Cobwebs & Dust Bunnies

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers”

A review by Hillary Lutter
Explosions, fiery deaths, political corruption … no, this isn’t a review on the latest action movie … it’s everyday life in India’s slums.
When I picked up “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo, I didn’t exactly realize that it was a true story. Somehow when I skimmed the book cover I missed the part that called it “a work of narrative nonfiction.” Duh, Hill. Never did score real great on reading comprehension at school.
Unfortunately that little omission caused my brain to not really feel the story, as I think I would have had I known for a fact these people were real. The story was real. The slum IS real.
Upon finishing the story I read the “author’s note” and of course, realized my mistake and wanted to read it all over again. Was it the no-nonsense way in which the story was written that caused my lack of enthusiasm? Or was it just that I was too dense to realize this couldn’t have been a work of fiction? Either way, I’m not really one to read a book twice, there are too many good ones to waste time on that.
So in thinking back to the story, the people and the situations after realizing the truth of it, I’m so much more intrigued … and disgusted.
The story follows a few of the people of Annawadi, one of India’s slums. Slums, not in American terms, but Indian. Remember “Slumdog Millionaire”? That movie begins in one of these slums: makeshift cardboard, plywood, tin and concrete shelters stacked on top of each other, in many cases leaving just feet of space to make a thoroughfare; people washing their clothes in obviously polluted ponds; and menacing bigwigs cruising through in their Mercedes.
In the shadows of Mumbai’s busy airport and luxury airport hotels, bordered by sewage lakes and hidden by billboards advertising items slumdwellers can scarcely afford, sits Annawadi. Three hundred thirty-five huts housing 3,000 people on one acre. Let’s put that into perspective, shall we?
Let’s take the entire populations of both Artesian and Letcher, multiply it by 10 and then put them in makeshift shacks and pile them up on the Sanborn Central football field. That is the Annawadi slum, but that is nothing. Annawadi is a blip on the map compared to India’s 6.5 million people living in the exact same conditions throughout the country.
India is a supposed “up and comer,” even leader, when it comes to the world economy, yet somewhere amidst the country’s rise to the top, the middle got lost. India’s economy is the ninth largest in the world and third largest in purchasing power, yet the equivalent of the entire populations of L.A. and Chicago are slumdwellers.
These are the conditions in which this story takes place. These are the conditions in which these people live… and die.
This is where Katherine Boo spent much of her time between November 2007 and March 2011, getting to know the people, earning their trust so that she could accurately tell their story. Between the many, many interviews and being an eyewitness to events, Boo tells their story, with Abdul at the forefront.
Abdul is a quiet, thoughtful Muslim teen, who spends his days climbing around garbage piles sorting out items to sell for recycling in order to support his family. He seems content to quietly sort trash, bringing home a few rupees from his sales to recyclers: scrap metal, tin, plastic, etc. Many in the community have a strategy for their rise out of the slums into the (nearly nonexistent) middle class, and Abdul is no different.
Annawadi’s reality is harsh, though. Few make it out and none do so unscathed. Rape, robbery, beatings and gross apathy are all part of life in the slums. Police will do little and cannot be trusted without a bribe. Abdul finds this out the hard way when he is accused of a horrific crime against his neighbor.
Setting oneself on fire seems like one of the worst ideas ever, right? Well, self-immolation in India is curiously common. An Internet search of Indian news brought up multiple instances, along with seemingly one story after another of murders, bombings, beatings and rapes, many of young children.
A local world traveler had brought me back some newspapers from India last spring and I had, at the time, been excited to look through them and had proceeded to set them aside to look at later. Of course “stuff” became piled on top and “later” turned out to be after I finished this book many months later.
Apparently a double bombing had just taken place, this past February, killing 15 people, one of whom was in bloody pieces on the front page. Inside was more of the same. Atrocities I don’t even want to repeat, and the likes of which I pray I never have to report on, here in our little corner of the world.
Even more disheartening is Googling “crime in India” and finding a story on how India purposely and knowingly underreports crime. Therefore any crime “statistic” is useless and false. Authorities are only required to report the crime committed with the maximum possible sentence. Therefore multiple charges of rape, robbery and murder will only be reported as a murder. Handy, if you’re concerned about the numbers, huh?
Next to these stories are full color ads for the latest smartphone and a shiny new Fiat. Looks can be deceiving. That seems to me is the theme of India today. Look at how we are growing and advancing! Look at the opportunities here! Look … but not too closely.
How do you “fix” this massive problem — this instance where a country grew and advanced on the surface, faster and faster, in order to catch up with the West — but far too fast for its people to keep up?
Well, I obviously would be a richer woman if I had all the answers, but I think any good conservation officer will tell you, “Don’t feed the deer, it leads to starvation.”
Education is the easy answer. Education leads to prosperity, doesn’t it? Not such an easy fix where the educational system is as corrupt as the politicians who run it; where school is optional, oftentimes discouraged and sometimes not even available.
What is to be done? Well, the government has plans of demolishing Annawadi to allow a much needed airport expansion. This, of course, displaces these 3,000 people, and creates more opportunity for the vultures. Developers are looking to come in and build apartment buildings – as they have in other parts of Mumbai and India – substandard in quality, but less so in price. The goal is to stack tenants more effectively and be less harsh on the eyes.
Que sera, sera. There may not be an answer — definitely not an easy one. And maybe that’s the lesson: politicians, UNICEF, NGOs cannot just “fix” the world’s problems. Maybe it’s true that only time can heal a wound. I guess we will have to wait and see.

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