Behind the Beautiful Forevers — Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a lesson in perspective. I’ve never felt as rich as I did reading it, which is a compliment to its writer. Forgetting the sheer material wealth virtually all Americans have, even the poorest, is so easy. We become acclimated. If we don’t have the latest iPhone, many of us stupidly think ourselves failures. The acquisitive impulse masters us. Boo forces us out of that acclimation and acquisitiveness and forces us to see the status and survival fights among India’s poorest, who don’t have a (mostly) functioning judicial system.

Behind_the_beautiful_foreversThat’s hard to confront, and the difficulty of doing something is also hard to confront. If massive charities like World Vision can’t conquer India’scorruption, what can a random individual do? Some things, at the margins, but cultures and institutions don’t happen overnight. Much of the West has been building its (functioning) cultures and institutions for centuries. India hasn’t.

But I’m addressing Behind the Beautiful Forevers from the wrong perspective, and making a mistake the book studiously doesn’t make. Boo almost always writes about individuals. To follow one thread about corruption, consider this sequence, the first about Manju, an idealistic teenage girl being schooled in her mother’s effective ways of survival and status:

When Manju first asked about the rumor [that Corporator Subhash Sawant had been accused in court of electoral fraud], Asha had shrugged it off. Her patron had previously made two murder charges disappear. ‘Court cases can be managed in Mumbai,’ as the Corporator put it.

The euphemism—”managed”—is so apt, and so cruel to those who don’t have the power to manage cases. Asha, Manju’s mother, is on the brink of acquiring that power. Later, we find this characterization: “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.” It’s a lesson that everyone in Annawadi learns at some point in this book, whether they are corrupt themselves or deal with the corrupt.

Later still, Manju anticipates receiving a B.A. and then a B.Ed., which will qualify her to be a teacher. But “She had no hope of securing a permanent job at a government school, since such jobs typically required paying enormous bribes to education officials.” That’s the sort of story any American papers, even the husks that remain, would love to carry, and that would generate outrage and indictments. In Manju’s world, it’s the world. We see that “When a new school opened in the pink temple by the sewage lake, many of them [the children Manju taught] gravitated to it, but it closed as soon as the leader of the nonprofit had taken enough photos of children studying to secure the government funds.”

But the inhabitants of Annawadi are there because a Mumbai slum is an improvement on the other major option, which is living in a rural farming village. Two teen girls see as much: “To both Meena and Manju, marrying into a village family was like time-traveling backward” (one of them will survive to the end). Living in a place where “Sewage and sickness looked like life” is an improvement. At the beginning of the book, Annawadians are sharing in the global boom. But the book covers the end of that boom, too; as the economic crisis takes hold,

2009 arrived in the slum under a blanket of poverty, the global recession overlaid by a crisis of fear. More Annawadians had to relearn how to digest rats. Sonu deputized Sunil to catch frogs at Naupada slum, since Naupada frogs tasted better then sewage-lake ones.

Rats are an improvement on starvation, but eating rats and frogs means a status demotion, much as finding an exit from the garbage trade (this will make sense in the context) and then re-entering it means that social status goes up, then goes more painfully down. Status, like wages, is stick.

Starvation is omnipresent in part because charitable donations and government efforts that start at the top of Indian society rarely make their way fully to the bottom, where the Annawadians live, and where Meena and Manju want to time travel forward. Their views are the product of place: “In Meena’s opinion, any mother who financed her daughter’s college education, rarely slapped her, and hadn’t arranged her marriage at age fifteen could be forgiven for other failings.”

Boo mostly reports. She is too canny a writer to lard her book with these observations, however; they would make the book preachy and dull. I had assumed it would be, based on its publicity; I only read a copy because it was forced on me by a friend, and now I understand why. Boo has subject and content. She uses novelistic techniques, most obviously a close third-person narrator, to create, unfairly but compellingly, the minds of her characters / subjects. None of her characters are economists; all are struggling in various capacities.

Yet they are making choices to try and improve their lives: “In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed like the least-bad place to live.” Boo is so good with language: she knows that “least-bad” conveys more than “best,” because there are no good options. She calibrates the sentence to the mental state of the people making the decision about where to live. It’s a small example of the skill Boo shows on practically every page. The immediate desire upon finishing Behind the Beautiful Forever is to reread for the virtuosity of Boo’s language skills while not wanting to because of the terrible struggles she describes. Death is everywhere, like the obstacles imposed by the police and political bureaucracy.

The police seek bribes and know they can, because “To be poor in Annawadi, or in any Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another.” Constant guilt means that it is harder to seek official redress for wrongs. For instance:

Abdul’s family knew many of the officers at the local station, just enough to fear them all. When they learned that a family in the slum was making money, they visited every other day to extort some. The worst of the lot had been Constable Pawar, who had brutalized little Deepa, a homeless girl who sold flowers by the Hyatt. But most of them would gladly blow their noses in your last piece of bread.

The image of the police blowing “their noses in your last piece of bread” conveys the vast gap in power: for people who eat rats, bread is valuable and scarce. To gratuitously ruin shows a lack of empathy seldom seen outside psychopaths. The image, like so many in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, lingers.

There is a temptation in books like this to deplore the conditions in which people live, cultural indifference, and widespread corruption. Boo doesn’t. She lets the events speak, as she does in the example of Abdul collecting garbage. Her book is an example to writers, and so is her assessments of status subtleties.

The end of chapter ten is devastating in its understatement; I don’t want to reveal why here because doing so will destroy part of the story, but death appears, as it often does, with the suddenness of its presence in life.

I haven’t seen anyone criticize the quality of Boo’s writing, which is superb throughout. She doesn’t waste words. On her themes and content, the best criticism I’ve seen is here, in Paul Beckett’s piece for the Wall Street Journal’s Indian Edition, where he points out that Boo doesn’t indicate how life looks from the perspective of the cops, the judges, the doctors, or Sister Paulette, or she doesn’t indicate that they turned her away. Boo also did an interview with Bill Gates.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a testament to skilled reporting, a pleasure, and an inspiration for writers who should always want to do better.

4 responses

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