A powerful and powerfully devastating book, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers takes us inside Annawadi, one of the slums of Mumbai. Across the sewage lake is the airport. In Annawadi, as jets land on the other side land of that chasm and bring in the rich, the famous, and the world, children scavenge trash, a one-legged woman sets herself on fire, politics works as well as it ever does (or not), bribes are the currency of justice and life goes on unchanged.
Boo has written a contrast to the Bollywood ending of movies like Slumdog Millionaire. She finds true children of the slums as they work as hard as any adult laborer in trash and recycling. With thin to non-existent walls between the dwellings, life is open for everyone to see or ignore as they wish.
Abdul is the young man of uncertain age at the center of the story. He is the source of wisdom and heart-breaking grit. His legal troubles, brought on by the accusations of the dying One-Legged Woman, take us through the community and the depths of squalor surrounding it. We meet the aspiring ward boss who has a daughter getting a college degree by memorizing plot lines of great novels. We meet policemen who are looking for nothing less than a good bribe. We meet people, young and older, who we will mourn before the book is finished.
I read the words on the page but found it impossible to get a picture in my mind of what it looked like. It is an image beyond anything that I can even begin to comprehend. Yet Boo’s writing allowed me to be swept up in this real-life drama, picturing, as best I could, the protagonists, antagonists, and victims whose only mistake was being born in the wrong place.
Boo is known for her writing on poverty issues. She won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for a series in the Washington Post about mistreatment of mentally disabled individuals in the DC area. She has her own several health issues that would have kept many from attempting the grueling work this book required. Yet we never meet Katherine Boo, the reporter, until the end, in an author’s endnote.
Her own command of language is enhanced by young Abdul. The book has a number of timeless quotes that take the story to the depths of its pain. That such wisdom exists in what seems like the circles of hell is nothing short of inspiring.
Abdul sounds like a sub-continent Muslim St. Paul as he describes the life he is forced to live. The underlying hopelessness somehow doesn’t overcome the will to survive one more day:
“What you don’t want is always going to be with you
What you want is never going to be with you
Where you don’t want to go, you have to go
And the moment you think you’re going to live more, you’re going to die.”
Abdul explains why, at one point, he stopped buying stolen goods in order to stay good. Boo describes his decision and attempts, using his own imagery:
“He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice…He wanted to be recognized as better than the dirty water in which he lived. He wanted to have ideals.”
No matter how lucky or idealistic he is, in the end the world overcomes:
“I tell Allah I love Him immensely, immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is.”
In the end this sense of paralysis is what makes the story so devastating, so profound, and so unforgettable. In a February 2012 interview with the New York Times, the author explained why she has no recommendations or ideas for improvement:
“My job is to lay it out clearly, not to give my policy prescriptions….Very little journalism is world changing. But if change is to happen, it will be because people with power have a better sense of what’s happening to people who have none.”
It may be only a small window into a great world-wide problem made worse by globalization, but it is at least a window through which globalization may also be able to make a difference.