From being a slim book about a slum, Boo's work becomes a big book about love and grief
Behind a low wall near the taxi stand adjacent to the Sahar Police Station in Mumbai is a ledge of concrete suspended seventy feet above the Mithi River. “By some trick of wind in the sluice,” Katherine Boo writes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, “trash tossed over the wall tended to blow back and settle on this sliver of concrete. It was a space on which a small boy could balance.”
That small boy is Sunil, a 12-year-old garbage collector determined to find as much trash as it takes to buy food lest hunger stunt his growth and leave him a runty man-child forever shorter than his younger sister. “To jump start his system, he saw he'd have to become a better scavenger. This entailed not dwelling on the obvious…”
A Pulitzer Prize winning staff writer for The New Yorker, Boo spent three years immersed in the lives of Sunil and his cohabitants in Annawadi, a slum settled on land acquired by Mumbai's international airport, and emerges with a tangled web of relationships that bind aspiring slumlords to struggling waste pickers, Annawadi's first college graduate to its most recent suicide victim, global commodity markets to a series of violent deaths. An aging strongman has a change of heart and looks to give up a life of crime in favour of raising horses — two of which he paints in Zebra stripes; a one-legged woman loses an argument and sets herself ablaze.
There is no easy way to engage with the landscape that emerges from Boo's tight prose. That she is an American who worked entirely through translators has prompted some reviewers to applaud her even-handed objectivity and others to critique the book for objectifying its subjects and fetishising the poverty of the powerless, dark-skinned ‘other'.
Love and sorrow
Yet one of the remarkable things about elegantly written, rigorously reported, non-fiction is how the material shrugs off authorial intent. Of course, the author is not an apolitical recorder and narratives are equally shaped by conversations and silences, but the reporter in Boo is capable of uncovering and describing lives that are too vivid and anarchic to be contained by her writing. The book's opening sequence is just one instance where Boo is content to underplay her hand and let the material breathe, rather than step in with a heavy editorial hand.
Often, Behind the Beautiful Forevers slips away from being a slim book about a slum in Mumbai and becomes a big book about love, desire, sorrow, epiphany and grief in an urban city. Like when Karim Husain, a perennially ill waste-sorter in Annawadi, says, “Your little boat goes west and you congratulate yourself, ‘What a navigator I am!' And then the wind blows you east.”
Or when his son Abdul describes his attempts to stay straight in a crooked world, “For some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting … But now I'm just becoming dirty water, like everyone else.” At times like these, the book shows us not how certain ‘others' live, but how any life may be lived in the shadow of instability and uncertainty.
Yet, there is an insistent reality in the book that cannot be ignored — that a 12 year old in Mumbai must creep along a narrow ledge above a filthy river to pick up refuse to earn enough to eat. That his friend Kalu's broken body will be found behind a hedge near the airport because he misread the play of power between the police and a local drug pusher, that those in power have struck so many deals with so many separate private players with so many diverse interests that the institutions of state have atrophied.
So where does this leave us? Today, the only thing that the state can offer its citizens is the dream of its own eventual destruction: that it shall ritualistically purge itself from society, thereby making room for private players dressed up in transparent motives of profit. This is an alluring illusion; but much like the law of conservation of energy, the nexus between capital and the state is neither created nor destroyed — it merely changes form. The municipal councillor who pushes for slum clearance is the private contractor who submits the winning bid when rehabilitation work is privatised, is the mafioso who eventually gets the land diverted for luxury condos, is the entrepreneur who fixes his books when his infrastructure company eventually goes public.
This predictably creates a conundrum for those seeking to build traditional networks of resistance like unions, or engaged in expanding legal frameworks where everything from work to nourishment is defined as a set of legally enforceable ‘rights'. What happens to the politics of appeals and writ petitions in a global economy where the judiciary is compromised and worker militancy is violently suppressed by the state?
One such critique of Boo's book is Mitu Sengupta's review on Kafila, a website of political writings, where Sengupta wonders why Boo's book doesn't contain “sustainable and constructive political relationships” amongst Annawadi's residents. A possible reason could be the death of a particular style of big banner, million-man-march style politics that evolved in a time of relatively stable terms of employment and residence.
Those who work multiple temporary jobs and live in the shadow of eviction seek a different, stealthier politics of disruption that is harder to read and still harder to record. Perhaps the most interesting figure in the book is Asha, a middle-aged woman determined to work her way through Mumbai's murky municipal politics. It isn't pretty and it isn't idealistic, and the cards don't always fall the way Asha wishes, but she picks them up, re-shuffles the pack, adjusts her bets and waits for the next deal. As I read about her, I see her move through Annawadi: cajoling, coaxing, threatening, intimidating those she meets. I imagine she smiles a lot; she knows that tomorrow will be worse.
BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS — Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity: Katherine Boo; Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 499.