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Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

The books we’ve read and the movies we’ve seen tend to show the squalor in Indian cities but veer toward the optimistic, typically happy endings.  Think of Slumdog Millionaire that begins with Jamal Malik jumping into a pit of excrement but ends, much later, with his dancing on the platforms of Mumbai’s elegant railroad station.

Squalor, degradation, and poverty abound in the film, as well as organized crime, but still we are smiling and cheering for the underdog by the uplifting ending.

That sense of uplift is not exactly present in Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, in spite of the fact that the word “hope” appears in the sub-title.  Boo, an American journalist, who has lived in India for ten years and is married to an Indian, spent years studying the slum dwellers of Annawadi, in Mumbai, adjacent to the international airport.  Among their many worries the slum dwellers fear is that the airport authority—in its plans for expansion—will eventually level Annawadi and its several thousand residents will be forced to move somewhere else.  Many of the Annawadians survive because from work (especially scavenging) that exists because of their proximity to the airport.

If you have visited India, you are aware of the ubiquitous juxtaposition of opulence and squalor.  Right outside the five-star Sheraton in Delhi are shacks housing the poor.  This juxtaposition unsettles many Westerners who say they won’t travel in India, which is an incredible pity.  I can easily remember the numerous trips I made in the 1970s by train from Washington, D.C., to New York City, arriving at the Port Authority where—as soon as I exited—I was confronted with squalor no different than what I’ve seen in India.  At the side of the Port Authority, hundreds, if not thousands, of homeless people were living in cardboard boxes.  I was frightened to death—something I have never felt in India, but that’s another issue.

Boo’s narrative of eight or ten Annawadians follows them over several years, ending shortly after the terrorism in Mumbai, late in 2007.  She earned the trust of her subjects, and in her remarkable account she does not change her subjects’ names.  Late in her story, Boo remarks, “The attacks on the Taj and the Oberoi, in which executives and socialites died, had served as a blunt correction.  The wealthy now saw that their security could not be requisitioned privately.  They were dependent on the same public safety system that ill served the poor.”

It is that sense of class that is central to Behind the Beautiful Forevers.  The subjects she follows in Annawadi may be poor slum dwellers, but they are frugal, always saving money to pull themselves up the social ladder—either to build more elaborate dwellings with more amenities in the slum or move into other more developed areas.  Their obstacles for achieving these goals, according to Boo, are totally compromised by the inefficient and corrupt infrastructure:

“Ten young men had terrorized one of the world’s biggest cities for three days—a fact that had something to do with the ingenuity of a multi-pronged plot, but perhaps also to do with government agencies that had been operating private market-stalls, not as public guardians.  The crisis-response units of the Mumbai Police lacked arms.  Officers in the train station didn’t know how to use their weapons, and ran and hid as two terrorists killed more than fifty travelers.  Other officers called to rescue inhabitants of a besieged maternity hospital stayed put at police headquarters, four blocks away.  Ambulances failed to respond to the wounded.  Military commandos took eight hours to reach the heart of the financial capital—a journey that involved an inconveniently parked jet, a stop to refuel, and a long bus ride from the Mumbai airport.  By the time the commandos arrived in south Mumbai, the killings were all but over.”

That is about the most damning critique of what went wrong during the Mumbai terrorism that I have read.  But Boo’s account of the country’s poor, attempting to improve their lot, is equally bleak.  All government officials are on the take.  Nothing happens without corruption, bribery, kick-backs.  Police, doctors and nurses in hospitals, teachers and educational officers—all expect a bribe from the poor.  Even children in the slum have to pay other children for protection.  And worst of all, “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage…  Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

When a one-legged woman sets herself on fire out of despair, just before she dies, she falsely accuses two of her neighbors of provoking her act.  The police arrest sixteen-year-old Abdul and his father, temporarily incarcerate them, and then—because of the inept judicial system—tie up their lives for several years as their mother systematically pays bribe after bribe to get the charges reversed.  Boo’s strength is not only in exposing the graft the family must confront at every level or even her sympathetic depiction of Annawadi’s diligent underdogs but above all the vivid depiction of the people she writes about, particularly their resilience in the face of what I would call hopeless situations.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an inspiring book, disturbing throughout, but a paean to the humanity of one Mumbai’s worst slums.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.
By Katherine Boo
Random House, 262 pp., $28

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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