Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death And Hope In A Mumbai Slum
- Granta Books
- Publication Date:
- 07 June 2012
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"Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. Rather, the Annawadians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when, around the same moment as the small slum's founding, the central government embraced economic liberalization. The Annawadians were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism, a narrative still unfolding.True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy). True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner. A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge. And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors. They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility."The poverty in this slum by the Mumbai airport, depicted in Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, is staggering. Central character Abdul is able, in good times, to make eleven dollars a day by his skill in recycling the trash that is dumped near the airport. It is a competitive industry, because so many of those in poverty are scavenging and working the trash to obtain something salable, something of value. It is even possible to be killed in that competition. Others steal from the construction projects springing up due to India's new high octane economy. Some dream of advancement in society through education, but education of any use is almost impossible to obtain. While non-profit organizations take government money intended for educational purposes, they only distribute it to a favored few who typically create false records of schools that don't really exist.And all of this is accompanied by almost unimaginable political corruption. I live in a city, Chicago, known for its persistent and hearty corruption, and Chicago politicos would be pikers in this comprehensive system. Everything that transpires in Annawadian is based on its cash potential. If you are arrested, there are the police to pay and lawyers to pay and influential community members to pay who may be able to help your cause. Your arrest itself will be based on its cash potential, not what actually occurred. If you need medical treatment, only payment will assist you in getting decent quarters and (maybe) safe medical instruments. With apologies, the kind doctor will need additional payment if you really want that necessary treatment. Your family will sell whatever it can, and get loans, to try to get you proper treatment, or to help keep you from being convicted.The book's title derives from a concrete wall bordering the slum that bears repeated advertisements for tiles that will be "Beautiful Forever". One slum dweller dreams of having such tiles for her home, but it is clear she never will. This remarkable insider look at the underside of the miraculous juvenation of India's economy is a gripping, heart-wrenching read. Katherine Boo at the end explains the nearly four years she spent coming to know the slum's inhabitants and societal system. All names are true, all events are true. It is eye-opening, and perhaps a basis for moving forward to improvement. It could hardly be worse. What is remarkable, as the author observes, is how many of those inhabitants are striving to live good, productive lives, while stymied by every conceivable obstacle to what we take so much for granted - health, sanitary conditions, basic education, basic medical treatment, a just system for resolving disputes and crime, and so on. Boo's writing is compelling, and her book gives a clear-eyed view of a circle of Hell that not even Dante imagined, filled with innocents who never asked or deserved to be there.
There are moments of innocence, and a bit of unexpected wit amidst the descriptions of horrific suffering, abject misery and violence that are juxtaposed against each other and accepted as a normal way of life by the residents of Annawandi, an unbelievably impoverished community of the poor in India. It sits just adjacent to opulent, luxury hotels on airport property, built for the rich and famous. The squalid huts barely provide shelter or privacy for the inhabitants as they scavenge the leavings of these monuments and its dwellers. The contrast is stark and unforgiving. Envy is in no short supply there, and they each prey upon the other, the weak on the weaker, the poor on the poorer, simply to survive. Children are commodities, education is minimal, girls are not as valuable as boys, blame is always assigned someplace else rather than on one’s own shoulders and few accept responsibility for their own behavior and its consequences.The jobs of the poor create a hierarchy in the community. Each different level earns a different small amount of respect for residents. There seemed to be little that was beyond the pale regarding what these poor souls would attempt in order to live another day. Suicides were common in the face of such hopelessness. What made it so hard to read was the realization that this story is based on real families; it is non-fiction; your hair will rise as you realize this is really happening in this day and age, in a culture still steeped in prejudice and memories of the hateful caste system. Their superstition is evidenced in statements like this: “He beats his wife but lets her live.” This is supposed to be commendable.Abdul is a young Muslim man who makes his living as a waste collector. His family has been moving up the ladder of success, saving for the day when they can become landowners, in a community of Muslims, where they will be treated with respect and have a better life. In huts with walls, sometimes no thicker than paper separating families, the residents will do anything necessary to earn money. They turn against each other, they are superstitious, they are cruel and vengeful, looking to blame someone for their troubles, even, and often wrongfully, never turning back even after they realize they have committed a grave injustice. It is important to maintain appearances, even in the face of such squalor; lies flourish.Separated by only a few inches from the one legged woman who filled with envy and anger, falsely accuses his family of setting her