Tuesday, March 19, 2013
The Deaths and the Rumors: Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers"
Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been on my radar for over a year. I read the jacket description when it was published, and the subject matter was compelling, fascinating, and most importantly, seemed to be focused on true reporting. As my reading log grew more complicated and strained, I kept putting it off, and the more I waited, the more recognition, praise, and awards were heaped upon it. I'm often wary of books with far too much breathless praise, since I'm more likely to be disappointed when I finally wipe away the blurbs and get into the actual writings. However, I'm pleased to note that the book is truly worth the hype. In exploring the workings and personalities contained within a Mumbai slum, Boo has created a microcosm of poverty-stricken areas all over the world. This isn't done with excessive, lavish emotions or pandering. The citizens in Annawadi, a makeshift "city" near the Mumbai airport, have good and bad personality traits, and their lives are presented from various angles. Behind the Beautiful Forevers might very well define the stark divide between wealthy and poor citizens in the world, much in the same fashion that Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickled and Dimed explored American poverty in a time when the subject wasn't on the radar as much as it is now. And amazingly, Boo's book fits a description that I tend to shy away from: it's a work of non-fiction that often reads like a novel, but without sacrificing details or relying on embellishments. There's such an emotional diversity that the events and people are part of a complicated story. However, one has to realize this is true, and is the result of problems that need immediate attention everywhere.
Annawadi was founded in the early 1990s by laborers working on a Mumbai airport, and what was supposed to be a temporary spot morphed into a slum populated by thousands, in the shadow of wealthy travelers and lavish hotels. The founding is told with minor details, but enough to paint a vivid picture. This is one of Boo's strengths as a journalist--as I mentioned before, there's no embellishment. Even in the most casually detailed scenes, there are many small details that allow the reader to realistically visualize the unfolding scenes.
"The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked in from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the international airport. The work complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.
Other poor people considered the spot too wet to be habitable, but the Tamils set to work, hacking down the brush that harbored the snakes, digging up dirt in drier places and packing it into the mud. After a month, their bamboo poles stopped flopping over when they were stuck in the ground. Draping empty cement sacks over the poles for cover, they had a settlement. Residents of neighboring slums provided its name: Annawadi--the land of annas, a respectful Tamil word for older brothers. Less respectful terms for Tamil migrants were in wider currency. But other poor citizens had seen the Tamils sweat to summon solid land from a bog, and that labor had earned a certain deference (Boo 5)."
The reader is introduced to a number of the Annawadi citizens. Some of the primary people are Abdul, a young Muslim trash scavenger; Fatima, known as One Leg, a promiscuous, vengeful figure who suffers a terrible accident that leads to a ludicrous criminal trial; Asha, a hungry political hopeful who attempts to rule Annawadi by coercion and for financial gains; and Manju, Asha's daughter, a beautiful young woman trying to make the best of her circumstances with the hope of gaining entry into college. Boo's writing clears up quite a few misconceptions about non-American slum life. While all the residents are poverty stricken, some are better off than others. There are cellphones and televisions inside some of the huts. The fact that Manju is able to consider a college education despite her surroundings means that a glimmer of hope envelops some of the residents. Some are merely content to dream of better squalor. Throughout, there are sad refrains familiar to Americans: the crippling divide between wealth and poverty means that virtually all the people in Annawadi are doomed to lives of intense work with little benefit. Some medical setbacks and fears are met with dismissive replies to pray, with the hopes that god will provide. And even the slightest problem can set a citizen into unimaginable debt.
The book's title comes from a terribly misplaced piece of advertising on a wall outside Annawadi. Boo mentions it almost as an aside in a piece about Sunil, one of Abdul's fellow scavengers:
"It interested him that from Airport Road, only the smoke plumes of Annawadi's cooking fires could now be seen. The airport people had erected tall, gleaming aluminum fences on the side of the slum that most drivers passed before turning into the international terminal. Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements. The ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall's length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER. Sunil regularly walked atop the Beautiful Forever wall, surveying for trash, but Airport Road was unhelpfully clean (Boo 36-37)."
