Swans Commentary » swans.com March 12, 2012  



The Anatomy of Poverty
In the Impecunious Gulags of Mumbai


by Raju Peddada


Book Review



Boo, Katherine: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity, Random House, February 2012, ISBN-13: 978-1400067558, hardcover, 288 pages.


"What good have you done in your life, Ashok?"
"... well, I've amassed crores..."
No, no... what good have you really done in your life?!" (From the author's journal.)

"I'm not getting back into stealing," he promised her. "I'm good and improved now, can't you see?" "Yes, good and improved now," Zehrunisa agreed. "But can thieves really change? If they can, I haven't seen it." (An exchange between the son, Abdul, and his mother, from the book.)


(Swans - March 12, 2012)   How I wished the Indian elite had the conscience and the backbone to reform like Abdul. Pauper to prince is what everyone fantasizes, with corruption becoming the only game, with any sort of opportunity for the poor. The slumdwellers have learned to divorce hope from reason, when the apportioning of opportunity became an insider exchange among the wealthy and the political elite. Mumbai slums are the sepulchers of harrowing narratives of victimization at the hands of those established to serve them. Corruption is not only endemic, but a pandemic, in India, that warrants grass-roots vigilantism to at least retard it.

In her searing "docu-drama," Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winner who writes for The New Yorker, lays bare the corruption, in all its guises, that perpetuates poverty from the bottom up. Her work is implicit in its inference about the elitist corruption that racks the slumdwellers, and their bloody perseverance for that weighted ascent to financial freedom. Boo, with a fictive force, draws the truth through real-life characters, with real names, from a slum called "Annawadi" by the Mumbai international airport, surrounded by five-star hotels. Her piercing report is about the corruption of human dignity, and the corruption of opportunity.

The central characters in her book are a large Muslim family, led by Zehrunisa Husain, and her son Abdul, a waste buyer and seller; their cantankerous neighbor "One Leg" Fatima, who "manages" to survive a drunk husband; Asha, the aspiring slumlord, a minor cog in the national drama of pretense, and her righteous daughter Manju and son Rahul; and several orphaned boys, as waste pickers, by the names of Sonu -- the risk taker, Sunil -- the strategist, and Kalu -- the entertainer. These, and the others, live in the slum lanes flanked by a field "maidan," part of which is the sewage lake: an expanding, and contracting miasma of raw sewage, organic refuse, and goat carcasses from Eid, dredged up by feral pigs, water buffaloes, stray dogs, and spayed alcoholics, regularly. Three thousand people are packed into 300-plus huts, with only six residents having permanent jobs. As Boo puts it: "...a place booby-trapped with contentions, new and ancient over which he (Abdul) was determined not to trip."

Eighty-five percent of Annawadi's residents are freelance workers, often referred to as the "informal economy." Living on the edge of oblivion, some ate rats and frogs, and some even ate grass shoots from the edge of the sewage lake that had the potential to breed myriad diseases. Katherine Boo takes us through this foreboding milieu of corruption, in all its forms, between the residents and the power brokers from the outside. Ambitious Asha was a Shiv Sena member, a Hindu militia from Maharastra, of whom the Muslims were petrified. On the other side was Abdul, the reserved bread winner for the Husain family, envied by many for their financial gains. The slum reality is the dysfunctional intercourse between neighbors, triggering altercations that devolve into a maelstrom of misery for everyone with the advent of the authorities.

In addition to their capricious incomes, neighborhood altercations, and police shakedowns, the slumdwellers had the rain to contend with. Monsoon rains were simply dreaded by the slumdwellers. They oscillated from utter destitution to melancholy with the loss of savings; reeking huts that grew black with mold like a falling shadow; the putrid public toilet that overflowed; and fungi that grew on feet looking like bizarre polyps. Some folks simply ingested rat poison rather than continue with their living, if one could call that, while the rich thought of it as romantic. Boo, in the first paragraph of chapter eight, drafts us some piercing optics through her cathartic prose:

Now it poured, a stinging rain. On the high grounds of the liquid city, rich people spoke of the romance of monsoons: The languorous sex, retail therapy, and hot Jalebis that eased July into August. At Annawadi, the sewage lake crept forward like a living thing. Sick water buffalo nosed for food through mounds of wet, devalued garbage, shitting out of the consequences of bad choices with a velocity Annawadi water tap never equaled.

The climax of this docu-drama is when Zehrinisa has an altercation with Fatima over their common-wall debris that falls into Fatima's rice as a result of some upgrading that Abdul was attempting. The fight escalates to a point where Fatima immolates herself, and later dies in the hospital due to deliberate negligence. This essentially brings in the police to Annawadi, resulting in the dissolution of the Husain family finances, setting in motion their harrowing experiences at the hands of the authorities, and the competition for waste. While Asha becomes the topical arbiter of grievances, the police become the vector of their misery. You are enraged in the end at the police and the corrupt system more than any amount of sympathy you may feel for their suffering and poverty.

