The Organized Poor and Behind the Beautiful Forevers

MumbaislumMitu Sengupta reviews Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, in Dissent:

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a beautifully written book. Through tight but supple prose, Boo presents an unsettling account of life in Annawadi, a “single, unexceptional slum” near Mumbai’s international airport. The slum lies beside a “buzzing sewage lake” so polluted that pigs and dogs resting in its shallows have “bellies stained in blue.” We meet “spiny” ragpickers rummaging through rat-filled garbage sheds, destitute migrants forced to eat rats, a girl covered by worm-filled boils (from rat bites), and a “vibrant teenager” who kills herself (by drinking rat poison) when she can no longer bear what life has to offer. Visitors to the airport, however, are spared the sight of this slum and its struggling inhabitants, who live with the constant fear of demolition. Annawadi is hidden from view by a wall that carries an advertisement for stylish floor tiles—tiles that, unlike the slum, promise to stay “beautiful forever” (hence, the book’s title).

As Boo explains in an author’s note, everything in the book is real, down to all the names. Though this work of nonfiction reads like a novel, it is the product of years of methodical observation and research. Boo chronicled the lives of Annawadians with photographs, video recordings, audiotapes, written notes, and interviews, with several children from Annawadi pitching in upon “mastering [Boo’s] Flip Video Camera.”

The intimate view of life provided by Boo is embedded within a larger concern about the government’s role in “the distribution of opportunity in a fast-changing country.” In these uncertain times—an “ad hoc, temp-job, fiercely competitive age”—has the government made things better or worse? In a bid to answer this question, Boo consulted more than 3,000 public records, obtained through India’s Right to Information Act, from government agencies such as the Mumbai police, the state public health department, public hospitals, the state and central education bureaucracies, electoral offices, city ward offices, morgues, and the courts.

The verdict, chilling in its details, is that there is a deep rot at the heart of the Indian state. The utter callousness of government officials is matched only by the utter vulnerability of the poor, who must daily navigate “the great web of corruption.” Police officers batter a child, aiming for his hands, the body part on which his tenuous livelihood depends. Doctors, at a government hospital, alter a burned woman’s records to absolve themselves of blame for her gruesome death. A school, meant for the poor, is closed as “soon as the leader of the nonprofit has taken enough photos of children studying to secure the government funds” (in contrast, a school funded by a Catholic charity “takes it obligation to poor students more seriously”).

In Boo’s rendering, the state not only fails to provide the basics of a decent life to vast numbers of citizens, but is wholly predatory.