May 2012

Matt McGregor

nonfiction

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

For a while now, magazines like Time, Newsweek, and The Economist have traded on two reciprocal stories: the "rise" of China and India, and the "decline" of the USA. Such claims were prescient in 1992, old hat a decade later. In 2012, they are a genre of their own, trading cover space with such newsmagazine staples as "The End of Men," "The End of Marriage," and "Counterintuitive Scientific Finding (with MRI!)." Such stories do what such journalistic goop does best: they use the rhetoric of scandal to repeat accepted truths; they wrap dead flowers in crisp cellophane.

Clearly, this is not a "conversation," but a chorus. While the details sometimes differ -- Time and Newsweek, for example, might quote from different Washington think tanks -- they all attempt that familiar blend of comfort and shock. The content declares that everything is changing, while the form confirms that everything stays the same. Reading the latest version of "India 2.0" is a little like watching repeat episodes of Law and Order, and as with Law and Order, it is hard to imagine anyone actually sitting down to write the thing. They always seem like some kind of e-product, the spawn of a pulp generator or genre app.

So it is with some excitement that we read the thrilling, quietly scathing Behind the Beautiful Forevers, one of several recent books about India to suggest that GDP growth might not, in fact, be the most reliable index of human happiness. Alongside Arundhati Roy's Walking With the Comrades, and Siddhartha Deb's The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers breaks with the liberal consensus, to argue that the Indian state is not benevolent, its billionaires are not heroic, and that India's poor have reason to be rather angry indeed.

We begin with Abdul, one of several thousand squatters living in Annawadi, a slum on the margins of Mumbai's International Airport. An extremely dedicated worker, Abdul acts as a middleman between the recycling plants and the young scavengers who work in the local trash piles. We go on to meet Abdul's family, his neighbors, his friends. We meet Asha, an ambitious functionary of the infamous Shiv Sena, the rightist Hindu political party (which some readers might remember from Rohinton Mistry's Family Matters). Asha fights to become a "slumlord," a reflexively corrupt leader who acts as a kind of node between the community and what the folks at PricewaterhouseCoopers might call its "stakeholders": the police, the local government, state bureaucrats, regional bigshots, and transnational NGOs: "When foreign journalists came to Mumbai to see whether self-help groups were empowering women, government officials sometimes took them to Asha. Her job was to gather random female neighbors to smile demurely while the officials went on about how their collective had lifted them from poverty."

For a sum of money, Asha handles the minor and major complaints of the local population. As Boo puts it, the grievances of Annawadi were in this way "privatized."  

As you read, it begins to seem like just about everything in the New India has been privatized, whether the government of India likes it or not. The book's major theme, and the motor of its tragedy, is corruption, most heartrendingly present in the police, the hospitals, and the judiciary. One character, Mr. Kamble, collapses while cleaning a toilet. He is taken to the hospital, where the state surgeon demands a payment of sixty thousand rupees. When Abdul is arrested, his mother goes to the police station, and she finds out "she'd have to pay another five thousand rupees to see the charge-sheet." Abdul soon learns that "The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage." Later, a prison doctor comes to determine whether Abdul can be tried as an adult. He tells Abdul that he can be "seventeen years old if he paid two thousand rupees, and twenty years old if he did not."

Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been praised for its novelistic writing. Yet, if the techniques are novelistic, and if Boo gets points for writing "like a novelist," Behind the Beautiful Forevers nevertheless profits from the rather steep and generous grade inflation we reflexively give to nonfiction writers. Let me give an example: in the beginning of book's second section, Boo introduces Fatima, Abdul's neighbor. Fatima has one leg and likes to have affairs with other men. Boo, limited by the ethics of her profession, yet keen to represent some kind of novelistic interiority, limps into the kind of neat summary a fiction writer would never get away with: "Only in the hours when the men came -- husband at work, daughters at school -- did the part of her body she had to offer feel more important than the part of it she lacked." Later, she depicts Sunil, a garbage thief, looking into the distance. "Being on the roof," she writes, "even if he had come up to steal things, was a way of not being what he had become in Annawadi." This is, I suppose, the curse of the genre: if nonfiction is to read like a novel, and remain credible, it must read like a novel you've read before.

But this is not a novel, and we can't really blame Boo for the limits of her chosen genre. Within these limits, she has written a powerful, affecting work of journalism. Prominent characters are faced with prison time. There are several suicides. Corpses are found in the trash heaps. Life does not, in general, get better; dreams do not come true. The best that the people can hope for is that the police don't steal their savings, that the airport doesn't bulldoze their shelters, that their children stay healthy. After finishing this book, none of these hopes appears particularly realistic. In the second half of the narrative, the financial crisis arrives in India, and the price of garbage drops. As Boo puts it, "More Annawadians had to relearn how to digest rats." Meanwhile, the richest man in India builds a twenty-seven-story house: "The lower stories would be reserved for cars and the six hundred servants required by his family of five."

Though the poverty is striking, the residents of Annawadi are not "poor" by official government estimates. As economists like to repeat, they have been "lifted" from poverty by the benevolent hand of multinational capital. The Annawadians are, in Boo's sardonic summary: "One of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism, a narrative still unfolding. True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. [...] True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner. A few ate scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge."

Behold the wonders of modernity! It would be nice if the New India, like the New China, really was "lifting" its population out of poverty. But it looks like a bloody tough and insecure life for the 77% of the population -- 836 million people, according to Siddhartha Deb, in a brilliant piece in Guernica -- who live on less than fifty cents a day. The spectacular rise of billionaires in both of these countries, routinely celebrated by the Times and economists in their encomiums, doesn't quite make up for the indebted farmers committing suicide, the villages where money lenders have become chiefs, the unchecked abuse of civilians by military forces in Manipur, the majority of city-dwellers without regular work, and the fact that, as Boo has it, "more than half of Mumbai's citizenry live in makeshift housing."

The poverty of Annawadi, the poverty experienced by the millions of migrant workers, is not "naturally existing poverty." It is not that New India inherited this poverty, and is now doing its best to address it. New India, economically liberal and democratic India, made Annawadi; Annawadi is newer than Mumbai's international airport. The slum is one of many makeshift communities that have arisen to accommodate the five hundred thousand impoverished or dispossessed peasants who arrive in Mumbai each year. Annawadi remains, for the majority of Indians -- and, if you accept recent UN estimates on urbanization, for most of the planet -- the most common and direct experience of the liberal economy. (The life expectancy in Mumbai is seven years below the national average.)

Unlike me, Boo is careful with her rhetoric. She withholds her outrage. I'm not quite sure how she does it. She gives her argument in dribs and drabs; she hits her targets well. This book is -- in its quiet, New Yorker way -- an utterly damning critique of the New India and its perverse form of state capitalism. We need more of its kind.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
Random House
ISBN: 978-1400067558
288 pages