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

The squalid margins of Mumbai are brilliantly pinned to the page

The muses are not static or isolated beings; they cluster in particular places at particular times. What Florence was to Italian literature in the 14th century, or Paris to the French novel in the late 19th, so Bombay/Mumbai has been to recent writing about India.

The art deco townhouses and sprawling slums of the largest of the Indian megacities forms the backdrop to three of the finest Indian novels of modern times, Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Mistry's A Fine Balance and Chandra's Sacred Games. More recently, it has also provided the foreground to some of the best work to emerge from India's new wave of non-fiction, notably Suketu Mehta's Maximum City and Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Thing. Now another small masterpiece can be added to this list. The difference is that this time, the book has been written by a rank outsider: a fragile, blonde New Yorker staffer who only discovered South Asia in her mid-30s when she happened to marry an Indian academic.

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo examines the lives and dreams of the people of Annawadi, a suffocating "sumpy plug of slum" that squats between the glossy luxury hotels around Mumbai airport and a fetid lake of raw sewage. Jets scream overhead; the "honk-horn opera" of the airport road is played out beyond a concrete wall covered with hoardings for the Italianate floor tiles, "Beautiful Forever", which gives the book its title.

The shanty town was born in 1991, the year when India's economic liberalisation began, when a group of migrant Tamil labourers reclaimed the land from a snake-infested bog on the edge of the airport. Boo sets out to study what she calls "the infrastructure of opportunity" that allows these most economically marginalised of Mumbai's dreamers – the rag-pickers and migrant labourers who have been thrown off their land and sucked into Annawadi – to survive as Slumbai attempts to reinvent itself as a glamorous world city. Here, she writes, for all the deprivation and injustice, "hope is not a fiction" and her scavengers can succeed in flourishing against all the odds, like the fish who somehow continue to swim in the junk-rimmed, excrement-filled swamp-lake that frames the slum. Some are even on the verge of pole-vaulting into the middle class, though, as Boo notes, "for every two people in Annawadi inching up, there was one in a catastrophic plunge".

The book takes on a number of difficult technical challenges. It is never easy for a middle-class intellectual to convey the struggles of the lives of the poor and disadvantaged; Orwell pulled it off, but few others have succeeded without sounding either condescending or voyeuristic. It is more difficult still if that writer comes from a different country and does not speak the requisite languages. Yet thanks to several years of rigorous research on the ground, following her characters around as they live their lives, months of research retrieving court documents through India's Right to Information Act, and, most of all, through close observation and a deep human empathy, Boo has created as detailed, convincing and moving a portrait of urban deprivation as The Road to Wigan Pier.

Throughout, Boo writes beautifully and, given her subject, surprisingly wittily. She is also wonderfully observant of human quirks: she notices, for example, how the little boys of Annawadi stand "close together, though there was plenty of space... for people who slept in close quarters, his foot in my mouth, my foot in hers, the feel of skin against skin had got to be a habit". The irrepressible hopefulness of her characters has echoes of Steinbeck's hungry but ever optimistic migrants in The Grapes of Wrath. Yet both in texture and subject, Boo comes closer still to Dickens in Our Mutual Friend.

Like Gaffer Hexham, Noddy Boffin and John Harmon scavenging on the reeking dust heaps and fetid water bodies of London 150 years ago, Boo's characters struggle to better themselves by sorting, selling and recycling the noxious refuse of modern Bombay. Her Mumbai, like the dark streets of Dickens's London, is a place of violent inequality and discrimination: one boy loses a hand in a shredder and stands there "with his blood-spurting stump", apologising to the factory owner for making a mess; long-term residents find their lungs clugging up in the "spoon-it-up air", heavy with sand and gravel blowing in from a nearby concrete plant. Most nights "the place was bedlam: people fighting, cooking, flirting, bathing, tending goats, playing cricket, waiting for water at the public tap, lining up outside the little brothel, or sleeping off the effects of the grave-digging liquor dispensed from a hut".

This, after all, is a city more than half of whose citizenry live in makeshift housing. Yet it is also a place of rapid expansion and unlimited opportunity, irrigated by rivers of new money, "a smogged-out, prosperity-driven obstacle course... from which wads of possibility had tumbled down to the slums". The stinking rubbish that would make most people shrink in horror is to the inhabitants of Annawadi "a fortune beyond counting" that they hope will lead them to their dreams, or, as they put it, "the full enjoy".

