Whether you are an outsider looking in, or an insider looking without, Katherine Boo’s brilliant book will leave you depressed, outraged, frustrated, and even powerless at the poverty, injustice, and inequalities of every type that exist in the world’s largest democracy, also known as India.
As Boo explains in an author’s note, the spectacle of Mumbai’s “profound and juxtaposed inequality” provoked a line of questioning: “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? . . . Why don’t more of our unequal societies implode?”
Boo skillfully shows how corruption, far from being an external growth, is essentially integral to India’s political, economic and social system. “Among powerful Indians,” she writes, “the distribution of opportunity was typically an insider trade.” And for the “poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.” Can you wrap your head around that one?
“The poor,” she explains further, “blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.” Meanwhile, only “the faintest ripple” is created “in the fabric of the society at large,” for in places like Mumbai, “the gates of the rich . . . remained unbreached, . . . the poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.”
“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” disturbs this peace more effectively than many an academic treatise or documentary on the social ills of India. Having practically lived for three years in the slum called Annawadi in Mumbai, Boo documents the lives of ordinary citizens so steeped in poverty and yet so hopeful of climbing out of it. Garbage collectors, scavengers, construction workers and the like flock to the city in hopes of making a place for themselves in the slum — and perhaps even becoming a slumlord — before they move and up and out of the slum into the beautiful forever.
Boo’s work is a moral inquiry into how in this age of globalization the Indian society that strives for upward mobility sacrifices every shred of personal conscience and seeks out every opportunity to rise above their lot, and in the process becomes dysfunctional and corrupt to the point of becoming myopic about its personal wealth and consumption. Where is the redemption amidst such squalor? If there is, it remains definitively inconspicuous.