Source of book: Borrowed from the library
This book has perhaps been on my “library reading list” for the longest of any of them. Since it was published in 2012, it seems possible I have had it on there since it first came out. In any case, I went ahead and requested it from the library this month.
The book is a non-fiction account of a number of residents of a Mumbai shantytown slum that existed on the edge of the airport. Like most of these slums in the “undercity” as Boo puts it, Annawadi exists in a legal limbo. The settlement is not “legal” in the usual sense, but its existence is a practical necessity, since affordable “legal” housing is not available to the impoverished and mostly migrant residents. The people there survive by taking on a variety of jobs, from a few that find ways to partake in the widespread graft and corruption to those like teenager Abdul, who runs a garbage recycling business - he buys from the garbage pickers and sells to the big recycling outfits.
Boo, already a Pulitzer award-winning journalist, dedicated four years of her life to this book, spending her days in Mumbai building trust and interviewing dozens of people, and working through piles of official documents. She details her work in the “author’s note” at the end, and it is pretty incredible the effort she and her translator put in to tease out the facts and interweaving stories.
As the author makes clear, this book is not intended to be a representation of all of India, or even the experiences of everyone in this particular slum. Rather, these are stories of real people, with their own particular struggles and dreams and realities.
To a certain degree, this book is pretty dark. The central event that disrupts everyone’s life is when Fatima, a woman born with only one leg, quarrels with Abdul’s mother, and decides to set herself on fire. While dying in the hospital, she has her revenge by claiming she was incited to do so by the abuse of Abdul and his sister and father, who are then arrested and charged with manslaughter. Along with this event comes two teen suicides, a gang murder, and lots of accidental death.
On the other hand, it is impossible not to root for many of the characters, and admire their hard work, persistence, creativity, and resilience. It is difficult for us Westerners to truly imagine the experience of the poorest of the poorest of the poor, but this book does its best.
The two things that were most heartbreaking were the extensive and pervasive corruption that is a daily reality in India; and the sense of hopelessness that led to the suicides. While every country has some level of corruption and shenanigans, we are so spoiled here in the West. I cannot say that our systems are perfect or fair, particularly for the poor or people of color. But they also are not completely for sale in every possible aspect.
The suicides happened for different reasons, but in general, they can be summed up in a lack of hope for the future. Fatima may not have intended to die, but she despaired of ever being respected. A teen boy witnesses a murder and feels he will be hunted down by the gang that committed it. A teen girl is facing an arranged marriage and a lifetime of cooking and cleaning in a remote village. When you cannot imagine a future that will be better, and cannot accept what is, the way out is often suicide.
But others find some degree of hope and happiness. Manju teaches school while getting her degree - she hopes to be the first in Anniwadi to graduate from college. Sunil and Abdul find ways to get by with hard work and ingenuity.
The book is well written and compelling. Boo tells a good story, and gets into the heads of her characters in a way that is believable and empathetic. As she notes, at the very bottom of human society, when helping someone could literally result in your death or starvation, brutish behavior is inevitable. It is more surprising when humans rise above the conditions. As Boo puts it in the author’s note at the end:
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 each other for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.
It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities 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, stone slab in hand, 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?
There are many memorable passages in the book. Asha, the woman who aspires to being the next “slumlord” - the fixer who is on the bottom of the corruption gravy train, but nonetheless has prestige - is a compelling character, both admirable and ruthless. As an attractive woman with a drunken husband, she is often hit on by men. Or rather was, before she shut them down.
Asha had set the pot down and replied coolly, “Whatever you want. Tell me, bastard. Shall I strip naked and dance for you now?”
Abdul and his family are Muslim, and are thus a minority, sometimes treated with suspicion by the Hindu majority. In addition, as migrants from the north of India, they were seen as a threat by those who were from Mumbai. But Boo explains that while the prejudice was real, true organized violence was political in nature.
These poor-against-poor riots were not spontaneous, grassroots protests against the city’s shortage of work. Riots seldom were, in modern Mumbai. Rather, the anti-migrant campaign had been orchestrated in the overcity by an aspiring politician - a nephew of the founder of Shiv Sena. [a Hindu and anti-Muslim group] The upstart nephew wanted to show voters that a new political party he had started disliked bhaiyas like Abdul even more than Shiv Sena did.
I think this is true elsewhere too. When you see poor-against-poor violence, there usually is someone with more wealth and power creating the violence.
The story behind the title of the book is interesting too. Not wanting tourists to have to see the slum, the airport erected tall aluminum fences and concrete walls to shield the view. Plastered on one of them was a row of ads for floor tiles, with the copy “Beautiful Forever” repeated on each one down the line. Literally behind the “Beautiful Forevers” was the slum.
I also took note of a line about the resistance of many parents to allowing their children to be educated. The reason? “Too much learning reduced a girl’s compliancy.” Um, no shit. That’s part of the point. If you don’t keep women ignorant and incompetent, they might decide abuse and domestic slavery are not acceptable. Heck, they might even refuse to put up with a man drinking away the family income…
Also interesting in the way it intersects with our own politics here in the United States, was this description of how “government is the problem” plays out eventually.
Rich Indians typically tried to work around a dysfunctional government. Private security was hired, city water was filtered, private school tuitions were paid. Such choices had evolved over the years into a principle: The best government is the one that gets out of the way.
The attacks on the Taj and Oberoi, in which executives and socialites died, had served as a blunt correction. The wealthy now saw that their security could not be requisitioned privately. They were dependent on the same public safety system that ill served the poor.
I think the American middle-class whites who are opposed to the public sector (because it serves non-whites too…) are in for a rude awakening. Or at least their children are, which is why so many of my kids’ generation openly identify as socialist. Ultimately, a government that doesn’t work for some doesn’t work for anyone. Eventually, you tend to end up with complete dysfunction and corruption, unfortunately.
Boo also describes the way that the impoverished are rarely able to organize against the wealthy, but instead tend to claw at each other. (See for example, the failure of low income whites to band together with low income blacks and Latinx over the years.)
But the slumdwellers rarely got mad together - not even about the airport authority. Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes, like Fatima, they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate, like Asha, they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.
What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an excellent read, and Katherine Boo is an excellent writer. I definitely recommend this one - including for teens who could use a little broader understanding of the world.