WHAT LIES BEHIND
…January 2008. It was about as hopeful a season as there had been in the years since a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one-third of the planet’s poor. A country dizzy now with development and circulating money.
Mumbai's international airport is surrounded by an ever expanding collection of luxury hotels. Driving into the city's centre, you’d pass the Sheratons and Hyatts and a long high wall with an advertisement for Italian ceramic tiles. The ad on that wall reads: “Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever.” In an interview with the CBC’s Anna Maria Tremonti, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo, described how when driving in a car, you wouldn’t be able to see behind this wall where that “bitty” slum lies : 3,000 people packed into 335 huts, the eastern border of which is a lake “of sewage and petro-chemicals and illegally dumped materials.”
This slum, and all that surrounds it, is what Behind the Beautiful Forevers is all but exclusively concerned with.
AN AMERICAN IN INDIA
Married to an Indian, Boo has spent the last ten years splitting her time between India and the States, and devoted almost four full years to documenting the lives of a half dozen residents of this small slum known as Annawadi. Having spent the majority of her journalism career documenting the poor and disadvantaged back in her native USA for The Washington Post and now at The New Yorker where she serves as a staff writer, she comes by her subject honestly enough. Thus with video cameras and audio tape, using written notes and still cameras, with tremendous access to huge stacks of official documents and working for years alongside two translators, Boo did more than just sit down and conduct lengthy interviews with the half dozen central characters that populate this book. She made a point of going with these people as they did their work, as they lived their daily lives. In other words, she got to know these slum dwellers as well as a fiction author must know the main characters of their novel.
Abdul is 16 years old or thereabouts (when you’re from a family of 11, birth years aren’t always remembered.) Since he was very young, due to his father’s ill health, Abdul has been the family’s breadwinner working as a garbage sorter. He buys garbage others have picked to then recycle and then sells off by the kilo. It is hard work that requires fast hands and Abdul is very fast. He is so good, in fact, that it becomes well known in a slum that is mostly Hindu that this Muslim boy of about 16 is not only supporting his family of 11, but perhaps doing even better than that.
When Abdul’s mother decides one day to improve her meagre hut by putting up a stone ledge so as to not have to cook on the floor, she accidentally damages the adjoining wall of her poor neighbour, Fatima, whom everyone calls the One Leg (as she only has the one). The book starts at the story’s bitter climax when Fatima, so angry at her Muslim neighbours for damaging her hut – not to mention jealous of their meagre success – lights herself on fire in a successful attempt to send Abdul, his father and sister to jail.
From this Boo masterfully lays out the politics and corruption not only of the inner-slum world, but aslo the machinations that keep the slum down. Beyond Abdul’s family and One Leg, we get to know Asha the feisty slum lord, of how she came to power and how she retains it. We also meet her beautiful daughter Manju, who could well become Annawadi’s first ever university graduate, and who is every bit as generous and kind as her mother is awful.
TWO THINGS THIS BOOK IS NOT
1. It’s Not Slumdog Millionaire.
I enjoyed Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning movie as much as the next popcorn lover, but the glossy flick was a Cinderella fairytale compared with the reality and daily tragedy of the more than 60 million Indians living in the slums of modern India. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is no Hollywood story. No character will go from rags to riches. No easy solutions will be provided. And yet the humanity with which Boo tells us her story from the slum dwellers perspectives is rich with empathy and that most honest kind of beauty.
2. It’s Not Sensationalist or Sentimental
In a book that makes a concerted effort to eliminate any semblance of an ‘I’ (or, in this case, a Boo), it’s only in Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ compelling Author’s Note at the end of the text that Boo allows us to hear about her approach to the book. She says, “I grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can’t help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum.” She has said in interviews that she in no way wanted to propagate the myths of hardship and poverty – that they turn individuals into saints or sinners. As she said on the program, Just Books, “Hardship doesn’t make you good, it makes you hard.”
WHAT THE BOOK IS
Boo sets out to tell how the very poorest of the poor in India, like anywhere else, are not passive in their struggle. This book is principally concerned with these Annawadians awareness of the economically booming world around them and their desperate and often failed attempts to be a part of that.
Everything around us is roses,’ is how Abdul’s younger brother, Mirchi put it. ‘And we’re the sh__ in between.
It is, at the same time, the harrowing truth of how much the poor so rarely come together to fight against their injustice, instead choosing to fight each other to make the most minimal of steps up what must seem an impossibly high ladder.
When we say that a work of non-fiction reads like a novel we’re trying to say something about the quality of the writing, the lyricism of the descriptions, their evocative ability. Better still with a work like Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a true story that Barbara Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) described as “one of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality” she’s ever read, we are also talking about a depth of characterization that allows us inside a world most Canadians, or Indians for that matter, would otherwise never know. We’re not halfway through 2012 but it’s almost a foregone conclusion that Behind the Beautiful Forevers will end up on a whole whack of best of the year lists. That's how good this book is.