Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

As big banks in America and Britain failed, restless capital was looking eastward. Singapore and Shanghai were thriving, but Mumbai had profited less handsomely. Though it, too, had an abundance of young, cheap, trainable labor, there were opportunity costs attached to the fact that the Indian financial capital was alternatively known as Slumbai. Despite economic growth, more than half of Greater Mumbai’s citizenry lived in makeshift housing. And while some international businessmen descending into the Mumbai airport eyed the vista of slums with disgust, and others regarded it with pity, few took the sight as evidence of a high-functioning, well-managed city.

It becomes clear, then, why a wall—covered with ads for “beautiful forever” floor tile—was erected to hide Annawadi, a Mumbai undercity, from view from airport travelers. But in Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Katherine Boo’s stunning narrative, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she provides an up-close-and-personal account of those that call Annawadi their home—a half-acre of land where “three thousand people had packed into, or on top of, 335 huts.”  Intrepid Boo climbs the wall to give readers an insider view of the “life, death, and hope” of this suburban slum.

Annawadia was settled in 1991 by laborers commissioned to repair a runway at the international airport nearby—the same historical moment the Indian government “embraced economic liberalization.” As such, “the Annawadians were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in modern history of global market capitalism, a narrative still unfolding.” Yet, as of 2008, we learn that only six of the three thousand citizens actually have permanent employment. Boo’s pivotal reporting, therefore, depicts the true lives of its inhabitants, specifically families, amidst the hope intrinsic in a new global economy—as they covet a small piece of the promise held within the newly erected luxury hotels only miles from their huts.

Boo introduces us to Abdul, a young man whose specific age is unknown. He works long, grueling hours in the family business sorting garbage, while his younger brother Mirchi attends school to eventually secure a permanent, more lucrative job elsewhere. We meet Asha, a power-hungry kindergarten teacher whose relationship with the Corporator has her ultimately eyeing the role of slumlord. We meet her daughter Manju, Annawadian’s first female college graduate—dutiful yet disappointed by her mother’s scheming. We meet Abdul’s peers, who move from scavenging to thievery. Bound by no one, these boys seek more than survival; they seek “the full enjoy”—the life of the wealthy.

Much of this story focuses on the Husains—Abdul and his family. When his mother, Zehrunisa demands that her kitchen be renovated (“She wanted a shelf on which to cook without rat intrusions…She wanted a small window to vent the cooking smoke that caused the little ones to cough like their father.), the next-door neighbor, Fatima the One Leg, becomes enraged. Boo describes Fatima as follows: “at the heart of her bad nature, like many bad natures, was probably envy. And at the heart of envy was possibly hope—that the good fortune of others might one day be hers.” This sense of envy leads Fatima to frame the Husains and then set herself on fire. Abdul, along with his father Karam, are detained, beaten, and then released to await trial. Through Abdul’s experience, we get a sense for the court system, and ultimately its emotional impact upon him. “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

Through Boo’s intimate portrait, we come to know these seeming characters: Abdul, Meena, Sunil, Kalu, Manju, Fatima, Asha, Zehrunisa, and more. But they are not characters, nor are they a passing headline or news story. Rather, we see in luminous detail their hardships and struggles, their fears and doubts, their resilience and surrender. Here, the folly and strength of human nature is vividly rendered. And when painstaking hard work is not enough, they rely on what little (yet socioeconomically transcendental) resources they have—money, power, sex, corruption—as bargaining tools to survive as best they can. “As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche; politics and corruption; and education.” But lest you close the book believing that this situation is uniquely theirs, Boo quickly dispels the myth:

“What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world’s great unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”

Winner of the 2012 National Book Award, Behind the Beautiful Forevers offers a glimpse into a larger, astounding global issue. According to the book, as of 2008, India held “one-third of the planet’s poor” yet was also “dizzy with development and circulating money.” Mumbai, however, its largest city, provided little resources for social mobility—the economic disparity profound. But without the possibility of mobility, what hope can government bring to the collectivity? This problem, as we know, is pervasive and further leads to Boo’s most haunting question—the implications of which extend far beyond caste, beyond the Beautiful Forever wall, far beyond Mumbai or India:

“Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn’t blame his dissatisfaction on someone else?” 

-JF, 2012

Citation: Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. New York, Random House, 2012. Print.

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