Bare Minimum City
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Book: Behind The Beautiful Forevers
Author: Katherine Boo
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Price: Rs 499
Don't be misled by the superlatives that Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been wreathed in — the excellent, the unforgettable, the splendid Katherine Boo book. It really is all that.
It begins cinematically, with young Abdul Husain dodging the police on a moonlit night, framed for the murder of his one-legged neighbour. Then it rewinds to his life in Annawadi, a "sumpy plug of slum" near the Mumbai airport.
Annawadi, for most readers in India too, is another country heard from. Middle class Indians know so little of the inner lives, or even material lives, of the urban poor — even if you see it everyday, you never quite see it, through the veil of sentimental guilt.
And Boo's book takes you right in, introduces you to the dreams and schemes, the neighbourly decencies and selfishness of a more than a dozen people — Abdul, a teenage waste-picker whose labour has enabled his family to dream of escaping from Annawadi; his easygoing brother Mirchi, who aspires to be a waiter in one of the nearby hotels; Sunil, a 12-year-old scavenger who only hopes that his hunger does not condemn him to puniness; Asha, a Shiv Sena activist, aspiring slumlord and cheerful subverter of welfare schemes; her virtuous daughter Manju; the dying Raja Kamble who is canvassing funds for a heart valve surgery, and so on.
You learn that metal is sorted by sound, how plastic is chewed to evaluate its quality, the classification challenge that a loofah presents. You see Annawadi boys' idea of "the full enjoy", the arcade in a shed, their take on the rich people in the "overcity" hotels.
But this book isn't just a guided tour through an indomitable little slum — everything starts to go wrong for the Husains, after their resentful neighbour Fatima (One-Leg) sets herself on fire, and implicates them in the murder. Abdul, who has so far prided himself on being invisible and "chaukanna", and his father Karam, whose cellphone rings out "Saare Jahaan Se Achcha", are caught in the maws of this legal-investigative trap. Abdul is shown exactly how helpless he is — in the police station, in the juvenile detention centre, in the court. There is ample opportunity for extortion at every step — after all, as Boo reminds us, "to be poor in Annawadi or any other Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another" — simply existing on that land and making a precarious living is illegal.