Every trip back to Bombay inevitably begins with a drive past the slums near the airport. Usually, images of the shacks by the roadside fade into a blur at the corner of my eye, and are forgotten by the time the car turns onto the highway. Katherine Boo’s ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in Mumbai Slum’ goes deeper into the lives of the people who live in one of the slums near the airport, Annawadi.
The book follows the lives of Abdul, a teenage garbage collector who works tirelessly to support his family of 11, their one-legged and hot-tempered neighbour Fatima, Asha, unscrupulous and ambitious, her soft-hearted college-going daughter Manju, and many other Annawadi residents whose previously-unseen and unheard lives suddenly reveal an extraordinary amount of suffering, fortitude, injustice and hope in the pages of this book.
The setting of Annawadi itself - nestled amongst the bustling international airport, and luxury hotels such as The Leela, InterContinental and Grand Hyatt - sets the tone for the intense sense of irony and inequality that pervade the book. Boo conveys this irony beautifully through her writing, which is unflinchingly honest and matter-of-fact. The terror and grief experienced by the people at various points in the book are physically palpable, and the deadpan, unapologetic accounts of the corruption that pervades Mumbai’s justice system, hospitals, orphanages and schools left me shaking in helpless rage.
The stories in ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ are a vivid, rich, and deeply humanising reflection of the impact that global social, economic and political processes have on the world’s poorest. A lot of the stories are incredibly tragic, but Boo does not obscure the resourcefulness and spunk of the young garbage pickers in the pursuit of a specific narrative, nor does she infuse any sense of judgement into her account of the actions of the characters. The result is a book that reads like a novel in terms of how engaging it is, but with the disturbing, ever-present thought that the characters are real people, who really went through the things described in the book, and more likely than not, remain in similar circumstances today.
I found it particularly interesting that the the abject poverty in Annawadi was mitigated primarily by the livelihood of collecting discarded trash from the airport and hotels, stark symbols of conspicuous over-consumption and inequality. Even though the book left me feeling frustrated and impotent about being unable to change the circumstances of the characters I’d come to be so emotionally invested in, it’s definitely a source of renewed inspiration to understand the macro-level processes that shape society better, and work to change those.
Before reading the book, I was skeptical about whether Boo would be able to do justice to the stories of the people living in Annawadi, without resorting to the usual tropes that most non-Indians writing about India do. With the exception of a few mildly irksome passages, though, her portrayal of the lives of the residents of Annawadi is incredibly intimate, thorough, endearing and sympathetic. The fact that she spent three and a half years living in Annawadi, and spent hours going through official documents to support her stories shines through in her writing, which is filled with little details and observations that could have easily remained invisible to a casual observer, but enrich the narrative thousandfold. A great example of this is the title itself, which is derived from hoardings opposite the slums that advertise tiles that will keep your home ‘Beautiful Forever’.
I picked up this book on a cousin’s recommendation, and I’m so glad I did. I myself cannot recommend this book enough. The snippet below sums up everything I love about Boo’s writing style, and her fantastic account of life in Annawadi:
It was a fine time to be a Mumbai garbage trader, not that that was the term passersby used for Abdul. Some called him garbage, and left it at that.