I reviewed Behind the Beautiful Forevers for the South China Morning Post of Sunday, 19 February 2012.
In 2011 middle class India was in the throes of an anti-corruption movement headed by a Gandhian leader called Anna Hazare who was pressing for a stronger Jan Lokpal Bill, a People’s Ombudsman Bill. The movement against corruption stirred a middle class noted for its political apathy and blew like a whirlwind across the nation, gathering in its sweep social activists, Bollywood celebrities, and media people.
As the mass agitation spread Hazare went on several fasts, using a tool Mahatma Gandhi had deftly deployed against the British during India’s freedom struggle – his topi, Gandhi cap, became a fashion statement as his supporters chanted ‘I am Anna’.
Around the time of the first indefinite fast in Delhi Katherine Boo, an American journalist, was wrapping up three years of reportage from a Mumbai slum called Annawadi that nestled cheek-by-jowl with the international airport. From November 2007 Boo had documented the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes, and more than three thousand public records – these obtained by diligent petitioning of government agencies under the RTI (Right To Information) act.
The energetic and vociferous support that Hazare and his team galvanized took the Government by surprise. Corruption is endemic in India and Indians of all classes survive by giving and taking bribes. What had changed?
Boo, though, wasn’t surprised. After her marriage to Sunil Khilnani, an Indian academician, she’d visited India, “an increasingly affluent nation that still housed one-third of the poverty, and one-quarter of the hunger, on the planet”. For years, she’d reported on the poor communities in the United States and in India, parallel questions had surfaced: what does it take to get out of poverty?
Thereafter, the Pulitzer prize-winning New Yorker staffer spent months at a stretch in boggy Annawadi where three thousand people were packd into 335 huts, as she sought to answer how ordinary low-income people – particularly women and children – negotiate the age of global markets. “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s social and economic policy? Whose capabilities are squandered?”
India’s growth story had brought in its wake a frothy mélange: an increasingly affluent middle class, an intrusive media, migration from rural areas to the metropolises, and corruption scandals centred on perfidious politicians. Predictably, the affluent middle class, aided by a sensationalist media, stiffened its spine, found its voice and nailed corruption on self-serving politicos.
But while the pursuit of opportunity had aided the middle class, it had also exacerbated the existing inequalities. Behind the runaway success of Slumdog Millionaire, a British film about a young man from Dharavi slums of Mumbai who beats all odds to become fabulously wealthy, lay the reality of slums juxtaposed with luxury hotels, high rises with dumpsters, all of which emphasized the disparity between the rich and poor residents of the Indian financial capital, alternatively known as Slumbai.
The title, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, derives from an advertisement for Italiante floor tiles on a concrete wall that barricaded Airport Road from the slum of Annawadi. The corporate slogan ran the wall’s length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER.
The profound inequality reminded Boo of other modern cities. “The scholars who map levels of disparity between wealthy and impoverished citizens consider New York and Washington D.C., almost as unequal as Nairobi and Santiago. Why don’t more of our unequal societies implode?”
How did Boo – a blond Caucasian woman, unfamiliar with India or its languages – chronicle the lives of the Annawadians? With the help of translators and by compensating for her limitations “the same way I do in unfamiliar American territory: by time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked”. The white woman circus fell away in a couple of months as “residents had concerns more pressing than my presence”.
For a piece of first-class reportage, the book is written at the pace of a thriller, rocketing off with a scene of self-immolation triggered by a squabble between neighbours. However, it contains no rags-to-riches story, no dramatic flashpoints, and no Bollywood superstar strolls into the slum (as in Slumdog Millionaire). Taking us into the lives and daily struggles of three Annawadians – Abdul Husain, the garbage sorter; Asha the aspiring slumlord-cum-kindergarten teacher; Manju, who wants to be the first graduate from Annawadi – this narrative non-fiction engages with an intimate eye and abundant humanity.
There is a reason Boo chose these three protagonists. As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha placed her hopes; and education, which Manju cleaved to.
The teenaged Abdul is the oldest child in the Husain family and its primary breadwinner. A garbage trader who bought from the scavengers, his profit came from selling refuse to small recycling plants. His mantra is to avoid trouble, stay quiet, and work hard to make enough money to buy a plot of land away from Annawadi. Yet, an envious neighbour implicates him in murder that sends the unworldly man-boy hurtling through the hoops of police-jail-court. “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags”.
Asha, who migrated to Mumbai when she married, truly grasps the opportunities of a globalizing economy where the wealthy blamed the slumdwellers for making the city filthy, even as the oversupply of labour kept the wages of their servants low; and the poor complained about the inequality and the boundaries erected by the wealthy to prevent them from sharing in the new profit. “This development increased the demand for canny mediators – human shock absorbers for the colliding, narrowly construed interests of one of the world’s largest cities”. As a slumlord Asha would become one of those mediators.
Her daughter Manju looks at education as the vehicle that’ll assist her in a migration different from that of her mother – that of class. She “by-hearts” her English classics, imagining herself as the heroine, even as her mother urges her to shed her slum ways as she’d shed her village ones. “Study the first-class people. You see how they’re living, how they walk, what they do. And then you do the same”.
At the narrative’s end, Annawadians face the prospect of their slum’s destruction to pave way for an airport extension. Meanwhile, businessmen and politicians start a scramble to buy up the huts in order to benefit from the promised rehabilitation. The slumdwellers are angry, confused, unsure, yet, they “rarely got mad together. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament”.
Boo offers no neat solutions, believing that very little journalism is world-changing. “But if change is to happen it will be because people with power have a better sense of what’s happening to people who have none”.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a wonderful feat. It should be compulsory reading for all those descending upon the shores of Shining India as they seek to partake in the country’s growth story. And for middle class India that rallied to the anti-corruption cause of Hazare – it’d be good for them to realize that “for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained”.
There is a video of a panel discussion at the 2012 Jaipur Literature Festival with Katherine Boo that I'd recommend. The link is here.