Book review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Women at work amid poverty and squalour of Mumbai's Annawadi slum (AFP/Getty)
Women at work amid poverty and squalour of Mumbai's Annawadi slum (AFP/Getty)
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OFFICIALLY, the 3,000 people who live in the Annawadi slum on the way to Mumbai airport, aren’t poor. In the statistics, they would be down as among the 100 million “freed from poverty since 1991”. In award-winning journalist Katherine Boo’s extraordinary first book, we learn exactly what that means.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

by Katherine Boo

Portobello Books, 288pp, £14.99

Although there is more hope than one might expect to find in a half-acre slum next to a lake of sewage, as she points out, “for every two people in Annawadi inching up, there was one in a catastrophic plunge”. Many of the slum dwellers, including Abdul – the refuse seller whom Boo follows along with his friends and family for months – can at least contrast their lot with that of their less fortunate neighbours, “miserable souls” who “trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner” or “ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake’s edge”. Migrants fleeing a crisis-ridden agricultural sector cause an over-supply of cheap labour in Mumbai, so the boy whose hand is sliced off by a shredding machine turns, “with his blood-spurting stump,” to assure his boss that he won’t report the accident.

A two-year-old girl drowns suspiciously in a pail, and a father empties a pot of boiling lentils over his sick baby. As Boo explains, “sickly children of both sexes were sometimes done away with, because of the ruinous cost of their care”. “Young girls in the slums,” she adds, “died all the time under dubious circumstances, since most slum families couldn’t afford the sonograms that allowed wealthier families to dispose of their female liabilities before birth.”

Adults, too, drop like flies. One of Abdul’s friends ends up as a corpse with his eyes gouged out. Injured men bleed to death, unattended, by the road to the airport. Maggots breed in the infected sores of the scavengers Boo hangs out with. “Gangrene inched up fingers, calves swelled into tree trunks, and Abdul and his younger brothers kept a running wager about which of the scavengers would be the next to die.”

These continual human losses are taken mostly in a matter-of-fact way in Annawadi. For Abdul and his friends have “accepted the basic truths: that in a modernising, increasingly prosperous city, their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces, and their deaths would matter not at all”.

Those deaths might even get the survivors into trouble. So when the one-legged Fatima, Abdul’s querulous neighbour, sets herself on fire, a crowd gathers but does nothing: “The adults drifted back to their dinners, while a few boys waited to see if Fatima’s face would come off.” Trying to take Fatima to the hospital, her husband finds himself shunned by autorickshaw drivers, who are worried about “the potential damage to seat covers”.

As for the nearby policemen, they embody pure terror in the eyes of Annawadians. They won’t baulk at raping a homeless girl, and would “gladly blow their noses in your last piece of bread”. The police actually encourage Fatima to blame Abdul’s family so that officers can extort money from them. A government officer threatens to collect false witness statements unless she is paid off.

Neither India’s hollowed-out democracy nor its mean-minded new capitalism, which cannot do without a helot class, seems able to relieve this social-Darwinist brutishness. Even those who are relatively fortunate, Boo writes, “improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people”.

Describing this undercity blood sport, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (the ironic title is taken from the “Beautiful Forever” advertisements for Italianate floor tiles that hide Annawadi from view) does not descend into a catalogue of atrocity. The product of prolonged and risky self-exposure to Annawadi, the book’s narrative stitches, with much skillfully unspoken analysis, some carefully researched individual lives. Its considerable literary power is also derived from Boo’s sober, elegant prose .

Above all, it is a moral inquiry. As Boo explains, the spectacle of Mumbai’s “profound and juxtaposed inequality” provoked a line of questioning: “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? Why don’t more unequal societies implode?”

Her eye is as shrewdly trained on the essential facts of politics and commerce as on the intimate, the familial and the monstrously absurd: the college-going girl who struggles to figure out Mrs Dalloway while her closest friend, about to be forced into an arranged marriage, consumes rat poison and dies (though not before the doctors attending her extort 5,000 rupees, or £75, from her parents). Instead of the faux-naif explainer or the intrepid adventurer in Asian badlands, you get a reflective sensibility, subtly informing every page with previous experiences of deprivation and striving, and a gentle scepticism about ideological claims.

