I read Pulitzer-winner Katherine Boo’s book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’’ first with discomfort, then moral outrage, and later with a sense of despair.
Character development. An acute ear for dialogue and idiom. A sense of place. These are the essential ingredients of a good novel. So what’s a fiction writer like me supposed to do when Boo employs all these and writes a book of nonfiction so stellar it puts most novels to shame? How can I not envy a work that takes us on harrowing journey into an unfamiliar world of an urban slum and makes us citizens of that world?
To add salt to my literary wounds: That slum is located in Mumbai, the city of my birth, one I’ve written about frequently, and until now, claimed to know and understand.
It turns out I knew little. And understood even less.
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’’ divided into four sections, introduces us to an unforgettable group of rag pickers and other marginalized, impoverished residents of Annawadi, located on the edge of the city’s gleaming new international airport. At the center of the tale is a poor family wrangling with the system after being falsely accused in a horrific tragedy involving a neighbor.
These people reveal their true lives to an American woman who spends so many months and years with them - who literally swims in a sewage lake that adjoins the slum - that they forget she is recording and filming them. That kind of immersion journalism - plus the thousands of hours spent poring over hard-to-get government and court records - has produced a brilliant, unforgettable book about “life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity.’’
Hope, you ask? What kind of hope can exist in a place where 15-year-olds commit suicide by consuming rat poison? Where the bleeding, tormented body of a young scavenger hit by a car lies writhing on the pavement while hundreds of people walk past him. Where the police and politicians and judges and caseworkers shake down the slum’s desperate residents for every last, sodden rupee.
Therein lies the genius of this book. “Beautiful Forevers’’ tells the story of the slum against the backdrop of the New India, the shiny India Inc. of booming stock markets and dazzling growth. But to the struggling, striving residents of Annawadi, globalization is not a promise but a taunt, a tease. The billboards, the movie star endorsements, the ads on TV, all sell the promise of transformation, of unimaginable success.
Here’s the irony sharp enough to cut your heart: Despite their poverty, almost every resident of Annawadi is inspired by these (mostly) false promises. Globalization has produced an aspirational class of slum dwellers, even when those aspirations are confounded by raging corruption, stifling traditions, illiteracy, and seemingly distant events, such as the housing market collapse in America.
Not to mention the whims of the powerful, who destroy lives and families without even registering the fact.
Take the case of the main protagonist, the Muslim teenager Abdul Husain, who spends his life sorting the mounds of recyclable trash that he buys from the scavengers. This is the family business, and Abdul and his mother, Zehrunisa, are envied for their relative wealth. But a modest home renovation - comprised of putting up a new shelf and rebuilding a small brick wall that separates their property from the one next door - marks the collapse of the Husains’ fortunes.
Fatima, a distraught, one-legged neighbor sets herself on fire after arguing with the Husains over the wall and then falsely accuses Abdul and his father and sister for her plight. Despite scores of witnesses, including the dying woman’s own daughter, the family is arrested because Zehrunisa refuses to bribe all the right people. And thus begins a journey into the dark labyrinth of a criminal justice system that would leave Kafka scratching his head.
One would expect Abdul to emerge from this odyssey scarred, bitter, cynical. Instead, a lecture by a visitor to the juvenile detention center gives Abdul a better idea - he has been dirty water his entire life. Now, he will try to be pure, like ice. The dream of self-improvement, of transformation, grips this slum boy’s life.
In one of the books most moving - and surreal - sections, Zehrunisa washes the dead body of the woman whose lies have destroyed her entire family. Part of this is simply religious duty - Fatima is one of the few other Muslims in the slum - but Boo makes us understand that living cheek by jowl with others creates its own ecosystem and morality.
And yet, despite such instances of human decency, the residents of Annawadi are not the saintly, noble poor of much fiction. There are no Tiny Tims or Tom Joads here. They cannot afford to be. Living on subsistence wages, beside sewer lakes and mud-cased pigs and goats, standing in line for hours for a trickle of water, facing the daily threat of the imminent razing of the illegal slum, battling their own superstitions and flaws, killing themselves to pay for a substandard education for their children doesn’t leave much time for human kindness.
This is not poverty porn. Rather, it is an unflinching, unsentimental portrait of the city’s poor - mean, envious, striving. There is no apotheosis in poverty, Boo reminds us. There is only humiliation and a kind of bewilderment.
Affluent Indians are deeply sensitive about the “negative’’ portrayal of their country, and I suppose Boo will come in for her share of criticism. This would be a mistake. “Beautiful Forevers’’ is an astoundingly honest, nonexploitative piece of journalism, a humane, powerful and insightful book that reveals how the world’s poor live, die, and hope in the age of globalization.