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Poverty as Destiny

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo
(Random House, 256 pp., $27)

Early in Katherine Boo’s unforgettable book, a boy from Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, rushes into his makeshift school, bleeding. The classroom is nothing more than a single room in a neighbor’s hut, but it is the only place he can go for medical attention after being hit by a car. No sooner has the teacher begun treating his wound than his mother surges into the hut, wielding a large piece of scrap metal and screaming: “No car will kill you! No god will save you! You went in the road, roaming loose like that, and now you will die at my hands!” After receiving a beating, the boy is rescued by his teacher. Prior to departing, his mother threatens to “break his legs and pour kerosene on his face.” For this boy, an injury could mean financial catastrophe. “If the driver had hurt you worse, how would I have paid the doctor?” the mother asks her son while striking him. “Do I have one rupee to spend to save your life?”

More than one hundred pages later, a Mumbai garbage-sorter takes the witness stand to defend the honor of his dead wife. A trial is being held to determine whether the defendant beat, and drove to suicide by self-immolation, the woman everyone in Annawadi calls The One Leg. After an argument with her neighbors, she poured cooking fuel over her head and lit a match; her face and hair exploded in flames. The reader has long since known that the deceased—a vindictive woman whose life was full of pathos and bitterness—performed this act for other reasons. But her widowed husband is desperate to deny the idea that his wife had been depressed, let alone suicidal. As proof, he offers up the observation that when their two-year-old daughter drowned in a pail, her death did nothing to shake his wife’s composure.

Boo’s book, which traces the lives of a dozen or so characters in Annawadi between 2007 and 2010, so accustoms the reader to scenes such as this that the widower’s testimony does not quite register, at least initially. None of the witnesses at the trial are reported as reacting to what would generally be considered a damning appraisal of a dead woman’s character. (Unlike those in the court, we have reason to suspect that The One Leg killed her own daughter.) But what does it mean for a husband to state proudly that his wife had not been affected by the death of their child? What does it mean, in a separate incident, for a boy to lose his hand in a plastic shredder and shed tears not from the pain but from the fear of losing his job?

As these unspeakable incidents pile up and feed off one another, Boo, who spent significant time in Annawadi, makes no effort to assist her readers in making judgments. Characters drift in and out of the book, only gradually revealing themselves. Their actions, however vicious or shortsighted, are rendered comprehensible by the wellsprings of motivation to be found within their own words, and by the depth of Boo’s descriptions. Although she never precisely explains how people could reach a state where the death of a child is neither noteworthy nor tragic, her reporting allows for us to reach our own conclusions. Boo’s presence is skillfully invisible, so that the reader recalls her only when wondering, admiringly, how she was able to document the extraordinary story that she tells.

That story is cinematic in its scope, and in the manner by which it builds to several hinge moments while moving back and forward in time. But that is where any similarity between Beyond the Beautiful Forevers and Slumdog Millionaire, the most famous depiction of Indian slum existence, ends. Danny Boyle’s movie extravagantly presented the “slumdog” life of its central character as frequently horrific but ultimately (and literally) rewarding: his terrible experiences allowed him to prosper on a game show. It was a kind of television theodicy. Despite its subtitle, by contrast, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers is not a hopeful book, and its despair is anything but cathartic. “Among the poor, there was no doubt that instability fostered ingenuity,” Boo writes, “but over time the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating. ‘We try so many things,’ as one Annawadian girl put it, ‘but the world doesn’t move in our favor.’”

The fates of the Annawadians are shaped by their relationships and ambition and fortitude; but these people have no prospects, and only the most narrow and local and difficult horizons. They cannot, in the girl’s words, make the world move. The independence of their actions and the sharpness of their personalities do not amount to anything like historical agency. And their vitality never distracts the reader from the crushing sense that poverty has prevented them from becoming independent actors.

IN THE IDEA OF POVERTY, Gertrude Himmelfarb divided writing about her subject into two categories. There were works about “solutions”: “policies, reforms, laws, institutions, administrative agencies”; and works about “problems.” “The emphasis here,” Himmelfarb wrote, “is on the economic, technological, social, demographic, urban, and other conditions which helped determine the nature and incidence of poverty at any particular time and place.” Himmelfarb’s sections on Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham highlighted ameliorative measures and institutional reform. But she also spent considerable time exploring writers such as Charles Booth and Henry Mayhew, who wrote about English poverty with a focus on the realities of an impoverished existence.

