Behind the Beautiful Forevers Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum
Portobello Books, London, 2012, Kindle Edition
Reviewed by: Gopa Roy
In the Author’s note with which the book concludes, Katherine Boo reflects ‘...over the course of three years [2008-2011] (we) wrestled with the question of whether days in rat-filled Annawadi garbage sheds and late-night expeditions with thieves at a glamorous new airport had anything to contribute to an understanding of the pursuit of opportunity in an unequal, globalized world. Maybe, we concluded.’ (p. 252)
My book group met this week as usual in one of our North London homes to discuss this, our first book of 2013. It had served as ‘an antidote to Christmas’, commented one of my friends. We had found it compelling and painful. We are not often unanimous about a book, but this was one of those rare instances. Indeed, not only did we feel, without exception, that we were glad to have read it, we agreed that it is essential reading. Why? Boo enables her readers to enter a world which is otherwise inaccessible to us – as it is to the better-off inhabitants of Mumbai, the dwellers in the ‘overcity’ – a world it is important that we should understand. She accomplishes this with an authority which enables us to trust what she reports. ‘The account of the hours leading up to Fatima Shaikh’s self-immolation, and its immediate aftermath, derives from repeated interviews of 168 people, as well as records from the police department, the public hospital, the morgue, and the courts’ (p.252)
Her method restores the voices and experiences of the people whose lives she records, where the official records have demonstrably been changed and corrupted to suit the purposes of officialdom. True, the work is not straightforward documentary, the material is not presented chronologically. It is a skilfully structured narrative which keeps us reading partly because we want to know the outcome – are the wrongfully accused justified in the faith they have in the judiciary, or will they be returned to the desperate conditions of the prisons which they have already experienced? Even freedom in a slum such as Annawadi is preferable. There is an anticipation of this near the beginning of the book, when Abdul, the expert young sorter of waste thinks about his work, ‘work more boring than dirty. Work he expected to be doing for the rest of his life. Most days, that prospect weighed on him like a sentence. Tonight, hiding from the police, it felt like hope’. (loc. 100)
The book is not political in a heavy-handed way, but it does demonstrate very clearly the devastating consequences of inequality and the repercussions felt by those whose lives Boo follows, of shifting economic sands in the wider world. It shows us why people leave their villages and do not want to return (life is even harder there, though it need not be); why Maoists are rural India’s problem and why religious militants the urban hazard; why we should think about the waste we produce or where we send and spend our money.
Our reading of the book happened to coincide with the rape in Delhi and the period that followed. It confirmed in many ways – and in soberingly matter-of-fact ways – the inequalities and attitudes highlighted by the rape and reactions to it. In Annawadi fathers avoid leaving their young daughters alone because they risk violation by drunken men or police. The judge in the court case happens to be a woman, but this is not commented on by anyone. Nevertheless life for a woman in the slum is preferable to life in a village. One of the saddest figures in the book is that of Meena, who is not just a girl, she has a brutal family who beat her at every opportunity. ‘The minutes in the night stench [of the toilets] with Manju were the closest she had ever come to freedom’ (p.185)
A marriage is arranged for her which will return her to the village. There, as a Dalit, she will be relegated to the outskirts of the village. ‘What if over the verge of marriage stretched an adult life even more confined than her childhood had been? To both Meena and Manju, marrying into a village family was like time-travelling backward . . . Those villagers would be appalled if they saw how Manju leaned against her friend, or learned that the two girls shared a sky-blue sari (p. 183) Meena prefers to kill herself by taking rat poison. ‘this was one decision about her life she got to make’ (p.188).
Her death is commented on:‘“She was fed up with what the world had to offer,” the Tamil women concluded. Meena’s family, upon consideration, decided that Manju’s modern influence was to blame’ (p. 189)The Tamil women understand. Her family, like many voices following the Delhi rape, prefer to blame her - her brother beat her when he learned she had taken poison – and modern influence.
Yet there is also grim comedy to be found in the way other women are seen. Abdul is embarrassed by his mother, Zehrunisa:‘Abdul believed his mother to be right about most things. She was tender and playful with her children, and her only great flaw, in the opinion of Abdul, her eldest son, was the language she used when haggling. Although profane bargaining was the norm in the waste business, he felt his mother acceded to that norm with too much relish; “Stupid pimp with the brain of a lemon!” she’d say in mock outrage. “You think my babies will go hungry without your cans? I ought to take down your pants and slice off what little is inside!” This, from a woman who’d been raised in some nowhere of a village to be burqa-clad, devout.’(loc. 123)
The book gives us a deeper understanding of caste, rural versus urban, the relations between Hindus and Muslims and how all these can be manipulated. These can be seen as structural, societal issues. A more personal moral question raised during the book group meeting was: how it is possible for a man injured by the roadside to be left for hours without anyone attempting to help him? We see that some will not touch him for fear of catching a disease; others, like Zehrunisa taking essential items to her husband in prison across the city, are simply too desperate themselves to be able to stop. What would we do? Boo writes ‘In undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blistering hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be.’ (p.254)
One abiding poetic image that remained with us from the book was Abdul’s: ‘Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought that most people were made of the same thing, too . . .But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from – and in his view, better than – what it was made of. He wanted to be better than what he was made of. 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’. (p.218)