Back to Mumbai and “Behind the Beautiful Forever”

ACORN International
rooftop picture of slum in Dharavi, Mumbai

Mumbai     Registering slums and settlements is very important business in India.  Being a registered slum gives both immediate benefits and potentially some future entitlements.  Immediately there are things like water, not just the tanks making the delivery, but a commitment from the city that ends in standpipes and the promise of more.  Electricity may have been there in some form or fashion, but registration makes it formal.  Property can be registered, owned, and sold, and there can be addresses for the inhabitants making it easier to register to vote, get ration cards, demand education, and more.  The entitlements include assistance and support if relocated as well, which in the burgeoning metropolises of Mumbai, Delhi, and Bengaluru where we work, is also very important.

A book about life in the slums, specifically an area abutting the Mumbai airport, that I’ve often seen, as the title says, Behind the Beautiful Forever, an advertising billboard which serves as landmark for the community, was recently written by Katherine Boo, a former Washington Post reporter, now living in India for the last decade.  The book has gotten a lot of glowing reviews and some attention.  I had read a piece of it sometime ago in The New Yorker, and was prepared not to like it, but also, given my work, felt compelled to read it, and did so flying over to India this trip.

            First impressions can be hard to shake.  The book is unforgiving and bleak.  There are no happy endings coming and heroes are hard to find.  Boo is going to have some difficulty selling the movie rights to these stories, but whether in Mumbai or Latin America or even the US, having worked in so many of these areas, I may not have liked reading it, but I couldn’t escape feeling the authenticity of the reporting.  Soldiering through the book, I was forced to admit it wasn’t the writing or the reality so clearly presented, but more likely a suspicion about the hidden voice of the author and where she stood in the middle of the slum and these stories that she was presenting as seamlessly as a screenplay, sometimes filled with drama and tinged with horror.  True or false, I had to admit I was not sure she had the right to tell such a hopeless tale.

            I was finally assuaged when I arrived at the author’s note and her intentions became clearer.  She may not have been a participant, but I have to credit her close observation.  She counted more than 160 interviews on one terrible episode where a woman known as “One Leg” self immolates in what seems a petty dispute.   Boo also made a better case for trying to come to terms with the slum and its people and her commitment was straightforward.

As an organizer, no matter how hard bitten there is always a romantic or idealistic hope, a faith in people’s ability to come together, to build power, and to affect change.

None of this grows Behind the Beautiful Forever.   To her credit Boo is even handed and outs the NGO scams and the way the World Visions and others are used in their own schemes as a form of corruption every bit as much as she eviscerates the flimsy fabric of a criminal “justice” system that is premised on a pyramid of bribes.  In an enraging story of criminal accusations and lives bent with accusations of murder on the One Leg immolation, a whole family is drowning in bribes borrowed and unable to be paid, complete with time in jail as they try to survive a ridiculous court system across language, delays, judicial inattention, and other obstacles.   The story is so depressing and angering that I felt there was no way innocence could be in the offing, so to Boo’s report was denouement.  Rather than a happy ending and some faint proof that there was hope in the world, I knew it was totally random and a rare lucky break.

If Behind the Beautiful Forever has a cause or a theme, it is less the people and life in the slums than it is total, pervasive corruption that permeates virtually every transaction between people, between people and institutions, and really between people, fate, and future.  There is a massive drive around corruption underway in Indian public life and politics, and despite its middle class support, it is given little hope by many.  The multi-million dollar scandals nicking at the heels of the ruling Congress Party and the Prime Minister, coupled with less optimistic economic reports, have most believing that they face a shellacking in the elections in 2014.

Will it matter in the slums?  Boo’s book watches how life loses meaning, as a man hit by a car is allowed to bleed to death and die, filling a corpse quota later, because no one acts or intervenes from their own precarious footpath.  Suicides over slights or simply the burden of life, whether young or old, are still tragic.

I wish I had left Boo’s book the way I came to it, still suspicious of the author with an easy rationale for discounting the reality lurking behind the lines.  Dickens was more upbeat.  This is a feel bad book.  I don’t know how to recommend it, even as I walk in Mumbai today, until I have a way to argue with the afterword, and whether what should come next, has any chance of happening in India or elsewhere today.