Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, Katherine Boo (2012)

11869272There’s the subject, and then there’s the form. The subject of this book exhausts and depresses me. It’s about a few residents of a slum in Mumbai and the various social and political factors that impede them from improving their lot in life. Their situation is terrible. They lack adequate water, sanitation, and food. They subsist by scavenging in the garbage. The institutions that ought to serve and aid them — police, government, courts, schools, charities — in fact do them more harm than good, exploiting their labor and extorting their meager resources. It’s terrible, but not terribly surprising; we know full well that situations like this exist all over the world.

 

What is surprising is the form of Boo’s book. It’s not a study or a history; it’s a story. There are no statistics or interviews with experts or extended analyses of causes and effects. Boo spent years in this one relatively small slum, interviewing and re-interviewing the same residents, and tracking the particular setbacks and advances they made in their individual lives. The questions of how or whether these particular examples might be used inductively to fuel broader conclusions about poverty in general is not here entertained or answered.

 

The effect, for me, was disorienting in two ways. First, because the book follows the narrative arcs described by the lives of persons, those persons felt like characters to me, rather than humans. Second, their stories seemed radically decontextualized. I wanted to know more about what was going on in the city around them, the slums around them. I wanted to know more about the history of the country, the political situation, and so forth. At the same time, I realize that my sense of having no context is analogous to the contextless-ness of the slum dwellers themselves, who have few means of understanding what’s going on in the world outside the slum.

 

This is a good book but a strange one. I am having a hard time assessing the nature of my reaction. I guess another way to put it is that I wanted Bertolt Brecht to have written it. It needs a dash of the alienation effect, so as to ensure that I don’t think of humans as characters or vice-versa.