India is also a basket case of rackets, which are brought to light once the Husain family members, Abdul and his father Karam, are incarcerated following violent interrogations over Fatima's immolation and admittance to the hospital. There, we see a frightening collusion between the police, the doctor, and the executive officer in manipulating Fatima's statements while she's alive, and then let her 35% burns deteriorate to 95%, eventually killing her. Here's how Boo puts it:

... her post mortem read: "Brain congested, lung congested. Heart pale." Her file was tied with a red string and sent to the records room of the morgue, where feral dogs slept among high stacks of folders on the floor.

The police then start putting the squeeze on Zehrunisa for money to ease up on Abdul and Karam in the cells. She pays dearly for an age certificate so Abdul can survive in a juvenile detention center. For the authorities there is profit to be made, on the living, as well as the dead.

Unidentified body, the Sahar police decided without looking for the scavenger's family. Died of tuberculosis, the Cooper hospital morgue pathologist concluded without an autopsy. Thokale, the police officer handling the case, wanted to move fast, for he had business with B. M. Patil Medical College in Bijapur. Its anatomy department required 25 unclaimed cadavers for dissection, and this one rounded out the order.

The word I am looking for is immune. When we lived in India, we were immune to incongruity. There was no choice, we had to become immune to such destitution and corruption. If we did not, we were liable to be infected, with apathy and futility -- a fatal attitude that banished hope from our consciousness. This type of perverse immunity, a kind of denialism, fostered hope, as well as ambition, and kept everyone going. Simply put, immune deficiency was unaffordable. This incongruity also reared our collective cognitive dissonance. India is a gigantic binary organism, a vortex of high- and low-pressure systems, an unfolding mystical paradox, a country where the forces of progress are offset and countered by the forces of self-destruction: corruption. In fact, "Incongruous India" sounds more accurate than "Incredible India" as advertised, and perhaps, it is this incongruity that we see as incredible. Boo illustrates this incongruity in her fluid prose:

The two boys like studying Annawadi from a hidden vantage point, across the water. From the rocks, they could see how crazy lopsided all the huts were against the straight lines of the Hyatt and Meridien hotels that rose up behind them. It was as if the huts had fallen out of the sky and gotten smushed upon landing.

The lower stories would be reserved for cars and the six hundred servants required by his family of five. Far more interesting to young slumdwellers was the fact that Ambani's helicopters would land on the roof.

Corruption usually flows with the gravity elsewhere, but in India it starts at both the top as well as at the bottom and flows to the middle, squeezing everyone into impotent rage. The constable who makes the arrest; the investigating inspector who files the false reports; through to the nurse-doctor team, who sell off the hospital medical supplies in the black market, dispatching most ailing poor to their deaths -- followed by the falsification of the cause of death, to appropriate the cadavers; to the collusion between the public defender and the judge on the case; along with the aspiring slum-lord-like Asha, all waiting for their share of the grafted-bribes. This is what the Husains had to contend with. Even George Orwell with his brilliant and nightmarish 1984 could not have conjured up anything remotely as evil as the corruption that snakes around every iteration of authority to kill hope.

Abject indigence and corruption have their own culture, which has been deftly exposed in Boo's masterwork. It is reminiscent of two literary reports that are considered classic works of journalism on the human condition of suffering: The first one is Night Draws Near by Anthony Shadid, and the second, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago. The last time I was affected this viscerally was in the late 1970s, after reading Solzhenitsyn's investigation of life in the gulags. Another cathartic work is India: A wounded civilization by V. S. Naipaul -- a must read. This reverts me to Boo's work again, which I see as a convex mirror, a magnifying glass that manages to amplify and convey the gruesome and embarrassing details on the Indian authorities at work, revealing the residents of the Annawadi slum more as victims of graft-corruption than victims of fate.

The slums are no less gulags, and Mumbai is that archipelago. Mumbai is also that cognitive dissonance, where human narcissism and avarice builds a 27-story residence, yet, a few hundred feet below, the human dignity is sold daily by the power elite who obfuscate the opportunities deserved by these slumdwellers -- the prisoners of indigence. Schemes to help the poor often turn into scams at the hands of those who were positioned to administer them. It is also a manifest commentary on the Indian authorities who have stooped lower than the lowest of the slumdweller to steal that rupee. Then, there is this brazen and bizarre formality of people who know and understand, and still turn their heads away as, apparently, what was reported did not matter, and much of what mattered could not be reported.

Nevertheless, some Indians revel in the romance of chaos and adaptation, claiming that India's ascendance is a result of capricious daily life, which generates problem solvers, and where some may fall through the cracks, but the majority flourishes. The waste pickers may be poor, materially poor, but the Indian power brokers are utterly crass -- indigent of character, principles, and common decency. Poverty is an anathema to general progress, and if we agree with this concept, then Boo's book will cement it as our conviction. I will leave you with this banter between Abdul and his father about the future:

It's moving past and you think you're going to miss it but then you say, wait, maybe I won't miss it -- I just have to run faster than I've ever run before. Only now we're all tired and damaged, so how fast can we really run? You have to try to catch it, even when you know you're not going to catch it, when maybe it's better just to let it go.


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About the Author

Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines.   (back)


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published March 12, 2012