Saturday, April 07, 2012

Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Published By:  Random House
DOP:   Feb7, 2012
Genre: Narrative Non-Fiction

Helloooo Everyone!  It's been ages, I hope so much you are all doing well. I'm really sorry I haven't been updating this blog, but life's been busy oft late and horror of horrors, I haven't been doing much reading!  I think I've read all of 2 books in 6 months.  A truly awful record for someone who used to read a book a week.   Anyway, I have come to the sad realization that even if I make the time to read, I may never have enough time to write an in-depth review, so I've decided to introduce mini reviews, or maybe, just the title of the book I am reading or one I hope to read.  This way, we can all still stay in touch.  Like the idea?  I sure hope so!

A few weeks ago I read Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers".  To be honest, I wasn't really looking forward to reading one more book about life in a Mumbai slum, after all,  I've had them as neighbours for years and I thought I knew everything about the folks that live there...but, I was happy to be proved wrong.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, Katherine Boo spent three years( 2008-2010 )in a Mumbai slum called "Annawadi" situated on the fringes of the city's international airport.   In 1991 labourers were brought in from the villages of Tamil Nadu to work on the runway and once construction was completed, instead of returning to their villages they decided to stick around in the city of dreams and thus the slum "Annawadi" came to be.   Why anyone would want to live in “a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal" is a baffling question to many, but because rural poverty is bleaker than urban destitution, many rural migrants choose the latter.  Over the years Annawadi has undergone many changes, not just cosmetically but also demographically and many of the Tamilian labourers, have since moved elsewhere leaving room for new migrants from all over the country making it a microcosm of India-on-the-margins.

Through the lives of several protagonists the reader is able to get a glimpse into what life may be like in a Mumbai slum.  Abdul Hussain, the bread winner of the only Muslim family in the slum is a garbage picker/sorter and seller. It's the only thing he has ever done and so naturally he is somewhat of an expert at it, and as a result of his long, daily slog his family is perhaps the most prosperous family in Annawadi.  Abdul and his family are highly resented in Annawadi, not because they are Muslim, but because economically they are doing better than most of the neighbours.  Caste may be the main cause for discrimination in rural India, but Boo finds that in the slums, economic envy is the new discrimination.

 Then there's Fatima, or  "One-Leg" as she is better known.  Because she is disabled and a woman, Fatima has virtually no standing in the slum but she is determined to have a good time, even if society deems she should not.   While she may possess a couldn't-care-less attitude Fatima also has a violent temper and it's one of her rages that leads to some of the most riveting events in the book which allow Boo to access government hospitals, the criminal justice system and the enormous web of corruption that much of India is enveloped in.

 Another fascinating person character is Asha who is married to a good-for-nothing drunkard but thankfully she has enough ambition for the two of them.  By latching herself onto a small-time politician she becomes a "fixer" (someone who is able to grant favours  in the slum for a fee) and in that way, she is able to send her daughter to college to become the first female college graduate in Annawadi.

And finally, there's Kalu, who braves the barbed wire of Mumbai airports to get at the recycling bins, the contents of which he sells to Abdul; and Sunil, a smelly and courageous scavenger with a head for heights. It is in knowing these two scavengers that the reader realizes that no matter how tough the lives are the kids of Annawadi are, they never stop dreaming.   Their dreams aren't big ones, many a time their dreams don't even involve leaving the slum for a better place, all they want is to better themselves, to climb that next rung on the ladder.  And yet, despite the dreams, hopelessness is sometimes rife, the rate of suicide in a slum is quite high.

It is through these remarkable protagonists that Boo manages to paint a lively,colourful and yet poignant (depressing too) picture of slum life.  Sometimes I found the narrative read like Alaa Al Aswamy's "Al Yacoubian Building" where each resident family had a stand alone story to tell and yet contributed to the bigger story of Mumbai, but more fascinating to me was how globalization impacts the slum dwellers, their fortunes rising and waning along with the price of certain global commodities.   Most of the people in this Annawadi slum rely on garbage as a livelihood.  When the economy is strong, construction is booming and the demand for aluminium, copper, iron, steel etc. is high, so is the value of the commodity-related waste.  Similarly, when there's a worldwide recession and builders run out of money forcing constructions to come to a stand still, it hits the rag pickers like a tidal wave.  In this way Boo gives the butterfly effect of globalization a human face.

This video above, filmed in collaboration with some of the children of Annawadi, gives a glimpse into the daily lives of the people she encountered there.

Now all that remains is to allow you to pick up the book or the audio book (which is what I used) and allow Katherine Boo to take you along with her into Annawadi, where tales of treachery, comedy, heartbreak, betrayal and resilience make this a mesmerizing read.