Uncomfortable Truths – Behind the Beautiful Forevers

27 Jun

Indians tend to be extremely defensive when foreign-produced creative works – movies and books at the top of the list – portray India and Indians as miserable. The saga of the downtrodden being victimized by the morally bankrupt government (most often portrayed by the police) spawned an international movie hit in Slumdog Millionaire and has provided fodder for foreign journalists, writers and NGOs. We feel as though these filmmakers and writers are only capturing a piece of India, ignoring the vibrant, charming and peaceful side of India that we (read: comfortable city dwellers) all cherish.

An example of this irritation is a recent bruhaha that emerged due to a scene in the Avengers – Indian filmmakers and writers were apparently annoyed at how Hollywood can only seem to film movies in dirty, cramped Indian slums (in this case, their depiction of Calcutta).

These arguments don’t often make sense to me. I know the feeling, of wanting others to love your country the way you do, so much so that it causes mild anxiety when people don’t seem to fall instantly in love with it. But facts are facts, and the fact is that a majority of Indians are in deep poverty. Slums exist. Beggars, slumlords, corrupt police and all the other characters brought to life in Slumdog exist.

Indians don’t seem to have too much of a problem if the films or books are written ‘in house’. The steady spate and sometimes popularity of Ram Gopal Verma and Vishal Bharadwaj films attests to this. Our problem is when others point out our flaws. It’s as if these secrets are ours to keep, and that the world should only see what we produce for their consumption. Well, if we want to open our doors to the world, then we also have to let folks see everything – warts and all, and accept the criticism that follows.

This reasoning went momentarily out the window when I read Katherine Boo’s book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a couple of weeks ago. Boo has written a ‘narrative non-fiction’ about the lives of three families in Annawadi, a newer shantytown close to the Bombay international airport.

It is an exhilarating, visceral, jarring read and had me conflicted from the word go.

Boo (a writer at the New Yorker) vividly describes the immensely difficult lives of the families who live in Annawadi – their economic opportunities, their family politics and perhaps most debilitating, their interactions with the law and government. Between time spent in Annawadi, police stations, jails and hospitals, it is as convincing a story as any that the poverty alleviation strategies of the government are not necessarily working, atleast not in Bombay.

My first reaction was embarrassment, followed very closely by guilt, and finally, irritation. What I reacted to most strongly was Boo’s description of Annawadians lives against that of the city’s rich. I immediately thought, well, why isn’t she portraying a more layered view of India? There is the upper class, the middle class, the poor and everyone in between – why not describe how diverse and varied India really is? Why make caricatures of anyone that is not poor?

It occurred to me then that is not the point of this book. Boo’s writing shows in vivid color the ways Annawadians live – how you see them relative to your social standing is up to you. Her descriptions of the labor that goes into recycling, scraping together meals, the horrendous effects of the monsoon, time spent in jails, hospitals and police stations, is very much a reality.

Public health and development are silent, but omnipresent, forces in the writing. A couple of accounts shake your belief that the Indian government health system will ever be reformed. One is the falsification of accounts, by health officials, of the numerous suicides and murders that take place during the course of the book, solely for the purposes of law enforcement. Another is the clear malnutrition, violence and addiction that is present, not to mention a host of diseases and chronic ailments that affect the daily lives of Annawadians. The government hospitals are a severe financial drain on anyone who has the misfortune of staying there too long. Suicide lurks at every corner in Annawadi, something that a recent study published in the Lancet attests to.

If the underlying health issues weren’t bad enough, Boo’s descriptions of education and poverty alleviation programs don’t provide much comfort. Government schools are a joke, and the children of Annawadi are criminally robbed of any chance to make it out of the slum by means of education. Microloan groups for women function in name only, and are a vehicle for additional cash at the hands of a would-be doyenne. What about those charged with righting these wrongs? Boo doesn’t let the NGO community off the hook. Non-profits, and the government officials that they work with, are at the center of immense fraud and waste, and it is unnerving when you realize how deep the rot has set.

The book ends in vague terms, and I did not have as much closure as I did, with say Maximum City. But it left me completely gutted, in a way that only the best books can. The writing is brilliant, and Boo’s observations about how people interact, survive and dream is so nuanced, that you are invested in them from the moment you finish the prologue. It leaves you angry at everyone – the government, NGOs, everyone involved in these people’s undoing, and it leaves you angry at yourself for not having done more and perhaps not knowing how to do more. But I deeply admire Book’s statement that knowing more about how people in extreme poverty live their daily lives leads to better informed thoughts and discussions, rather than conversing in the abstract.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a gripping, uncomfortable, elegantly written piece of non-fiction. Pick up a copy if you are interested in non-fiction about India.

Has anyone else read this book? Would love to hear thoughts and comments.

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