Black and white in colour
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Black and white in colour

Katherine Boo's tortuous documentation of the lives of the inhabitants of a Mumbai slum called Annawadi, done over four years, forms the pith of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, writes Antara Das.

books Updated: Feb 10, 2012 18:03 IST
Antara Das, Hindustan Times

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Katherine Boo

Penguin india

Rs. 499 pp 254

Katherine Boo had a fair idea of how unpopular her enterprise could be, even as she was taking slow hesitant steps towards it way back in 2007. There she was, a white woman journalist from the United States, whose only connection to India was through her marriage (to academic Sunil Khilnani), about to plunge into and grapple with what made and kept India’s poor so. She knew, already, that it was not for her to “go to dinner parties and listen to people saying everything has changed [in India]”.

What she signed up for instead was a slow, tortuous documentation of the lives of the inhabitants of a Mumbai slum called Annawadi, done over four years, which forms the pith of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. As reporting goes, it was “physically exhausting and mentally disturbing”, Boo tells me, in Delhi for her book’s promotional tour.

Talking about India’s poor, even where poverty is but a backdrop to complex human drama, has never been an easy or popular task. Boo, of course, was a seasoned hand, her investigative work back in the US being largely centred around the lives of the vulnerable and the dispossessed. “I see myself as someone who writes about the distribution of opportunity… trying in my own way to interrogate policies, economic forces and the way they play out,” she says. To Annawadi — that “sumpy plug of slum” close to the city’s airport, annoyingly fetid yet audaciously proximate to five “extravagant hotels” — she could not have come at a better time.

Years of working with low income people had taught Boo that their vulnerability, if it was not to be reduced to a “snapshot”, could be captured only over a long period of time. So even as Boo gradually melted into the background (silence is an important tool for the reporter, she says), meeting more and more people to find out their stories, a panorama unfolded that seemed to assemble all the strands of a country’s six-decade-old struggle to improve itself, a mocking pastiche of every conceivable kind of social and economic disability known to humankind. Boo knew that policies that were “humane at the top level got subverted at the ground”, so that an Annawadi became a vicious cauldron of urban destitution, whose inhabitants stole, scavenged, cheated, pimped and killed their way through life.

And yet 2007-2008, as Boo knew, was a particularly “hope-rich moment” for those living in that slum, being among those ‘freed’ from poverty since economic liberalisation started in 1991. Annawadi was the fringe, but the fringe of somewhere was allowed a dream that the middle of nowhere couldn’t think of. Structures of social hierarchy within the slum registered that change; caste was giving way to “future economic prospects”. Alien concepts and events like ‘stock market high’ or construction frenzy in Olympic-obsessing Beijing affected the fate of Abdul Hakim too, the young boy around whom much of the drama unfolds, even as he sorted the purchased waste “into one of sixty kinds of paper, plastic, metal…” “It was a fine time to be a Mumbai garbage trader,” Abdul would think, just as his middle-aged neighbour Asha, whose daughter went to college and “by-hearted” Virginia Woolf and William Congreve at home, thought that the moment was opportune to employ social and political chicanery (and moral lapse, as one finds out) to realise her dream of becoming a woman slumlord, her next step in upward mobility.

However, Behind the Beautiful Forevers (the title taken from an advertising legend on a wall around the slum) would have become a mere dartboard of who hit bull’s eye and who missed if it remained limited to financial ups and downs. And it would have robbed Boo — who wanted to figure how people “adjusted and retooled” even as capital moved around the world — of the opportunity to display the telling clarity of her insight into human nature that cuts across income strata, in language that is nothing short of sublime. Fatima One Leg’s rage was “the rage of a neighbour with less money”; if her envy drove her to set up Abdul and his family on a ruinous road, “at the heart of envy was probably hope — that the good fortune of others might one day be hers”.

“As upper and middle class people begin to confront the issue of corruption, lower income people who lack the skill and leisure to take to the public square may become subject to more of it,” Boo says. Falsely accused of a crime by Fatima, Abdul and his family become pawns at the wrong end of a fiendish asymmetry of power, negotiating and bribing their way through the various arms of the law enforcing machinery, with no miracle or magic realism to sweeten the rough hand they’ve been dealt. In stark, powerful prose, Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows that the desire to move to the overcity, outpacing others is potent in all. But as Abdul’s father says: “Only now we’re all tired and damaged, so how fast can we really run?”

First Published: Feb 10, 2012 18:03 IST