Think of the sprawling mega-cities of India and the chances are that one of the first images that enters your mind are the vast slum districts that lie huddled beneath the gleaming skyscrapers. It is this incongruous juxtaposition – the symbol of India’s emerging status as a major economic mover on the one hand, yet its continuing problem with extreme, stark and sometimes confrontational poverty on the other – that is one of many things that make it such a fascinating country.
It makes for great subject matter, of course. One famous example is the Slumdog Millionaire novel/movie; ditto the biographical A Long Way Home, which became the award winning movie Lion. Whilst the former may be fiction and the latter a true story, they both feature tons of adversity that is ultimately overcome by the protagonists, offering a redemptive measure of hope.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers isn’t quite like that. Yes, it’s tagline is ‘Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity’, but here the visceral account of the realities of slum life make for a much more brutal read. That’s not to say that this is an unremittingly hopeless read. Nor is it to say it is a bad one (far from it). But the players in this particular piece have to work that much harder, get beaten down that much more savagely, to get up, dust themselves off and face their seemingly bleak situation for one more day.
The book is written over the course of three years, where Boo reported on the trials and tribulations of select inhabitants of Annawadi, a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near Mumbai’s airport (there’s that juxtaposition again). And it is very much makeshift, as the have nots who reside here are every day faced with the prospect of being displaced as developers move in to expand the nearby facilities for the haves. It is not only this prospect that informs the lives of the inhabitants, but the everyday struggle to survive, caste/religious/ethnic tensions, the means the Annawadians resort to in an attempt to ‘get ahead’ and, most tragically of all, the false accusation made against one boy of the slum, Abdul, that has severe repercussions for many.
Unusually for a travelogue, Boo disconnects herself from the narrative completely, opting to write in the third person. My initial feelings on this were mixed. It does guarantee that we wouldn’t get a solipsistic narrative, where the writer rather gets in the way of the story they’re trying to tell, often with hugely frustrating results. However, it can also mean a bit of an emotional disconnect, as if you’re reading a long newspaper article rather than a travel writing book, which is frustrating in a different sort of way.
So to that end I would recommend committing one of reading’s cardinal sins, and actually read the excellent author’s note at the back of the book first. No spoilers are given away, I promise! It provides some much needed context to the narrative, goes a long way to explaining why the dialogue is minimal, and most important of all outlines her principal motivation for writing the book. It’s summed up succinctly by her own question: ‘After all, there are more poor people than rich people in the world’s Mumbais…Why don’t more of our unequal societies implode?’
Why indeed, and in trying to answer this question, Boo can find no easy answers. Some may find this irritating, but to me this is what makes this work. After all, this is a travelogue, not a treatise on eradicating global poverty. And Boo is not afraid of depicting her subjects in an honest light, detailing just how cruel they can be to each other, with the false accusation made against Abdul just one example. She doesn’t lionise them as noble, but nor does she judge them for their actions either. Instead, she straightforwardly reports, but not in a dry way. Indeed, the story is pacey, with the colourful cast of characters providing plenty of grist for the narrative mill.
Ultimately it all makes for a riveting read, and an insight in to the ‘real’ India that almost all visitors will never see. Just don’t expect to have a warm feeling inside when you finish it. Again, to quote Boo’s own words, ‘…in undercities governed by corruption…it is blisteringly hard to be good.’ That Boo manages to find goodness at all, and manages to be compassionate and even occasionally humorous in what could so easily have been a very depressing tale, is no small achievement.
Mumbai image courtesy of Sarah Jamerson