Capitalism honed to a razor’s edge
BOOK REVIEW: Beyond The Beautiful Forevers. Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Catherine Boo (Kindle: $US12.59; edition augmented with short videos is $US14.90)
To see capitalism honed to a razor’s edge, red in tooth and claw, go to a slum in Mumbai.
The highway to Mumbai airport is lined by graceful coconut palms.
Behind them is a concrete wall decorated with hoardings advertising Italian floor tiles; beautiful forever, beautiful forever, beautiful forever, the hoardings promise.
The wall conceals from the passing traffic one hundred and thirty huts jammed together on about 2500 square metres – a bit more than twice the size a New Zealand quarter acre section used to be – in a slum called Annawadi.
Annawadi does not exist on any map, but Google Mumbai airport, look for the highway with the coconut palms and there you will find it.
Annawadi is bordered by a vast lake of sewage which reflects the neon signage of the luxury hotels across the water. The sewage lake is a handy dumping place for contractors modernising the airport and is also the repository for dead animals.
Unfortunately the lake is not completely dead. Fishermen catch tiny fish amongst the plastic bags and the empty cigarette packets which are sold to be ground into fish oil – a health product in high demand in the west.
Catherine Boo arrived there in 2007 and, helped by two translators, many videos and photos and hours of interviewing, wrote this book.
For three years she followed the fortunes of Abdul the teenage garbage entrepreneur, Asha who aspires to success in the field of political corruption, and her beautiful sensitive daughter who will become Annawadi’s first female college graduate.
The slum dwellers are poor, but that doesn’t make them stupid. Neither are they ignorant.
The people employed in temporary positions at luxury hotels; the waiter at the hotel, the toilet cleaner, and the waste basket emptier know a great deal about the privilege of wealth.
Only six of the slum’s inhabitants have permanent jobs, and at the other end of the social hierarchy a few people have to make do eating rats, frogs and the scrub grass at the sewage lake’s edge. Very few are officially classed as poor.
Life in the beuatiful forevers is all frantic movement, fierce aspirations and overwhelming ambitions.
Good fortune depends upon not just what people do, or how well they do it, but the accidents and catastrophes they avoid.
The traffic accident that doesn’t happen, the TB or hepatitis they don’t catch, the policeman or politician who stays bribed, can be the difference between life and death.
The social hierarchy of Annawadi is based less on cast and more on future prospects.
As every slum dweller knows there are three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, politics and corruption or education.
Overwhelmingly the core business of Annawadi is business, both legal and illegal.
Economic life revolves around the garbage, petty thieving and temporary job opportunities presented by the airport, the surrounding developments and hotels.
Five hundred thousand rural Indians arrive in Mumbai annually to swell the pool of unemployed day labourers. There is no hope for rural poverty.
But in a slum there is at least a tiny chance of scrambling into some modest prosperity.
At the end of the book it is still not known what happens to the main protagonists; this is real life after all.
Is Abdul declared innocent of murder, does Asha become a politician, does Manju her daughter make a favourable marriage or is her English good enough to allow her to work in a call centre? These are real lives but we will know anything more about them.
What is known is that very few of the people who inhabit Annawadi and similar slums will ever leave.
The huge population of India means that the tiny percentage who succeed constitute many millions and those millions will be future customers and competitors for New Zealanders.
This unusually thought provoking book gives an insight into the hopes of those at the bottom of the social heap in a society where the social safety net ends at the threshold of the family hovel.