27 March 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

This review first appeared in The Asian Review of Books. I also recommend, very, very, highly, the review of this book that appeared in Book Forum.

While learning about figures of speech in high school, I remember wondering at the synecdoche—when a part stands for the whole, or where the individual represents the collective. In works of non-fiction that ambitiously seek to encapsulate a whole (such as India/Mumbai) through one of its parts (such as one of its cities/slums), synecdochal representation can be dangerous. It lends itself to the convenience of homogeneity, negligently translating divergent plurals into a monolithic singular. The same discourse can persist through the almost naive belief that all poor communities can, and do, speak for each other. Conclusions about poverty and poor communities that are drawn only from statistics tend to imply that their application is universal. Katherine Boo’s eminently readable Behind the Beautiful Forevers advocates, in the subtlest of ways, that it is only quiet observation of lived experience that can lead to even partial understanding. Boo concentrates her efforts, over the course of three-and-a-half years, to the study of a single slum—or what she calls “undercity”—in the discrete urban tangles of Mumbai. As she says, “In every community, the details differ, and matter.” 

Annawadi is a small-ish slum, as Mumbai slums go, but its location next to the international airport, surrounded by luxury hotels, makes it a target of the city’s developmental expansion. Visitors who enter the city through the airport cannot help driving past a wall with the words “Beautiful Forever” repeatedly inscribed upon it. Behind these beautiful forevers is Annawadi, which stands in the way of progress in an increasingly knotted paradigm of metropolitan uplift. But what is construed as development means displacement for the Annawadians, for where will they go when their land is consumed by an ever-expanding airport? Like the Armorican Gauls of the Asterix comics, who lived in constant fear that the sky would fall upon their heads, the Annawadians are forever fearful that aeroplanes will land upon their homes.

Beginning with closely-observed portraits of individuals—aspiring politicians, bright, beautiful schoolteachers, garbage-pickers, garbage-sorters, garbage-stealers—the book slowly disentangles into one larger tale: when envy drives Fatima Shaikh, one of the most vivid characters in the book, to a shocking ploy of vengeance, a young garbage-sorter named Abdul is accused of a gruesome crime. Meanwhile, economic recession, terrorism and the overhauling tensions of everyday malfeasance choke the residents of Annawadi into tragedy and further poverty. The book begins and ends in oddly satisfying limbo.

This is a book that staggers with detail, as it rightly should. Boo’s subject is complex and multi-layered, and she never ceases to peel. Each sentence seems to be the product of many hours of concentrated probing. Her in-depth reportage can raise questions about accuracy and authenticity. One cannot help wondering at the intimacy with which she draws out the innermost thoughts of her subjects, her acute perceptions of their deepest fears and desires, and her most alarming habit of getting into people’s heads. In her final note, Boo reveals her strategies and methods, and her inspiration (“I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor”). In reading it, one realises that if her writing seems laborious, it’s because it is.

The writing is lyrical, too: “Although most people talked of hunger as a matter of the stomach, what Asha recalled was the taste—a foul thing that burrowed into your tongue and was sometimes still there when you swallowed, decades later.” Her languid, often humorous, prose moves at the gritty pace of a crime novel, dense with sharp, relevant insight: “It made sense to Abdul that in a polyglot city, people would sort themselves as he sorted his garbage, like with like.” The first-person is entirely missing; Boo makes no appearance in her book, it is almost as though she is an invisible spectator, a fly on the wall, a surveillance camera with the gift of reading people’s thoughts.

The book coaxes empathy from its reader; it literally takes one backstage, behind the beautiful-forever wall, planting names on faces and histories on names. Boo’s involved study lends its reader a finer understanding of the kind of poverty that is romanticised in fiction and reduced to statistics in mainstream journalism. It dispenses more than just insight: it calls into question the collective conscience of a nation, where “Annawadi boys broadly accepted the basic truths: that in a modernizing, increasingly prosperous city, their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces, and their deaths would not matter at all.” And it quietly challenges policy that does not factor in individual perspective.

As products of a multi-dimensional history, the Annawadians are made—and broken—by an endlessly corrupt system, their consciences bent and stiffened by its limitations. They are creatures who long, simultaneously, to escape and to belong, sometimes only to survive. And while it is tempting to suggest that these longings are universal, that human nature is the same everywhere, Boo does not care to do so, and neither must the reader.