Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

If didn’t I know in advance that Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a work of non-fiction, written by author Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, after spending a considerable amount of time with the people of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum adjoining the international airport at Sahar, I would have chastised Boo for writing a novel which shows India in such a poor light, for making selective use of characters, including police officers and other officials in India’s justice system, who reflect the worst excesses of the system. Unfortunately for India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers isn’t fiction. Written in a style reminiscent of well-known works of non-fiction such as those by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins (Freedom at Midnight, Is Paris Burning, Oh! Jerusalem), Behind the Beautiful Forevers has the feel of a novel since its characters are well sketched, personalities deeply probed, events dramatised and suspense built in. There’s even a prologue which describes Abdul fleeing from the police, after Fatima’s suicide attempt. Boo’s attempt, one she admirably succeeds in, is to show an Indian slum to be an organic thing, populated by ambitious and complex living beings who are no less human than their fellow humans living in plush skyscrapers.

In her Author’s Notes, Boo tells us ‘that the events recounted in the preceding pages are real, as are all the names. From the day in November 2007 that I walked into Annawadi and met Asha and Manju until March 2011, when I completed my reporting, I documented the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and photographs. ……….I also used more than three thousand public records, many of them obtained after years of petitioning government agencies under India’s landmark Right to Information Act. ………They validated, in detail, many aspects of the story told in these pages. ………I witnessed many of the events described in this book. I reported other events shortly after they occurred, using interviews and documents. For instance, the account of the hours leading to Fatima Shaikh’s self-immolation, and its immediate aftermath, derives from repeated interviews of 168 people, as well as records from the police department the public hospital, the morgue and the courts.’ I guess non-fiction can’t get more real than this.

At Annawadi, a slum hidden behind a wall that functions as a hoarding for elegant floor tiles, Boo’s characters come in different shades. There’s workaholic Abdul, who is the main breadwinner of the Husain family. Abdul’s mother Zehrunisa, who came across from Pakistan to marry Karam, is a haggler who props up Abdul as he buys garbage from scavangers, sorts and sells it to various businesses. Karam and the rest of the family including the second son Mirchi, take things easy. The Husains’ neighbours include one-legged Fatima, who was born a Hindu, and her cuckold husband Abdul Shaikh. Then there is Asha Waghekar, an upcoming slumlord, a woman who has used her brains, brawn and beauty (none of which is excessive), to win perks and favours from various unscrupulous politicians and policemen and Asha’s young and pretty daughter Manju, who seems to be the archetypal opposite of her mother. And there are many, many more, such as Kalu, a scrap metal thief, Meena a young Tamil girl who is friends with Manju etc. Some boys who grew up in Annwadi get good jobs in nearby star hotels as waiters, while a few are scavengers.

One-legged Fatima’s suicide is the key event around which Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been built. Fatima doused herself with kerosene and set herself on fire, merely to spite her neighbours, the Husains, with whom she had had a big argument over some damage to a common wall as the Husain family tried to upgrade their hutment. After setting herself on fire, Fatima accused the Husains of having tried to kill her, through there were a number of witnesses who swore otherwise. The Indian justice system being so corrupt, there are a number of policemen and others who are very happy to use Fatima’s allegations as an excuse to falsely implicate Karam, Abdul and others in his family in the murder charge, in order to wring some money out of them.

I knew that the Indian justice system is corrupt. I know that there are a number of policemen who would take a bribe to allow a criminal to walk away free. However, I did not really believe or even consider that a number of policemen and other government employees would falsely implicate a few poor slum dwellers in a murder charge in order to extort money from them. In a gut wrenching narrative which ought to serve as a wake-up call for India’s upper and middle-classes who may have a few illusions left about the fairness of India’s law enforcement agencies, Boo describes how Abdul and his father Karam were repeatedly beaten in custody, forced to sign confessions, put in jail and had so many years of their lives ruined by corrupt policemen and individuals like special executive officer Poornima Paikrao. Corruption seeps down to the juvenile justice system as well. A fake certificate showing one to be younger than one really is, can save a youngster like Abdul from the terrifying Arthur Road jail and send him to the detention centre for juveniles at Dongri instead. Even after bail is granted, the Husains spend a fortune on lawyers and in lost income as Abdul is forced to make frequent trips to Dongri to prove that he hasn’t jumped bail.

