Literary Animal: Reading India, Part V

Literary Animal: Reading India, Part V

In her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo chronicles the lives of the squatters in a slum called Annawadi on the outskirts of Mumbai’s airport. Boo provides an intimate look at a changing India and the divide between the rich and poor. In this case, the divide is physical. Annawadi sits behind a concrete wall plastered with advertisements for a floor tile company with the slogan “Beautiful Forever.” This installment of the Literary Animal: Reading India blog series, will highlight some of Boo’s literary reportage.

Part V: Waste pickers, Women, and Horses

One of the main characters in this book is a young man named Abdul: “What he knew about, mainly was trash. For nearly all the waking hours of nearly all the years he could remember, he’d been buying and selling to recyclers the things that richer people threw away.” Annawadi, Boo writes, was “magnificently positioned for a trafficker in rich people’s garbage.”

Boo provides a picture of this new wealth and its excesses: “pink condominiums and glass office towers had shown up near the international airport. One corporate office was named, simply ‘More.'” Behind the Beautiful Forevers looks at the informal unorganized economy in this shadow city. Scavengers found growing opportunity in discards. But this way of life took its toll as waste pickers became vulnerable to danger and disease. Abdul could predict which one of the scavengers would be the next one to die.

Boo writes that “as India began to prosper, old ideas about accepting the life assigned by one’s caste or one’s divinities were yielding to a belief in earthly reinvention.” Behind the Beautiful Forevers is also a window into the newfound aspirations of its residents, particularly its women. We meet Asha, who dreams of being the political slum lord and her daughter, Manju, who is slated to be Annawadi’s first female college graduate. The women enjoy the small freedoms and opportunities that rural village life would deny them. Friendships formed across caste and religious divides. But slum life brought a different set of challenges. “Too many Annawadi females, wanted to die,” one young boy observes.

The book captures the many ways corruption infiltrates daily life:

“But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.”

It is particularly disturbing to see how corruption permeates the justice system:

“Beatings, though outlawed in the human rights code, were practical, as they increased the price that detainees would pay for their release. The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage…Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

Abdul and his family are wrongly accused of the murder of their neighbor, a woman who set herself on fire. Boo documents the family through the whole legal process. There are other deaths in the slum, however, which don’t receive any police investigation or inquiry.

When the “forces of justice” do come to Annawadi, Boo observers, the beneficiaries turn out to be horses. Robert the Zebra Man, who paints stripes on his horses, ran an illegal racing operation, which one day resulted in two horses veering off course, plunging off a bridge to their deaths. A newspaper photographer was present to capture the landing, and the published photos began to stir public outrage.

“Activists from a group called the Plant & Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, brought in the media and representatives of the city’s Animal Welfare League for a “raid” on Robert’s horse shed. Several horses were determined to be malnourished…The Animal Welfare League spirited the neediest of the beasts to a therapeutic horse farm”

Even though the police do not initially register any cruelty charges on Robert, the animal activists still pursue prosecution:

“So the animal-rights group took its photographic evidence to the commissioner of the Mumbai Police. Finally, Robert and his wife were charged under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act for failing to provide adequate food, water, and shelter to their four-legged charges.”

Boo observes that in Annawadi, “everyone had a wrong he wanted righted… but the slum dwellers rarely got mad together.” By contrast, “the activists had been few in number, but working together, they’d made their anger about the horses register.”

To read the other posts in this blog series, Literary Animal: Reading India, click here.