By Clare Fermont
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Behind the Beautiful Forevers

This article is over 9 years, 7 months old
Katherine Boo
Issue 370

This stunning book hurls you into Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai airport. It reads like a gripping novel, telling the intricate stories of a few residents. All have dreams. All struggle to survive. Several suffer a terrible end – suicide by self-immolation, brutal murder, agonisingly slow death from treatable illnesses. But these are not fictional characters – and they really did die like this.

Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winning US journalist, spent four years in Annawadi and her humble book reflects this. Memorable language and anecdotes enrich what is a devastating indictment of modern capitalism. The “spoon-it-up air” and bad lungs “were a toll you paid to live near progress”. A boy apologises to his boss when his arm is mangled in a shredder because he is more terrified of losing his job than his hand.

Mumbai is the “smogged-out, prosperity-driven obstacle course up there in the over-city, from which wads of possibility had tumbled down to the slums”. The Annawadians are among 100 million Indians “freed from poverty” since 1991 when the government embraced economic liberalisation. Nearly half a million arrive every year in Mumbai alone.

Katherine Boo discovered that only six of Annawadi’s 3,000 residents have a permanent job and the rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, are part of the informal economy. The combined wealth of the 100 richest Indians, she notes, equals nearly a quarter of GDP.

Her intimate portrayal of Annawadi shows how India’s democracy is bought by the propertied and only valued by the propertyless; how intercommunal tensions are stirred up by those seeking power (“throwing ghee on an open flame”); how the legal system bears no relation to justice; and how the West’s banking crisis quickly added to the despair of places like Annawadi.

Yet alongside the despair are dreams. Manju wants to be Annawadi’s first female graduate. Abdul wants to scavenge his way out of the slum. Mirchi yearns to be a waiter at a nearby luxury hotel. Sita, having lost a limb, is known as “One Leg” and desperate for respect and affection she becomes addicted to extra-marital sex.

So many extraordinary passages capture the heartache of slum life. Abdul’s mother Zehrunisa, for example, “didn’t cry for the fate of her husband, son and daughter…or for a system in which the most wretched tried to punish the slightly less wretched…She cried for the manageable thing, the loss of that beautiful quilt.”

The book’s narrow focus on a small slum inevitably means that it excludes the positive developments in India, notably the vibrant campaigns against corruption and injustice. But even the picture presented of Annawadi is not all gloomy.

It shows that as people are being sucked into the cities, their long-held belief that caste and religion determine status is being replaced by the hope of reincarnation on earth. That hope makes the injustices and inequalities more visible, and can empower those trying to end them.

Katherine Boo’s afterword says, “It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities 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.”

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is published by Portobello Books, £14.99

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