Boo can see how democracy, routinely lauded in the West as India’s great advantage over authoritarian China, can become yet another insider network of patronage in which the powerful flourish: how periodic elections are absorbed into “a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s old problems – poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labour – were being aggressively addressed”, even as “exploitation of the weak by the less weak continued with minimal interference.”

She can also perceive why many well-off Indians have grown impatient with, even contemptuous of, democracy and, like their counterparts elsewhere, want to eliminate rather than enhance the social-welfarist obligations of government. For these Indians, Boo points out, “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”.

Boo deftly steers clear of the many banal notions about corruption in India unleashed recently by a quasi-Gandhian protest movement supported by affluent Indians. She shows how corruption, far from being a malignant external growth, is integral to India’s political, economic and social system. “Among powerful Indians,” she writes, “the distribution of opportunity was typically an insider trade.” And for the “poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained”.

Fully inhabiting India’s troubled present, the book can only hint at a less oppressive past – a “peaceful age” that to Abdul sounds like something out of myth, a time when “poor people had accepted the fates that their respective gods had written on their foreheads, and in turn treated one another more kindly”. This may seem too romantic a picture of Oriental fatalism. It is true, nevertheless, that migrants from the rural hinterland, drawn to Mumbai for hundreds of years – as long as the city, as constructed by British free-traders and their native collaborators, has existed – were never as desolate and defenceless as they are now.

So much of the city’s most popular exports – cinema and music – originated in the past from the attempt by rural migrants to recreate, in the alienating city, the traditions of their lost community. But unlike Mumbai’s previous generation of migrants, Annawadians cannot have any soothing dreams of a return to village life and its communal solidarities, underlined in a brisk digression to a rural region of western India where thousands of farmers, forced out of a subsistence economy into a globalised one, have killed themselves in the previous decade.

Here, many citizens have not only “stopped believing the government’s promises about improving their fortunes” but, as Boo explains: “Deprived of their land and historical livelihoods by large-scale corporate and government modernisation projects, they’d helped revive a 40-year-old movement of Maoist revolutionaries. Employing land mines, rocket launchers, nail bombs and guns against capitalism and the Indian state, the guerrillas were now at work in roughly one-third of India’s 627 districts.”

The Maoists seem a weirdly anachronistic intrusion in the “great success narrative of capitalism”. But for them, as much as for the corporations and governments dispossessing the Indians in the countryside, life in the contemporary world has turned into a zero-sum game. Not surprisingly, Abdul’s mother, too, has “raised her son for a modern age of ruthless competition. In this age, some people rose and some people fell, and ever since he was little, she’d made him understand that he had to rise”.

As Boo shows in wrenching detail, however, Abdul’s training is incomplete. Falsely accused of murdering his neighbour, and fully exposed to a “malign” justice system, Abdul learns that “his mother hadn’t prepared him for what it felt like, falling alone”.

The ostensible “rise” of India has attracted its share of literary and journalistic buccaneers in recent years. Most recent books about the country, unselfconsciously suffused with the clichés of the age, speak of how free-market capitalism has ignited a general explosion of opportunity, fostering hope among the most destitute of Indians.

Boo describes what really happens when opportunity accrues to the already privileged in the age of globalisation, when governments remain dysfunctional and corrupt. As she writes: “ What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too” – in Nairobi and Santiago, Washington and New York. “In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament.”

“The poor,” she explains further, “blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.” Meanwhile, only “the faintest ripple” is created “in the fabric of the society at large”, for in places like Mumbai, “the gates of the rich … remained unbreached … the poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace”.

In its own quiet way, this book disturbs this peace more effectively than whole shelves of polemic and theory.

• Katherine Boo will be at the Edinburgh book festival on 18 August; Pankaj Mishra will be talking about his book How the West Was Lost on 26 August.