Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Journalist Katherine Boo’s debut book zooms in on an Indian slum

Behind the Beautiful Forevers:
Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

By Katherine Boo
Random House; 256 pp; $27

The cramped and bustling city formerly known as Bombay has Dickensian qualities. Minutes away from some of the most expensive real estate in the world, you can find tubercular families living in concrete drainage pipes. The scale of Mumbai’s divisions may explain why, in recent years, the city has been the subject of nonfiction of the highest quality: Meenal Baghel’s Capote-style reconstruction of a sensational murder, Death in Mumbai; Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing, an eye-popping study of bar dancers; and Suketu Mehta’s bestseller, Maximum City.

The title of Katherine Boo’s remarkable new contribution to the genre, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, evokes the shocking social polarity endemic to Mumbai. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist has established herself as a leading chronicler of the disadvantaged, whose struggles she depicts in extraordinary detail and without sentimentality. Such is her reportorial technique: to hang around in desperate places—from destitute pockets of Oklahoma City to homes for the mentally impaired—for months or even years, until she becomes a fly on the wall, a rat on the floor. And in a place like Annawadi, a slum on the fringes of Mumbai’s airport, life is so frantic that its inhabitants have more to worry about than a tenacious foreign reporter and her interpreter.

The author’s exceptional access allows her to frame her study as a narrative, with beautifully defined protagonists, rather than as an overview. Boo also makes diligent use of records, requested under India’s 2005 freedom-of-information legislation, lending credibility to even the most dystopian descriptions.

The book’s guiding premise is that gaming the system is the only means of survival in Annawadi. “For the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity,” she writes, “corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.” To quote a character in V. S. Naipaul’s novel A Bend in the River: “It isn’t that there’s no right and wrong here. There’s no right.” This is as far as you can get from Patrick Swayze in City of Joy.

Boo’s story begins with Abdul, a cautious and determined boy with a talent for finding trash: cans, cardboard, screws, foil, different types of plastic, anything that can be sorted and sold. His life unravels when he is arrested for involvement in the murder of a neighbor, known as One Leg, a woman who had previously drowned her daughter in a bucket. Abdul is innocent: One Leg had poured kerosene over her own head in a rage. Her immolation becomes the book’s moral pivot.

Vivid characters populate Behind the Beautiful Forevers under their real names. Consider the slumlord who owns nine horses, “two of which he’d painted with stripes to look like zebras” so he can hire them out for children’s parties. Or young Manju, who learns English literature by rote and is on her way to college. When her mother, Asha, organizes an event at a temple to impress a local politician (who fails to show), a beautiful eunuch appears and does a high-speed spinning dance, before answering questions on behalf of a goddess who has taken over his body.

To communicate the constant, suffocating pressure of living in Annawadi, the book concentrates on minute details, allowing us to see through the eyes of the undercity’s inhabitants. We follow a small boy dragging a piece of scrap iron wrapped in a bedsheet through a swamp in the dark. We watch as the same boy, after discovering “a jamun-fruit tree where parrots nested,” decides not to catch and sell the birds but to encourage others to leave them alone. We witness Abdul being released from prison and trying to start over with his trash collecting under the boiling April sun.

“He wanted to be better than what he was made of,” writes Boo. “In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals. For self-interested reasons, one of the ideals he most wanted to have was a belief in the possibility of justice. It wasn’t easy to believe, just now.”

Boo’s attention to detail occasionally blinds her to India’s bigger picture. The reader yearns for context in a study of this size, yet Boo does not provide this in a coherent way. On the rare occasion when she does expand her scope, her approach is inconsistent: “In the age of globalization,” she concedes, “hope is not a fiction. Extreme poverty is being alleviated gradually, unevenly, nonetheless significantly.” As she later notes, “roughly one hundred million Indians [have been] freed from poverty since 1991”—a significant underestimate that relies on a rather arbitrary definition of poverty. Boo appears to have no ideological ax to grind, and yet she argues that “global market capitalism” is a primary force behind Annawadi’s woes, responsible for making poor people compete “ferociously with one another for spoils.”

The causes of India’s poverty are not simple. The poor have always fought viciously for spoils, because they have no alternative. Displacement and dispossession are running features of Indian history. From my own experience doing research in India in the 1980s, I can remember the grotesque slums near Bombay’s airport. Their cyclical destruction was already an obsession of ambitious politicians. Before words like “liberalization” entered India’s public conversation—or at least its English-language press—starved boys would try to prostitute themselves to tourists on the road outside this international hub. The land looked more rural, and the people who lived there at that time were poorer and less well-nourished than they are today: Mumbai’s slums are bad now, but they were worse then.

Ultimately, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not about the impact of globalization; it is a book about close human interaction. While it may fall short in terms of context and history, it works in close-up—so close it feels like a punch in the stomach. A boy loses his hand while putting plastic in a shredder, and apologizes immediately to the owner for making a mess. Scavengers find their cuts get infected and filled with maggots. Babies are bitten on the head by rats. Meena, a girl who seems to have a promising future, swallows rat poison. At the hospital, doctors extract 5,000 rupees from her parents in the name of “imported injections.” “On the sixth day of Navratri,” Boo writes, “Meena was dead.”

If there is a common theme to everything Boo writes, it may be that the poor face the same concerns as everyone else does—difficult neighbors, marital infidelity, bosses who don’t keep their promises—but experience them more starkly because their lives are so unstable, their margin for error so narrow. A bulldozer might knock down their shack. A flood might sweep them away. Almost nobody in Annawadi has a permanent job. A family member may be arrested arbitrarily, requiring the payment of a huge bribe. A moneymaking child might catch a disease while sorting garbage and die. As Dickens did with Pip in Great Expectations or Jo in Bleak House, Boo makes particularly effective use of children. Characters like Abdul and Manju draw our sympathy even as they embody the possibility of a better future.

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