Booth began his seventeen-volume effort, Life and Labour of the People in London, in 1889. His work is studded with facts and figures—some of them controversial and disputed—that aimed to identify and to classify those living in poverty. Booth’s account suffered from a particularly Victorian condescension, but his aim was noble: he wanted to focus attention on the needy, the helpless, those who required assistance, and he was an inspiration to, among others, Clement Attlee, the British prime minister most responsible for implementing a welfare state after World War II. Mayhew’s book, London Labour and the London Poor, was written several decades before Booth’s study; it is teeming with categorizations and lists (on the first page, street people are placed into one of six groups), and there is an almost scientific focus on the details of daily life. Mayhew charts the different ways thieves break into houses, and he provides a glossary of terms used by “costermongers” (fruit-sellers). No tidbit is too small or uninteresting.

Indian depictions of poverty (at least those available in English) tend to conform to Himmelfarb’s paradigm. On the problem side, Arundhati Roy and P. Sainath are more concerned with who is to blame for poverty or how existing power structures cause or entrench misery. Both are opinionated and sometimes angry, and both tend to focus more on rural areas, where most Indians live, which is generally the norm in Indian studies. Sainath’s ire rarely obscures his reporting, but it is difficult to ignore his presence.

The exception is Amartya Sen, who has broken new ground in the analysis of poverty, and in lucid social-scientific prose. His writing on famines, for example, demonstrated how institutional mechanisms can distort the distribution of food supplies. At the same time, his analysis of welfare and poverty has combined economics and philosophy in the service of evaluating the individual “capabilities” of human beings. It is largely due to his efforts, to his “capabilities approach,” that we now have the United Nations’ Human Development Index, which carries the measure of human “development” beyond simple utilitarian calculations and into the realm of the freedom to function in society. In his work with Jean Drèze, Sen has stressed the importance of education and health outcomes—rather than simply GDP—in the evaluation of a country’s progress.

Katherine Boo departs from these forebears. Her book certainly belongs in the “problems” literature—solutions are not really canvassed. But this is not a book about what causes poverty or social ruin; it is a book about poverty and social ruin. Boo wants to know, and to convey, how poverty is lived. She uses almost no statistics; nor are there lists or categorizations. The history of Mumbai is barely sketched at all. Where Mayhew would frequently define things as odd or disturbing, Boo rarely makes judgments about her characters. Years ago she did distinguished work at The Washington Post, where she expertly detailed the frightening conditions in the capital’s group homes for the mentally ill. But in that series, and in other recent American works on poverty (Jason DeParle’s splendid book on welfare reform, for example), statistics tend to mix with observation and reportage, and history and politics and social policy tend to play a role in the story. The great American exception to these trends was certainly James Agee’s and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which might be the closest comparison to what Boo is attempting, although Agee inserted himself into the book and showed an interest in classification.

Boo’s crucial strength is an empathetic imagination. Her book has the closely observed and artfully constructed quality of high fiction and film. (There were pages that reminded me of Satyajit Ray.) It is worth recalling that Mayhew wrote many scenes that mirrored Dickens’s stories, and showed an interest in character that would not have embarrassed Thackeray or George Eliot. In this way he was Boo’s precursor in the “problems” tradition: sometimes journalism succeeds by reading like a novel.

ABDUL HAKIM HUSAIN, who lives with his Muslim family in an Annawadi hut along with an ailing father, eight siblings, and a pragmatic and strong-willed mother, is the book’s central character. Abdul is not sure of his exact age, although it is safe to guess that he is in his mid-to-late teens, and when the story begins he is providing support for his family by buying and selling trash. After the burning, which exerts a centrifugal force on the slum, and which Abdul and other members of his family are accused of inciting, Boo explores the relationships between Abdul and other slum kids, and between his mother and The One Leg. The other family that we come to know intimately is headed by Asha, a proud and extremely ambitious mother in her early forties who—thanks to her connections to a local political party—is in a position of relative power in Annawadi. Her daughter Manju, who has reached a marriageable age and teaches a school class from their home, functions occasionally as her mother’s conscience, and frequently as the voice of self-reflective decency and goodness.

