There are many ways to assess the content of Katherine Boo’s remarkable book Behind the Beautiful Forevers which is about, in general terms, the disenfranchised, struggling, impoverished underclass of India.
Beyond the general however, is the harsh statistic that India contains one-third of the impoverished people on the planet. This, despite a surging Indian middle and upper class that has burnished the reputation of India as a place where democracy has proven its worth and created an economic transformation which has made India a power player on the global chessboard.
Boo focuses on the lives of people living in the rabbit warren of a slum called Annawadi, which is adjacent to the glittering showcase airport of Mumbai and a “Glimmerglass” super luxury Hyatt hotel, but is hidden from view by a large outdoor advertising sign, “Beautiful Forever,” touting Italianate floor tiles.
She tracks the lives of Abdul, his family and his neighbors. Abdul is an entrepreneurial ambitious slumdog teenager who survives by picking through the garbage of the airport and the hotel, and selling it for a pittance to recyclers.
Boo gives us a thoroughly rounded inside glimpse of the thoughts and actions of these people and their hopes and dreams of one day breaking out of their economic imprisonment and finding a better life.
Most are uneducated and refugees from the failed agricultural communities of this vast subcontinent, who have come to the big cities in search of the illusive leg up the economic ladder. All of the families portrayed by Boo are dysfunctional and it is no wonder. They live under the most appalling conditions with little privacy, where early death through suicide, disease and neglect stalks the population who seem to measure their success by how much better off they are than their slum neighbors.
They are plagued by alcoholism, drugs, prostitution, bad health, mental problems and are, in effect, one step from living on the sidewalk. Boo does not spare us these observations, although there is no escaping her love and compassion for these people. Her eagle eye searches above all to illustrate their humanity in the face of staggering poverty and neglect.
While the government, in its alleged wisdom, offers these people some dubious handouts and seems sincere in trying to bring this underclass into some semblance of economic security, one gets the impression that despite their efforts, the culture of corruption that pervades India is the ultimate roadblock to the hopes and dreams of these unfortunate slum dwellers.
Still, according to Boo’s acute observations and thorough research, many of the residents seem to truly believe in the possibility of rising from the horror of their situation by dint of shrewd manipulation, and working through the cracks in the system. The obstacles for such an outcome seem enormous. Nothing moves without bribery. The police are corrupt. The judicial system is corrupt. It is endemic, a way of life.
Somehow, one discovers through Boo’s observations that many of these people, who live like maggots on a decaying corpse, have been convinced that the possibility exists of one day realizing their hopes and dreams. Perhaps, Boo seems to say that for some tiny percentage of these slum dwellers despair is not a final option.
Perhaps Boo, despite her recounting of the appalling circumstance of these people, is crediting the human instinct for survival and a strong belief in the power and resiliency of the human spirit for holding out the possibility that somehow, by some miracle, a few lucky souls will break the chains or this horrific existence and join the economic miracle that some, at least, are enjoying in modern India.
One comes away with admiration for these people whose lives she recounts. But I could not shake the contention that despite all the government of India has tried to rescue this vast horde of impoverishment that lives within its borders, the chances of creating an environment for these people to participate in the good life is not very promising.