If Boo manages to avoid Dickens's sentimentality – she is admiring but unromantic about her characters – she shares his ability to create a complete pen portrait of an individual with just a few lines of description and a snatch of dialogue. We meet the Muslim brothel owner who was attempting to diversify into goat breeding, "but the goats had proved as troublesome as the girls". There is the former slum boss who painted his horses with stripes to resemble zebras, which he then rented, "along with a cart, to the birthday parties of middle-class children". There is the "drug-addled scavenger who talked to hotels: "I know you're trying to kill me, you sisterfucking Hyatt." There is Asha, the unscrupulous would-be Shiv Senapolitician who wants her beautiful daughter to become the first female graduate of the slum, and who realises that "for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained".

The plot of the book revolves around the tragedy of one particular family who are triply disadvantaged: not only are the Husains dispossessed migrants, they are Muslims from Uttar Pradesh and so the focus of a campaign of violence by the Maharashtrian Hindu far right, who wish to drive them out. The son of the family, and the main breadwinner, Abdul is a quiet but determined teenager who has made his family rich through his speed in sorting the scavenged rubbish. He is a specialist, who uses his eyes, nose and ears to sort and stack "empty water bottles, mildewed newspapers, used tampon applicators, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by the monsoon, broken shoelaces and yellowed Q-tips" so fast and efficiently that, by 2008, he is making the unprecedented sum of Rs500 (about £5) a day. As a result, the family have put a downpayment on a plot of land to which they hope to move.

It is at this moment that tragedy strikes. The family are falsely accused of beating and driving their neighbour, One Leg, to suicide. Within a few hours, their entire lives have unravelled as they are thrown into the clutches of Mumbai's brutal police and a justice system that makes that of Bleak House appear quick, just and efficient: here the judges conduct as many as 35 cases simultaneously.

There have been many attempts by writers in recent years to pin to the page the hopes and fears of the new India. Most have attempted to do so by giving a sense of the extraordinary scale of the changes transforming the world's largest democracy. Yet by homing in on one small group of characters, the bit-part players in the story of India's development, Boo has succeeded better than any of them in showing both the possibilities, and the human cost, of India's great leap forward.

Boo offers no solution and no salvation to her characters. She believes that liberalisation is slowly lifting millions out of poverty, but she is more interested in the moral questions: why don't more of our unequal societies implode, she asks, and how do individuals keep their humanity in "undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little"? Here, she concludes, "it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good."

William Dalrymple's new book, Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan, will be published by Bloomsbury next spring


William Dalrymple

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo – review
An American view of a Mumbai slum impresses Amit Chaudhuri

Amit Chaudhuri

29, Jun, 2012 @7:00 AM

Article image
Behind the Beautiful Forevers review – a triumph for David Hare and Meera Syal
Meticulously detailing the endless grind of Mumbai slum life helps this spirited adaptation of Katherine Boo’s award-winning reportage avoid any danger of quaintness, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

19, Nov, 2014 @11:59 AM

Article image
Behind the Beautiful Forevers review – important stories forcefully told
David Hare’s adaptation of Katherine Boo’s acclaimed book breaks new ground for the National, writes Susannah Clapp

Susannah Clapp

23, Nov, 2014 @12:08 AM

Article image
Katherine Boo: Slum dweller
Susanna Rustin: Katherine Boo won a Pulitzer for writing about the poor and the vulnerable. She spent three years in a Mumbai slum for her new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Why bother, if she thinks that all she can make is 'small differences'?

Susanna Rustin

08, Jun, 2012 @11:04 PM

Article image
Capital review – Rana Dasgupta's perceptive exploration of modern Delhi

Rana Dasgupta's powerful study suggests the savage realities of modern-day Delhi will not be changing any time soon, writes Jason Burke

Jason Burke

23, Mar, 2014 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Road to Little Dribbling review – Bill Bryson’s travelogue continues
The latest leg of Bill Bryson’s journey around our small island finds him older, grumpier but still thoroughly entertaining

Alexander Larman

11, Oct, 2015 @10:00 AM

Article image
Deep South review – Paul Theroux’s journey through the southern United States
A literate exploration of America’s southern states reveals a rich culture, stark divisions and deep-seated poverty

Natasha Tripney

20, Sep, 2015 @12:00 PM

Article image
The Long Road from Jarrow by Stuart Maconie review – ‘a tribute and a rallying call’
In retracing the steps of the Jarrow march of 1936, Stuart Maconie finds that much of the past remains with us

Rachel Reeves

24, Jul, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra – review
An engaging study explores Asia's intellectual response to western imperialism, writes Ben Shephard

Ben Shephard

04, Aug, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Dreamers: How Young Indians Are Changing the World by Snigdha Poonam – review
A perceptive account of the challenges India faces in dealing with the aspirations of its growing young population

Jason Burke

04, Feb, 2018 @8:00 AM