Top positive review
courageous but flawed
on 13 June 2017
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the story of life in Annawadi, a slum situated close to Mumbai Airport. In the prologue we meet Abdul Hussain, a teenager who scratches a living for his family by sorting scrap scavenged by his neighbours and selling it for recycling. At the start of the book, he is hiding from the police, fearful of being arrested for complicity in the attempted suicide of one of his neighbours.
As the story opens out, we are introduced to the wider population of the slum, Asha, an unscrupulous fixer, desperate to climb out of the degradation and prepared to do just about anything to escape, her beautiful daughter Manju, who hopes that education will enable her to escape from an arranged marriage, Sunil, a young but resourceful scavenger, the one legged sexually voracious Fatima.
The story spreads both backwards and forwards from Adbul’s flight from the law. It provides an account of how he came to be hiding under a pile of rubbish, and also the story of what came after.
At its heart this book provides a fundamentally horrific picture of modern India. It is a society divided between extreme wealth and extreme poverty. It is a world of endemic corruption, where courts are not courts of justice but courts of law, and the law is driven by those who can pay for it. The slum is not a community, but a brutal dog eat dog world where the inhabitants gleefully seek to climb to the top of the rubbish heap by stepping on each others’ faces. It is a society in which external aid is cynically manipulated to divert funds to the powerful, not those in need.
This brings me to the most shocking thing about the book. I read it for my book club, and so knew nothing about it when I picked it up. This is not, or is not positioned as, a work of fiction. This is a documentary. Author Katherine Boo is a journalist who worked within the slum, extensively interviewing, and filming the inhabitants. With that in mind, I find it quite difficult to criticise this brutally dispassionate account of a modern Dante’s Inferno. Living in the affluent west what right I have to form any opinion of an account of a society of such extreme poverty, degradation and struggle. At one level it is difficult to justify a world in which people are forced to live like this and to justify one’s own privileged position within it.
Within that, the book for me posed some huge questions. Is this an inevitable part of development? Is it an inescapable part of economic advancement that societies must live through periods of extreme inequality in which huge numbers of people endure an horrendous existence? Is India, along with other developing countries, living through what countries like Britain experienced in Victorian times? Alternatively, is the horror of Annawadi a more modern consequence of globalisation?
It is in asking these questions, that I begin to get a little more uncomfortable with the book. Of course, the author has been enormously brave in producing the work, and it is something I could never do. And she has provided a clear factual, unemotional journalistic work. And she and her husband are bringing benefits to the slum. I just question whether a dispassionate account is the right response to what she has seen. Anger, disgust, zeal would seem more appropriate than calm observation.
The other problem I have with it is that it doesn’t really work structurally. I don’t like books where non-linear structure is used to make up for lack of narrative. Here there is no point to starting in the middle, other than to add complication. Secondly it is a hugely confusing book. It feels like a nature documentary, as the textual camera switches regularly between different inhabitants it is at times difficult to keep track of who is whom. Finally, there is no sense of closure, Boo just leaves her story in mid air, with no sense of resolution. I recognise that these features could also be seen as strengths. The confusing nature of the book reflects life in the slum, and the lack of a conclusion is just real life. However not even to reveal the result of the central court case is a very strange choice.
So, in what is portrays, this is an admirable and important book, it’s just that I’m not convinced by the way the author tries to use the conventions of fiction to write a documentary.