lip lit: behind the beautiful forevers
Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is a devastating and important investigation of slum life in India. Stylistically, it’s near perfect: the writing is erudite, informative, intimate, and accessible. It is narrative non-fiction in the best possible sense: it reads like a novel, but avoids the trap of over-interpretation. Boo expertly balances an objective journalistic tone with the heartbreaking details of daily life in the Annawadi slum, located on the outskirts of Mumbai. For bringing wider recognition to this place and writing its reality so beautifully, she deserves every accolade she has received, from the Pulitzer Prize to the National Book Award.
Situated on the periphery of Mumbai airport, Annawadi has existed for over 20 years. Still, the threat of its demolition is ever imminent, as each year development is mooted by the luxury hotels which cast their shadow over the slum. This juxtaposition of conspicuous consumption beside desperate poverty would seem lazy if it were included in a work of fiction: as a reality, it is a depressing representation of modern India’s contradictions and shortcomings.
The book’s nominal plot is the false accusation of murder leveled by a crippled woman, Fatima, against her neighbours, the Husain family. The Husains run a small, precariously lucrative garbage sorting business. A long history of simmering tensions and resentment between them and Fatima culminates in a public argument over a shared dividing wall, after which Fatima pours petrol over herself and lights a match. Afterwards, lying on her deathbed in a hospital she cannot afford to pay for, Fatima tells the police that the Husains had incited her to self-harm, accusing the father and two teenage children of attempted murder.
Fatima’s self-immolation is a powerfully symbolic act of both defiance and desperation. The series of events leading up to her attempted suicide, and the court case which follows, form the narrative backbone of the book. But in between, Boo ranges far and wide across the sprawling territory of the slum and its inhabitants at all levels.
Reading a book which addresses daily life in impoverished Indian communities, it is natural that the recent and ongoing debate over the treatment of women is called to mind.
In the widely-publicised case of the recent gang-rape on a bus, the driver and his brother were raised in the South Delhi slum of Ravidas. Through their direct involvement in the rape of the woman, these men demonstrated a complete disregard for her humanity. It’s relevant to examine the ways in which the lives of slum residents, in this case Annawadians’, may be broadly informed by cultural assumptions about gender. Interestingly, however, it is remarkably difficult to draw any firm conclusions based on the men and women whose lives Boo chronicles.
The men of Annawadi are largely absent or ineffectual figures. The young boys are a spark of life which animates the slum. They are everywhere, running wild and causing trouble even as they spend long days collecting rubbish or stealing scrap metal in order to survive. But by their late teens, they are already broken and bowed by their work, until that spark and their Bollywood dreams are beaten out of them.
Perhaps surprisingly, the women profiled in Behind the Beautiful Forevers are generally strong figures, if frustrated by circumstance. They rail against ineffectual men and strive to be leaders, educators, and to achieve self-determination. They are not always successful, and their stories are no more or less disheartening than those of the men around them – that is, they are equally heartbreaking and inspiring.
Zehrunisia, formidable matriarch of the Husain family, is harsh and brutal with a filthy mouth. She doesn’t condescend to coddle her children, enlisting them as part of the business. It’s too easy to condemn her lack of sentimentality, and overlook the motivation for this ruthlessness: a desire to create an environment in which her family can live and grow with some small sense of comfort and security.
When Fatima eventually succumbs to her self-inflicted wounds, it falls to the Husains, as one of the only other Muslim families in the slum, to conduct her funeral rites and mourning. The coffin of the dead woman, who ruined them with her false accusations, is covered with the family’s best cotton quilt. Boo movingly describes Zehrunisia’s devastation after Fatima’s funeral:
Zehrunisia returned to her hut and sobbed, still clutching the rag with which she’d cleaned her neighbour. She didn’t cry for the fate of her husband, son, and daughter, or for the great web of corruption she was now forced to navigate, or for a system in which the most wretched tried to punish the slightly less wretched by turning to a justice system so malign it sank them all. She cried for the manageable thing – the loss of that beautiful quilt, a parting gift to a woman who had used her own body as a weapon against her neighbours.
Other women of Annawadi whose lives are chronicled by Boo are equally determined. Asha is a ruthless aspiring slumlord with an alcoholic husband she ignores. She believes she can ably fulfill the role of corrupt electoral go-between just as well as any man, and willingly uses sex to achieve her political goals. Her teenage daughter, the intelligent and virtuous Manju, is determined to become the first female college graduate of the slum. She is responsible for the running of their household, where she voluntarily teaches local slum children without any other accessible education. They are two women pursuing very different forms of agency, in a society where upward mobility is universally desired but unattainable for most.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers investigates the precarious and fragile nature of success in India’s slums. This is a world with a surfeit of despair and hopelessness, of small reprieves and never-ending setbacks. India is a developing country which has rushed to embrace globalisation at the expense of its most vulnerable majority. The collective story of Annawadi is a warning of the damage caused to those left behind. Boo’s honest account of slum life is often difficult to read, but its importance cannot be overstated. Ultimately, the book is proof of the universal nature of human relationships, in all their tangled messiness and toughness.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is published by Granta.
By Veronica Sullivan