‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’

Life in a Mumbai slum reveals how the ‘brutal capriciousness’ of daily life can undermine people's economic security.

April 08, 2012
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Despair, yet hope

Severe income inequality and appalling living conditions is the umbrella looming over the lives of the slum’s denizens. But it’s the brutal capriciousness of daily life that frequently undermines what any economic security a family may have—and that is the book’s primary point.

Boo is not a polemicist who offers up the usual policy remedies from an educated westerner. Nor does she pass judgment, good or bad, on the people she writes about.

She simply observes and reports, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions about the circumstances of Annawadians’ lives and the choices they make to survive.

The key event in the book is the death of the bitter, one-legged Fatima, a sometime prostitute. She sets herself afire in response to an argument with Zehrunisa and other family members as they attempt to add tiles to their floor and a shelf for cooking implements on a wall shared with Fatima’s hut.

Fatima’s death, not necessarily the result she was seeking, deals a devastating blow to the family’s garbage business. It exposes Abdul, his father, and a sister to police corruption, criminal charges, jail, and beatings before ending with acquittal several years later in the maddening labyrinth that is the Indian justice system for the poor.

Suicide and attempted suicide by hanging, eating rat poison, or setting one’s self on fire are not uncommon in Annawadi. Alcoholism and addiction to cheap drugs are particularly present among males.

The slum’s residents deal with a daily despair that is beyond the comprehension of those of us who reside in safe and secure harbors in Western nations. They cope with harsh and often unfair judgments by neighbors who seem to take delight in the failures of others. They accept the callous indifference and corruption of government bureaucrats. And they fear the corruption and cruelty of the local police.

Yet there is hope as well among families and friends who care enough for each other to pay attention to their difficulties and seemingly find ways to pull together and help each other.

For every story like that of the beggar left to die in an alley as people pass him by and ignore his pleadings for help, there are accounts of people lending each other small sums of money for medicine and bribes, providing well-intentioned advice, and caring for abandoned or orphaned children.

Many are constantly aware of how dire their circumstances and how difficult is the struggle for economic betterment. Still, they continue to strive forward although their efforts usually end in disappointment.

No easy fix

At the book’s end, Abdul’s family has begun an economic recovery of sorts as the charges related to Fatima’s death are finally resolved. And Asha, who had begun to see her slight grip on power slip away as her political benefactor loses his position of influence, benefits from a new government program to fund new schools for the poor.

Using her daughter Manju as a front, she successfully manufactures paperwork to create a number of nonexistent schools to get the government spigots turned on and flowing in her direction. Similarly, she had taken advantage of microfinance programs designed to spur business development to buy better clothes to assist her political aspirations.

Such fraud is commonplace—and why not? Writes Boo in her book’s afterword:

“It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be—all those invisible individuals who every day find themselves faced with dilemmas not unlike the one Abdul confronted … one July afternoon when his life exploded. If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”

In an interview about her book, Boo talks about the people she observed and how easy it is to underestimate not just their resolve but their intelligence despite their lack of education. She does not compare the disadvantaged and poor in the U.S. with the slum dwellers of Annawadi, but she says there are parallels in their stories and ones that can  be told in this country.

Mostly, she wants us to understand that the social and economic conditions plaguing millions of our fellow citizens are the result of complexities and dynamics that too often are misunderstood and for which there are no easy resolutions that fit nicely on a bumper sticker or in a political ad.

And she leaves us with this thought: “If we don’t really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we’re not going to grasp the potential that’s being lost.”

MARK CONDON is CUNA’s senior vice president of business and consumer publishing. Contact him at 608-231-4078.

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