behind the beautiful forevers by Katherine Boo

The book jacket introduces this work as “a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the behind the beautiful foreversdramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities”. The subtitle of the book is “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”. The copyright date is 2012 and the biographical data given for Katherine Boo is: “a staff writer for The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. Her reporting has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India. This is her first book.”

The book begins with a prologue describing a dramatic event in the life of one of the main protagonists, Abdul. It is dated July 17, 2008 and the first paragraph is:
“Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father. In a slum hut by the international airport, Abdul’s parents came to a decision with an uncharacteristic economy of words. The father, a sick man, would wait inside the trash-strewn, tin-roofed shack where the family of eleven resided. He’d go quietly when arrested. Abdul, the household earner, was the one who had to flee.”

Abdul was between sixteen and nineteen years of age. He was small and jumpy and saw himself as a coward. “He knew all about trash. For nearly all the waking hours of nearly all the years he could remember, he’d been buying and selling to recyclers the things that richer people threw away.” Abdul understood the need to run but beyond that he was unable to see a course of action so he returned home and hid in his garbage that was stored in a lopsided shed adjacent to their family hut.

This storeroom – “His storeroom – 120 square feet, piled high to a leaky roof with the things in this world Abdul knew how to handle. Empty water and whiskey bottles, mildewed newspapers, used tampon applicators, wadded aluminum foil, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by monsoons, broken shoelaces, yellowed Q-tips, snarled cassette tape, torn plastic casings that once held imitation Barbies.”

Eventually Abdul got himself hidden inside his piles of trash against one wall of the shed where he laid down. He would be bitten by mosquitoes and the edges of clamshell packaging would cut into the backs of his thighs but he felt safer there than anywhere else.

And so begins our journey through life in Mumbai’s slums. “Only six of the slum’s three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.)” The slum was named Annawadi and “sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road”. “Annawadi itself was nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life.” It had been settled by construction workers in 1991 from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. “Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks.”

Abdul’s brother Mirchi had a friend named Rahul and Rahul’s mother, Asha, was “a kindergarten teacher with mysterious connections to local politicians and the police.” These connections sometimes got Rahul temporary work at the Intercontinental Hotel across the sewage lake from Annawadi. Such exposure convinced Mirchi that he would not ever want to be a garbage picker like his brother Abdul. Mirchi was in ninth grade at a third-rate Urdu-language private school for which his parents paid three hundred rupees a year. Mirchi’s choices were to study or help Abdul.

Asha, the kindergarten teacher, was 39 years old and aspired to the position of slumlord, a person who ran the slum according to the authorities’ interests. Her husband was an alcohlic and she had raised three children. Her daughter, Manju, did most of the actual teaching. Asha had no schooling past seventh grade and her position was obtained through the present slumlord known as the Corporator. She delivered voters(i.e. votes)to the polls and gathered participants for protests and was now being asked to solve disputes inside the slum. She thought about money all the time and was a shrewd negotiator between her fellow slum dwellers and the authorities. An entrepreneur.

“A government-sponsored women’s self-help group looked somewhat promising, now that she knew how to game it. The program was supposed to encourage financially vulnerable women to pool their savings and make low-interest loans to one another in times of need. But Asha’s self-help group preferred to lend the pooled money at high interest to poorer women who they’d excluded from the collective – the old sewer cleaner who had brought her a sari, for instance.”

Abdul’s father Karem, had tuberculosis. “The concrete plant and all the other construction brought more work to this airport boom-town. Bad lungs were a toll you paid to live near progress.”

Karem and Zehrunisa were about to “make their first deposit on a twelve-hundred-square-foot plot of land in a quiet community in Vasai, just outside the city, where Muslim recyclers predominated. If life and global markets kept going their way, they would soon be landowners, not squatters, in a place where Abdul was pretty sure no one would call him garbage.”

The above barely touches the surface of what is told and what is exposed about life in one of Mumbai’s slums early in this century. If you have read anything about Mumbai in the newspapers or on the net or elsewhere, you need to read this book. You need to meet Abdul and his friends, his parents and his neighbours including the one-leg whom Abdul will be accused of assaulting and worse. Katherine Boo will make you care about each and every one of these people. You need to know what Asha tells her daughter Manju, who is about to become a college graduate:

“The big people think that because we are poor we don’t understand much”…Asha understood plenty. She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s old problems – poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labor – were being aggressively addressed. Meanwhile the other old problems, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.”

This is a beautifully sad and informative book with wonderfully real and courageous people you will be proud and honoured to meet.