- Author: Katherine Boo
- Published: February, 2012
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, the nonfiction novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo is a tireless work of devotion on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised of India, and those struggling around the world. A staff writer for the New Yorker, Boo has long cast a spotlight on destitute communities and families scrambling to escape poverty. Her reporting from the trenches of hardship have proven indispensable in tackling what was undoubtedly her biggest challenge - chronicling the lives and trials of families living in the slums of Mumbai, India.
From 2007-2011, Boo embedded herself in Annawadi, a small slum village two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, “A stretch were new India and old India collided and made new India late.” By telling the story of Mumbai’s poor, Boo tells the story of modern India itself. Loud, crowded, filthy and corrupt, but lurching forward in fits and starts.
Annawadi was built on a marsh in 1991 by a band of laborer’s who “Decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brush-land across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.” There is no special reason why Boo selected it for her reporting. She admits it's like any slum in India. A place where, “sewage and sickness looked like life.”
Since the Annawadi settlement was built on private land, the community itself is technically trespassing. Thus nothing in Annawadi is constant. Its stubborn inhabitants live under a daily threat of bulldozers coming to flatten their flimsy homes and obliterate their community. “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.)” It is a brutish existence spent in the shadows of luxury hotels and jumbo jets. But with such opulence so close at hand, most Annawadians dream of one day hitting the big time. The mansions, servants and endless fortunes portrayed in their favorite Bollywood movies seem just within reach. Annawadians believe all it takes is the right connection. The right hustle. The right timing. And your life can change overnight. It’s a cruel fantasy.
The characters are colorful and poignant. Boo introduces us to Abdul, the watchful teenage garbage-sorter with an eye for recyclables. His “almost friend” Kalu, the charismatic scrap metal thief who holds his friends spellbound with his movie reenactments. There’s the formidable and enterprising Asha, a woman determined to claw her way out of poverty no matter what it takes, and her beautiful, daughter Manju, who selflessly struggles and studies each day in the hopes of becoming Annawadi’s first female college graduate. Boo excels in capturing the essence of her characters. Her blunt honesty and sympathy echo off of every page, and it makes the relentless gloom of the slum life easier to swallow. It’s particularly interesting to see the grit and grace of Annawadi’s women, who come across as much tougher than the men, who seem to prefer a life of intoxication and self pity in the face of such grinding hardship.
And hardship it is. There were several times when I resisted picking up Behind the Beautiful Forevers because of it’s unrelenting misery. The descriptions of the garbage alone was enough to drive me away. The stench of it pours off the page and lingers in your nostrils. Take the monsoon season, when “the sewage lake crept forward like a living thing. Sick water buffalo nosed for food through mounds of wet, devalued garbage, shitting out the consequences of bad choices with a velocity Annawadi water taps had never equaled.” I couldn’t take it page after page, let alone live in it.
On top of that, the systemic corruption of Indian society is enough to make you rip your hair out. When Abdul’s family is falsely accused of driving a neighbor to suicide, the injustice and powerlessness they experience is soul crushing. Every government official is on the take and pushing for a bribe or hand out. The people prey on one another with a parasitic contempt that manifests itself on every rung up the ladder. There is no national solidarity. No commitment to one another. No common ideals. Many of the poor can no longer endure it. There are characters who drink rat poison, and even set themselves ablaze.
The hardest part to take about Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the realization that generations of Indians will continue to be ground up by the jaws of poverty while their government and society struggle to reset. Such a reality makes for very harsh reading, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t relieved to turn the final page. But you can’t help but applaud Ms. Boo for her bravery and candor in covering people who are so rarely given a voice. India will never fulfill her promise until the black snake of corruption is lopped off at the head, the fog of mysticism and fairy tales dissipates, and people's health and environment are restored. Ms. Boo herself eloquently describes the problem in her author’s note:
In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.
In the midst of all these corrupt officials, sickening poverty, gurgling wastelands and back breaking labor - Ms. Boo reminds us that kind hearted, justice-seeking individuals like Abdul, Manju and countless others, struggle silently amongst the noise and confusion. There they remain, hardworking, reflective, and trying to do the right thing. Jewels in the gutter, waiting to be polished.