A Book Review of Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”
By RACHEL PAULOSE
AAP Guest Columnist
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a nonfictional depiction of slum dwellers in Bombay (the city now known as Mumbai), captures the stories of the working poor struggling to create order in a world rushing headlong towards entropy.
A captivating documentary dancing to the melody of a novel, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the culmination of Boo’s three-year research project in Annawadi. She interviewed and filmed the lives of several dozen of the 3,000 people squatting illegally on the land of the Airports Authority of India, which sits in the shadow of India’s most populous city.
We meet Abdul, the eldest and responsible son in one of Annawadi’s minority Muslim families. He has lifted his family above subsistence through his skill at culling recyclables from the trash that wealthier Indians discard.
Abdul has moved up the trash collecting chain by acquiring a rusty weighing scale and “a lime green, three-wheeled jalopy.” Consequently, Abdul collects but also buys trash as an intermediary between other collectors and recyclers who pay for what can be salvaged and reused.
Abdul’s world is upended when his family is falsely accused of viciously attacking a jealous, disabled neighbor known as “One Leg.” The family struggles for justice in India’s notoriously Kafkaesque legal system. Along the way, they face down abusive police who attempt to coerce false confessions through torture; government officials who demand bribes to make concocted charges disappear; and diffident judges, more overworked than malicious.
Sunil also collects trash. A good day brings him a bag of empty Coke cans, flip flops, and plastic bottles, all of which have high recyclable value.
The work of sorting through trash presents hazards from which the reader is not spared harsh details. Jaundice and tuberculosis are among the more benign afflictions a trash picker could develop. More violent dangers also threaten Sunil’s daily existence.
Occasionally, Sunil uncovers surprising delights during his trash picking, such as the discovery of six purple lotuses growing wild amidst the trash behind the airport. Young trash pickers work all day with hopes for the “full enjoy” of one fleeting pleasure followed by another. In Annawadi the full enjoy is a meal of chicken chili from the Chinese vendor on Airport Road; topped off with an easy high from the Eraz-ez, the Indian equivalent of Wite-Out, favored by the local trash pickers; culminating in a movie in Pinky Talkie Town showcasing an American star like Will Smith.
Lesser diversions are acceptable substitutes. Sunil’s friend Kalu acts out every role of the Bollywood hit “Om Shanti Om” to the delight of the other children.
Annawadi’s most ambitious dweller is Asha, an aspiring politician seeking to become its first female slumlord. Cunning and connected, she is a respected settler of disputes; procurer of slum improvements, such as they are; and a civic organizer of voters in what is, after all, the world’s largest democracy. The various and largely unsavory means Asha uses to curry favor are revealed throughout the book.
Asha is raising Annawadi’s first potential female college graduate, Manju, and less motivated sons, all with no help from her alcoholic husband. Quietly rebelling by walking a nobler path, Manju teaches Annawadi’s children, trains with the Indian Civil Defense Corps, and studies to become a teacher.
The lovely Manju is regarded as the slum’s “most-everything girl.” She befriends Meena, an oppressed girl on perpetual lockdown for minor offenses including refusing to cook an omelet for a petulant younger brother.
Through the eyes of Manju and Meena, we experience the contradictions possible in a complicated and rapidly evolving nation. Enlightened Indian voters first elected a female prime minister in 1967, but a baby girl in a slum can be murdered as an undesirable by parents who face no consequences for infanticide.
Asha’s son Rahul aspires to live in the overcity and work a “clean” job in one of Bombay’s elegant new hotels as a waiter. He soon discovers that a waiter with the temerity to glance at a hotel guest will be summarily dismissed.
Such incongruities abound in Annawadi. Although Rahul has access to modern amenities, his family lives in an illegally constructed hut by a sewage lake, shares a public toilet, and relies on his sister Manju to procure the family’s only source of fresh water by waiting for hours at a public tap.
At the same time, Rahul joins Facebook, and Abdul saves his rupees to buy an iPod. Annawadi boys play video games at the hut of Abdul’s rival trash buyer.
As the slumdwellers navigate daily survival in a virtual sewer (even Annawadi’s animals convey toxicity), the Airports Authority of India is threatening to evict squatters to make way for new construction. Political parties intervene to delay the demolition in calculated bids to lure voters and simultaneously carry out “bread and circuses” ploys to distract slumdwellers.
The government attempts to work out an agreement by which the longest squatting slumdwellers will be resettled in permanent housing. But even this process is rife with fraud and cronyism.
Abdul’s story anchors Boo’s narrative. With a large and colorful supporting cast, Behind the Beautiful Forevers weaves the Annawadian tale into part of a larger tapestry of globalization in a rapidly developing nation.
Capitalism experiences a worldwide downturn in 2008, the same year that terrorists strike Bombay. Fewer tourists create less trash. Boo describes “wads of possibility” being tossed out from Bombay’s elite, but the rain of garbage slows in the downturn. Trash collectors are innovative to survive, but no one in Annawadi is exempt from the trickle down suffering.
Like Boo, who moved to India to marry an Indian man and later wrote this book, the major characters all hope to migrate to a different station. India marches upward and onward to progressive capitalism. Annawadi residents aspire to move to the over-city of Mumbai. The helpless orphan children from whom Boo cannot avert her gaze seek to seize control of their own destiny in a culture where they are officially voiceless.
Some critics complain that Boo’s virtually clinical descriptions of disease and occasionally profane dialogue serve to dehumanize indescribable suffering. Boo’s spattering of vulgarisms are indeed jarring and unnecessary in prose that sometimes soars to poetry.
For the most part, however, Boo is a purposefully invisible narrator. Beautiful Forevers is compelling precisely because it is told from the point of view of real people. Boo has not merely inferred their thoughts, but in fact documented them, as she makes clear in the conclusion in describing her exhaustive research method.
Even weighty moral choices, from suicide, to adultery and theft, are presented largely without judgment. Boo relies on the subtlety of irony and trusts discerning readers to draw their own conclusions. Boo’s literary illustration of a prison torture room resplendent with new furniture is compared to “a cabinet showroom, except for the tension and the screaming.” Overcast with daunting, oppressive themes, the book’s occasional comic irony in some ways relieves the tension.
Dark themes pervade as death lurks through each chapter as youth succumb to drugs and alcohol. The powerful victimize those whom they are called to serve and protect. Boo structures a narrative to question what protections really exist for the marginalized trash of society.
Ironically, the title is from an advertisement for floor tiles on Airport Road marketed to Bombay’s burgeoning middle class. The title underscores the unspoken question at the heart of this book: is life, even a terribly broken life, beautiful forever? The answer, according to the Annawadians, is clearly yes.
“Sunil thought that he too had a life. It is a bad life that certainly could end without meaning as so many others had in the forgotten slum. Yet, he came to realize on a rooftop, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy’s life could still matter if only to himself.”
A month after publication, Boo’s book is earning well-deserved praise as it reaches the top ten on the New York Times bestseller list. It is easy to imagine its transformation into a Bollywood or Hollywood movie.
Perhaps this work could bring a second Pulitzer for Boo. She has courageously uncovered a teeming world behind the gleaming tiles that is beautiful despite its brokenness.
Like Sunil’s purple lotuses growing amidst the garbage, Behind the Beautiful Forevers blooms to show us beauty in unexpected places.