Behind the Beautiful Years
Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum
Katherina Boo
Abdul lives in the Annawadi slum abutting the new international airport of Mumbai, and it's no bed of roses. There are constant rumors that it's to be razed so as not to offend the eyes, ears and noses of the arriving Americans, English, Arabs and Japanese that come to the city as tourists or as businesspeople. "Why fix a house when the airport authority might demolish it?" asks our author (her italics, not ours).

There is a mad crowding, five or ten or more jammed into hovels made from scraps stolen from the airport next door. There are also rats that bite the children, police that must be bribed, government officials ditto, madmen and the usual diseases that come along with the sewage-filled pits, neighbors that fight ... and those that set themselves on fire.

At first we focus on Abdul who picks through the garbage that he buys --- then sells at a profit. He's good at it, good enough to support his sickly father, overworked mother, and too many brothers and sisters. "He was sixteen years old, or maybe nineteen --- his parents were hopeless with dates." He knew only how to sift trash, "knew nothing about eluding policemen." Which was to get him in trouble when "Fatima-One-Leg" from next door picks a fight with them.

She is obviously up to no good: "At thirty-five, more or less, she had become known as Annawade for a sexual need as blatant as her lipstick."

    Has she been another sort of woman, her affairs might have been a scandal; that she was disabled made them a joke. As were her spectacular rages, which enlivened many an Annawadi evening.

Abdul's family have made her mad because their commonly shared wall is falling in her place. She complains to the police, there are words between them, and then One-Leg pours kerosene over her head, lights a match. "They found Fatima thrashing on the floor, smoke pouring off her skin. 'Save me!' she shouted." Abdul's father says, "She wanted to burn herself a little, create a drama, and instead she burned herself a lot." And she did; her own suttee. She dies and Abdul's family is blamed.

§   §   §

This is just one of the dramas, tragedies, explosions and horrors that meander through Behind the Beautiful Forevers. There are young men that get murdered for stealing garbage. There are the very young who die from diseases that come about when they play in the cesspool next door. There are regular, routine beatings by the police (Abdul's beatings are played out in high detail). And there is a doppelgänger: a woman whose husband just left her here in the Styx "torched herself thoroughly."

    The woman's charred face-skin had stuck to the floor, and Rahul claimed that her chest had sort of exploded and that you could see straight through to her heart.

To put it in a nutshell, our author revels, delights in, seeks out, wallows in the horror. So much so that in the notes taken during this read I find, repeatedly, that age-old book-reviewer's existential question: "Why am I reading this?"

§   §   §

When I was a kid one of the favorites on radio was the Mills Brothers', "Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall (But Too Much Has Fallen in Mine.") Here, too, we're awash in rain, tears, sewage, blood, snot and filthy waters.

Man the bilges: it's a monsoon of repulsion here in the slum of Annawadi. The word-pool comes to be more and more disgusting. It's too much...

...and I suspect Boo knows it, for she plays it to the hilt.

It would have been better, maybe even would have offered us all some art if Boo had pulled her punches ... just given us a break every now and then. But she doesn't know or doesn't want to know how to hit the pause button. Even the animals get stiffed: the water buffalo "nosed for food through the mounds of wet, devalued garbage, shitting out the consequences of bad choices with a velocity Annawadi water taps had never equaled." We're missing something key here.

It's known as restraint, available to all writers worth their salt.

Even one named ... who?


--- Lolita Lark
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