BY MABEL MNENSA
Katherine Boo’s beautiful non-fiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, delicately weaves together the narrative of the miserable lives of inhabitants of Annawadi, a poverty-stricken Mumbai slum built illegally on land belonging to the city’s international airport.
The graceful manner in which the narrative is written makes for a magnificent journey but it is done in a way that does not mask the horrific realities which Annawadi’s residents face. Squalor, pettiness, police corruption and having to dig through the rubbish of the rich to survive are just some of the everyday realities they have to navigate and survive.
The book explores many of the inhabitant’s lives but there is a particular emphasis on the story of Abdul, a young man of uncertain age. His family is more fortunate than the average slum dweller: they do not have to resort to eating frogs or rats because of his hard work as a garbage trader, which sometimes involves scavenging through the airport’s rubbish to make ends meet. His moderate success in this sea of poverty sparks animosity amongst some of his poorer neighbours — animosity that will have terrible consequences when the corrupt police act on deceitful accusations that he set a jealous neighbour alight.
You would be forgiven for believing that Boo must have creatively seasoned the truth to produce this vivid masterpiece. Boo, however, can back everything she writes up. She states that from the day she started the research in November 2007 to March 2011, she documented “the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and photographs”. She used more than 3000 public records which validated “many aspects of the story”. These public records were doubly as useful as they also “revealed the means by which government corruption and indifference erase from the public records the experiences of poor citizens”.
The title of the book is cleverly derived from the Beautiful Forever Italianate floor tiles billboard that obscures the slum from the view of the rich who land at the airport. Many of the slum’s inhabitants left their equally harrowing rural existences in search of a beautiful forever in Mumbai. But, as Boo powerfully and hauntingly shows, this is somehow always eluding them.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is published by Granta and is available from Kalahari.com.