Book Review

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’

Life in a Mumbai slum reveals how the ‘brutal capriciousness’ of daily life can undermine people's economic security.

April 8, 2012

It has become increasingly common in the U.S. to blame the least among us, as well as those who have suffered most from the Great Recession, for their own problems.

Consider the movement in some states to drug-test welfare recipients and those collecting unemployment benefits despite how little evidence there is that recipients use drugs. Or think a bit about the willingness of our political “leaders” to gut successful social programs to decrease deficits and pay for tax cuts given to the wealthiest Americans.

Then there’s the harsh attitude many have toward the nonnative children of undocumented or illegal immigrants, many of whom have been in the U.S. since they were infants and are Americans in all but the strictest legal sense. It’s not our fault you have a problem—it’s yours no matter how complex your circumstances, including those well beyond your ability to control.

Obviously, not everyone feels that way. The other extreme is to blame no one for anything. Neither is right.

And just about anyone can speak anecdotally about a family member, friend, or the guy down the street who won’t look for work or drinks too much or blames the world for his problems.

Behind the Beautiful ForeversBut the question Cain posed when God inquired about Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” apparently is one asked with more frequency in America’s highly charged and politicized landscape.

Thus it was America that came to mind as I finished Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.”

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers”is social journalism at its finest, an immersion over several years into the lives of people we will never know but whose daily struggles with abject poverty, governmental corruption, and cultural differences provide a gripping nonfiction narrative that mostly horrifies but on occasion inspires us.

Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist known primarily for writing about America's poor and disadvantaged.An American married to an Indian, she turns her attention and reportorial skills of observation here to the residents of Annawadi, a makeshift slum in Mumbai, India, of several thousand huts and a clashing mix of mostly Hindu but also Muslim families.

The slum sprang up during the construction of the city’s airport and the five luxury hotels that surround it.

Next: Global economy affects all

Global economy affects all

The book’s title comes from nearby billboard and wall advertisements for an expensive Italian floor tile that promises to stay beautiful forever. Slums like Annawadi, and the millions of Indians who are among the world’s poorest people, provide a striking contrast to the emerging wealth in India, whose economy’s phenomenal growth rivals China’s and is spurred by globalization.

Garbage is what spurs the economy of Annawadi, specifically the discards of the airport and the surrounding hotels. Living in small, haphazardly constructed huts with no running water, Annawadi’s Hindu and Muslim residents squeeze a life of pennies and dimes by scrounging the garbage heaps for recyclable items to resell.

Their lives, as contained as they are within the narrow confines of a Mumbai slum, are not immune from world events. The financial crisis and the subsequent world recession that began in 2007 also drove down the price of items recycled from India’s garbage, and thus the garbage pickers’ incomes.

And the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai at a couple of luxury hotels drove away tourists, so less garbage was discarded by the hotels near Annawadi.

We live in a global economy whose constant ups and downs affect even the most insular or isolated neighborhood economies and small businesses whether in the U.S. or India.

But as the garbage pickers must scrounge for other daily work to replace their lost income, we wonder as does Boo whether permanent work for the lowest-skilled workers, and even those with some skills, is becoming anachronistic as capital and the jobs it creates flow from one nation to the next.

Boo focuses primarily on several individuals and their families. Abdul is the eldest son and primary breadwinner of a Muslim family. He’s a silent but exceptionally hard-working individual who buys and sells the garbage pickings.

His mother is Zehrunisa, whose argument with a neighbor sets in motion a series of events that seriously undercuts her family’s fragile economic security.

Asha is a Hindu and a minor player in a local political party, but she wields considerable power among her fellow Annawadians by dispensing small favors of influence in return for money. Her daughter is Manju, a young woman at times appalled by her mother’s selfishness at the expense of neighbors and a sometime teacher who aspires to be the first Annawadian with a college education.

Next: Despair, yet hope

Despair, yet hope

Severe income inequality and appalling living conditions is the umbrella looming over the lives of the slum’s denizens. But it’s the brutal capriciousness of daily life that frequently undermines what any economic security a family may have—and that is the book’s primary point.

Boo is not a polemicist who offers up the usual policy remedies from an educated westerner. Nor does she pass judgment, good or bad, on the people she writes about.

She simply observes and reports, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions about the circumstances of Annawadians’ lives and the choices they make to survive.

The key event in the book is the death of the bitter, one-legged Fatima, a sometime prostitute. She sets herself afire in response to an argument with Zehrunisa and other family members as they attempt to add tiles to their floor and a shelf for cooking implements on a wall shared with Fatima’s hut.

Fatima’s death, not necessarily the result she was seeking, deals a devastating blow to the family’s garbage business. It exposes Abdul, his father, and a sister to police corruption, criminal charges, jail, and beatings before ending with acquittal several years later in the maddening labyrinth that is the Indian justice system for the poor.

Suicide and attempted suicide by hanging, eating rat poison, or setting one’s self on fire are not uncommon in Annawadi. Alcoholism and addiction to cheap drugs are particularly present among males.

The slum’s residents deal with a daily despair that is beyond the comprehension of those of us who reside in safe and secure harbors in Western nations. They cope with harsh and often unfair judgments by neighbors who seem to take delight in the failures of others. They accept the callous indifference and corruption of government bureaucrats. And they fear the corruption and cruelty of the local police.

Yet there is hope as well among families and friends who care enough for each other to pay attention to their difficulties and seemingly find ways to pull together and help each other.

For every story like that of the beggar left to die in an alley as people pass him by and ignore his pleadings for help, there are accounts of people lending each other small sums of money for medicine and bribes, providing well-intentioned advice, and caring for abandoned or orphaned children.

Many are constantly aware of how dire their circumstances and how difficult is the struggle for economic betterment. Still, they continue to strive forward although their efforts usually end in disappointment.

No easy fix

At the book’s end, Abdul’s family has begun an economic recovery of sorts as the charges related to Fatima’s death are finally resolved. And Asha, who had begun to see her slight grip on power slip away as her political benefactor loses his position of influence, benefits from a new government program to fund new schools for the poor.

Using her daughter Manju as a front, she successfully manufactures paperwork to create a number of nonexistent schools to get the government spigots turned on and flowing in her direction. Similarly, she had taken advantage of microfinance programs designed to spur business development to buy better clothes to assist her political aspirations.

Such fraud is commonplace—and why not? Writes Boo in her book’s afterword:

“It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be—all those invisible individuals who every day find themselves faced with dilemmas not unlike the one Abdul confronted … one July afternoon when his life exploded. If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”

In an interview about her book, Boo talks about the people she observed and how easy it is to underestimate not just their resolve but their intelligence despite their lack of education. She does not compare the disadvantaged and poor in the U.S. with the slum dwellers of Annawadi, but she says there are parallels in their stories and ones that can  be told in this country.

Mostly, she wants us to understand that the social and economic conditions plaguing millions of our fellow citizens are the result of complexities and dynamics that too often are misunderstood and for which there are no easy resolutions that fit nicely on a bumper sticker or in a political ad.

And she leaves us with this thought: “If we don’t really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we’re not going to grasp the potential that’s being lost.”

MARK CONDON is CUNA’s senior vice president of business and consumer publishing. Contact him at 608-231-4078.