Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
by Katherine Boo (Random House, 2012)
“… better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about the ordinary lives.”
The above quote is from Katherine Boo’s recently published book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”. Boo is an acclaimed journalist, known for her works on people struggling to escape poverty, mostly in the United States.
Her marriage to an Indian and the ‘India Shining’ image that she finds hard to digest takes her on a four-year long, intense investigation of the lives of slum dwellers in Annawadi in Mumbai.
Mumbai is a land of dreams for millions of Indians who come to the city hoping to escape the hardships in their villages and seeking an opportunity to better their lives. But a place like Annawadi is often the reality. Tamil migrants from the southern part of India founded Annawadi. A closer-by Marathi-speaking population occupied another section of the slum and gave it a more regional name, Gautam Nagar. And the third, unnamed section was occupied by extremely poor ragpickers and scavengers.
The book gets its title from the tagline on an advertisement for Italian tiles that reads Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The wall on which the ad appears forms an ironic separation between Annawadi and the glamorous, towering elite hotels of the other Mumbai – the overcity. Contradictions like this one are sprinkled across the city and tell an important truth: Mumbai is two cities. In his 2008 novel “The White Tiger”, Aravind Adiga described it as two Indias. Adiga’s central character came from ‘the Darkness’; likewise, Boo’s subjects live in the Undercity.
Boo draws you in to the people of Annawadi. Abdul, an almost invisible but smart garbage sorter who seems to have struck gold by establishing a successful enterprise but fears losing what he has gained thus far for his family; Asha, a lady slum boss and an aspiring political leader of the neighborhood ward; her daughter Manju, the first girl in the slum to have gone to college; Asha’s son Rahul, who has seen the overcity, worn smart uniforms and worked as a staff in the elite hotels – a life every waste-picker boy in Annawadi wants to emulate; Sunil, a waste-picker (who also appears in Boo’s 2009 New Yorker article Opening Night); and Kalu, a garbage thief.
The plot of the book emerges when Fatima – who wants to be loved and appreciated for her beauty but is instead ridiculed for her extravagant make-up and her crippled walk – sets herself on fire and blames Abdul’s family, who are then prosecuted.
As Abdul metamorphoses from entrepreneur to prisoner to philosopher, other stories of crime and tragedy surface: stories of drug peddlers, corrupt police officials, police raping a minor girl, charities seeking donations from foreigners that are seldom used for the cause, supply chains between politicians and administration seeking funds from the budget to run fake schools that are ultimately pocketed. Two teenagers commit suicide by eating rat poison – a boy ends his life after finding the brutalized corpse of a fellow waste-picker, and a girl ends hers after the last beating she can handle at her family’s hands.
Boo offers no story simply for the sake of a story. Each one comes in broader social and political context. For example, she writes about a woman who loses her job when a local dance bar is shut down. The closure of dance bars all across the city was big news at the time. The state was closing dance bars in Mumbai because they were allegedly promoting prostitution in the city. Many struggling women lost their only source of income.
If there is one thing that separates Boo’s work from that of a local journalist, it is this: A local journalist would have been more careful when writing about the crime, corruption and political nexus in the slums of Mumbai because such stories would pose a threat to his life in the city. On January 28, the Times of India office in Mumbai was ransacked after its regional language publication carried a sensitive report on a local politician belonging to Shiv Sena, a prominent regional party in Mumbai.
The people of Annawadi are often trapped – surrounded by four walls of oppression that are too high to climb over, too strong to break through, and so thoroughly soundproof that those stuck inside wouldn’t be heard if they kicked and shouted. A reader is bound to suffer moments of unmitigated hopelessness.
Yet Boo’s central characters, no matter whether she’s writing about Annawadi or the Texas border, always keep kicking and trying to better their lives. When one empathizes with their stories, one realizes that the emotions, desires and fear they experience are certainly not restricted to the socio-economic class or geography, but are universal.
But is empathy enough? Whose job is it to translate empathy into action? Despite her incredible knowledge of a dire circumstance, Boo never writes strongly about any current policy and makes no recommendations for future ones.
It would be interesting to know if and how the real decision makers and activists would respond on reading Boo’s book. “Beautiful Forevers” leaves a reader with a deeper knowledge of the lives of strugglers in a Mumbai slum, but it also leaves one with many questions and thoughts.
These are some of the questions that Boo’s book raises:
• Boo writes about people who have no chance to tell their own stories on a far-reaching platform. How would Boo’s stories be different if the people were able to tell them on their own?
• Do her subjects ever get access to the stories she writes about them? If so, what do they think? If Abdul read her book, would he like his own portrayal?
• City planners and architects are good at planning and designing, but very few of them interact at the human scale and talk to the people who live the realities designed/influenced by them. What does Boo’s fieldwork tell her about the importance of interaction at the human scale for planning a better society?
• Boo mentions that one of the children in her book is good at video recording. When she writes about these people, does she feel like doing something for them? Does it ever happen that she stops being an observer and participates?
• In her interviews, she emphasizes that she hopes to help people with intensely different daily lives to understand one another better – for the powerful to understand the powerless and see their shared humanity. Does she aim for any other outcomes? What led her into writing about people who are struggling to get out of poverty and better their lives?
For all the planners and future decision-makers at MIT and beyond, this book is worth a read. A copy of this book will be available at Rotch Library soon.
Post by Alpita Masurkar, a former journalist, current city planning student, and lifelong Mumbaikar. Image credit: Dolly’s Bookstore