When visitors arrive in Mumbai, their first glimpse of the city will probably feature people from slums near the airport defecating in open fields. This demonstration of municipal neglect was already a familiar sight when I lived there as a child in the late 1960s.
Beginning in 2007, New Yorker magazine staff writer Katherine Boo spent three years reporting from Annawadi, one of those slums -- a clump of shacks and ragged dwellings near a sewage lake into which animal carcasses are sometimes tossed.
Her ardent new book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” introduces a handful of the residents, chronicling the lives of people who for years have been briefly seen and rarely noticed.
The outlook is bleak but not pessimistic. Boo wants to understand how people living in terrible poverty can find a way out. (Only six of the settlement’s 3,000 residents have permanent jobs.) She focuses on Abdul Husain, a teenager who purchases trash, separates it into categories such as plastic, paper and metal, and sells it to recycling plants.
We meet Abdul’s family, neighbors and a younger waste- picker named Sunil, who worries that his body isn’t growing normally because he can’t scavenge enough to buy food.
Boo also traces the enterprising, often underhanded efforts of a woman named Asha Waghekar to become Annawadi’s first female slumlord -- someone who unofficially oversees everything going on in the settlement and delivers votes or bodies when political events demand a show of support.
Asha’s ambition reveals that India is changing for some of its lowliest citizens as the country attracts foreign investment. But while Asha may have a mobile phone and a “road boy” combing for trash may occasionally earn $1 a day, these slum dwellers are unlikely to ever escape Mumbai’s vast and demoralizing “undercity,” as she calls it.
There’s no slum-dog millionaire in their midst.
Boo’s Annawadi saga is set in motion when Fatima, an angry one-legged neighbor of Abdul’s, lights herself on fire and dies. Fatima had been embroiled in a dispute with her neighbors, and was trying to get them in trouble through her self-immolation.
Abdul, an inarticulate boy who usually keeps to himself, is charged with inciting her suicide. When he’s carted off to jail, evidence is invented and police and government bureaucrats try to extract money from his mother to make the case go away.
In the aftermath of Fatima’s death, we hear of Asha’s struggle to curry favor with the elected official of Ward 76 so she can amass more clout and money. She’s canny, performs favors on commission and knows that success happened “only gradually, as incremental advantages over one’s neighbors were parlayed into larger ones.”
Boo’s principal accomplishment isn’t making us feel for Abdul, Sunil or other children whose lives are blunted by misery, or even those who swallow rat poison to kill themselves because they can’t persevere.
What overwhelms the reader is Boo’s painstaking account of police and state officials openly manufacturing evidence to extract payments from people they should be helping, and doctors and the police inscribing lies in public records about the causes of multiple deaths.
Boo’s implicit subject is the pervasiveness of municipal apathy and the casual sadism of people with a little bit of power who seek quick windfalls from those far more vulnerable or with fewer options.
Fake Death Certificates
She tells us who lied to the police, which police officer deceived slum dwellers in trouble and which death certificates weren’t true. Clothes sent to a nearby orphanage never reach children and money slated for myriad anti-poverty programs is diverted to enrich officials.
Boo says in an author’s note that the story she tells is based largely on events she witnessed and multiple interviews with almost 170 people, often through translators, supplemented by documents from the police, hospitals, morgues and courts.
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” doesn’t seek to portray India or even Mumbai. It presents a tiny sliver of life in a giant city. But it’s an important book that gives permanence to people whose tragedies and deaths are too easily wiped from the public record.
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” is published by Random House (BTG) in the U.S. (256 pages, $27). It will be published in the U.K. by Portobello Books on July 5. To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Nina Mehta writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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