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Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Megan Robb

ShameKatherine Boo
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Slum
Forthcoming in the UK from Portobello Books Ltd, 2012
288 pages
ISBN 978-1846274497


Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a shining, disturbing testament to the lives of individuals living in anonymous desperation. Katherine Boo’s excellent book records the quotidian existence of the inhabitants of Annawadi — a small slum near Bombay’s luxury airports — in intimate and often loving detail. She captures the spirit of a world where people dream of seeing a part of themselves endure beyond death: keeping the pieces of paper that prove ownership of their possessions like treasures in dirty plastic bags, defending them from destruction by rain and rot.

The book is meticulously researched and demonstrates acute insight into the culture and languages of India. Boo provides readers with a feast of detail. We know that the Husains eat Parle-G biscuits: the cheapest available at one rupee for a small pack. The dark-skinned thief, Kalu, loves to imitate Deepika Chopra in the Bollywood music, Om Shanti Om – a film in which a beautiful woman comes back to life to seek revenge for her unjust murder. Elsewhere in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, two tears fall down the face of Prakash, the most educated student in Annawadi, as he struggles to prepare for his final exams. These tiny observations combine to illustrate the cultural and existential structures of the Annawadians’ lives. In an author’s note, Katherine Boo professes her desire to seek out “the infrastructure of opportunity in this society”: the news isn’t good.

Both the desire for permanence and the importance of memory emerge as repeated themes within the book. Sitting under roofs constructed of tarpaulin and plastic sheets, protected by cardboard walls – for the inhabitants of the slum Annawadi, permanence unsurprisingly seems like a promise of respect and security. The Husains, a Muslim family “the size of a cricket team”, dream of a permanent house in the suburbs; the age of the garbage sorter, Abdul, remains an unfixed mystery from the first page to the last – he could be sixteen, or nineteen, nobody knows. Yet Annawadians, like most people, want to rise above their own lives, and to be remembered: they want to know that they have made a mark on the world, beyond the mutability that these vignettes consistently suggest. Perhaps that is why they spoke to Boo.

The power of the narrative derives in part from what the book lacks: a solution. There are no recommendations, no policy points beyond the insistence that readers pay attention. Instead of disregarding the Annawadians’ capacity for morality, or canonising them as martyrs to the cause of globalization, Boo invites readers to admire the attempt to live in a world where the odds are impossible. It should be no surprise that the poor of Annawadi are human – but it is surprising, nonetheless. In a public sphere that tends toward dichotomy in its attempt either to hail the poor as virtuous or to condemn them as damaged beyond repair, the book is at its most poignant (and most ferociously committed) when it seeks to understand and memorialize the irresolvable complexities of the Annawadians.

In an interview with the New York Times, Boo insisted that she intended no criticism of the Indian government, yet the book feels suffused with indictment. Policemen ask for bribes even more than Annawadians offer to pay them, which is often. The government system – its institutions intended for the assistance of the poor – is badly broken. “Social workers” and slumlords fluently transfer funds intended for social service projects into their own pockets.

The only character missing in the book is Boo herself. It is abundantly clear that Behind the Beautiful Forevers is about the experience of Annawadians, who almost seem to live and breathe in its pages. The book is a mirror reflecting a reality so harsh that I found myself looking for cracks in the story – for ways to deny its power. But the strength of the book lies in the inevitable conclusion: the story is true. It is a story of horrible circumstances, futile hope, and contradictory, beautiful people. Its truth is the book’s only argument.

Megan Robb is reading for a DPhil in Oriental Studies at Wolfson College, Oxford.