21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
A Book that Will Change Your View of the World
, December 30, 2011
This review is from: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity (Hardcover)
Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a remarkably well written, thoroughly researched, insightful and informative ethnography of slum life on the fringe of the Indian city of Mumbai. Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads more like a brilliantly crafted work of the best quality fiction than empirical social science, and that is very much to its credit. As Boo introduces her characters in chapter after chapter and we come to see how their lives intersect, we discern a compelling narrative, a true story, written with economy of language and devoid of social science jargon, that teaches us far more than we commonly learn from one book, and does so in a way that captures and holds our attention throughout.
Many of the issues addressed by the author are not new, but the Mumbai slum setting, Annawadi, enables the author to address them in an especially graphic way. The juxtaposition of extremes of wealth and poverty, for example, is a commonplace device used by social critics in the U.S. and elsewhere. In Mumbai, however, the social and economic distance between unimagined opulence and stomach-turning poverty is exaggerated to a degree I've never seen before.
Similarly, detailed description of barriers to even short-distance upward mobility for the poorest of the poor is part and parcel of critical ethnographies, especially ethnographies of schooling in the U.S., Britain, and other so-called developed countries. However, I have never before read an account as persuasive and heart-breaking as the one offered in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Tuberculosis is not something that comes readily to mind when thinking of correlates of social mobility, but in Annawadi it's almost as common as stunted development due to long-term malnutrition.
Critical ethnographies of the lives of poor people almost invariably invoke government corruption as one of the factors that make the circumstances of poverty even more crippling than otherwise would be the case. In Mumbai, however, corruption takes a perniciously exaggerated form, and it thoroughly pervades every institution: education, health care, criminal justice, public utilities, and any other source of nominally essential services, including provision of drinkable water and disposal of raw sewage.
The horrors of Annawadi take a predictably devastating toll on its inhabitants. Nevertheless,the author's gift for capturing the distinctiveness of characters enables her to show us the unexpected diversity with which Annawadians approach life, and the varied ways in which they try to adjust to an impossible context, finding opportunities where others would see nothing but noxious garbage and imminent danger. Remarkably, ethnic, caste, religious, and familial differences are not completely demolished by the crushing burden of unfathomably grotesque poverty. In spite of alcoholism, drug addiction, disease, lack of rudimentary education, and other debilitating afflictions of slum life, identifiably different individuals with engaging personalities, well-developed codes of personal morality, and thought provoking world views emerge and animate the social life of Annawadi.
For reasons that I cannot discern, the author closes with a cautiously optimistic forecast for very slow improvement in the lives and prospects of Annawadians. I think, however, that she is much closer to the truth when she describes the privatization of effective social services of every sort by people of means, serving their interests only, and leaving corrupt and otherwise deficient public resources for the poor. Annawadians live in a world where the market is the only sacred institution, and they are, at best, marginal participants, casualties of globalization with its impersonal and amoral bottom-line ethos. It makes little difference who holds public office or which political party is in power. Public life is so thoroughly corrupt and financially overburdened that conventional notions as to what makes the world work have been nullified. The Annawadians, moreover, are so fractionated by conflict over scarce resources that they, and the hundreds of millions like them, have no chance of developing into a cohesive political force. These may seem to be circumstances that would give rise to terrorism born of desperation, but Annawadians are much more likely to destroy themselves than to inflict harm on others.
Every one knows that life in the Third World is often inhumanly difficult. Katherine Boo, however, takes this abstract notion and makes it powerfully concrete. As a result, Behind the Beautiful Forevers has changed the way I view the world.
As an addendum, Katherine Boo is not a methodologically self-conscious ethnographer. This puts her in the good company of accomplished researchers such as Ray Rist, Paul Willis, Elliott Liebow, and Jean Anyon. Boo's reliance on an interpreter raises more compelling questions as to her intrusiveness and the veracity of the her interpretations. Perhaps something longer and more technically adequate than her "Author's Note" is in order. I am inclined, however, to overlook Boo's lack of attention to discussion of method since, in my experience, such accounts are typically just statements of the obvious and lend little or nothing to the quality of an ethnography.
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