- - Monday, March 26, 2012

By Katherine Boo
Random House, $27, 256 pages

For years, the New Yorker’s Katherine Boo has reported on American poverty - not only the broad trends and statistics, but the day-to-day lives of people who are struggling. One might expect her first book to cover the same ground; even a compilation of previously published pieces surely would be worthwhile.

But “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” is much more ambitious than that. Rather than stick to her comfort zone, Ms. Boo spent several years in her husband’s home country of India, following a group of people who live in Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport. The events in Annawadi unfold against a backdrop of wealth and rapid development. In fact, many of the Annawadians we meet make their living scavenging the trash of richer areas in Mumbai and then selling the valuable scrap metals and plastics they find.

Unsurprisingly, much of what American readers will find fascinating and troubling about this book are the basic, ground-level details it provides about poverty in an India that is increasingly prosperous but still weighed down by the history of its caste system. Annawadi was built on a swamp and settled by construction workers, and it is home to a sewage lake that presents a constant threat of malaria. The homes are tiny, close together and shoddily constructed; residents enjoy radios and phone service, but working refrigerators are almost unheard of, and running water is provided only for short intervals at public faucets.

Some residents manage to find work in the hotels near the airport, and one young woman we meet even attends college, but opportunity diminishes as events beyond Annawadi - the global recession, the terrorist attacks at a Mumbai hotel that keep tourists away - intervene. The government aid that arrives to fund schools and other amenities is captured by people like Asha, a local woman with political ambitions who has mastered the art of corrupt dealing.

However, these are details provided not for their own sake, but within the context of a larger story. That story centers around the actions of a woman named Fatima, who is nicknamed “the One-Leg” because a birth defect left her with only three working limbs. Fatima is a complicated and difficult character; it’s hard not to sympathize with her plight as a disabled woman living in poverty, but it’s equally hard to excuse her behavior: She cheats on her husband regularly, and when her neighbors’ home-remodeling project sends her into a jealous rage, she lights herself on fire. Then, she accuses the neighbors of beating and burning her before dying in a poorly run, unhygienic hospital.

The accusation that the neighbors actually lit the match is too absurd to survive - too many people saw what happened. So, before Fatima dies, corrupt officials help her retool her story; if they can create a plausible charge against Fatima’s neighbors, they can solicit bribes from the neighbors to make the charge go away.

India has strict laws against encouraging people to commit suicide - these laws can be traced back to British rule and its attempt to stamp out “sati,” a cultural practice of forcing widows to kill themselves by walking into their husbands’ funeral pyres. So, Fatima simply claims that her neighbors taunted, threatened and beat her, leading to her suicide.

The arrest of Fatima’s neighbors, the Husains, gives us a glimpse inside India’s justice system. Confessions are extorted through beatings, favorable treatment in jail is bought and sold and trials are rushed, thanks to a severe backlog of cases.

Despite the fact that Ms. Boo clearly took a very hands-on, personal approach in her reporting, the book reads like a work of fiction with an omniscient narrator - the author is completely absent from the story, and nothing seems hidden from her view. At times, thoughts about the reporting process will interrupt the reader: Why should we trust Ms. Boo’s assertions about what people were thinking? How did she get so much detail about what happened while the police were beating a suspect?

The author explains her process in a brief essay at the end of the book. She witnessed most of what she wrote about, and the rest is painstakingly constructed from interviews and public documents. Some readers might still be uncomfortable with this approach, but one major advantage is that it avoids making the Western reporter the center of the story.

Economic inequality is an obvious focus of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” and judging by the excited blurb provided by lefty activist Barbara Ehrenreich, the book will stir some liberals to action. But it’s rather hard to nail down Ms. Boo’s own politics. Like a conservative, she seems acutely aware that economic development has lifted far more people out of poverty than government programs ever could, but, like a liberal, she seems disappointed that the poor are politically disorganized and unable to demand much of the societies they live in.

Rather than fleshing out an argument as to how to solve the problems of Annawadi, she is content to explain the facts - empathetically, but with no attempt to gloss over the personal failings of her subjects. Just as we meet hard-working scavengers who never seem to get ahead, we encounter drunkenness, envy, corruption and Eraz-Ex, a white-out correction fluid that young men huff to get high.

As much of India emerges from poverty, some will undoubtedly be left behind, as they are in any society. Eventually, most poverty will be a symptom not of the country’s general lack of prosperity, but of some blend of counterproductive behavior and oppression. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a case study in how that process will unfold in a nation of more than 1 billion people.

Robert VerBruggen is an associate editor of National Review.

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