Life on the edge

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum, by Katherine Boo, Portobello, RRP £14.99/ Random House, RRP $27, 288 pages

Katherine Boo’s debut book Behind the Beautiful Forevers derives from a simple premise: that “better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know about ordinary lives”.

Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has devoted much of her career to chronicling poor communities in the US. Now she turns her eye to India, spending a little over three years – from November 2007 until March 2011 – documenting “life, death, and hope in a Mumbai slum”. The result is a bravura work of non-fiction that goes beyond clichéd, patronising depictions of poverty to raise uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for India’s urban poor in the age of global market capitalism.

The focal point of the book is the Annawadi slum, an “undercity” nestled beneath the “overcity” of glitzy shopping malls and five-star hotels. Built on swampy land abutting a sewage lake, it is home to 3,000 people, “packed into, or on top of, 335 huts”. Sitting 200 yards off the Sahar airport road, this was “a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late”.

Thanks to the transcendent quality of Boo’s prose, this “sumpy plug of slum” springs to life with all the drama and vividness of great fiction. We are drawn to the aspirations and struggles of a handful of Annawadians whose fortunes the book follows. There is Abdul Husain, a Muslim teenager with a talent for sorting recyclable trash, “who wanted to be better than what he was made of”; Zehrunisa, Abdul’s mother, who had raised her nine children “for a modern age of ruthless competition”; Asha, “a fighter cock of a woman” who “longed to be Annawadi’s first female slumlord”; her kind daughter Manju, who “hungered for virtue” while trying to become the slum’s first female college graduate; Fatima, a one-legged woman known “for a sexual need as blatant as her lipstick”; and Sunil, a perceptive 12-year-old scavenger, with “a sense of how the world operated, beyond its pretences”.

“In Annawadi,” writes Boo, “fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that didn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.”

Abdul and his family are unable to escape the vindictive rage of Fatima, a “neighbour with less money”, who, after an argument with Zehrunisa, sets herself on fire simply to frame the Husains. Abdul, his father Karam and his sister Kehkashan are arrested and their journey through the judicial system allows Boo to illuminate the systemic corruption that hits the poor hardest. “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage,” realises Abdul. “Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

If the lives of the residents of Annawadi are “embarrassments best confined to small spaces”, their deaths “matter not at all”. Meena, the first girl born in Annawadi, ingests rat poison; a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside after being hit by a car; Kalu, a charming scrap metal thief, ends up as a shirtless corpse outside Air India’s gates. The only witness to his murder, Sanjay Shetty, commits suicide. The police inquiry into both deaths is swiftly closed, not being a “profit generating enterprise”.

And yet there is hope, the third leg of the book’s subtitle. Despite the poverty and the crushing inequality they see all around them, “some people are good, and ... many people try to be”, Boo notes with astonishment. While alcoholism is rife among the men, “thoroughgoing only in their lack of ambition”, the women are feisty, neither pathetic nor passive. And the kids are all teeming with streetwise survivalist grit. This book is a testament to “how people with very little support improvise to improve their lives in an incredibly unstable world, and what intelligence and ingenuity that takes”. The really inspiring thing, as Boo says, “is how much the poor are doing to help themselves”.

If only the poor did not take one another down, did not compete “ferociously among themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional”, they could unite around the sense of a common predicament, Boo seems to suggest, and perhaps challenge the overcity to be less corrupt, less brutal and less exploitative.

The best non-fiction is supposed to make us rethink things and change lives, even if in a small way. Boo’s book is a wake-up call for policy makers who have been grappling with the age-old question: what do the poor really want? The desperate people of Annawadi, it turns out, want neither our charity nor our pity. They just want a level playing field in which there is some kind of correlation between effort and result.

Boo’s great achievement is to have overcome barriers of language, culture and ethnicity to get inside the minds of her subjects to decode their innermost thoughts. And because she has written about the everyday experiences of real people, using real names, we get to rub our noses in the dirt of Annawadi, see the world through their eyes.

Sunil, the scavenger boy, leaning too far out on a roof in search of German silver, has an epiphany, “that he, too, had a life. A bad life, certainly – the kind that could be ended as Kalu’s had been and then forgotten, because it made no difference to the people who lived in the overcity. But ... a boy’s life could still matter to himself”.

Only when the lives of these ordinary, invisible undercitizens begin mattering to us, the comfortably numb denizens of the overcity, will the poor get the “infrastructure of opportunity” they deserve. Otherwise the incendiary cycle of injustice and desperation will keep repeating itself in the world’s great, unequal cities till it inevitably bursts out.

Vikas Swarup is author of ‘Q&A’ (Black Swan), which was adapted for film as ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. His most recent book is ‘Six Suspects’ (Black Swan)

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