Review: “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo
Behind the Beautiful Forevers unfolds in a slum on the western edge of Mumbai ringed by luxury hotels and a gleaming international airport. Annawadi is a community of 3,000 squatters living in, or among, 350 shacks on the edge of a sewage lake. The town’s main industry is garbage. Every day, thousands of waste pickers fan out to from the undercity to harvest the trash of the overcity.
The author, Katherine Boo, is one of the foremost writers on poverty in the United States. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is her first book, based on years of field research corroborated with thousands of public records.
The title comes from a billboard ad for Italianate tiles, which promises a floor that will be “beautiful forever.” Floor tiles are a big deal in Annawadi. To replace a filthy concrete floor with tile is a status symbol.
Annawadi was settled in 1991, just as the Indian government began a program of social and economic liberalization. “Seventeen years later, almost no one in the slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks,” Boo writes. On paper, the Annawadians are counted among the 100 million Indians who are said to have been liberated from poverty by globalization.
“The Annawadians were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism, a narrative still unfolding,” Boo writes wryly. It’s not clear how the Indian government measures poverty. Evidently, jobs, housing, running water, healthcare, sanitation, education, and police protection are beside the point.
Many Annawadians are significantly better off than they were before the Indian economic boom, but it is absurd to say they've been lifted out of poverty. Moreover, based on Boo's description, it is difficult to imagine how they could rise much higher.
Boo doesn’t say it in so many words, but the implication is clear: As far as Annawadi is concerned, the neoliberal economic miracle is as much a fraud as the phony coroners’ reports that chalk up the bleeding corpses of teenage scrap metal thieves dumped on the airport’s manicured grounds to tuberculosis.
Everyone in the book is desperately poor, but, relatively speaking, the main characters come from the upper crust of Annawadi society.
Asha is the human face of corruption. Hers is a Horatio Alger story with less moral uplift and more realpolitik. Asha lifted herself out of grinding rural poverty, despite having been married off to a hopeless drunk. For her, as for many slum-dwellers, Annawadi represents opportunity compared to what they left back home.
Asha is proof that you can get ahead in Annawadi, provided you work hard and never play by the rules. When you think about how miserable Asha and her children would have been otherwise, it's hard to begrudge her success, even though she hurts a lot of people. Then again, it becomes clear that she's upholding the system that makes it impossible for anyone else to succeed on the straight and narrow.
The 40-year-old mother of three is nominally a kindergarten teacher, but that’s just a patronage appointment from her allies in the anti-Muslim Shiv Sena party. Asha’s teenage daughter Manju insists on teaching the neighborhood children, to her mother’s chagrin. The gig was supposed to be a sinecure, like a lot of public school teaching jobs in India. The children of Annawadi could go to free public elementary schools, but the schools are so bad that ambitious families scrimp to send their brightest kid to private school and put the others to work.
Asha dreams of becoming Annawadi’s first female slumlord. As the story begins in early 2008, she sees an opening: the current slumlord is distracted with his new business, which involves painting zebra stripes on horses and renting them out for birthday parties.
A slumlord is an unofficial of liaison between the authorities and the neighborhood. Amongst other things, Asha helps the police extort bribes from her neighbors in exchange for a piece of the action.
Asha has already done well for herself. She has a tile floor, a cell phone, and the first television set in Annawadi. But most remarkable of all, she is sending her daughter, Manju, to college. The girl is poised to become the first female college grad in Annawadi history.
Manju is a sweet and gentle young woman who is mortified by her mother’s crassness and corruption. “Manju was always relieved to hear of local scandals in which her mother played no pivotal role,” Boo writes.
Asha is stealing money from women’s empowerment programs to give her daughter a higher education. When visiting journalists come to see the fruit of these initiatives, Asha makes her daughter testify that she is going to college and will never be dependent on any man.
The reality is more complicated. The English literature program at Manju’s third-rate girl’s college is based not on reading novels, but on memorizing plot summaries. Only rich people can afford a real college education. Manju is bright and extremely hard working, but nobody expects her to pull her family into the middle class by getting a job. Asha hopes that that a college degree will open up a better class of arranged marriage for her daughter.
Asha makes extra money by gaming anti-poverty programs. The Indian government offers low-interest loans to start small businesses. Asha steers her neighbors into this program. When the loans for their imaginary businesses come through, they kick back a percentage to Asha, the banker, and various government officials.
An old friend of Asha’s begs her to give him a loan for a phony food stand so that he can pay for a heart operation. The friend was a rare Annawadi success story who was lifted off the street by a job cleaning toilets, but he was laid off after he developed a heart defect and passed out on the job. Officially, the surgery costs next to nothing, but the doctors won’t operate without a bribe. Asha refuses. Manju is appalled.
Asha also has a sideline in loansharking through social enterprise. The aspiring slumlord holds sway over a women’s collective that is supposed to pool its savings and give low-interest loans to other women. The club lends at exorbitant interest to neighbors whom Asha has excluded from the clique.
