Magazine article The Spectator

Humanity on the Scrapheap

Magazine article The Spectator

Humanity on the Scrapheap

Article excerpt

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum by Katherine Boo Portobello, £14.99, pp. 257, ISBN 9780670086092 One night a few years ago in Washington DC, Katherine Boo tripped over an 'unabridged dictionary', broke three ribs, punctured a lung and, as she lay on the floor unable to reach a telephone, 'arrived at a certain clarity' about her future. With most people - certainly those like Boo with a history of wretched health - the clarity would have taken the form of some assuasive advice: 'Take it easy, ' 'Don't push yourself, ' 'Find something less difficult to write about.'

For Boo, a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has written mainly about poverty in the US, clarity suggested the opposite. If she was going to be felled by an unabridged dictionary, she reasoned with perverse logic, why not go out and tackle some really serious obstacles? Why not go and study slum conditions in Mumbai, a city where she didn't speak the languages in a country which she hardly knew (her husband, though Indian, was working in Washington at the time) - a place where she would be regarded by her subjects with suspicion and perhaps derision, and where she did indeed become 'a reliably ridiculous spectacle, given to toppling into the sewage lake while videotaping and running afoul of the police'. Fortunately these obstacles proved less obstreperous than the dictionary, and their successful navigation has resulted five years later in a remarkable book.

Annawadi is a 'sumpy plug of slum' encircled by the airport hotels, 'four ornate, marbly megaliths and one sleek blueglass Hyatt'. With some 3,000 inhabitants crammed into about 300 huts, it is not one of Mumbai's largest slums. Nor is it one of the poorest, even though only six of those 3,000 have permanent jobs, and the most destitute of the rest live on a diet of weeds, fried rats and frogs from the sewage lake. It would be difficult for readers to imagine a place much worse.

In her search for how Annawadi functions and how its population survives, the author has assembled a cast of memorable characters. We get to know Asha, who uses cunning, corruption and seductiveness to increase her sway in the neighbourhood;

Fatima One Leg, who has 'a sexual need as blatant as her lipstick' and, despite the drawback of her infirmity and the existence of an inconvenient husband, finds little difficulty in satisfying it; Robert the 'slumlord', who has painted two of his horses to look like zebras in order to rent them to middle-class families for their children's birthday parties.

(When it rains the stripes are washed away so that the animals stand 'revealed as pokebone, yellow-hide nags' until their owner 'refreshes the black stripes with Garnier Nutrisse hair dye'. ) Boo brings us close to these people and to the less colourful surrounding crowd of petty thieves, child scavengers and women struggling simply to keep their families alive. Yet she resists the temptation to turn them into Dickensian characters with funny quirks and amiable eccentricities. Their lives are too desperate to be made humorous. She will say of one Muslim man that he was too sick to work but 'not sick enough to stay off his wife', yet this is not a gratuitous aside:

it is the fact that drives his young teenage son Abdul to discard all hope of leisure in order to earn enough money (as a recycler of garbage) to buy food for his parents and his many siblings.

The book traces the feud between Abdul's family and their neighbour Fatima One Leg, who pours kerosene over her head, sets herself alight and before dying incites her relatives and friends to pursue the family as the instigators of her death. …

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