Review: ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ by Katherine Boo
Guest post by MITU SENGUPTA
In a remarkable book about slumdwellers in Mumbai, Katherine Boo brings to light an India of “profound and juxtaposed inequality” – a country where more than a decade of steady economic growth has delivered shamefully little to the poorest and most vulnerable. But though indeed a thoroughgoing and perceptive indictment of post-liberalization India, the book fits into a troubling narrative about the roots of India’s poverty and squandered economic potential.
This is a beautifully written book. Through tight but supple prose, Boo offers an unsettling account of life in Annawadi, a slum near Mumbai’s international airport. In Boo’s words, this “single, unexceptional slum” sits beside a “sewage lake” so polluted that pigs and dogs resting in its shallows have “bellies stained in blue.” It is hidden by a wall that sports an advertisement for elegant floor tiles (“Beautiful Forevers” – and hence the title). There are heartrending accounts of rat-filled garbage sheds, impoverished migrants forced to eat rats, a girl covered by worm-filled boils (from rat bites), and a “vibrant teenager,” who kills herself (by drinking rat poison) when she can no longer bear what life has to offer.
Though the book reads like fiction, it is not. As Boo explains, in the author’s note towards the end, everything is real, down to all the names. Boo’s inimitable novelesque work of non-fiction is the product of years of methodical observation and research, a journey that began ten years ago, when she “fell in love with an Indian man and gained a country” (the man in question is Sunil Khilnani, a well-known academic and author of The Idea of India). Boo has chronicled the lives of Annawadians, with photographs, video recordings, audiotapes, written notes and interviews, with several of the children pitching in, upon “mastering [Boo’s] Flip Video Camera.”
This intimate view of life in Annawadi is embedded within a larger concern, about the government’s role in “the distribution of opportunity in a fast-changing country.” In these uncertain times – an “ad hoc, temp-job, fiercely competitive age” – has the government made things better or worse? In a bid to answer this question, Boo has consulted more than three thousand public records, obtained through the Right to Information Act, from government agencies such as the Mumbai police, the state public health department, public hospitals, the state and central education bureaucracies, electoral offices, city ward offices, morgues, and the courts.
The verdict, chilling in its details, is that there is a deep rot at the heart of the Indian state. The utter callousness of government officials is matched only by the utter vulnerability of the poor, who must daily navigate “the great web of corruption.” Police officers batter a child, aiming for his hands, the body part on which his tenuous livelihood depends. Doctors, at a government hospital, alter a burned woman’s records to absolve themselves of blame for her gruesome death. A school, meant for the poor, is closed as “soon as the leader of the nonprofit has taken enough photos of children studying to secure the government funds” (in contrast, a school funded by a Catholic charity, “takes it obligation to poor students more seriously”).
Unlike her husband, Sunil Khilnani, who reserves a measure of affection for the Nehruvian project of state-led development, Boo keeps none. In Boo’s rendering, the state is not only incompetent – failing to provide the basics of a decent life to vast numbers of citizens – it is wholly predatory. As people learn to survive the blows and betrayals of this rapacious state, their expectations as well as “innate capacities for moral action,” are altered. Boo tells us that in Mumbai, a “hive of hope and ambition,” there is no dearth of young people who believe in “New Indian miracles” – that they can go from “zero to hero fast.” In Annawadi, however, a series of encounters with greedy, ruthless government officials ensures that such dreams are crushed, even the modest one of “becoming something different.” A boy, wrongfully accused of murder, is reconciled that the Indian criminal justice is a “market like garbage,” where “innocence and guilt [can] be bought and sold like a kilo of polyutherane bags.” His mother, exhausted by her tussle with a “justice system so malign,” is one of the many adults who keep walking “as a bleeding waste-picker slowly dies on the roadside.”
If Boo’s aim is to shatter the smugness of those who still believe that India is “shining,” she succeeds (as she should). But in a country where corruption, poverty and inequality are the subjects of heated and continuous debate, what are the politics of this powerfully written and slickly produced book? Where does it fit, in the larger conversation? Surely, the question is a fair one of a book that makes such a strong claim to rigorously documenting the lives of the poor?
An evening with a family friend served up a clue. In the midst of complaining about the government’s flagging commitment to reforms and our waiter’s lazy ways, this friend, an ex IMF official based in Washington, delivered a rave review of Boo’s book. I was taken aback, as much as I would be if Mamata Didi suddenly declared a love of Prada shoes. I pushed him on why he had liked it. His answer, quite simply, was that it was beautifully written (which it is), and that he had learned a lot about Annawadi from the book. It was tempting to take these words at face value. It was perhaps wrong of me to expect purism. In the face of brilliant writing, surely even a doctrinaire IMFer could make peace with what the book makes obvious: that “trickle down” has not worked. Yet the incident opened a window to what I has sensed as troubling about the book, and my nagging discomfort with the near-unanimous praise it has elicited, especially for its its courage.
