The great divide

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am


Behind the Beautiful Forevers
by Katherine Boo
Random House

In 2011, India was in the throes of an anti-corruption movement headed by a Gandhian leader named Anna Hazare. The campaign stirred a middle class noted for its political apathy and blew like a whirlwind across the nation, gathering in its sweep social activists, Bollywood celebrities and media figures.

As the mass agitation spread, Hazare went on several fasts, using a tool Mahatma Gandhi had deftly deployed against the British during India's freedom struggle - his topi cap became a fashion statement as his supporters chanted 'I am Anna'.

Around the time of his first fast in New Delhi, American journalist Katherine Boo was wrapping up three years of reportage from the Annawadi slum in Mumbai that nestles cheek-by-jowl with the international airport. Starting in November 2007, Boo had documented the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and more than 3,000 public records - obtained by diligent petitioning of government agencies under the Right To Information act.

The energetic and vociferous support that Hazare and his team received took the government by surprise. Corruption is endemic in the country as Indians of all classes survive by giving and taking bribes.

Boo wasn't surprised. After her marriage to Indian academic Sunil Khilnani, she often visited India, 'an increasingly affluent nation that still housed one-third of the poverty, and one-quarter of the hunger, on the planet'.

For years, as Boo reported on poor communities in the United States and in India, parallel questions had surfaced: what would it take to get out of poverty?

Thereafter, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New Yorker staffer spent months at a stretch in boggy Annawadi where 3,000 people were packed into 335 huts, as she sought to answer how low-income people - particularly women and children - negotiated the age of global markets.

'What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society?' she asks in the resulting book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. 'Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government's social and economic policy? Whose capabilities are squandered?'

India's growth story had brought in its wake a frothy m?lange: an increasingly affluent middle class, an intrusive media, migration from rural areas to the metropolises, and corruption scandals centred on perfidious politicians. Eventually the affluent middle class, aided by a sensationalist media, stiffened its spine, found its voice and nailed corruption on the self-serving politicos.

But while the pursuit of opportunity has aided the middle class, it has also exacerbated existing inequalities. Behind the runaway success of Slumdog Millionaire, a British film about a young man from the Dharavi slums of Mumbai who beats all odds to become fabulously wealthy by winning a game show, lies the reality of slums juxtaposed with luxury hotels which emphasises the disparity between the rich and poor in the Indian financial capital, alternatively known as Slumbai.

The title of Boo's book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, derives from an advertisement for Italianate floor tiles on a concrete wall that barricaded Airport Road from the slum of Annawadi. The corporate slogan run the length of the wall: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER.

The profound inequality reminds Boo of other modern cities. 'The scholars who map levels of disparity between wealthy and impoverished citizens consider New York and Washington, DC, almost as unequal as Nairobi and Santiago. Why don't more of our unequal societies implode?' she wonders.

How did Boo - a blond Caucasian woman, unfamiliar with India or its languages - chronicle the lives of the Annawadians?

With the help of translators and by compensating for her limitations 'the same way I do in unfamiliar American territory: by time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked'. The white woman circus fell away in a couple of months as 'residents had concerns more pressing than my presence', she says.

For a piece of first-class reportage, the book is written at the pace of a thriller, starting with a scene of self-immolation triggered by a squabble between neighbours. It contains no rags-to-riches story, no dramatic flashpoints, and no Bollywood superstar strolls into the slum (as in Slumdog Millionaire). Taking us into the lives and daily struggles of three Annawadians - Abdul Husain, a garbage sorter; Asha the aspiring slumlord-cum-kindergarten teacher; Manju, who wants to be the first graduate from Annawadi - the narrative engages with its intimate eye and abundant humanity.

There is a reason that Boo has chosen these three protagonists. As every slum dweller knows, there are three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains have found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha places her hopes; and education, which Manju cleaves to.

The teenaged Abdul is the oldest child in the Husain family and its primary breadwinner. A garbage trader who buys from scavengers, his profit comes from selling refuse to small recycling plants. His mantra is to avoid trouble, stay quiet, and work hard to make enough money to buy a plot of land away from Annawadi. Yet an envious neighbour implicates him in a murder, sending the unworldly man-boy hurtling through the hoops of the police-jail-court system. 'The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags,' Boo writes.

Asha, who migrated to Mumbai when she married, truly grasps the opportunities of a globalising economy where the wealthy blame the slum dwellers for making the city filthy, even as the oversupply of labour keeps their servants' wages low. Meanwhile, the poor complain about the inequality and the boundaries erected by the wealthy to prevent them from sharing in the new profits. 'This development increased the demand for canny mediators - human shock absorbers for the colliding, narrowly construed interests of one of the world's largest cities,' Boo writes.

As a slumlord, Asha would become one of those mediators.

Her daughter, Manju, sees education as the vehicle that will assist her in a migration different from her mother's - that of class. She 'by-hearts' her English classics, imagining herself as the heroine, even as her mother urges her to shed her slum ways as she herself has shed her village ones. 'Study the first-class people. You see how they're living, how they walk, what they do. And then you do the same.'

At the narrative's end, the Annawadians face the prospect of their slum being destroyed to make way for an airport extension. Meanwhile, businessmen and politicians are scrambling to buy up the huts in order to profit from the promised rehabilitation. The slum dwellers are angry, confused, unsure, yet they 'rarely got mad together'. 'In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament,' Boo writes.

She offers no neat solutions, believing that little journalism is world-changing. 'But if change is to happen it will be because people with power have a better sense of what's happening to people who have none.'

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a wonderful feat. It should be compulsory reading for everyone descending on the shores of Shining India as they seek to partake in the country's growth story. And for the middle-class India that rallied to Hazare's cause, who would do good to realise 'for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained'.