Hope can be found in Mumbai slum
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” by Katherine Boo. Random House $27.
By H. Deal Safrit
For the Salisbury Post
SALISBURY — That there have been countless books on the rise of India as an economic powerhouse in the past decade is true. That India, along with China, is striving to overtake the United States as leaders in the new global marketplace is true. That American workers have seen millions of jobs flee their shores for new homes within the borders of India is true. But, that greater and greater numbers of impoverished rural Indians have moved into the slums of India’s increasing high-tech cities to eke out a living where virtually no jobs exist for them is also true.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo embedded herself in one of India’s undercities from November 2007 until March 2011, where she observed, studied and closely monitored the inhabitants of this slum on the edge of the airport of Mumbai. “Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life.”
Three thousand people live in Annawadi slum; at the time Boo was there, six had real, permanent jobs. Many survive by working as day laborers, scavengers, garbage sorters (recyclers) or other forms of creative make-do work. A few work for NGOs or are government workers in schools, which are quite often only shadow institutions, vehicles of corruption for the increasing middle-class that live outside the slum area. Some survive by gigging the frogs from the sewage pond. The Indian government does not consider Annawadi a poverty-stricken area, but instead a success story for a rising India.
In “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” Boo follows a few of the inhabitants of Annawadi over the course of her research, focusing extensively on two families in particular, one Hindu and the other Muslim. Both families, like many of the residents of Annawadi, surprisingly have great hopes for the future, for an escape to a better life. One family sees the path through gains in political power, which in India, and in a place like Annawadi in particular, means power through corruption. The other family sees the path upward through hard work and living frugally, and investing in a spot of land outside, back in rural India.
For the Muslim family of Abdul, the path is through hard work, and young Abdul works diligently sorting and reselling the “recyclables” he purchases from the garbage pickers. His family depends on his income, and has even managed to purchase an extra shed for garbage storage and place a deposit on a rural piece of property. “If life and global markets kept going their way, they would soon be landowners, not squatters, in a place where Abdul was pretty sure no one would call him garbage.”
The Hindu family of Asha is somewhat different, in that Asha has some modicum of political power within the slum. Not as much as she thinks she has, but some. Asha also has a daughter who is in college, an unusual situation. Asha runs a “bridge school” in her home, for children not in school, and for which she gets a government check. But, of course, it is her college-educated daughter who really operates the school. Asha’s other entrepreneurial ventures have failed, but she has plans to follow a political career, which in India means one that is corrupt. “But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.”
Both families Boo follows suffer setbacks that continue to return them to square one. This situation is particularly true of Abdul’s Muslim family, for they are a despised minority. Early in the book, Abdul, his father and his sister are falsely charged with attempted murder of their neighbor One Leg in a scenario that is straight out of a horrendous gothic tale, and throughout the remainder of the book they will struggle through the corruption of the Indian justice system and particularly the police to get out of prison and to prove their innocence. And, throughout the book, Asha schemes to embrace the corruption of her culture, yet often, when those above her are exposed, finds her trip to the corrupt money pit to be useless.
While individual lives of the residents of Annawadi are focused on in the book, the overwhelming amount of public and private corruption in India is appalling and affects all. The corruption is particularly pervasive with the police; within the medical community, where most medicine and surgical supplies are sold out of the hospitals into the black market to be resold to patients; and, within the NGOs. The entire community of Annawadi is threatened by airport expansion and slum clearance, as if there is any place for the residents to go other than one of the countless other undercity slums that surround Mumbai.
The subtitle of Katherine Boo’s book is “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” and of the first two Boo will give the reader some horrid and depressing examples. Yet … yet, Boo, and the reader, will be amazed at the degree of hope and resilience that pervades the inhabitants of Annawadi. Haunted by the desperation of their situation and the day to day struggle simply to survive, the residents strive forward, searching for and working for a better life. Further, though they have grown accustomed to their situation, they are not content with it — not as individuals, nor families, nor as a collective. Most have, at some point in the past, left the poverty of rural India in search of a better life, and, though their situations may be incrementally worse in Annawadi, they dream of their present situation as only a stopping place, a rest stop, as they move forward, maybe not into the middle class, but, always to something better.
So, read this book. If your job has been outsourced to India, read this book. If you eke out your own living here, in the United States, read this book. If you worry about health care in this country, if you are concerned with political corruption in this country, if you wonder where your money goes when you send it to some non-profit in India, read this book. If you think India has grown large, and the United States has dwindled to small, read this book. Let Katherine Boo, in “Beyond the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” put India in proper perspective for you.