Thursday, January 31, 2013

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo


A non-Indian writing about a slum in India. An Amazon Bestseller. A darling among neo-liberal elites. I had a lot of hesitation on reading this book before i decided to make it part of our book club meetup. My reluctance arises because non-Indians writing about India often had a very monothematic view of a multidimensional nation. Moreover, often under the pretext of reporting, these books quickly devolve into a venting medium for their opinions (aka "feelings") . Either India is glorified or criticizes depending on filters applied to their viewing lens.

My view was changed after i carefully read this article - http://www.caravanmagazine.in/books/honey-gatherers  and no matter what i write, my review will always short of Girish Shahane's writeup.  I think the concluding paragraph is superbly written and should be read by everyone - 

"In scripting Peter Brook’s Mahabharata two and a half decades ago, Jean-Claude Carriére reduced to a single allegory the long (perhaps ‘interminable’ is a better word) disquisition delivered by the dying Bhishma in the canonical text. Asked by Yudhisthira about the cause of the world’s savagery, Carriére’s Bhishma raises his head briefly from a cradle of arrows to say, “A man is walking in a dark, dangerous forest, filled with wild beasts… He falls into a pitch-black hole. By a miracle, he is caught in some twisted roots. He feels the hot breath of an enormous snake, its jaws wide open, lying in the bottom of the pit. He is about to fall into these jaws. On the edge of the hole, a huge elephant is preparing to crush him. Black and white mice gnaw the roots from which the man is hanging. Dangerous bees fly over the hole letting fall drops of honey. Then, the man holds out his finger—slowly, cautiously—he holds out his finger to catch the drops of honey. Threatened by so many dangers, with hardly a breath between him and so many deaths, he still isn’t free from desire. The thought of honey holds him to life.” Bhishma and Yudhisthira view the man’s reaching out for honey as a great defeat, but for those like myself who see only oblivion beyond the earthly life, the protagonist embodies a resilient, even heroic, human spirit in his refusal to let wretched circumstances overwhelm him. The people of Annawadi lead lives so precarious, so circumscribed and powerless, their situation appears analogous to that of the man in the pit. Some, like Kalu, are trampled by the elephant. Others like Meena let themselves fall into the snake’s jaws. But many like Abdul and Sunil stay resolute, clinging to what support they can find, and stretching out to catch a few drops of honey."

Yet, inspite of the Caravan review, i must persist just to add my support to this precious book that provides strength to me just because of its existence. 


To begin with, i would like to offer a standing ovation, a salute, to Katherine Boo for boldly covering a topic that many would not dare to do so. My respect comes with a tinge of sadness as i expect current Indian journalists to write such accounts, to cover other aspects of society that are not faced by middle class. The task would have been a lot difficult for any Indian but for a foreigner to come and report such detailed accounts of people living in slums, people who hardly speak English, would have been a herculean task and kudos to Mrs. Boo to deliver it with conviction.

Almost the first reaction that hits you within first five pages of reading is "I can't believe it is non fiction". Written in a detailed literary narrative prose, with book elements such as prologue wherein a suicide becomes a murder, chapters that are character introductions, the book almost comes off as a well scripted three act play. Katherine frequently describes inner emotions of book's people,  keeping us, the readers,  hanging in the dark as we can't be sure if they really confided in her or is this an author's artistic liberty with the subject.  As a result, even after we have come to terms with the fact that it is indeed a factual documentation of true events, the feeling of detachment lingers on. Personally, i could not identify with the people described but it was only after a few days of finishing the book, once the trance of novel's prose got over, i  discovered the sadness in it, the failure of our times.

Behind the Beautiful Forever chronicles lives of people living in Angadwadi, a slum next to the Mumbai airport. The book captures events after an old woman known as One-leg burns herself to spite her neighbors. Her death is seen as a murder and its blame falls on Abdul, a young muslim garbage tradesman whose little rise in class, owing to his quick ability to sift through garbage, causes jealousy among people around him . The book also covers the slumlord Asha, her daughter Manju and other people, their hopes and aspirations and how the system works at that level. 

Once you accept the prose, there are two things that makes this book a success that it has been getting. For one, Katherine Boo successfully stays away from letting her feelings cloud the narration. It is indeed a difficult task to not be judgmental about people and throughout the book, you can feel the strain. It is only in her closing remarks she shares her thoughts and opinions. The second feat of this book  is by giving such a detailed account of their lives, it changes the perception of middle/upper class people towards them.


Boo's elegance and sharpness shows off  as she connects the dots that seem very far apart. By juxtaposing two unrelated yet factual events, she is able to chart out the scale of disparity that exists between what is commonly called as India and Bharat. 

In her description of Angadwadi, she writes -

'…almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. Rather, the Annawadians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when, around the same moment as the small slum’s founding, the central government embraced economic liberalization.'

She begins the chapter on Manju as - 
'The plot of Mrs Dalloway made no sense whatsoever to Manju. Doing her college reading, Asha's daughter felt so sluggish that she feared she'd caught dengue fever or malaria again - hazards of living thirty feet from a buzzing sewage lake. No, she decided. It was simply the weather.'
Later, in the third act, after couple of suicide attempts in the slum, Boo writes '...Manju and her friend Meena, in the secret nightly meetings at the public toilet, began discussing more foolproof means of suicide' 

Abdul, who is beaten in prison after being falsely accused of One-Leg's murder, later recounts
'They will probably beat him(Kasab) lots in the jail, but atleast Kasab knows in his heart that he did what they say he did. That had to be less stressful than being beaten when you were innocent'


I used to wonder why would anyone or what kind of people  steal bulbs and mirrors from train coaches, or steal cables connecting telephone/internet lines to our homes. I often thought that those who stole would be habitual thieves and are doing so just to be an additional inconvenience to society. But as i read about Sunil's escapades and his stealing of aluminum pipes (known as German silver) and other un-rusted construction material from the airport, i realize the necessity behind it.  Instead of looking at the action condescendingly, i can now empathize with Sunil.  We cry foul as stealing a light bulb is again the societal rules but for people living in Angadwadi, the entire concept of a society is now a fantasy. Rules of fantasy-land do not apply in real world. 


I used to believe that people living in slums would be part of a very tight knit community, everyone knowing what is happening with everybody else and in my mind, this image was a positive image with people helping each other in times of need. Angadwadi shatters this image by repeatedly striking a mirror with a strong hammer. That the corruption has gone so low that people feel nothing when taking something from those who have nothing, that our moral compass has gone for a toss as people with active ferocity take advantage of anybody that can be trampled, that those who were supposed to help (the orphanages, the govt. hospitals etc), and those who were supposed to protect  (the police, the state) are the ones exploiting them in a manner that  even animals would walk away. 


How did we get to this? Is there a way out and if so, how do we get to it? I do not have any answer and Boo does not offer any. Instead Boo closes the book with a section titled Author's Note where she describes her reasons behind this project and the process behind it. She describes so by asking questions like -  '... After all there are more poor people than rich people inthe world's Mumbais. Why don't places like Airport road, with their cheek-by-jowl slums and luxury hotels, devolve into arrant violence? Why don't more of our unequal societies implode?' I too do not have any answer to them.  In her note, Boo's outlook is still optimistic. She acknowledges the positive impact of globalization, she believes that better policy will get formulated as ordinary lives are understood in more detail.  This book is her attempt in this direction.  

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