Women and children dominate the landscape, since the majority of the grown men mentioned are either addicts, drunks, or criminals. Even the women and children who resort to extreme measures to provide do so with a sense of logic and a need for survival. But as I said earlier, the subjects are treated honestly and realistically. During my reading, I often had the same feelings I had when watching, of all things, the documentary Murderball. In that film, disabled athletes are shown as people, not objects of sympathy or patronizing. Some of the featured people were arrogant and unlikable. Boo shows that relationships within slums are sometimes no different than anywhere else. The reader is in tune with the plight of the residents, but sometimes on an individual level, the reader is likely to be repulsed by some of the actions. The main climax of the book involves One Leg's self-immolation following a neighborhood dispute. Despite committing this act herself, she claims she was driven to do so by Abdul and his parents. While this is a ludicrous accusation, remnants of mysticism still permeate Indian life. There are whispers of witchcraft and the potential for One Leg to haunt the family following her death. This brazen act ties together a lot of the issues and complications in Annawadi: neighborhood strife; religious and supernatural beliefs; the danger of the Indian jail and court systems; and how an accusation can quickly lead to a remaining life of shame, destitution, and ostracizing, even in the face of complete innocence.
"Kehkashan shrieked. The brothelkeeper was the first across the maidan, three boys fast behind, throwing their weight against the door until it broke. They found Fatima thrashing on the floor, smoke pouring off her skin. At her side was a yellow plastic jug of kerosene, overturned, along with a vessel of water. She had poured cooking fuel over her head, lit a match, then doused the flames with water.
'Save me!' she shouted.
The brothelkeeper tensed. Something low on Fatima's back was still burning. He grabbed a blanket and smothered the flame, as a vast crowd formed outside the hut.
'All day these Muslim garbage people have been fighting so loudly.'
'Didn't she think of her daughters before she did this?'
'She's okay now,' the brothelkeeper announced, rolling away some cooking pots he'd knocked on top of her in his haste to extinguish the fire. 'Alive, no problem!'
He pulled Fatima up. When he let go, she flopped back down, howling.
People took not of the upturned vessel of water.
'She's a fool then,' said an old man. 'She wanted to burn herself a little, create a drama, and instead she burned herself a lot.'
'It is because of these people that I have done this,' Fatima cried out, her voice astonishingly clear. Everyone knew which people she meant (Boo 95-96)."
While Annawadi can reflect poverty all over, Boo's Author's Note shows why this specific area is such an important necessity for documentation: "I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor, the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can't help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum (247)." This sentence alone might seem harsh and cold, but's not: Boo goes on to explain her desire to explore and document outlying factors, such as the political and social beliefs and works of the surrounding country, and how possible it would be for a poor child to grow up with better circumstances. Images of poverty are stark and stomach-churning, but quick, visceral reactions can be misleading. Aside from the jacket photo, there are no photographs included in the book--Boo rightfully makes the writing convey the images, rather than immediate sensory reactions to the wholly different visual. In a shocking (but a likely more prevalent scenario than most Westerners realize) passage, she shows how schools in the area clean up their act when visitors or human rights workers are expected. Things are cleaned, happy faces put on, and dutiful reports are sent back to the rest of the world. Begging is even a complicated act. One of the boys attempts reverse psychology, refusing to look needy for tourists, instead hoping that they'll take his demure appearance as more deserving than outright pleading.
I sometimes don't pay close attention to bylines in The New Yorker, so I'm sure I've read a good handful of Boo's writing without realizing it. I'm still amazed at her writing style. She's a dedicated journalist and anthropologist, and her keen observations lead this to be a novel-like report. Aside from her personal notes in the epilogue, she's an invisible figure, keeping the attention on the slum's people and events rather than her own presence. Simply put, the world needs more reporting and explorations like this. The developed world has been exposed to countless images and reports of poverty, but centralized, personal accounts from areas a reader would likely never know about outside of a book illuminate a variety of needs. This isn't a snapshot, a heart-tug, and a call for a five dollar donation. It's a grim plea for changes in how the world views and deals with poverty. When a destitute slum is a walk away from opulence and thrives on the trash produced by said opulence, something is dreadfully wrong. Since Boo is such a neutral reporter, I was left longing for her opinions, even though her opinions are not the point of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. She doesn't judge, she doesn't "play favorites." I would venture a guess that she has strong opinions on how to tackle this kind of divide, but then again, so does everyone else, so she wisely avoids moralizing. This book is vastly compelling, shocking, and necessary. Sadly, these accounts are still waiting to be told all over the world, and this kind of reporting is a step in the right direction, starting many conversations about how to bridge the haves and the have-nots.
Boo, Katherine. Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Copyright 2012 by Katherine Boo.