Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo
Random House, 262 pages, $33
Ten years ago Katherine Boo, a prize-winning American journalist, fell in love with an Indian man. Since then she has lived part of each year in Mumbai. Now, after four years of research, she has written her first book about life in a Mumbai slum.
Hidden behind glitzy bill boards (promising "beautiful forevers"), Annawadi occupies half an acre of boggy land adjacent to Mumbai's international airport. It is one of about 30 slums in the area, and shelters approximately 3,000 people.
For almost four years (from November 2007 to March 2011), Boo and her translators followed the daily lives of two families and several individuals. They documented their work with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and photographs. In addition, Boo searched thousands of official records.
The result is an astonishing work of narrative journalism that reads like a novel but stands firm in its commitment to the facts. We meet 16-year-old Abdul Hussain, whose ability to sort garbage and sell recyclables feeds a family of 11, until he and his father and his sister are falsely accused of inciting a neighbour to suicide.
A score of witnesses know the truth, but the police and government officials are not interested in the truth. They can only see an opportunity for extorting money from the Hussains who had been doing well by slum standards.
Meanwhile, the Hussains' neighbour, Asha Waghekar, schemes to become slumlord, which means currying favour with local police, the city councillor, and a nativist political party, as well as settling local conflicts (for a price), and dispensing anti-poverty grants (for a kickback).
Asha's 18-year-old daughter, Manju, is embarrassed by her mother's corruption, but she remains an obedient daughter, working endlessly at her college studies, as well as teaching and running the household. Eventually mother, daughter, and the rest of the family benefit from a huge scam involving government funding for 24 kindergartens that don't exist.
But the author of this remarkably comprehensive portrait of slum life (a life lived by half of Mumbai's 20 million people) is not content to reveal the nitty-gritty grind of daily life and the politics of corruption, naming names in the process. She is also determined to give voice to the least articulate of her subjects.
We learn that Sunil, a 12-year-old scavenger, conceals his folded plastic sack under his arm as he saunters down airport road, hoping he will appear to be a school boy, and that both Sunil and waste-sorter Abdul have a moral code, distinguishing scavenged goods from those pilfered from construction sites and recycling boxes.
Boo is not part of the narrative. In an author's note she tells us that Annawadians considered her an oddity at first, but after two months or so, they began to take her for granted and went about their business as usual. She thanks particular individuals, most of them young people, for their help and co-operation.
It would, indeed, be impossible to write such a revealing book without extensive co-operation. One can only hope that the co-operators don't suffer for their honesty.
Boo also tells us that after living in Mumbai for several years she eventually got around to writing the book she wanted to read but couldn't find. If you have ever arrived in a Third World city where slums border luxury hotels, and wondered how it all works and why the poor don't rise up en masse, you will be thankful that Boo had the courage and the skills to persist with such a daunting but important project.
Faith Johnston is a Winnipeg writer who spends winters in India.