Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Katherine Boo

9781921844638

I don’t want to read about poverty and desperation, a friend said, when I told him of this book. I see so much of it every day, why would I fill my head also with words about it? Because when we see something every day, we become removed from it, like it’s a movie, but words have a way of making it relevant for you again.

The book is set in Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai airport, and follows a cast of slum-dwellers – Abdul, a teenage garbage sorter looking to make enough money to move out of the slum; Asha, a kindergarten teacher looking to become the first female slumlord of Annawadi; Manju, Asha’s daughter who looking to get a college degree and escape marriage to a soldier from her village; Sunil, a skinny scavenger looking to make it by. When Fatima, a one-legged neighbor of Abdul sets herself on fire and falsely accuses Abdul of being the cause, his life is thrown into a tailspin, while the 2008 Mumbai attacks affect the lives of other residents in unanticipated ways.

I travel past the airport slums every other week, but it was only on reading this book that I began looking outside my air-conditioned car and into the shanties that lined the busy road. Boo writes with empathy for all the characters, be it the hapless Abdul or the scheming Asha, and the empathy seeps into you as well.  The Beautiful Forevers are one of the many fancy high-rise complexes coming up in Mumbai that builders promise will bring Paris or London or New York to Mumbai, but Boo exposes the shit behind the shine.

“Even the person who lives like a dog still has a kind of life.”

The book is a very uncomfortable read, especially the parts which describe the life of the scavengers and the conditions of the slum, located beside a sewage lake. At points, I felt it delve into poverty porn realm, such as where the slum-dwellers eat rats and frogs when they have no money to buy food, but then I realized that she’s reporting facts, gory as they are. It’s Indian tendency to be angry at Westerners writing about Indian poverty, but the fact remains that someone has to write about it, about the hundreds of slum murders and suicides that are reported in police books as “illness”, about the desperation of young women in slums who want to have a life better than being married or a mistress at fifteen, of stench and filth and homes no larger than packing cartons. Maybe we need a Westerner to write about these things, because we Indians have become indifferent to it all. For most of us (yes, I too am part of Indifferent India), poverty is something we turn up our windows to so that it doesn’t seep into our homes and our cars; maybe the sharp words can make it more alive for us

 

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