against a social system that expects bribes for the most basic services. And the shrewdest among them victimize their own neighbors.
It’s terribly disheartening, so much so that suicide–by ingesting rat poison, or by self-immolation–is too often perceived as the only way out, and Boo describes several examples among Annawadi residents she helps us get to know. Equally dispiriting are Boo’s detailed accounts of the many ways that government-funded programs and well-intentioned non-profits–whose purported goals are to help and offer hope to slum-dwellers–are routinely gamed by corrupt politicians and community members who skim and pocket funds for their own use.
In a passage toward the end of the book, Boo laments the poverty and powerlessness of the people who live in Annawadi. Her analysis of the vicious cycle that rules their lives is a sad commentary–not just on the lives of Annawadi’s citizens, but also on the lives of impoverished and politically marginalized people everywhere:
The slumdwellers rarely got mad together…Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes, they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes…they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate…they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.
What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.