“Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death & Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo, 2012
This book reads like a luminous and intense fiction story written by someone who has had much contact with the working underclass of Mumbai. What astonishes is that at the end of the book, the author tells you that it is based on 4 years of interviews with slum dwellers in an actual squatter neighborhood called Annawadi near the Mumbai airport in India, and a review of 3 thousand public records that related to these squatters. All the events and people are real, including the use of their real names. The period is from 2007-2010, during which even this little community is impacted by Wall Street’s 2008 mortgage crash.
So this is some kind of new form of ‘fiction’ – not historical so much as sociological / political non-fiction fiction! Because of course Boo cannot create all thoughts and dialog from research.
The fluffy title “Beautiful Forevers” comes from an advertising slogan about floor tile posted on the tall wall to the airport, behind which Annawadi lies. A bit of irony, as there are no beautiful forevers there.
The book tells the tale of a few Muslim families living in a majority Hindu slum, peopled by rural migrants from various parts of northern India. A septic pond sits near the slum. Water is shared by everyone from a single pipe. Toilets are sorts of outhouses. The living quarters are made of loose bricks, plywood, bamboo, tarpaulins, corrugated metal and whatever people can find to cover themselves. After the 2008 economic crash and a subsequent Islamic terror attack on downtown Mumbai, fewer tourists came through the airport and so times got harder.
One of the main occupations is collecting valuable garbage from the near-by airport – cups, cans, metal, plastic – anything that can be resold. Some get temp jobs as waiters or baggage boys. Others run scams based on fake schools or non-existent ‘anti-poverty’ or women’s organizations to get international aid – money which is then divied-up among the powerful. Bribery demands from everyone in authority – police, coroners, investigators, government clerks, lawyers, politicians – are constant. Many voters are disenfranchised and never get to vote. The conservative Shiv Sena and the neo-liberal Congress Party take turns basically buying votes from the slum. Some boys become thieves. The girls fear being sent back through arranged marriages to brutal men in backward villages, as they actually have more freedom in the slum. Suicide by drinking rat poison or anonymous murder of scavenger boys occurs on a regular basis. Plans to bulldoze the slum and build malls or other upscale buildings hover over Annawadi the whole time.
The key plot here is a fight between two families in which a women lights herself on fire, and her death is blamed on a Muslim family. Three members of that family are arrested and thrown in jail, and into the hands of the absurd and crumbling Indian ‘justice’ system where they await their fate.
The ‘modern’ people - the ‘over-city’, the foreign airport tourists, the Mumbai wealthy - all weigh on the denizens of Annawadi. Even these slum people now think in the new setting of neo-liberalism they may escape their conditions by working hard, getting a bit of education, by copying or making friends with the better-off. None of it happens.
Boo captures their individual humanity in the midst of this trapped situation. But instead of uniting politically as a class or group, she shows how they fight among themselves, jealous of any financial success, attempting some individual financial trick that will catapult them out of the slum. In the process they are unable to conceive of any bigger force than their own individual families. As the stories show, oppression oppresses – something those who romanticize poverty forget on a regular basis. It does not always make people stronger, but instead can destroy them bit by bit.
Other books related to India reviewed below: “Capitalism: A Ghost Story,” “Annihilation of Caste,” “Field Notes on Democracy,” “The God Market,” “Garbageland,” “Southern Insurgency,” “Walking With The Comrades,” Tropic of Chaos,” “Story of My Assassins,” and “Last Man in the Tower.”
February 5, 2017