Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

7 Jun

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Perhaps the true genius of this book by Katherine Boo becomes most apparent when you realize that the title is not a bit of poetry meant to attract literary kudos, but refers to a row of billboards lining the road advertising a brand of wall tiles.

Behind them lies Annawadi, the slice of undercity referenced in the book’s  subtitle, Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum.

The stories this book tells are real — although as dramatic as any Brazilian soap opera — and are those of the people living in that slum, its garbage pickers and dealers, its children, its ambitious kindergarten teacher yearning for political power – and young Abdul, a 17-year-old Muslim buyer and sorter of trash falsely accused of murder.

Boo’s writing brings us so intimately into his life and the life of this community that one can only wonder at the author’s patience and determination to pierce its wall of language, culture and vast economic disparity in order to do so.

These portraits also reveal the Byzantine complexity of a typical slum’s many power relationships — within families, within the slum itself, with the rest of the city and from there to the world beyond it. For indeed there are, behind the scenes, politicians hoping to win votes and foreigners hoping to do good. There is some cementing of footpaths and piping of water paid for either by government or NGOs.

Yet it becomes obvious, how very ineffectual these poverty alleviation attempts can be: the women’s self-help group that is manipulated by the less poor, the funding of so-called bridge schools for labouring children that ends up in the pockets of its organizers, the dreadful Sister Paulette who searches for orphans who are not orphans in order to draw foreigners’ money.

Designed as they may well be to try to deal with poverty and inequality, almost any scheme, it would seem, is easily gamed, and come to resemble the very recycling industry on which many in Annawadi depend for survival: bits of wire or an odd screw, left-overs picked up after those in power — the police, politicians, money lenders or even the less poor – have taken the lion’s share.

There are pretty clearly no “partnerships” here between aid agencies and the poor. As Boo writes, “(W)hen foreign journalists came to Mumbai to see whether self-help groups were empowering women, government officials sometimes took them to see Asha. Her job was to gather random female neighbours to smile demurely while the officials went on about how their collective had lifted them from poverty.”

This book reminds me of course of my experiences in Dharavi and Byculla  with members of the National Slum Dwellers Federation and its sister organization Mahila Milan. They are missing in this story – and sadly in Annawadi, as well.

For while many in Annawadi share their values and capabilities, the lack of organization means that  although the slum dwellers often got mad at their mistreatment, they “rarely got mad together.” And so, as Boo concludes, “the gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached.”

I feel a bit uncomfortable using this amazing book as a pulpit from which to expound the virtues of the grassroots movement I came to know and respect during my (brief) stay in Mumbai, instead of simply letting myself enjoy Boo’s luminous writing and wonderful true characters. But I can’t help it, really. As I made my way through it, I couldn’t help thinking about Sangira Ansari from Mahila Milan, who told me, “It is such a big thing to obtain a house of our own, that we feel this is our strength, and because of that we want to tell people to join. There are lots of people like us and we should support them.”

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