BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS: LIFE, DEATH AND HOPE IN A MUMBAI UNDERCITY by Katherine Boo. Random House, 2012. 256 pages. Hardcover $15.88
Another garbage trader had set up shop at Annawadi, filling the niche created by the demise of the Husains’ business. Abdul now spent his days in a tiny rented storage shed at the edge of the Saki Naka slums. His efforts at trading came to little. The Saki Naka scavengers had preexisting allegiances. But sitting idly in the doorway of the new shed, looking out over an alien maidan, Abdul found that he felt light. Annawadi tragedies did not rank here. No one knew of Fatima, or his family’s trial, or of Kalu’s death, or that Sanjay and Meena had eaten rat poison … Maybe because of the boiling sun, he thought about water and ice.
Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He himself was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him—the police officers and the special executive officer and the morgue doctor who fixed Kalu’s death … But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from—and in his view, better than—what it was made of. He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals.”
For the first time in a quarter century of reviewing books, I have opened with an extensive quote. I do so because I want you to get inside Abdul’s world-view, and I desperately implore that you buy, beg, or borrow Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. If you have a heart, please read this book. If you are lacking this vital organ, I’ll drop the polite niceties: just the read this book you apathetic, heartless brute (or at least read through to the end of this review and send a letter to the editor requesting that book reviewers refrain from insulting you).
The surface story of Annawadi will be familiar to anyone with a glancing understanding of Indian slum life. Even if your knowledge is lightly earned from filmi entertainment like Shree 420 or Slumdog Millionaire, you know the basic narrative: in the midst of plenty, there is want; and the want feeds illusory dreams. The undercity that Boo poignantly renders is filled with, if not fueled by, similar dreams: Mirchi wants a job at a luxury hotel; Raja needs a heart valve; Meena desires a love marriage; Sunil would be happy to eat enough to grow an inch; Asha’s unbridled ambition is to be Annawadi’s first female slumlord; Manju aims to be the slum’s first female college graduate; Sita (a.k.a. Fatima or One Leg) wants to be desired; and Abdul dreams of a wife—an innocent, loving, supportive wife.
If grinding poverty was as romantic as Hollywood dream merchants would have us believe, Boo’s nonfiction would end with a rapturous community dance harmoniously celebrating rising incomes, improved health, good governance, educational equity, and, of course, love-sweet-love.
But Annawadi is real, grindingly real. The backstory involves death by self-immolation, rat-poison ingestion, malarial mosquito infestation, and economic destruction. What Boo does convincingly is to put faces under the mask of death. And rather than linger on the sadness of it all, she probes below the mask to unearth both hope and corruption, helping the reader find a lotus blossoming in a stinking lake of sewage.
Abdul Husain is the lotus, and his “death” is that of innocence lost. No time for this teenager to contemplate a present full of games and girls or a future replete with anything but the drudgery of sorting garbage into recyclable material. Abdul’s story is the engine that drives Boo’s narrative. Between 2007-2011, she methodically observed this boy’s work life, family life, social life, and inner life. His entrepreneurship in waste management enabled his Muslim family to thrive in Annawadi, a predominantly Hindu slum. But as the Husain family grew, its prosperous business and pukka brick house attracted the envy of Fatima, a handicapped neighbor cruelly called “One Leg.” Fatima’s mental and familial instability were matched by her physical deformity: “One Leg’s crutches seemed to be too short, because when she walked, her butt stuck out—did some switchy thing that made people laugh.”
Instability is the law of slum life. Cruel hilarity mixed with growing ambition yield envy. Envy turns to quarrel. Quarrelsome neighbors invite police intervention. And the police take advantage of a small matchstick which ignites ordinary kitchen kerosene into an act of self-immolation that is extraordinary in its cunning and craziness: cunning because it wrongfully accuses the Husain family of murder; and crazy because it results in Fatima’s death and the demise of the Husain family’s modest fortune.
In reading about Abdul’s trial and that of his father and sister who together have been caught in a “great web of corruption,” I came to recognize that not only was a teenage boy’s innocence lost, but also that of this middle-aged book reviewer. The India that I hold dear—a civilization that valorizes the monsoon in Sanskrit love poetry and mythologizes chaos into creative destruction—is nowhere to be seen in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Even the book’s title mocks my romanticized outlook: “The airport people had erected tall, gleaming fences on the side of the slum that most drivers passed before turning into the international terminal. Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements. The ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall’s length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER.”
I am the airport person Boo indicts when she writes that while “rich people spoke of the romance of the monsoon …, at Annawadi, the sewage lake crept forward like a living thing.”
