Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo, Hamish Hamilton, 2012, pp 254, Rs 499.
There appears to be a dearth of non-fiction reporting coming out of India. We have our polemicists and publicists, our activists and orators, our Arundhati Roys and Basharat Peers, those who write on naxalism and insurgency; we also have our green warriors who take up cudgels on behalf of environmental degradation and peaceniks who speak of the absurdity of spending millions on nuclear weaponry; but, sadly, we seem to have no spokesperson for our teeming urban poor. Vikas Swarup took a shot with Q and A (which was later turned into The Slumdog Millionaire on celluloid) but somehow realism slipped in the crack between fact and fiction, and the move from text to film ended up exoticising deprivation and disadvantage, and earning the wrath of Indians who appeared uncomfortable with the notion of ‘selling’ their poverty at the altar of the Oscar Awards.
With a substantial body of work on disadvantaged people behind her, Katherine Boo tackles the issue of Mumbai’s slums with sensitivity and skill. Her long years of reporting are evident in her prose: crisp, concise, insightful yet completely non-partisan. By opening a window into the everyday lives of those who live on Airport Road, a sprawling slum beside the Mumbai airport, she gives us a pungent dose of the stark reality behind the gloss of Shining India. Drawing its name from a brand of Italian floor tiling that promised ‘Beautiful Forever’, whose advertisement was plastered along lengths of scaffolding leading up to the international airport at Mumbai, scaffolding that hid the ugly scab of slums, the book is a searing indictment of ‘growth’, ‘progress’ and ‘development’. Unless and until the word ‘inclusive’ is added to all three, Boo seems to be saying, they are nothing but a chimera.
The defining principle of the extravagant, opulent, prosperity-driven metropolis of Mumbai that Boo terms ‘over city’ is MORE; like a forever hungry amoeba, it wants MORE of everything to feed its illusion of growth. In contrast, slums such as Annawadi, which survive in the shadow of the airport, are the ‘under city’ forever grappling with meagre resources, forever on the look-out for a miracle, a short-cut, a formula that will take them from LESS to MORE. Yet, despite all odds, in the ‘slumpy plug of slum’ that is Annawadi, home to over 3,000 people crammed in miserable 300-odd hovels, the air is electric with hope. Everyone believes that, with a little bit of luck, they can cross the Great Divide from ‘under city’ to ‘over city’. Ceaselessly occupied in inching towards MORE, they cope not merely with the brutal rigours of poverty but also with ethnic and racial tensions, differences of caste and religion, as well as greed and corruption.
Boo writes with startling directness and empathy of the everyday struggles for survival, the small joys and sorrows, the petty jealousies that go unreported in the larger narratives of nation-building projects and policies. For Asha, an upwardly mobile and politically astute wannabe, Boo notes:
‘She was a chit in a national game of make-believe, in which many of India’s old problems – poverty, disease, illiteracy, child labour – were being aggressively addressed. Meanwhile, corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, continued with minimal interference.’
Boo builds her story around Abdul, a teenaged scrap dealer and his family and neighbours, and in the process asks some tough questions:
‘What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?’
For all its increasing affluence, India -- home to one-third of the world’s poor and one-quarter of the world’s hunger -- cannot afford to be sanguine about these questions.
1. Q and A by Vikas Swarup uses the ‘Who wants to be Millionaire’ format to tell arags to riches story.
2. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is the true-life story of an escaped Australian convict who carves out a new life in a Bombay slum
3. Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta is the most comprehensive socio-political portrait of the city.