aflame, Abdul and his family must enter into a nightmare scenario simply to survive the corruption and graft necessary to earn their freedom and end the injustice. Even though Fatima’s young daughter witnessed her self-immolation, the wheels of justice are not just, but are filled with low-lifes, frauds of all stripes, corrupt police who beat innocent victims, dishonest and dishonorable advocates encouraging neighbors to lie so they may then offer bribes that they swear will guarantee their innocence, if only they will pay. Whom shall they pay? They have no money; they can't afford to squander any of it on a chance, not a guarantee. Each player in this wicked game tells a greater lie, simply to get paid for services often worthless and never rendered. It feels very much like Kafka's trial, a hopeless situation without solution.The author, married to a native of India, spent several years investigating these residents, and she has written a beautifully crafted rendition of their lives, albeit steeped in corruption and disaster, as they simply try to survive in a nearly impossible situation. She has captured the texture of their lives and the tone of their conversations, clearly illustrating the struggle they endure daily. Although the hopelessness of their lives appears to be largely of their own making, they are unable to stop the pendulum from swinging back and forth, from disaster to disaster, as they victimize each other. She does not paint a pretty picture and consequently it is difficult to look at it objectively, without disliking many of the characters, even as you understand the motives for their reckless behavior. They are uneducated and backward, and they are unable to see the pain they cause or the disastrous end results approaching for their own future. There is often more concern for animals than people and investors in charitable projects, sponsored by the government, are often corrupt, stealing from the very charity they support and inhibiting even the lackluster efforts of the government.One can only hope that, as India prospers, the wealth and benefits will trickle down beyond the borders of the airports wealthy hotels and the neighborhoods of the rich and famous; but these people seem so blind to the plight of the masses of indigent people, it is really hard to imagine.
The cover of Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows a child crouched on the ground, face tilted beseechingly to the sky. That, combined with the title, referring to something being forever beautiful, might lead a reader to believe that life, however bleak, will work out in this story, and everything will be right in the end. Beautiful forever. I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I say up front that, no, it really doesn't. This is real life, such as it is. “Beautiful forevers” refers to the ads for floor tiles that are plastered to the wall which runs along the Airport Road that separates Mumbai’s Annawadi slum from the city itself. On one side, there's an international airport, tourists, and huge luxury hotels; on the other, abject poverty, stunning cruelty, and rampant corruption. I expected the poverty. The senseless cruelty and corruption at every turn really overwhelmed me. Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, lived among the people of Annawadi for almost four years. There is a lot of depth to this story, which loosely follows several families and young children through the economic upheaval and terrorist attacks of 2008, and the court trial of members of a local family. And, although not necessarily a beautiful forever, Boo somehow managed to end the book on a somewhat hopeful note. This is a stunning, beautifully written piece of narrative non-fiction that is often difficult and painful to read. It almost read like fiction but had it been, it would have seemed too unbelievable. It is not the type of book I am typically drawn to, but after reading just the first few pages, I found that I couldn’t put it down. I also found that I couldn’t read anything else
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, takes place in Annawadi, a slum cobbled together and located across the road from an international airport and a luxury hotel. Here, in Boo's narrative nonfictional account, we meet people who must struggle for basic sustenance, live the hardest of lives, but yet are hopeful of better things in the future.As this story unfolds, we get to know several characters and learn of their aspirations. Most of them are very hard-working and goal-oriented, performing the kind of work most of us couldn't imagine. For instance, there are many teenaged boys in Annawadi who are scavengers, collecting and sometimes stealing trash that can be recycled. One of the boys we will follow is Abdul, who is a step higher than a scavenger--he appraises, sorts, and buys the trash the scavengers bring in, so he can turn around and sell the items to a recycling plant. Abdul is actually able to support his family this way.Unfortunately, unforeseeable trouble lies ahead of Abdul and his family, dashing what was their most prominent dream, and this tragic, distressful subplot is a case study in judicial corruption and greed. We also follow the scavengers through their difficult and dangerous days, and watch as they form alliances and "sort-of" friendships. These boys are endearing and vulnerable, leading such precarious lives. People die, young and old, in sad ways--those who lose hope by suicide (especially young women), some of awful infections and illness, while still others are murdered or die in accidents. Few of these deaths are deemed worthy of investigation. How does one go on when life offers so little and the hope of anything better is so slight and can be blown away so easily? Even Asha, Annawadi's most ambitious woman, with her political dreams and the very real hope of having a college-educated daughter, has sold her soul, debased herself, and become involved in the corruption herself, but may never get out of Annawadi. Abdul and Asha may be polar opposites in most ways, but they are both survivors. This is a fascinating study of life in a desperate place that I would recommend to absolutely anyone.
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