Saturday, 19 May 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

For a long time now, slums have been an integral part of Mumbai's description. The stories and characters from these shacks have been a source of inspiration for many writers and film makers. The overrated 'Slumdog Millionaire' is one such example. The mere characterization of the hero from the slum has done the magic. I doubt if a similar story of life and hope from a poor village which is not a slum would have been as successful as the original movie.

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' by Katherine Boo is one another book on the slums of Mumbai. Unlike Vikas Swarup's Q&A (which came out as the 'Slumdog Millionaire'), this book is not about the success story of an individual brought up in a slum background. This book is more about the slum as a whole and not a particular character. Katherine Boo has chosen 'Annawadi' for her book, the slum behind the walls carrying the advertisement 'Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever' off the Sahar Airport road, Mumbai.

Annawadi is the land of immigrants from the other poor parts of India. People migrate to slums like Annawadi hoping that they would get a better life than their past. One could imagine how their past would have been, if slums like Annawadi is their hope. They struggle day in and day out to feed themselves, save a few and hope to move to a better place.

The history of Annawadi as in the book:
"The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked up from the southern tip of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the airport. Work complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. ... Residents of neighboring slums provided its name: Annawadi - the land of annas. ... Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks"

'Behind the Beautiful Forevers' depicts the life of these Annawadis,  the way they see the world from their mounds of garbage; their life with rat bites, which also occasionally turns out to be their food along with frogs, their fights over trivial things and their fear for life from movements like 'Beat the Bhaiya' and false accusations by the local cops.

In a society of systemic corruption, it looks like the most affected are people like these. When accused falsely, they can neither pay the bribe nor prove their innocence. And their lives are not taken seriously and their deaths are taken for granted. Most of the Government funds provided to help these people are devoured by the corrupt officials by running non existent schools and NGOs. This corruption along with the crab mentality of the few Annawadis shatters the hopes of the rest, forever.
In Katherine's words:
"...a system in which the most wretched tried to punish the slightly less wretched by turning to a justice system so malign it sank them all"

Katherine Boo's focus on multiple characters provides a bigger picture of life and death in Annawadi. The sequence of events makes the narration interesting, and the lives of Annawadis makes 'Behind the Beautiful Forever' a memorable read. 

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