Behind the Beautiful Forevers: great book, but ...

I devoured Katherine Boo's "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity" in one sitting. It is an engrossing narrative of life in a Mumbai slum.

Gross national statistics do not really the tell the story of how India is growing at 8% a year, pulling millions of Indians every year out of poverty. "How do the poor become less poor?," Ms. Boo asks, and sets out to try to answer the question by following a group of slum dwellers over several years.

Three primary ways, she summarizes: (1) being able to find a niche and work really hard (2) working political connections and widespread corruption to run various scams (3) pursuing education to gain a toehold in the service industry.  Nicely enough, as happens in tightly woven narratives, she has one protagonist for each of the ways by which poor people pull themselves by their bootstraps.

The problem though is that the endemic corruption of Indian society makes life unpredictable. Although progress is gradual, poor people are apt to regress very quickly: corrupt government officials and the system can kill the poor off (literally) or jail them or simply extort their new-found prosperity away.

Much as I loved the book, I had the same concerns that one has about photographers of natural disasters: (1) is it really true or was the photograph staged? and (2) why didn't the photographer rush the bloodied victim to the hospital instead of taking pictures? (3) does the victim in question want to be photographed that way?

In Ms. Boo's case, she takes great care to address the first question. She says that no names have been changed, that everything is cross-validated and that many of the events depicted are on videotape. But this makes the question of #2 much more urgent because the frame around which the book is wrapped is that of a wrongly accused young man. If Ms. Boo had videographic evidence of what happened (and she claims she does), why didn't she use it to get the lad out of the jail where he was severely beaten? As for #3, she claims that the residents of the slum cooperated even when they knew they did not have any say over what she wrote about them in the book. Such an approach is very good to retain balance when reporting on powerful people, but when reporting on the extremely poor, it is highly manipulative. At one point, she relates how a wannabe-middle-class woman has a sexual encounter with a police man on her 40th birthday. That this 40-year old is the mother of Ms. Boo's best sources makes Ms. Boo's betrayal even more horrible.

So, I loved the book but I do not recommend it.

1 comment:

  1. We're all familiar with the symbols of Mumbai poverty - emaciated toddlers with flies in their eyes and their demeanor dulled and bordering on hopeless. The majesty of Katherine Boo's novel is that she does not deal with symbols. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, she brings the Annawadian slum to life in such a powerful way that fictional writers will want to sit up and learn from her craft.

    Her self-professed mission, is "How do ordinary low-income people - particularly women and children - negotiate the age of global markets?" The slum-dwellers she introduces us to are neither mythic nor pathetic and they certainly are not passive. They are not particularly "likeable" and they would probably spurn your pity. Certainly, they believe their lives - no matter how meager they are - are valuable.