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

This American view of a Mumbai slum is impressive

"'Tell me, bastard. Shall I strip naked and dance for you now?'" This is how Asha, an ambitious woman who has set her sights on being slumlord in Annawadi, a large slum close to Sahar International Airport in Mumbai, replies to men who'd take advantage of her for her "large breasts and her small, drunken husband". Her plausible rebuttal had me wondering what its Hindi or Marathi original might have been.

For Katherine Boo, working on this intimate account of life in Annawadi was slow, uncertain and painful in a variety of ways. For this, her first book, Boo, a Pulitzer prize-winning staff writer on the New Yorker, spent much of her life between November 2007 and March 2011 in Annawadi, documenting events with "written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and photographs". Since she doesn't know any Indian languages, she had translators throughout, one of whom must have helped her understand the sort of rejoinder that Asha made to Robert, ex-slumlord and one of her tormentors. For middle-class people like me who grew up in Bombay, forays into slums were infrequent. One sensed the goings-on and exchanges inside them as one would a foreign world, without completely understanding what was being said, in spite of (unlike Boo) knowing the language.

As I wondered about the way in which Boo had rendered Asha's words ("when I describe the thoughts of individuals ... those thoughts have been related to me and my translators"), I was reminded of Muriel Spark's account of Miss Brodie's excursion with the "Brodie set" into the old town in Edinburgh, where the schoolchildren encounter, in effect, a foreign country, and can't make sense of what they overhear, although it's being said in English. Boo has worked hard to amass her facts and get them right. It's all right for Spark's schoolgirl Sandy, a native of Edinburgh, to feel estranged when she's in a little-visited part of the city; but Boo, an American, must give the impression of complete familiarity in a Mumbai slum. Her own absence from the encounters with her biographees, the complete and unflagging access to their thoughts and speech, the decision to adopt the novelistic approach – perhaps these, and not the depressing nature of writing about a microcosm of abject poverty within a booming India, are the greatest risks Boo takes.

I was suspicious, at first, of this familiarity, her meticulous scene-setting, her blurring the line between interviewees and "characters" in a story. Only her intelligence – a novelist's intelligence, with a shrewd eye for vanity, and an understanding that everything is informed by compromise – keeps her tale from losing its grounding in reality.

The story focuses, principally, on three families. Young Abdul is an expert sifter of garbage, selling discarded recyclable items with a degree of success that briefly transform his family's – his parents' and two siblings' – fortunes, while earning them the envy of their neighbour, Fatima. The latter, a cripple, is also known as One Leg, and is famous in the slum for a sexual appetite her ageing husband can't satisfy.

The third family is Asha's. She's a worker for the Shiv Sena, the extreme rightwing Marathi chauvinist party, and nurses small-scale political ambitions that she believes will lead to her becoming, one day, slumlord. Asha's daughter, Manju, is probably the most idealistic person in Annawadi, an undergraduate who helps run her mother's school (a side-business), and for whom a university degree in English and teacher training comprise the chosen route out of the slum into the realm of "first-class people".

In a Flaubertian irony, Manju studies Congreve's The Way of the World, a sleazy tale about "first-class people", without fully comprehending the text. None of the strategies employed for betterment by these people – the use of your natural gifts in your given environment (Abdul); insinuating yourself into a incorrigibly corrupt status quo of policemen and politicians (Asha); education (Manju) – really work. People whose prospects improve are clearly those whose prospects are already good.

Such people live in the world beyond the slum, a world at which Boo gestures but deliberately refuses to explore, and whose hoardings make Annawadi invisible to "drivers approaching the [airport] terminal from the other direction... [who] would see only a concrete wall covered with ... ads ... for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan [that] ran the wall's length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER."

The crisis of the book, where Fatima immolates herself to implicate her neighbour Zehrunisa's son Abdul, an absurd act of vengeance that goes badly wrong, is recounted at the beginning. After this, Boo goes back in time, describing life in Annawadi until, one third of our way into the book, we witness the events that led to Fatima's act of self-destruction. Zehrunisa is impatient to put the money her family saved to use: a new window in the hut to "let out the cooking smoke", new tiles on the floor. The breaking of the old floor by Abdul and his brother frays Fatima's nerves: '"You're all hammering too loud! I can't hear my radio!"' Words are exchanged, then insults, in public; this relatively minor occurrence of fractiousness leads to life-changing decisions. The writing, here, comes sharply alive; the madness of these scenes (a drunk man with TB helping Abdul with the work, falling from the weight of a stone he has to lift) shows Boo at her most economical – horror and comedy become inextricable. Flannery O' Connor's constricted universes, full of grotesques and buoyant improvisers, come to mind; Boo has the same concentrated vision, but more empathy. I was reminded that, though Boo was a foreigner in Annawadi, she is no foreigner to the poor, and has written much about the American poor as a journalist; the echoes of O'Connor confirm what Boo points out later, that there are revealing overlaps between the world's deprived areas.

After the crisis, the lives of her subjects begin to unravel and the writing becomes more essayistic. "Every country has its myths," she says, "and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation – the idea that India's rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life." While the book deconstructs this romance, Boo is concerned not only with the crisis and its aftermath, but with the period before Annawadi will be destroyed by the airport authorities. Like the imperial monuments of the past, the airport always exists in the background, a crushing symbol.

She gradually renounces the novelistic mode partly because she realises that, unlike the novelist, she can't possess her characters, not least because many of them – in particular, a constellation of children – end up dead; as a narrator, she must share with the residents of Annawadi the loss of control, of mastery, this entails. And this, in turn, produces a paradoxical masterfulness; we see that it isn't information or research that Boo is bringing to us, but a quality of attention. She worries that, as a foreigner, she lacks the "immersion" a native would have in their milieu; but maybe natives become disengaged, while outsiders inhabit their chosen spaces more fully. Boo, in letting go of her story, in dwelling with it relatively briefly in her book's 250 pages (in contrast to the years she spent with the slum-dwellers), allows it to resonate with us as a small classic of contemporary writing.

• Amit Chaudhuri's Calcutta: Two Years in the City will be published next year.


Amit Chaudhuri

The GuardianTramp

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