Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
US: Feb 2012
Today over one billion people live in the rapidly expanding informal urban settlements known as slums (a problematic term, but one that Boo has chosen to use throughout her work), with that number projected to double by the year 2030. Interspersed throughout the sprawling megacities of the global south, these makeshift communities are a corollary of the vast urban migrations that have resulted from the increasing globalization of capitalist markets over the past 30years. But rather than globalization’s promise of opportunity, development and progress, what many slum dwellers find is a life beset on all sides by poverty, disease and crime as they are denied access to the formal economy and basic public infrastructure, and forced to struggle perpetually on the peripheries of society.
Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity provides a staggering account of the suffering, tragedy and violence that are experienced by the residents of Mumbai’s Annawadi slum, one of many such informal urban settlements in India, a country that is currently home to 1/3 of the world’s poor. The central narrative thread of the book follows a conflict between two Annawadi families who share a single shack.
The Husains have risen to a position of relative prosperity within the slum by trading in metal scraps, plastics and other recyclables. Their teenage son Abdul is a talented waste sorter who describes the family’s vocation and his own indomitable work ethic as such as such: “For nearly all the waking hours of nearly all the years he could, he’d been buying and selling to recyclers the things that richer people threw away”.
These years of work have paid off for the Husains, with the family recently placing a down payment on a small parcel of land outside of the slum. Their dream of escaping from their lives in Annawadi for a more comfortable middle class existence seems to be within reach. For Abdul, all that he wants from life is “a wife… and eventually a home somewhere, anywhere that was not Annawadi. Like most people in the slum, and in the world, for that matter, he believed his own dreams properly aligned to his capacities.”
But as Abdul’s father Karam grows increasingly ill from tuberculosis, his mother Zehrunisia longs for more immediately attainable improvements to the conditions of squalor in which they live. “She wanted a more hygienic home here, in the name of her children’s vitality. She wanted a shelf on which to cook without rat intrusions… She wanted a small window to vent the cooking smoke that caused the little ones to cough like their father. She wanted ceramic tiles on the floor that could be scrubbed clean, instead of broken concrete that harbored filth in each striation. With these small improvements, she thought her children might stay as healthy as children in Annawadi could be.” And so the family sets out to renovate their shack, and in doing so, they unknowingly “set into motion the chain of contingency that would damage two families forever”.
When the Husains first arrived in Annawadi, their home was divided from their neighbors by only a partitioning sheet. As their business grew more prosperous, the sheet was eventually replaced by a wall of reject bricks, making their shack “the sturdiest dwelling in the row”. Abdul refers to this brick wall as both a source of pride and of fear “that the quality of the bricks was so poor the wall would crumble”. But most of all, he felt “sensory relief” that “there was now a three inch barrier between him and One Leg, who took lovers while her husband was sorting garbage elsewhere”.
One legged Fatima Shaikh is a constant source of trouble for the Husains. While her alcoholic husband is away during the day, she sells her body to any man who will pay, attracting an endless procession of clients to their shared home to engage in her transactions. She beats her own children with a violence that is rumored to have resulted in the death of one of her daughters, and she picks fights with anyone who questions her or stands in her way. One such fight erupts between Fatima and Zehrunisa on the day of the Husains’ renovation. While Abdul struggles to install their new stone cooking shelf in the poorly constructed brick, Fatima emerges furious from her side of their shared wall, screaming that the Husains are attempting to destroy her home. The fight escalates throughout the evening while the Husains press on with their work, until Fatima finally rushes back inside, douses herself with cooking oil and lights a match.
What appears at first to be an act of madness and violent desperation is shortly revealed as an attempt to trap the Husains in a potentially devastating accusation — that they provoked her attempted suicide, a gravely punishable offense in India. As a result of Fatima’s charges, Karam, Abdul and his sister Kehkashan are all arrested and plunged into the labyrinthine Indian criminal justice system, losing their business and shattering their dreams of a better future in the process.
This story of hope beset by interpersonal conflict, social division and all manner of structural obstacles is emblematic of Boo’s study of the lived effects of poverty on the urban poor. Although most of the book is written in a novelistic, even lyrical, style, there are a few instances of a more general critique of the societal structures that determine these individuals’ lives, as in the following passage:
“What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”
While this passage is a clear indictment of the globalization’s narrative of progress and development that would cast the inhumanity of urban slum life as a regrettable, yet necessary, step on the path toward upward mobility, it’s unfortunate that Boo chose to frame her work within the conventions of the Western novel, particularly the overreaching and inappropriate device of third-person omniscient narration. While the use of this technique must certainly have been an attempt at creating a sense of empathy between her subjects and her readers, it has the unfortunate effect of assimilating the lives of real people into expectations of characterization, conflict, struggle and resolution that the reader will bring to a work of this nature.
According to these expectations, individuals are reduced to their roles as heroes and villains within a story, and the lives rendered are swept up in a dramatic arc of conflict and resolution that resembles all too closely the dominant narrative arc of global capitalism: that the tragic realities of the poor and dispossessed, the surplus humanity who occupy the global undercities of our interconnected world, are only a temporary stage of socioeconomic development, rather than a permanent and necessary condition of the unfettered free market let loose across the planet. It’s a narrative that positions the United States, and the rest of the West, as a place of arrival — the resolution to the struggles of the developing world, and by depicting the lives of her subjects according to Western novelistic narrative conventions, Boo’s work has the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the dominant cultural narrative of globalization as progress that it seems determined to contest.