India is one of the up and coming nations of this world. Bollywood suggests that all’s shiny and one great beautiful world of wealth and prosperity. Katherine Boo has looked behind that and her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, shows the world the life of a slum in Mumbai.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The title originates from a row of signs that wall off Annawadi from the outside world. Annawadi is a slum in Mumbai. Mumbai is a city of extremes. With 30 million inhabitants, it’s India’s biggest city. It’s the fifth-biggest city in the world. 20000 people live per square kilometre. Its literacy is at 94.7%. Skyscrapers shoot into the sky. Cars get bigger. It is the set of many a Bollywood movie.
This is not Annawadi. The slum lies near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, a gigantic traffic hub that produces much waste. This is the main income of the Annawadians. They pick up what the upper echelons of society and tourists throw away, sort through it and sell it for a few rupees. In the midst of this, there’s Abdul Husain, a young man who doesn’t even know his own age because his parents aren’t so good with numbers. He’s an enterprising teenager – that’s what people agree on, that he’s a teenager – who manages to keep his family afloat by being an honest and hard-working buyer of trash. He brings it to the recycling plant and makes a healthy margin off the profits. All in all, the Husains are well off, considering they live in a slum.
Their slum is an assortment of 355 huts, give or take. The illegal squat is near Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport and in constant danger of being razed to the ground. And along with the Husains – part of the Muslim minority in Annawadi – there are many other people. Asha tries to be a successful politician, her daughter Manju wants to graduate college and better the world. Some have no goals, such as Kalu who appears to be happy bouncing from job to job, just surviving to see another day. They’re uneducated, they’re criminals and their world is a world of corruption.
A World of Bribes
This is the most impressive thing about the book: Corruption. There are all these grand schemes on how to improve the lives of the Annawadians. Asha gets to teach kids, but she’s more interested in her political schemes. So her daughter Manju teaches the class. When Fatima burns herself, her death certificate is a flat-out lie and ruins an entire family for the rest of their lives. Crimes can be made to go away when money exchanges hands with police and other people. Charities are being taken advantage of by telling them that they’re having great success while the money just disappears.
That doesn’t mean that Annawadians are honourless. They very often just have no way of affording honour. Unless you’re Sonu, one of the extraordinarily moralistic inhabitants of Annawadi. He gets up every day at dawn, works tirelessly and doesn’t do drugs. He clings to his honour and morals as a last refuge, almost as if he’s waiting for someone to come along and see that this kid deserves better because he’s an honourable man. Only that that will never happen.
The Ultimate Goal: The Middle Class
Annawadi is a small but incredibly complex world. The most puzzling thing is the amount of money going around. When you think of a slum, you imagine ramshackle huts made of bits and bobs, no electricity, no technology and no money. The Annawadians are crafty people, living in cinder block houses and wooden houses. There is technology, even though it’s ancient.
The Annawadians are not stupid. They’re very aware of their situation and they don’t even dream of making it big. Their goal is to be part of the middle class. And that is just out of reach. So they work towards that. By whatever means necessary, including screwing each other over.
This is also the most fascinating aspect of the book. The world of Annawadi is a fascinating and alien one, yet it is surprisingly human. And to chronicle the lives of the slum dwellers, I don’t think there could have been anyone better than Katherine Boo.
This is a True Story
Katherine Boo is not an author of fiction. She is a reporter with a career in going to the strange demi-mondes of this planet and looking where other people don’t look or do so only with pathos. And Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads very much like a report. There’s no introspection from any of the people in her book. She is very much a watcher of Annawadi. She is the last person to see Annawadi, because throughout the book, Annawadi will be razed to make more room for new buildings for the rich. The Annawadans are promised new flats that are tiny but better than their dwellings in the slum. Of course, many people forge documents to claim to be Annawadians. Again, people are being screwed over and bribed.
Boo doesn’t even attempt to interpret the complex intricacies of Annawadian society. She states how things are, no interpretation. This makes her narrative one that doesn’t fall into the tropes of either being too sentimental or too gruesome. Her style is distanced, unemotional, doesn’t sugarcoat anything and reads entirely truthful. Ultimately, this makes the book have so much of a bigger impact.
What also does help is that this is a true story. This is non-fiction. I am not sure if I knew that before starting the book or if I’ve forgotten it while reading. When I reached the epilogue and Katherine Boo started to talk about the people she’s met, the book took on a whole new dimension. It was just that more horrific to see that all the disease, death, pain, brief moments of happiness and everything else was not created in the head of the author.
Ultimately, as a reader, I feel like I’ve read an important book. Whether or not this momentary glimpse into a world that exists on our planet but has so little in common with the world I currently live in actually ends up being important, I don’t know. I don’t know if this exemplary for all slums in Mumbai. I don’t know how to fix any of it. But I feel like there’s something unnameable in this book that makes it quite special and very impressive. This look into a few years of Annawadi, into the lives of people whom I’ll never meet let alone know what became of the has struck a nerve in me. And for that, I am thankful.
Here are a few impressions from Annawadi.