Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo

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It was Ramachandra Guha’s endorsement on the front of the Indian version of this book that drew my attention to it: “The best book about contemporary India, the best work of non-fiction that I have read in the past twenty-five years.” I don’t tend to take these author recommendations too seriously, as who knows what behind-the-scenes machinations go on to get endorsements from prominent writers (some truly good writers have endorsed books by Kamila Shamsie, an author who I have vowed never to read again). But this one got me interested because on the surface it didn’t appear that Katherine Boo was doing anything new in writing a book about the slums of Bombay. Such literature and reportage has almost become an industry in itself, especially post-Slumdog Millionaire, and details of plot and character, you’ve read one, you’ve read them all. So how could such a hackneyed topic have caught Guha’s attention?

Boo’s extraordinary writing. This is a work of non-fiction, but it doesn’t read like it. The author enters the heads of the characters, understands their motivations and speaks their words. This could all read as creative license, and indeed I thought it was, until I read the astonishing author’s note at the back of the book: Boo did extensive fieldwork in Annawadi, the slum that is the setting for the book, recording hundreds of hours of interviews, visiting and revisiting her subjects in order to clarify details, employing a translator, gaining access to court records. The kind of research that only very dedicated and inspired writers can pull off (and that should put those like Ned Beauman to shame, who recently, at the NCell Nepal Literature Festival in Kathmandu, admitted that he loved the internet as a writer’s resource because writers like himself, “who couldn’t be bothered”, didn’t have to actually go to the places they were writing about.)

Boo follows the lives of several families in a small section of Annawadi, a slum situated next to Mumbai airport, over the course of a couple of years. I give nothing away in saying that the pivotal event (that happens early on) is the burning-to-death of a Muslim convert woman, over a neighbourhood dispute, and the ruination of a neighbouring family in being implicated in it. Even before I understood how much research had gone into this book, I inherently believed Boo’s portrayal of surroundings as accurate:

“And here at Cooper [government hospital], where fluorescent lights buzzed like horseflies, she continued to feel like a person who counted. Though the small burn ward stank of fetid gauze, it was a fine place compared to the general wards, where many patients lay on the floor. She was sharing a room with only one other woman, whose husband swore he hadn’t lit the fateful match. She had her first foam mattress, now sopping with urine. She had a plastic tube in her nostrils, attached to nothing. She had an IV bag with a used syringe sticking out of it, since the nurse said it was a waste to use a fresh syringe every time. She had a rusty metal contraption over her torso, to keep the stained sheet from sticking to her skin. But of all the new experiences Fatima was having in the burn ward, the most unexpected was the stream of respectable female visitors from Annawadi.” (pp. 99-100)

The sequence of events that follows Fatima’s death illustrates the fragility of the ability to make one’s living in the slums; the corruption and degradation that is an everyday fact of life; the ability of the desperate to keep on living when they have to. Despite ‘hope’ featuring in the title, I didn’t feel that there was very much of it here, unless it can be considered hopeful that life continues, no matter what.

Boo’s writing is what makes this book so brilliant. She has a novelist’s ability to follow characters and plot, and a poet’s sense of language. For instance: “He often presided over his lavender-walled, lavender-furnished living room in an undershirt, legs barely covered by his lungi, while his petitioners flopsweated in polyester suits.” (p. 21) I have often been dumfounded by Indian lads in their top-to-toe shiny polyester in the heat, and now have a new word with which to describe them: flopsweaty.

And the title? I had assumed it was a reference to Bollywood movies. That this book would document what happened once the cameras stopped rolling, once the beautiful happy-ever-afters were screened and everyone went home. But happy-ever-after isn’t a common trope of Bollywood movies, whereas tragedy is, perhaps more fitting for this book. Nevertheless, I was wrong, the reference isn’t to this at all. A “beautiful forever” is a particular wall in Annawadi, keeping some things out, others in; perhaps a more fitting metaphor for the lives retold in this book.

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