A Review of Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers”
When Katherine Boo set out to write “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” a non-fiction book about the slums of Mumbai, India, she certainly had experience to equip her for the task. A Pulitzer Prize winning reporter who is a staff writer at the New Yorker and who formerly reported and edited for the Washington Post, Boo has a passion for the poor. Spending time within economically deprived communities in the United States, she had explored, in her own words, “what it takes to get out of poverty in one of the richest countries in the world.” Furthermore, during the decade before the book’s debut, she fell in love with and married an Indian man.
Nevertheless, the facts that she wasn’t actually Indian herself, didn’t know the languages, and had been battling poor health made her skeptical of her suitability for the project. She doubted her physical ability to deal with monsoons and slum conditions, but when she tripped over an unabridged dictionary in her Washington, D.C. apartment and found herself on the floor with a punctured lung and three broken ribs, she decided that if she could survive city apartment life, she could tackle Mumbai.
Although non-fiction, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” reads like a novel. It follows the lives of various people in the community of Annawadi, a sprawl of off-kilter huts bordering a sewage lake and serviced by public toilets and public taps. Using their real names, Boo gives us a graphic picture of what life is like for these people who live a stone’s throw from five luxury hotels surrounding the Mumbai airport. Annawadi was settled in 1991 by laborers trucked in from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway. After they finished the job, they decided to camp about two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road in order to take advantage of more construction possibilities. In reality, most of the people who hoped to elevate themselves out of poverty by proximity to so much opulence found themselves instead subsisting by collecting the garbage from the airport, sorting it and selling it to recyclers. In addition, sand and gravel blow in from a concrete plant nearby, making everything gray, and causing asthma, lung obstructions and tuberculosis.
For this reader, it was difficult not to be overwhelmed by the cynicism and hopelessness that eventually affects even the youngest and most optimistic of the denizens of Annawadi. The narrative begins with teenage Abdul, hiding from the police in an eight foot pile of garbage in a store room of his house. He can still smell from an adjoining room the burning flesh of the disabled tenant called One Leg who set herself afire and blamed him and his father because she was jealous of his family’s relative success. From that point you witness along with Boo the corrupt police and court system in which Abdul’s family attempts to find justice, only to experience incompetence, apathy and attempts at extortion.
As you turn the pages, you see children who should be in school surviving by collecting garbage on precarious ledges where the competition is less because of the danger. You see kids resorting to drug trafficking and being murdered for it, then having their bodies desecrated and their deaths attributed to natural causes to protect Mumbai’s image as a city with few murders. You see women advancing themselves and seeking better futures for their children by means of political corruption and prostitution, betraying their neighbors in the process. You learn that suicides by rat poison or dousing oneself with kerosene and lighting a match are not uncommon. It is hard for anyone with an ounce of compassion to even read the book. Most disheartening of all, perhaps, it is hard to imagine solutions. Boo describes how foreign aid and charitable contributions are diverted from their intended purposes into the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats. Even so, the first step in combatting evil is to look honestly at it. In “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” Katherine Boo has given us a good, hard look.