Beyond the Beautiful Forevers
By Kris Pikaart
The book I am recommending to you here is perhaps better timed to the dark months of winter rather than to the boisterous beginning of the warm months. That said, reading a book now and again that makes us profoundly grateful for our creature comforts is not a bad idea. Take Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (the first book I have read on my new e-reader, by the way. I think I could write a whole separate review simply of the experience of electronic reading. The review would not be favorable.)
This work takes place in the infamous slums of Mumbai (Bombay), India made even more famous by the spectacular movie Slumdog Millionaire. This particular slum is called Annawadi – one of the many, many “cities within a city.” This one is right next to the Mumbai airport – inhabited by squatters who erected plastic, tin, cardboard huts on airport land. Boo figures that about 3000 people live in 300 some huts. India has one of the two fastest growing economies on the planet, so the Annawadi slum is a study in contradiction. The Mumbai airport is lush and lavish, surrounded by the constant construction of ever fancier and more Westernized hotels for the new set of travelers to India. We get glimpses into the life of the hoteliers through the handful of highly envied slum residents who get temporary work bussing at parties. The slum, with its putrid “lake,” in which both the people and the slum’s hundreds of filthy wild pigs bathe, is hidden from view of the hotel goers by huge billboards. One of these billboards, strategically set to cover the eyesore of humanity, is for a brand of Italian tile. It reads “Beautiful Forever” over and over and over. Hence the title of the book.
This is a work of non-fiction – the product of Katherine Boo, a white American journalist, living in the slums for months at a time over the course of nearly 4 years. The story is so imaginative and literary that I needed to remind myself over and over that this was not a tale based upon real life. It is as real as it gets. This is a compliment, for the book reads like a work of fiction – inviting and strangely warm.
Beyond the Beautiful Forevers offers an intimate view into the lives of a handful of the slums residents. It follows each of their stories back to its roots and imagines their future, or for most of them, the lack thereof. The first character we meet is Abdul, a teenager who is the eldest of nine children living in a tiny hut. Since he was six, Abdul was in the industry of trash-picking – the same industry by which the majority of Annawadi residents stay alive. Each morning thousands of them fan out around the airport land picking up some of the thousands of tons of trash that get disposed of each day in the giant city. They bring their wadded up plastic, foil wrappers, cigarette packets, cardboard, soda cans, and anything else they can find to local buyers (which is what Abdul and his family, the Husains, do) who then bring them to small local recycling companies. Abdul, small and unnoticeable, has quick fingers to sort the piles and piles of trash that his family and the rats live with.
The story begins with the death of a woman whose name is Fatima, but whom everyone in the community calls “One Leg” for her physical deformity. One Leg sets herself on fire for reasons too complicated to go into here. She intends only to get her richer neighbors into some trouble, hopefully getting a nice payback, but she eventually dies of the wounds. This starts a whole landslide of action – an investigation riddled with unimaginable corruption. Before she dies, she blames the Husain family for the “crime,” which sends Abdul, his father and sister to jail for long and devastating stints of time.
In the course of the story we meet several other young children who are trash-pickers. Some have turned to thievery, breaking into construction sites at night to find copper tubing or scraps of metal on the ground. We also meet Asha, a powerful and corrupt single mother whose aim it is to be the local slumlord and her equally pure-minded daughter Manju who runs a little school out of their home for village children to learn a phrase or two of English. Each character carries a dream a little different from the next. Boo writes:
“There was too much wanting at Annawadi lately, or so it seemed to Abdul. As India began to prosper, old ideas about accepting the life assigned by one’s caste or one’s divinities were yielding to a belief in earthly reinvention. Annawadians now spoke of better lives casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past.
“The dream of Raja Kamble, a sickly toilet cleaner who lived on the lane behind Abdul’s, was of medical rebirth. A new valve to fix his heart and he’d survive to finish raising his children. Fifteen-year-old Meena, whose hut was around the corner, craved a taste of the freedom and adventure she’d seen on TV serials, instead of an arranged marriage and domestic submission. Sunil, an undersized twelve-year-old scavenger, wanted to eat enough to start growing. Asha, a fighter-cock of a woman who lived by the public toilet, was differently ambitious. She longed to be Annawadi’s first female slumlord, then ride the city’s inexorable corruption into the middle class. Her teenaged daughter, Manju, considered her own aim more noble: to become Annawadi’s first female college graduate.”
This work, which has been highly praised, is at heart about the nature of poverty. As many celebrate the amazing growth of India, Boo raises the fact that for the nation’s giant population of poor, industrialization means little. Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is most definitely not a feel-good book. Beyond glimpses of humor and great dignity in individual lives, there is little hope offered that dreams will be realized there. However, if you are interested in the ways of life in other countries, or carry some curiosity about the nature of poverty and the various systems that perpetuate it, this may be a book for you