Slums in Bombay are an excellent example of the growing inequalities, financial and social. My analysis is located in attempts to highlighting the asymmetry of information, disintegration of the individual in a social settings, and most importantly financial exclusions of people in the slums
Slum tourism has today become a quintessential experience in the bucket list of a tourist visiting Bombay, especially after the success of Slumdog Millionaire. The Oscar winning movie has led to an increase of organized and guided visits to slums, especially Dharavi. However, before slum tourism became popular, and the movie became a roaring hit, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist ‘felt a shortage in India-based non-fiction’, and wrote her first book Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
“It was a fine time to be a garbage trader, not that that was the term passersby used for Abdul,” Katherine Boo writes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. “Some called him garbage, and left it at that.” This book is an enthralling tale of a scavenger boy named Abdul, who is introduced in the first half of the book, as a boy growing in Bombay’s Annawadi slum, whose mother Zehrunisa was foul mouthed, and his father’s lung was wrecked due to tuberculosis and garbage. Hence, he single-handedly runs his ‘business.’ The action rises when his neighbour Fatima sets herself on fire and lodges a police complaint against Abdul and his family. The book follows through the criminal procedure of the case, and ends with Abdul and his father being freed from the prison. It also traces the life of Asha, a Shiv Sena worker, her college-going daughter Manju, who also teaches the slum kids English in the evening, and her son Rahul, who works in a posh hotel nearby. We are also introduced to other minor characters such as Manju’s friend Meena, who faces pressure from her family to marry the man of their choice, who Meena has never met, and Abdul’s friend Sunil who made great profits when Abdul was in juvenile care.
Explaining the role of the state, Jan Nijman (2009), writes, “It is hard to imagine this persistence of slums without effective facilitation by the state. It has, after all, the power in principle to eradicate, to legalise, to prohibit, to build roads and provide services, or to do nothing at all.” Perhaps Boo, while writing, internalized this view, as her argument about the apathy of the State at the inhuman treatment of the citizens on Annawadi is a constant occurrence throughout the book, especially as she describes the criminal justice system in a heartbreaking manner. Keeping in mind Foucault’s work on ‘governmentality,’ Roma Chatterjee (1999; 2010) writes, “It is assumed that conditions of extreme social inequality make the articulation of citizenship impossible in any meaningful sense.” The three successive types of role the government has taken, according to her, with respect to the slum population of Bombay are of controller, provider and facilitator. The policies, thus acknowledge “major shifts in its self-presentation while trying to rationalise these shifts within a single frame of reference.” This rationalization is exemplified through the background of politics, which only results in the parties involved benefitting from the position of power, while the slum-dwellers have no significant effect, positive or negative, on who’s the local political leader.
What makes the book stand out is its narrative and style, in that it flows freely, like a work of fiction, and we do not, till the author’s note find out that they are real life characters, and a real story. In a style most fiction-writers would envy, Katherine Boo narrates a journalistic documentation particularizing human behaviour in a world of globalizing markets, terrorist attacks, and global recession rocked Bombay. It expresses articulately a staggering tragedy of people in a slum, without arousing pity, and the inequalities that they face, in terms of financial and institutional exclusion, corruption, poverty, and helplessness.
The ultimate question the book tries to answer is “Why aren’t the slum-dwellers bound together by common interests and common enemies?” (Maslin 2012) In an attempt to answer this question, Boo narrates the incident of One Leg, Fatima, who is oppressed, one reason for which is her physical disability. Abdul and his family as well as Fatima belong to the religious minority of Muslims in the slum, and they constantly fought over the common wall they shared. Even though they feared suppression due to religious affiliation, the need for upward mobility surpassed, resulting, ultimately in the death of Fatima. Similarly, it pinpoints educational exclusion and corruption through Asha’s family. “When foreign journalists came to Mumbai to see whether self-help groups were empowering women, government officials sometimes took them to Asha. Her job was to gather random female neighbours to smile demurely while the officials went on about how their collective had lifted them from poverty.” (Boo 2012). Manju, her daughter who by-hearts her psychology notes by reciting it to the children who have come to her to learn English. She crystallizes what she discovered: “Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes, like Fatima, they destroyed themselves in the process.” (Boo 2012)
Apart from the obvious flaw of the methodology of ethnography, the Katherine Boo has done a wonderful job of it. For a blonde-haired woman from New York to mingle in with the population of slum-dwellers in Bombay would have been a mountainous task; yet as she spent years trying to get the people to talk to her as she documented the events with an unbiased fashion. Another flaw is that the book is too crowded-there are many stories woven into one book. However, seeing that it is a story set in a Bombay slum it seems but apt.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers thus stand for everything behind the sunshine-yellow ads for ceramic tile that are painted on a concrete wall, which repeats the words ‘Beautiful’ and Forever’. Behind these Beautiful Forevers, lay the sprawling slum of Annawadi. It may also represent the seemingly beautiful forevers of the city of Bombay (commonly represented as ‘the city of dreams’), behind which the ugly truth of poverty, exclusion, and helplessness lies.
Thus, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a breathtaking book to read, as Katherine Boo weaves a tale of ‘life, death and hope in a Mumbai Undercity’