Nowhere is Boo’s prose stronger than in her physical descriptions of Annawadi, which lies next to Mumbai’s airport and houses—if that word can be allowed—3,000 or so people. The slum is not just a metaphorical jail that its inhabitants want to escape, it also takes on the actual dimensions of a prison:

June, the beginning of the four-month monsoon season, made every Annawadian pensive. The slum was a floodbowl, surrounded as it was by high walls and mounds of illegally dumped construction rubble. In a 2005 deluge that brought the whole city to a standstill, [The One Leg’s] family had lost most of what they owned, as had the Husains and many other Annawadians. Two residents had drowned, and more would have, had not a construction crew building an addition to the Intercontinental hotel supplied ropes and pulled slumdwellers through the floodwaters to safety.

Boo’s observations often focus on trash and its importance in the lives of every Annawadian. Of Abdul’s trash shed, she notes:

Inside was carbon-black, frantic with rats, and yet relieving. His storeroom—20 square feet, piled high to a leaky roof with the things in this world Abdul knew how to handle. Empty water and whisky bottles, mildewed newspapers, used tampon applicators, wadded aluminum foil, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by monsoons, broken shoelaces, yellowed Q-tips, snarled cassette tape, torn plastic casing that once held imitation Barbies. Somewhere in the darkness, there was a Berbee or Barblie itself, maimed in one of the experiments to which children who had many toys seemed to subject those toys no longer favored. Abdul had become expert, over the years, at minimizing distraction. He placed all such dolls in his trash pile tits-down.

This is more than well-written: its comment on “children who had many toys” is an apt symbol of India’s inequalities, and even the standard phrase “over the years” gains added potency when the reader remembers that Abdul is only a teenager.

Boo’s language, and her remarkable powers of observation, keep subtly reflecting the perspective of her characters: cargo shorts are described as being held up by “a shiny oval belt buckle of promising recyclable weight.” A twelve-year-old slum dweller sees well-dressed women “carrying handbags as big as household shrines.” (It is a cognitive accomplishment for a Westerner to see that there are circumstances in which a handbag may be compared in its size to a household shrine.) In what must be a direct translation of a Hindi phrase, a character who is ignoring his sister to watch television is described as having eyes “inside the TV.”

The drawback of such a perspective is that it prohibits the reader from understanding the full dimensions of Indian poverty. Statistics are not people, but numbers can tell a different kind of truth; and the local character of Boo’s powerful narrative may leave too many readers ignorant of the problem’s staggering magnitude. Despite progress, India has more people living in poverty than the entire continent of Africa. Approximately one-third of the country’s population—more than 400 million people—are impoverished, and the rates of malnutrition among children are comparable to those of sub-Saharan Africa. It is true that poverty is significantly worse in rural areas than in large cities, but in those cities, especially Mumbai, overcrowding has reached dismaying levels and slums take up much of the land.

THE BACKDROP of Boo’s book is the vertiginous change that Indian society has experienced over the past two decades. (Boo’s title comes from the slogan—“Beautiful Forever”—of an Italian floor tile company whose ads cover the airport walls and block the view of Annawadi.) After years of centralized planning and a relatively closed economy, the floodgates were opened in the early 1990s. Development schemes were given brisk approval, agriculture was downgraded in importance, and the stream of people moving from rural to urban areas turned into a flood. The productivity of an enlarged middle class has not sufficiently affected the living standards of the Indian majority. The epidemic of corruption, which has recently galvanized those middle classes, is given a twist in Boo’s pages. As she notes, “for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.” Of course, if the country were less corrupt, there might also be fewer poor Indians.

Boo’s sketch of this metamorphosis is too, well, sketchy, but she does a fine job of displaying how her characters cope with what they know is a “new” India: “Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbors. But in the twenty-first-century city, fewer people joined up to take their disputes to the streets. As group identities based on caste, ethnicity, and religion gradually attenuated, anger and hope were being privatized, like so much else in Mumbai. This development increased the demand for canny mediators—human shock absorbers for the colliding, narrowly construed interests of one of the world’s largest cities.” This idea keeps recurring, as when an Annawadian reflects on transitioning from rural life to urban life: “He wasn’t sentimental about that village, in a district where there was little work except in sugarcane fields and children died at one of the highest rates in India. But he felt that urban slums surrounded by affluence turned children contemptuous of their parents—‘because we can’t give brand-name clothes, the car.’”

