A Mumbai slum dweller falls into a judicial Bermuda triangle after a neighbor frames him for a crime
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27
By Janice Harayda
In the United States, the word “corruption” has only negative connotations. But in India, Katherine Boo observes wryly, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty.
Boo doesn’t endorse that reality but suggests why it endures in this portrait of Annawadi, a slum of 3,000 people packed into 335 huts in the shadow of a sparkling blue-glass Hyatt near the Mumbai airport. The residents can’t count on improving their lives through education, because many public schools are shams, run by teenagers or unqualified teachers who bribed officials to get their jobs. Without education, slum dwellers are shut out of jobs, particularly if they are Muslims or low-born Hindus.
One of Boo’s sources who prospered against the odds was the slum boss Asha Waghekar, who traded sex with police officers for their willingness to fix cases of residents who bribed her to intercede. But Asha’s intervention helped little after an embittered woman with a deformed leg set herself on fire. Before she died, Fatima the One-Leg implicated three neighbors in her death: Karam Husain and his daughter Kehkashan and son Abdul, who supported the family by working as a garbage trader. The police learned quickly that the Husains were innocent but jailed them, anyway, hoping to extort payoffs for favorable treatment from their relatives. A judge absolved Karam and Kekashan of guilt, but Abdul fell into a judicial Bermuda triangle.
Boo finds the main narrative thread for her book in Abdul’s story and uses it to offer a much starker view of poverty than international relief agencies typically do in their pictures of hollow-eyed children and their assurances that pennies a day can change lives. She shows how corruption and destitution go hand-in-hand to a degree that may keep aid from reaching its intended recipients at all. In Annawadi, a government-sponsored self-help group for poor women foundered when Asha, the slum boss, siphoned off money from the program and lent it at usurious rates to destitute residents excluded from the program.
As she develops this bleak picture, Boo shows the exceptional courage and gift for reporting that helped her win a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post before she joined the staff of The New Yorker. She uses, less successfully, some of the techniques of creative nonfiction, such as claiming access to her subjects’ thoughts and submerging her voice and point of view in theirs. At times Boo tries to give the flavor of her slum-dwellers’ speech without quoting it directly by adopting their language: She uses “bitty” for small, and she writes of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced and of lake that “magicked into a thick mat of water-hyacinth weed.” Such language is more likely to come from from children or teenagers than from a writer for The New Yorker and clashes with that of other passages in which Boo is clearly writing in her voice. Often she doesn’t identify the sources for questionable details and, as the New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted, appears not to have interviewed people whose version of events might have differed from that of her subjects.
Even so, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a welcome complement – and, in some ways, an antidote – to the brutal but ultimately romanticized portrait of India in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. “Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation – the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life,” Boo writes. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch. In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.”
Boo makes clear that among the Mumbai poor, instability does foster ingenuity, but it can also foster corruption – legal, moral, and political – among those who see no other way to improve their lives. Over time, Boo notes, “the lack of a link between effort and result could be debilitating.” One Annawadi girl told her: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.” The paradox of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is that it leaves you with little hope that things will change even as it persuades you that more books like this one might set changes in motion.
Best line: No. 1: “Food wasn’t one of the amenities at Cooper, the 500-bed hospital on which millions of poor people depended. Nor was medicine. ‘Out of stock today’ was the nurses’ official explanation. Plundered and resold out of supply cabinets was an unofficial one. What patients needed, families had to buy on the street and bring in.” No. 2: “As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha had placed here hopes; and education. Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition.”
Worst line: No. 1: “Asha clucked.” No. 2 “She’d started to be treated as a mattering person.”
Published: February 2012
Furthermore: The New Delhi bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal finds “sloppiness,” “caricaturing” Indians and other defects in “The Letdown of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’,” which argues that Boo wrote a good, not great, book.
Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 18, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.
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