Katherine Boo, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum

19/05/12, The Times

The growing orthodoxy about ‘New India’, almost congealed into cliché now, is its seething inequality, a growing economic powerhouse boasting annual GDP growth of between 7 to 10% and a jump in the number of billionaires from 13 to 69 in 5 years while over three hundred million of its people live in unimaginable poverty and the galaxy-sized gap between the haves and the have-nots keeps on expanding. But, getting away from slumdogs and white tigers and Shantarams, what is the quiddity of being dirt-poor in India really like?

With her first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist Katherine Boo has prised open the world of people on the lowest echelon of Indian society, people whom the state and all its institutions – law and order, healthcare, education, security, the economy, the democratic process – have failed so absolutely and comprehensively that their lives are in free fall. How do they survive?

Here is the inside view – horrifying yet relentlessly truthful, as far away from povertarianism as one can imagine – of that half the story of the GDP figures don’t tell, of the ‘undercity’ as Boo calls it, of the gap, indeed the mutual exclusivity almost, between growth and development that the economists Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen have recently written about.

Set in a 6000-strong slum called Annawadi next to Mumbai airport, the book begins, in July 2008, with the immediate aftermath of the self-immolation of Fatima, a one-legged Muslim woman, who blames her neighbours, the family of Zehrunisa Husain, especially Zehrunisa’s eldest son, Abdul, and her husband, Karam, for pushing her to the barbaric act. At this point, the book loops back to January to unravel the chain of actions that has led to the burning of One-Leg (as she is called in the slum) and picks up the forward motion of the consequences 80 pages later, when the circus of police interrogation, detention and, finally, the judicial trial begin.

Boo has taken the old dictum from the genre of the novel, that character is plot, and focused each chapter on some of the individual residents of Annawadi, following the narrative arcs of their intersecting lives. The picture that emerges of the ‘exploitation of the weak by the less weak’ is so astonishing in its details, cross-hatching and depth that one’s first reaction is disbelief, followed by stunned silence. There’s Abdul, a laconic teenage garbage-collector, the principal earner in the Husain family, who finds himself accused by One-Leg of driving her to the brink. Abdul is gifted at sorting out rubbish; selling his day’s gathering to recyclers has even resulted in some savings for the Husain family. So it is vital for them to ensure that Abdul is not convicted of bringing about Fatima’s violent suicide.

Ambitious Asha is on the make: all she wants to do is become the slumlord of Annawadi and from there the small leap in the direction of politics would, she thinks, ensure her move up to the middle class. To this end, she has her finger in several corruption rackets, chief among which are a few scams involving the siphoning of government and private aid money. Asha knows how to play the system; ‘for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.’

Sunil Sharma, a stunted twelve-year-old boy, who scavenges the rubbish heaps, like Abdul, finds a less oversubscribed spot to ply his trade: a narrow ledge seventy-five feet above the Mithi River. But unable to feed himself by scavenging, he turns to stealing. A more secretive operator, Kalu, steals metal scrap from the recycling bins inside airline catering compounds but keeps getting caught by the local police until he decides to enter into a bargain act with them, with shocking results.

By the time the book ends, three years later, most of these lives have run into the sands. How cheap, disposable and unknown these people’s lives are, you may think, but Sunil beats you to it: as he stands on the roof of a construction site from where he steals metal, he comes to the realisation that his may be a bad life but it was inalienably his and ‘that a boy’s life could still matter to himself.’

Boo takes us into the very engine-room of the undercity and shines a light on each of the cogs and ratchets, its unique catenation of cause and effects, its dynamics and webbed dependencies. The implicit question is not how to make these lives better; it’s a question that should precede it: what drives these lives and how. Before prescription there should be knowledge; Boo’s book provides the adamantine, unignorable, truthful kind. Horror stories abound. Of Sunil and his sister Boo writes, ‘Rats had bitten them both while they slept, and the bites had turned into head boils. But [the sister] had recently become a baldie, because her boils had erupted with worms.’ Fatima has drowned her sickly two-year-old girl, Medina, in a pail because the family cannot afford the ruinous cost of medical care.

And yet all this never descends into horrorism. Boo is unsentimental, unjudgemental, uncondescending, yet brimful of compassion brought about by what I can only call fellowship or a kind of commonality with her subjects. It is not a hand-wringingly angry book; she has moved beyond it, assimilating the anger into moral energy and pressing it into the service of – I keep returning to this term – unflinching truth-telling. Behind it lies the fiction of Rohinton Mistry or the reportage of, say, P. Sainath’s Everyone Loves A Good Drought, even Philip Gourevitch’s book on Rwanda. In a short, lucid and clear-eyed ‘Author’s Note’ at the end of the book, she asks, ‘If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?’ The moral reverberations of that question can be deafening.