I am the airport person Boo shames when she observes that “every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation—the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life.”
Boo has not only given us a window to Mumbai’s miserable slum life but also a mirror to our attitudes that either perpetuate that misery or ignore it in a haze of self-congratulation. For a moment (a reader’s privileged moment), trade places with the residents of Annawadi. Ask yourself if you would become a Fatima or an Asha: “powerless individuals [who] blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes, like Fatima, they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate, like Asha, they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.”
Or would you, like Abdul, hold on to hopeful ideals. “It is easy from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities, governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be.”
RCO occasionally wonders what his life would have been like had he remained in his city of birth—Bombay—and traded places with the Abduls of the world.
The Bloom of Romystery
TULIP SEASON: A MITRA BASU MYSTERY by Bharti Kirchner. Booktrope $14.95 246 pages. booktrope.com. bhartikirchner.com. Available for digital readers.
This fast-paced mystery-romance novel will surely find favor with older teenage girls. The protagonist, Mitra, is a free-spirited young woman who is part sleuth and part landscape designer. An émigré of Indian origin, think grown-up desi Nancy Drew meets Harlequin heroine.
The narrative centers around the disappearance of Mitra’s friend, Kareena, a domestic violence counselor. Mitra’s strenuous efforts to find her friend are set against the beautiful backdrop of Seattle. Surely anyone who has visited the Pacific Northwest can attest to the beauty of the tulips in the Skagit valley, and these beautiful flowers become a motif for the state of Mitra’s investigation.
Could Kareena’s husband, Adi, have had a hand in this diabolical deed? Why else does he narrow his eyes menacingly whenever he sees Mitra? Articulating in business-speak and buzzwords, Adi provides proof that evil corporate executives can serve as convenient and acceptable scapegoats in mystery novels. Even as recent real-life newspaper headlines tell of insider traders with last names such as Gupta and Kumar heading to jail, there is suspicion that the fictional Adi could be a well-dressed scoundrel. Stories of Ponzi schemes and industry’s wayward flagbearers have recently captured the popular imagination, and surely fictional novels in general and Adi’s character in particular can be inflected by this collective angst.
No less sinister, however, is the mysterious jhola man who revs his motorcycle threateningly at Mitra. This is the shady Jay Bahadur (ok, even a Bollywood outsider can see that that is a clever omission of vowels for the name of the Bollywood legend Jaya Bahaduri.) But let me not give too much of the story away.
At many levels, the novel is a commentary on the angst of immigrants. Kirchner writes of the self-doubt that Mitra is filled with when she meets her college friend Preet, who has chosen to remain at “home,” which term serves as a metaphor for the home left behind as an immigrant. Upon meeting Preet’s son, Kirchner writes: “He reminded her, this treasured child, of the distinctness of her two lives, Indian and American, and how difficult it was to draw the halves closer. As with a broken mirror, the parts simply didn’t fit; the view were distorted, dizzying.”
Mitra seems similarly conflicted in matters of the heart. It doesn’t help that Mitra appears besotted to a Jekyll and Hyde character, Ulrich. If only Mitra would listen to the good advice of Glow, a.k.a. Grandmother. Glow is a sprightly septuagenarian who has formed a deep bond with Mitra. We learn later that she is estranged from her own daughter, and that Mitra fills a very real void. A reminder that kinship transcends blood ties. The warm fuzzies generated by Mitra and Glow help Glow come to terms with the disappointments of thwarted expectations between kin.
To its credit, the blurring of the mystery and romance genre spares us the happily ever ending. Yet several tropes of the Mills and Boon genre are in evidence, the detailed attention to clothes being one of them. The colorful word pictures bring to mind the turning of the pages of a glossy fashion magazine. An example: “It took Mitra no time to choose a pale green number with a blue-gold crystalline border.”
Yet despite the gloss and detail of Mitra’s attire, the characters she interacts with seem strangely flat and uni-dimensional. There is an uneven quality to the book, with some parts written as though in a rush. Non-sequiturs abound. At times, Kirchner’s style appears over-wrought, with excessive adjectives: “Adi’s red-ringed eyes sparked with anger, confusion, despair, and possibly even hatred.”
Still, Kirchner has delivered another tidy installment in this mystery series. After all loose ends of the mystery have been neatly tied, we are left asking a few questions at the end of the book. Will Mitra’s gardens bloom? Will she ever find true love? And will Nobuo Yoshihama continue to cause Mitra’s heart to beat faster?
And as mystery romances go, those are fine questions to leave us with.
Geetika Pathania Jain lives in the SF Bay Area. She wonders if Seattle has changed since the last time she lived there.