What’s on the other side of the wall? It’s a question that likely didn’t trouble the minds of most well-heeled tourists zipping from the international airport to one of the ultra-luxury hotels in Mumbai. The wall is one that, until recently, lined the highway to the terminal, painted sunshine yellow with a corporate logo along its length reading “BEAUTIFUL FOREVER.” Its faux-cheer had a single purpose: to block the unsettling view of a slum known as Annawadi — a makeshift settlement that rose on a former construction site and became home to thousands of residents whose shocking poverty stood in dramatic contrast to the lives of the people who passed by unawares. The wall itself has been torn down, but the residents remain, the subject of Katherine Boo’s uncompromising and important new book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers.
The facts in the book are pretty stark. Of the 3,000 people behind the yellow wall, six have real jobs. The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers elsewhere, work in the grey economy: picking rags or scavenging bits of scrap metal. They line up to get water from one of the few “trickle faucets” the city turns on for three hours a day. When they go to hospital, they sleep on urine-soaked mattresses; when they go to jail, on charges as often capricious as not, they sleep standing up, barely able to breathe for the crushing proximity of other people as desperate as they.
As indelibly described by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and New Yorker staff writer Boo, who spent three years among them to research her book, these slum-dwellers are not merely textbook examples of “Representative Poor Persons.” They are individual human beings with troubles and joys every bit as real as those of the tourists, but which are rarely heard by the world beyond. Their baby brothers drown in kitchen pails. Their big sisters go bald because the boils on their heads erupt in worms. As parents, they are accustomed to the sound of the police beating children like Abdul, a teenager accused in a Kafkaesque court case, whose age his mother isn’t sure of because “you didn’t keep track of a child’s years when you were fighting daily to keep him from starving.”
And of course they experience corruption in interactions with nearly every person they encounter, not only a local pol “with enough oil in his hair to fry garlic” but also with nuns and doctors and teachers — 60 percent of whom have not finished college and need to grease various palms to survive. Asha, the unofficial “slumlord” of Annawadi and one of most fascinating figures in Boo’s narrative, has spun her modest education into a life of political fixing and influence-peddling to raise her family to an infinitesimally higher level than that of her neighbors. Meanwhile, the justice system whose power looms large over their collective lives is revealed to be a market like the garbage-picking system, where guilt and innocence are sold as a matter of course.
The networks of gossip, jealousy, and friendship that Boo traces among her interviewees highlight the bustling community’s resemblance to a small town — albeit a ramshackle one — anywhere in the world. Annawadi is one of a number of slums throughout Mumbai — nicknamed “Slumbai” despite its position as the financial capital of the subcontinent as it undergoes unparalleled boom times. It was settled two decades ago by a band of laborers trucked in to repair an airport runway who decided to stay on after the job had exhausted itself. “In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.” Perched beside a sewage lake, this particular slum is “nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house [is] off-kilter, so the less off-kilter [look] straight.”
There’s been progress since the early days, when nothing more substantial than a bed sheet separated one shack from another. Residents today may still trap frogs and rats for dinner but sometimes are able to scavenge more well-rounded meals from hotel garbage dumpsters. The preferred method of suicide is now drinking pesticide instead of self-immolation. Ironically, the ever-growing layers of corruption offer spin-off opportunities for any residents enterprising enough to play along with it.
That’s in part why the inhabitants of Annawadi are deemed fortunate by Indian standards. Believe it or not, Annawadians are officially considered among the 100 million Indians freed from poverty in the past two decades. They may still occasionally resort to eating scrub grass at the sewage lake’s edge, but they are lucky enough to be at the periphery of an astounding economic revival, able or unable to grab hold of whatever upward mobility they can.
Prosperity may be relative, but people are people everywhere. Putting a face on this formerly faceless slum reminds us that there are playful, even amorous people in the most hellish situations. They don’t stop being human just because they happen to live in inhuman circumstances. In a thoughtful afterword, the author says she wanted to present a balanced look at life behind the sunshine-yellow wall. Her people have tough lives, she admits, but “if a reader comes away…thinking of them only as pathetic socioeconomic specimens I’ll have failed as a writer.”
She has not failed.