The truth is that it is no longer terribly risky to challenge the idea of a “shining” India. When my late father, Arjun Sengupta, released a report suggesting that 77 percent of Indians live on less than Rs. 20 a day, he was duly punished, albeit relatively mild Government of India style. The commission he chaired was not extended for a second term, his phone calls were not returned, and he spent the last months of his life distressed that his work was being ignored, even by the press. But the country’s mood has changed considerably since then. After more than three years of sagging growth, massive corruption, shrinking investment, and shockingly poor records on health and education, only a handful of ideologues will insist that India is still doing brilliantly (and my father’s report – once dismissed by Mr. Chidambaram as a “myth” – is back in circulation, even within the government). For the garden variety neoliberal, the argument has shifted quite noticeably, from celebrating India’s “shining,” to cataloguing the causes of its all-too-palpable dulling. The lead story in a recent issue of The Economist, titled “How India is Losing its Magic,” is but one indicator.
In fact, the major disagreements today are not over whether something has gone wrong, but about why it has gone wrong. Of course, neoliberals have a ready diagnosis: “governance failures” are destroying the effects of sound economic policy and youthful, entrepreneurial drive. (The Economist makes this point with characteristic self-assurance. India is “losing its magic” because of “the country’s desperate politics,” and “the state, still huge and crazy after all these years.”) Examples abound of floundering government-funded social programs and botched anti-poverty schemes. Even corruption, now undeniable in its mammoth presence and disastrous effects, is seen as a vestige of the old state, a stubborn ancien regime that has refused to keep pace with the liberalizing economy. The attendant prescriptions are to be easily deduced: scale back the state as much as possible, dismantle its unworkable social programs, and slap on an Ombudsman to keep wayward civil servants in line.
To be fair, Boo offers no “solutions.” A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist knows better than to swat the reader with an overt “message.” Yet with its exclusive preoccupation with government failure – Boo does not sift through the public records of international organizations or large corporations, after all – the book’s subtle alignment with the neoliberal narrative is unmistakable. For a globally feted work that does in fact offer a sensitive portrayal of the aspirations, disappointments, and “deep, idiosyncratic intelligences of the poor,” this is most worrying. Some of the most pressing struggles today, for the poor, and more importantly, by the poor, are to increase public funding for health and education, to universalize the reach of social security measures, and to expand the ambit of the legal system in order to secure recognition and entitlements from the state.
One can understand why Boo is eluded by this. Given her preoccupation with documenting “poor on poor crime” – the reasons why, in these competitive times, the poor work against each other and have little capacity for collective action – she overlooks the many empowering instances where they do successfully organize, and even win. One may argue, of course, that a single book (or film or documentary) can never do everything, and that the scale of responsibility of an individual author should always be viewed as limited. Yet I find it astonishing that in the 250-odd pages of this otherwise insightful book, there are no examples of sustainable and constructive political relationships, among the residents of Annawadi, or between the residents of Annawadi and the outside world. How odd, for this is Mumbai, a city famous for its vigorous housing rights movements, sex workers’ unions, and small vendors’ associations. For a “single, unexceptional slum,” Annawadi seems exceptional indeed.
This brings me to my final concern about the book. Boo’s work is part of a larger genre, of films and writings on the urban poor, that has exploded in popularity in the last decade. While the reasons for the proliferation of such works are many, the chief one, surely, is their relative ease of production. It is not difficult or expensive to obtain access to the poor. There are no razor-wired fences and gun-toting guards to contend with, and one need not bother with bribing maids or hacking laptops. In contrast, how much do we know about the bed-hopping, drug-snorting, verbally abusive ways of the rich? And what do we know – Shobha De’s Socialite Evenings comes to mind – is not the stuff of assiduous videotaping, interviewing, and rummaging through public records, but of semi-autobiographical observations that can rarely lay much claim to authenticity. Aren’t the lives of the poor already an open story? When does a work that scrutinizes the lives of the poor so unsparingly become exploitative? And doesn’t the ease of access to the marginalized enlarge the author’s scale of responsibility, to leave absolutely no stone unturned?
Again, to be fair to Boo, her book is a cut above the standard fare on the subject. If turned into a film, it will most likely be superior to the heavy-handed Slumdog Millionaire, or even the more nuanced Salaam Bombay. There is a good deal to be learned from the book. “Ribby children with flies in their eyes” may never be seen in the same light again, and one may be pushed to care more about a waiter’s meager wages than whether he dished up our soup on time. These are certainly possibilities. But there is another one, not so laudable: that the neoliberal establishment will find substance, in Boo’s book, for their wider narrative of why the government can only ever fail, and why retracting the already-thin cover of publicly funded programs remains the best bet for getting India back on track.
Mitu Sengupta teaches political science in Canada, and is currently in Delhi, with the Centre for Development and Human Rights.