Annawadi enjoys a precarious existence at the edge of the Mumbai International Airport. A slum of around 3,000 people with very little to differentiate it from the vast array of slums around Mumbai, it has gained a level of international attention on the release of Katherine Boo’s book “Beyond the Beautiful Forever”. The book follows the life of Annawadi over a 4 year period and while it reads like a novel, the characters and their lives are very much real, captured by Katherine who visited the area daily for long periods between 2007 and 2011.
The book captures a multi-faceted and complex life that Annawadian’s deal with every day. Far from the cardboard cut outs of poverty that many of us may be used to flashing across our screens, Katherine presents Abdul the garbage trader and his family, Asha the up and coming slum boss or the young rag pickers as the complex characters that they each truly are. If the book presents any cardboard cut outs, it is the wealthy staying in the neighbouring 5 star hotels. This is life as the Annawadians see it.
Zehrunisa and her family play a central role in the story. They are a Muslim family struggling to get ahead in the majority Hindu community. Having put a deposit on a piece of land on the edge of Mumbai, the future looks bright until a fight with a neighbour sees the neighbour set herself on fire in an act of fury. She lives just long to tell the Police that Zehrunisa’s family incited her to do this. The story that follows gives a picture of a system of corruption where for those in positions of influence this is not a tragic event but an opportunity for profit. Zehrunisa finds herself dealing with a web of corruption as her husband, as well as her son and daughter are imprisoned awaiting trial for this crime.
The story mixes the darkness of this world referred to as Mumbai’s under-city with glimpses of hope. Abdul, Zehrunisa’s son has some what of an epiphany as he languishes in a juvenile detention he finds that those he could so easily view as enemies are also suffering and struggling much like he is. Whether it is the detention centre doctor who tries to extort money off him or the police officer wandering through the grounds, he finds a shared experience of suffering and in that realisation he says that he no longer feels so alone.
The true mastery of this book is not however that it captures the life of one family, but that it captures a sense of many lives of this community. From the old slum boss Robert, who had ‘lost the taste for power’, to the up and coming replacement Asha, along with her beautiful daughter Manju, or Sunil the rag-picker who had been a ward of local Nuns until at 11 he was judged too old and returned to scavenging. Then there is One-Leg – Fatima who eventually burns herself in a fit of rage or Kalu another smart young rag-picker. All these characters make up a story that is as busy as any market street in Mumbai. What comes through is the bustle of so many lives happening almost on top of each other and in this it seems that Katherine has been true to the lives of the people she spent so long with.
If there should be any caution to those who consider reading this book it is that it is a story of the dramatic events in the life of Annawadi over the four years that Katherine Boo spent interviewing it’s citizens. As such it gives readers a very clear picture of a part of life in this place in a way that is truly masterful and captivating. This is the story of the days Annawadians will retell because they were memorable – for so many different reasons. It is not the story of the majority of the days that blended into one another – the daily grind. And of course that makes it a very readable book.