The Huseins are a large family of Muslim migrants from the north. Technically, they are the sort of people that Asha’s Shiva Sen party is sworn to crush, but Asha doesn’t care that her son’s best friend, Mirchi Husein, is Muslim. She’s pragmatic. While her political party foments race riots to terrorize Muslim migrants, Asha makes extra money taking in Muslim boarders.
Zehrusina Husein and her 17-year-old son Abdul are trash brokers who buy up scavenged materials to sell to recycling companies. Theirs is one of the more prosperous families in town, but Abdul still has to sleep outside because his shack can’t contain his eleven-person clan. Unlike their poorer neighbors, the Huseins don’t eat rats, but they still get bitten in their sleep. Infected rat bites are fixture of daily life. Abdul’s father can’t work much because he has tuberculosis, a common affliction in Annawadi.
Garbage handlers drop dead from jaundice on a disturbingly reguar basis. It's easy to guess who's next because the victim's eyes turn orange.
As the trash business prospers, bolstered by a strong scrap market, the Huseins are able to replace the sheet that separates them from their neighbors with a brick wall. The wall puts some much-needed distance between the Huseins and their volatile and eccentric neighbor Fatima, known to all as “The One Leg” because of a withered lower extremity.
Fatima spends a lot of time raging at her neighbors and hurling her crutches. Usually, they deserve it. The fact that she’s known as “The One Leg” says a lot about how the villagers see her. Fatima is never “The One Legged One,” or even “One Leg,” which is at least a nickname, however insulting. She’s “The One Leg,” as if she’s nothing more than her wasted limb.
“Much of her outrage derived from a belated recognition that she was as human as anybody else,” Boo writes.
The neighbors regard Fatima as subhuman, not only for being disabled, but also for shamelessly entertaining an endless parade of lovers while her husband is out collecting garbage. Either the disability or the unabashed sexuality would have been enough to make Fatima a social outcast in Annawadi, but the combination makes her a freak.
Fatima is also suspected, not unreasonably, of being a murderer. Fatima’s two-year-old daughter drowned under suspicious circumstances after being diagnosed with TB. In this town, it’s not unheard of for sick children, especially sick little girls, to be killed before their condition can bankrupt their family.
So, between one thing and another, Fatima has a huge chip on her shoulder.
Fatefully, the Huseins decide to sink some of the profits from their business into home renovations instead of moving to a Muslim trash-sorting outpost like they’d originally planned. Zehrunisa has come to enjoy working and she doesn’t want to go back to living in purdah.
The Huseins decide to install a shelf and some floor tiles. During the renovations the brick wall crumbles sending sand flying into Fatima’s rice. A shouting match ensues, after which Fatima retreats to her side of the shack and sets herself on fire.
Fatima later tells the police that Abdul and his family beat her and burned her. The accusation is transparently false. Fatima’s 8-year-old daughter saw her mother bar the door, douse herself in kerosene, and strike a match. A hundred people saw Fatima flounce away from the argument, unharmed. The police know all this, but they want to use her frivolous accusation as leverage for extortion.
The proximate cause of the disaster is a petty argument, but if the judicial system hadn’t been so corrupt, Fatima wouldn’t have been able to hurt the Huseins. She realized that she could lay a trap for them within the system. Either the family’s top earners would go to jail, or the family would bankrupt itself trying to beat the rap.
While the Huseins sit in prison, their business languishes. They are forced to sell off all their equipment to pay a lawyer. Murchi, the family’s great hope for upward mobility, is pulled out of school to help with the business. The outcome of the legal case becomes almost irrelevant. The family is ruined.
The book is a case study that reads like a novel. Boo set out to observe life in the slum over several years, in the hopes of understanding why some people prospered and others didn’t during a time of massive economic growth. By meticulously documenting one family’s downfall she illustrates complex social and economic relationships that affect the fates of individuals, factors would otherwise remain opaque to outsiders.
Some critics complain that Boo’s work is long on description and short on analysis, but I disagree. Boo layers her observations so subtly and artfully that each twist in the story illustrates hard-won insights about poverty, gender, class, and disability. She is quick to warn against careless generalizations from the experiences of her handful of subjects. That said, her painstaking account of the “what” raises a lot of fascinating testable hypotheses about the “why.”
Conservatives like to blame poverty on laziness and vice. They assure us that anyone who works hard and sacrifices can get ahead. The plight of the Huseins illustrates why it’s difficult, if not impossible, to expect large numbers of poor people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I’m always amused to hear conservatives use “bootstrapping” unironically, as if such a feat were literally possible.
Abdul is determined to keep his head down and mind his own garbage, but try as he might, he can’t isolate himself from the chaos and resentment of his community. When the family tries to better itself, the repercussions are devastating.
If it hadn't been Fatima, it probably would have been something else. “It seemed to Abdul that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged.”
This is a common theme in reporting on poverty in the U.S. and around the world. For people living on the edge, even small upsets can be devastating. In Annawadi, disease, accidents, extortion, and violence are so common that it’s almost impossible to imagine a family keeping catastrophe at bay long enough to achieve security, let alone prosperity.