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Sunday September 9, 2012

Straight from the heart

This is a must-read for anyone who wants to be touched once again by humanity, and for all of us who have inevitably become blinded by economic superiority.

Behind The Beautiful Forevers
Author: Katherine Boo
Publisher: Random House, 288 pages

INDIA will never become the next superpower. At least not for now. If we look beyond the glamorised images of rich Indians globetrotting and corporate buying, and the middle class purchasing fancy cars and gadgets, such a proclamation is not at all derisive.

All one has to do is to take a drive to Annawadi where millions of Indians have built makeshift homes in swampy plugs of cesspools.

Such is the reality, and reality is what Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, promulgates in this wonderful book, Behind The Beautiful Forevers.

But to report what her eyes see would be to simply give way to glib moral outrage, for after all, what she sees is not what India wants the world to see.

That is why, along the road leading to Mumbai’s sleek international airport, there is a high concrete wall covered with advertisements for Italian floor tiles called Beautiful Forever.

Behind that wall, hides Annawadi where Boo spent her four years detailing, recording, scrutinising and witnessing a part of the wretchedness of India.

The title of the book calls to us to look behind the extravagant Beautiful Forevers advertisements and asks us to become voyeurs of misery enumerated at a narrative pace with a novelist’s eyes and a reporter’s ears.

Boo’s cast of characters is original and real. They are subjects of endless interviews and translations. By taking up residency in the slum and by bearing witness to the life of a handful of Annawadians, Boo presents stories that are meaningful, real and honest.

Individually, these stories bear different degrees of heartbreak and absurdity, but together, they share an equally bottomless grief.

Annawadians dump everything into the sewage lake nearby, “most recently, the decomposing carcasses of twelve goats. Whatever was in the soup, the pigs and dog that slept in its shallows emerged with bellies stained blue. Sewage and sickness looked like life”.

Across the sewage lake is the Interconti­nental Hotel, its opulence standing in contrast with Annawadi’s extreme destitution, as if India has run out of means to hide the disparity between wealth and poverty.

Wealthy Indians accuse slum dwellers of shaming the nation, while slum dwellers complain about obstacles the rich place in their way to prevent them from sharing the new profits.

But these rich-against-poor scuffles (whether verbal or physical) are not a consequence of the nation’s new wealth. They are aged and deep-rooted due to myriad factors – the entrenched caste structure, the increasing wealth disparity and corruption.

As one of Boo’s subjects puts it most aptly, “We try so many things but the world does not move in our favour.”

Among the powerful Indians, distribution of opportunity is typically an insider trade. Without a fair chance to compete, coupled with a criminal justice system that works like a market in which innocence and guilt can be bought and sold, each step forward is possibly followed by a plunge down an entire floor. In the end, it is better to just let go.

So, some Annawadians resolve to hide in their huts where “Hut walls grew green and black with mold, the contents of ten public toilets spewed out onto the maidan (public meeting space), and fungi protruded from feet like tiny sculptures – a special torment to those whose native customs involved toe rings”.

In her reporting, Boo finds that young people feel the loss of opportunity most acutely. Children like Abdul, the central character among Boo’s subjects, have little power to fight injustice or to act on their own ideals.

By the time they grow up to become men, they may have become the same waste-pickers, wasting away in garbage and dying in the lake contaminated by slime or the bile of corpses and animals carcasses.

Abdul wanted to be ice in Mumbai’s dirty water. In the end, he too succumbs to reality and becomes a puddle of dirty water like everyone else.

“I tell Allah I love Him immensely, immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is,” Abdul mutters in the year he legally turns into a man.

Just as Abdul is not a representation of every underprivileged child in India, Annawadi is not symbolic of the state of poverty in the entire country.

But Boo’s revelations – based on interviews, live video recordings, photographs, and counter-checks against public records – illuminates very well the lives of this particular group of poor people, encroached by the nation’s feverish desire to achieve modernity and prosperity.

Her exquisite prose, crystal clarity, honesty, passion and talent have made Boo a superb writer, crisscrossing between fiction and nonfiction. In the guise of reportage, she narrates a story, and that story is told straight from her heart.

Boo’s flawless work is a must-read for people watching India, for everyone who wants to be once again touched by humanity, and for all of us who have, inevitably, become blinded by economic superiority.

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