The entire book isn’t set in Annawadi. No, Asha the slumlord makes a brief trip to Vidarbha to find a groom for Manju. One is left in no doubt that the people in Annawadi are much better off than the impoverished peasants in Vidarbha. Similarly, when Manju’s friend Meena is faced with the prospect of an early arranged marriage to man living in her native Tamil Nadu, she is not happy. We are told that ‘to both Meena and Manju, marrying into a village family was like time-travelling backward.

The most intriguing character in the book is Abdul Shaikh, husband of the late lamented Fatima. Towards the end of the book when young Abdul Husain, his father Karam and sister Kehkashan are on bail, the Shaikhs and Husains celebrate Eid together. The two Abduls slaughter a goat and work shoulder to shoulder stripping the meat. Nevertheless, Boo tells us that Abdul Shaikh wants to see the Husains convicted for the murder of his wife though he knows that Fatima had self-immolated and the Husains did not set her on fire. Why does Shaikh want the Husains to be convicted? He was not on good terms with his wife who was sleeping around. Boo tells us that he didn’t want his daughters ‘to grow up knowing that their mother had burned herself, lied and died.

Boo writes exceedingly well and her matter-of-fact, but beautiful narration, makes an otherwise painful sketch enjoyable reading. There was only one fly in the ointment for me - a scene where Asha is having her fortieth birthday party. Cake slices are being passed around and Manju and her sibling are celebrating. Asha’s phone has been ringing for the last fifteen minutes and finally Asha answers it. ‘It’s that woman Reena, shaka work,’ Asha lied. Then a minute later, she said uncertainly, ‘Maybe I will need to go.’ Manju and Asha’s husband tell her not to go, and Asha almost agrees, but then as she talks on the phone, she says she has to go. As she powders her cheeks with talcum, combs her hair, puts on a necklace and gets ready, one is left in no doubt as to where she is off to. Her husband’s eyes fill with tears. After Asha leaves, Manju’s tears fall on the chocolate cake. ‘For years, Asha had hoped that her daughter wouldn’t guess about the men. Now she wished she had raised Manju to be worldly enough to understand. This wasn’t about lust or being modern…...This was about money and power.’ Now remember, this isn’t fiction. How on earth did Boo manage to glean so much information, unless she was present at Asha’s birthday party? Maybe she was, though Boo doesn’t say so. In her Author’s Notes, Boo tells us that ‘when I describe the thoughts of individuals in the preceding pages, those thoughts have been related to me and my translators, or to others in our presence. When I sought to grasp retrospectively, a person’s thinking at a given moment, or when I had to do repeated interviews in order to understand the complexity of someone’s views – very often the case – I used paraphrase.

Boo ends her book on a big note of optimism. The case against Karam Husain and Kehkashan is dismissed for want of evidence. Just before the dismissal, the special executive officer had made a last ditch effort to extract some more money from the Husains, promising to get Abdul Shaikh to withdraw his case, something he could not have done, since criminal cases are instituted by the state and can only be withdrawn by the public prosecutor. However, Karam Husain, fortified by knowledge that he got from reading Urdu newspapers, defies the special executive officer. The Husains had lost a lot of money as a result of the false case against them, but soon they start saving and growing once more. The case against Abdul pending in the juvenile courts still goes on, but we have every reason to believe that the outcome will be positive in Dongri as well.


Roshni said...

Your review puts into words so much of what I feel about the book. I found it by searching for the book title along with "Asha's birthday", because that scene has left me very uncomfortable too. As you say, how could she know? How does the scene fit into a non-fiction book? How can you write like that about a living person?

Winnowed said...

Roshni, the author spent a lot of her time with the people who feature in this book. Maybe she was present when the birthday was being celebrated, though she doesn't say so. This occured to me after I posted this review.