Behind the Beautiful Forevers
I am late in getting to posting this review of Katharine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” her fascinating account of life in a Mumbai slum. The book was just going into print during the tail end of my stay in New Delhi, and so I didn’t get a chance to read it while I was there. Based on years of research, interviews, and observation of a slum near the Mumbai airport, the book (whose title refers to an advertisement on a wall that borders the slum) does more than any other I have read to bring to life the world of the Indian underclass.
India is a country with so many poor, and poverty of such demoralizing severity, that it can only be described by introducing gradations of poverty that we in the west could never imagine. To put it into perspective, a Big Mac meal in New Delhi (it is actually called a Maharaja Mac and is made with chicken) costs around $4. But the Indian government counts as “poor” only those people who make under $1 a day. When you pass shanty encampments in India, you will notice that some of the more longstanding communities have electricity or even satellite TV. Some have running water and public toilets. Others have none of these services. In the United States, we would consider someone living in a tent on public land to be “homeless,” but in India the title is reserved for those who live on the street without any fixed place to put up shelter to protect them from the elements.
In her book, Boo captures these many subtle nuances of Indian poverty. She does it while also showing how India’s economic dynamism is providing new avenues of mobility, however limited. Most of all, she shows how the weight of pervasive corruption in the Indian government and society, from the police to the public schools to Catholic and evangelical charities, falls hardest on those at the bottom of Indian society. She describes a nun who sells donated goods, doctors who sell diagnoses, and politicians who view development programs as nothing more than ways to further line their pockets. She tells the stories of children whose deaths are fraudulently attributed to tuberculosis by police who see no opportunity for profit in investigating their murders.
The book is written in a novelistic style, following the story of Abdul, a Muslim trash picker who is falsely accused of driving his neighbor to burn herself to death with kerosene. Through Abdul’s ordeal, Boo shows us the many textures of his community. There are lessons in her book for everyone, whether they are interested in India specifically, poverty generally, or the limits of deprivation to which human beings can be pushed while still maintaining hope and dignity. The book induced feelings of hope and awe, as well as despair and guilt.