Thursday, June 30, 2016

Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Reporter Katherine Boo travels to Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai, and chronicles the lives of some of its residents. Is it more poverty porn? Would you not be better off reading Aravind Adiga's collection of stores entitled Between the Assassinations? I mean, poverty is poverty is poverty. And let's face it: We don't like seeing, hearing or talking about it. We want our soap operas to feature corporate intrigue and disputes over vast properties, like Dallas or Dynasty, not schmucks needing payday loans to keep the water on and pay rent. We want our superheroes to be self-funded billionaires like Bruce Wayne (Batman) and Charles Frances Xavier (Professor X). We don't even hear about poverty from our news outlets.

Katherine Boo's narrative reads so much like a novel in its exploration of the inner worlds of the residents of Annawadi that I found myself wondering whether the book was truly non-fiction. She explains in an author's note appended to the book that she deliberately used that style of writing to move the reader past a sociological, detached view of poverty to ponder questions about how our current economic and political structures impact the beliefs and choices poor people have.
Why don't places like Airport Road, with their cheek-by-jowl slums and luxury hotels, look like the insurrectionist video game Metal Slug 3? Why don't more of our unequal societies implode? [p 248]
Katherine Boo doesn't prescribe solutions to help the extreme poor, but the following excerpts should give you an idea of where her mind is. But these excerpts, which appear near the book's end, have much more impact if you've read what precedes them.
The [animal rights] activists had been few in number but, working together, they'd made their anger about the [abused] horses register. At Annawadi, everyone had a wrong he wanted righted: the water shortage, brutal for three months now; the quashing of voter applications at the election office; the worthlessness of the government schools; the fly-by-night subcontractors who ran off with their laborers' pay. Abdul was one of many residents who were angry at the police. Elaborate fantasies about blowing up the Sahar Police Station had become the secret comfort of his nighttimes. But the slumdwellers rarely got mad together -- not even about the airport authority. 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. When they were fortunate, like Asha, they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people. [pp 236-7, italics in original]
In the age of globalization -- an ad hoc, temp-job, fiercely competitive age -- hope is not a fiction. Extreme poverty is being alleviated gradually, unevenly, nonetheless significantly. But as capital rushes around the planet and the idea of permanent work becomes anachronistic, the unpredictability of daily life has a way of grinding down individual promise. Ideally, the government erases some of the instability. Too often, weak government intensifies it and proves better at nourishing corruption than human capability. [p 253]
In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly. [p 254]
The book's web site has a promotional video and a discussion guide. Find a copy of the book in a library near you.

P.S. Thinking about this a little more, I remembered the adage, "those who talk don't know and those who know don't talk." Might Katherine Boo's informants have led her to underreport the revolutionary potential of Annawadi and its class solidarity? The Marxist in me hopes so.