July 17, 2008 – Mumbai
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's opinion of this plan had not been solicited, typically. Already he was mule-brained with panic. He was sixteen years old, or maybe nineteen – his parents were hopeless with dates. Allah, in His impenetrable wisdom, had cut him small and jumpy. A coward: Abdul said it of himself. He knew nothing about eluding policemen. What he knew about, mainly, was 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. (Beginning to the Prologue, p. 10 e-book)
I was wary when I saw that Katherine Boo's National Book Award-nominated non-fiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, would be tackling the issue of dire poverty in one of India's largest cities. Too often, there's this sort of "poverty porn" that I have seen crop up in relation to places like India, even though India today has one of the world's fastest-growing economies and the middle class there has expanded substantially in the past two decades. "Feed the Children" may be OK for those who want to feel sorrow at the plight of the impoverished and give "just pennies a day," but the realities involved in these slums is much more complex than what one can gather from a single viewing of Slumdog Millionaire.
Yet it turns out that Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a very different sort of tale. Yes, there is crushing poverty, but the poorness of material possessions is not emphasized here. Instead, in the Annawadia slum, Boo, herself a regular reporter on urban poverty in the United States for several years before spending years in Mumbai, concentrates on telling a few family histories to illustrate the various survival mechanisms and adaptations that take place. Normally, I would not recommend the method in which readers choose to read the text, but Boo's story is most effective if one purchases the enhanced e-book edition that contains several short clips filmed by her or the slum locals, each of which complements the text.
It is clear even within the first chapters that Boo has spent an extensive amount of time among the villagers, although she herself has never quite mastered Hindi. She talks of Annawadians like the Muslim Abdul and his family and their precarious position in the slum. Much of the focus of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is on the trash recycling/selling business that Abdul and his father operate and the competition that they have. There is the tragic case of a one-legged (actually, one healthy and one stunted leg) woman who suffers third-degree burns over most of her body; Abdul and his father are blamed and several chapters toward the end are devoted to the Mumbai police system.
But there are more positive stories, like Manju, a young woman who has managed despite her family's desperate straits to be able to attend college. In the evening hours, she runs Annawadia's quasi-school system for the elementary school-age students, before returning late at night to do her chores and get perhaps four hours of sleep before she has to rise early to begin her day again. Boo balances the optimistic and pessimistic views of the villagers nicely, giving them a greater voice than her own commentary. She does not judge (she never quite reveals the amount of guilt, if any, Abdul and his father had in the burning), but she observes as impartially as she is able.
Of course, there are several moments where Boo's status as an outsider precludes her from understanding the full import of what is transpiring. She is very aware of this and in her conclusion, points out that this was a recurring issue during her time with the slum residents. Yet on the whole, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a fascinating look at a Mumbai shantytown, one that tries (even if it occasionally fails) to let Annawadia's residents speak with their own voices as to what is transpiring within. There is pride and hope among the residents, coupled with the occasional bitter resignation to their fate among the indigent poor, but there is never the sense that Boo is trying to recast their lives to suit the prejudices of western audiences. Compared to the other National Book Award finalists in Non-Fiction, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is in the middle of a very tight pack. It is a poignant story, yet there are just enough questions as to what Boo has failed to see/refuses to discuss to make it lesser than some of the other finalists. However, it is still a book well worth reading.