The larger theme also asserts itself in the political and religious spheres. Boo goes into very little detail on Shiv Sena, the Hindu extremist political party that has spent years controlling the city (and had the city’s name changed from Bombay to reflect what Shiv Sena’s leaders believe should be its Hindu character). Asha is herself a party member, and derives what power she has from the affiliation. Shiv Sena and its Hitler-admiring leader Bal Thackeray were behind much of the violence against Muslims that has occurred in the city over the past twenty years. The terrorist attacks in 2008, this time perpetrated by Islamic jihadists, intersect only tangentially with Boo’s narrative, but the lack of anti-Muslim violence in response to the atrocities fits into Boo’s larger picture of a society with its focus elsewhere: “The popular rage ... didn’t seem to transfer to other Muslims in Mumbai. Abdul was relieved to find ... in the clammy, crowded train cars, he was no one’s proxy. The Hindus were just going where they had to go, as he was. Like him, they were coughing, eating lunch, looking out windows at billboards on which Bollywood heroes hawked cement and Coca-Cola. They were bent protectively over prized documents in prized plastic bags like his own, which said, TAKE A BREAK, HAVE A KIT KAT.”

As Boo juggles India’s changing fortunes and the squalor of Annawadi, the story keeps returning to the slum’s children. Abdul is an astonishingly resourceful and humane teenager with practical intelligence and impressive levels of common sense. He cannot quite get himself to feel God’s presence, but after he is accused of a crime he does come to see it as part of a divine plan, if only because many people smarter than himself believe in God. In juvenile lock-up, however, he doesn’t fear the ghosts of former prisoners: in Boo’s elegant formulation, “being terrorized by living people seemed to have diminished his fear of the dead.”

Even when Abdul cannot explain his emotions, he is smart enough to recognize their power. He is not sentimental, except when it comes to his two-year-old brother, whom he can barely look at without tearing up. Somehow he knows that this feeling speaks to his larger situation. His more existential reflections, too, register strongly in his mind, even if he never evaluates them with any rigor: “Once my mother was beating me, and that thought came to me. I said, ‘If what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too.’ And my mother was so shocked when I said that. She said, ‘Don’t confuse yourself by thinking about such terrible lives.’” In one section, Abdul is given the chance to have a sort of mentor, and it is no surprise that the opportunity invigorates the boy. He hears his mentor speak of respectability and honor, and Boo describes his response: “It was not too late, at seventeen or whatever age he was, to resist the corrupting influences of the world and his nature. An awkward, uneducated boy might still be capable of righteousness. He intended to remember this.”

This experience, which occurs while Abdul makes his way through India’s criminal justice labyrinth, may have been intended by Boo to show the human potential within her wretched subjects. But these pages are also a haunting picture of a legal system rife with brutality and capriciousness, although the power of certain democratic institutions makes itself (eventually) felt. The police exist to be bought, and Abdul’s treatment at the hands of the authorities is terrifying. (Boo provides very little background on the operations of the country’s legal system, but very few experts would quibble with the implication that Abdul’s case does not depart from the norm.)

The occasional glimmers of hope on offer cannot do much to dispel the overwhelming climate of gloom. Boo notes that rather than organize a response to the many indignities that they face, Annawadians generally turn on each other. “Powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked,” she writes. “Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes, like [The One Leg], they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate, like Asha, they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.” Boo ascribes this phenomenon to global capitalism and the obsessive focus on individualism, which has blunted an appeal to the common interest. There may be some truth to this, but the phenomenon of the oppressed being cruel to the oppressed is an old one and reformers have faced it, in every country, for centuries. “The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached,” she writes of Annawadi’s troubles. “The poor took down one another.” It turns out that the poor are as imperfect as everybody else, and adversity is not a school for angels and saints.

“ABOVE ALL ELSE: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art,” Agee instructed his readers in the preamble to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. He seemed to fear that the beauty of his book would blunt its social impact. To grasp his work, he added, the reader should listen to Beethoven and turn up the volume: “You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get, you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body is no longer your shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.” If this was how Agee wanted us to experience Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, he sold his book short. He was underestimating the power of his own work.

When she finally emerges in her own voice in the author’s note at the end of the book, Boo reflects that “When I settle into a place, listening and watching, I don’t try to fool myself that the stories of individuals are themselves arguments. I just believe that better arguments, maybe even better policies, get formulated when we know more about ordinary lives.” This true and decent and sanguine thought is quite distinct from what interested her after first arriving in India. Presumably influenced by Sen’s encompassing approach, she had first asked, “Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?” But Boo has chosen not to answer these questions. What she has done, instead, by raising her journalism to the level of literature, is make us want to press the questions along with her.

Isaac Chotiner is the executive editor of The Book at This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.