In 2012, I was in the Swiss Alps descending the Jungfrau via the Jungfrau Railway, from Europe’s highest-altitude railway station in a world of rock, ice and snow. Seven of the nine kilometres of railway are in a tunnel hewn in the rock of the Eiger and Mönch. The train cars are spacious, with large windows that easily open, and the most pristine view I have ever witnessed. In the seat behind me was a family from India: three young children, their parents, and their grandparents. Just like us, they were enjoying the spectacular scenery. Then I watched the grandfather finish a bottle of water and toss it out the window onto an otherwise unblemished grassy field. It was shocking, the last thing on earth I would think anyone would do. Soon after, though, I realized why the man did it, and now having read Katherine Boo’s behind the beautiful forevers, I understand even more.
Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has focused her career on the under-advantaged members of society. In 2007, she began to investigate the slums of India, finally settling on Annawadi in Mumbai. As Jessamy Calkin of the Telegraph writes, “Annawadi is a ‘sumpy plug of slum’, a garish, seething, stinking, frantic wriggling community of 3,000 people, flanked by Mumbai airport and several luxury hotels, and fenced off by hoardings advertising Italianate floor tiles decorated with the slogan ‘Beautiful Forever, Beautiful Forever…’.” The slum is beyond the tiled fence wall.
At first, the residents of Annawadi thought Boo was there to steal their children or convert them to Christianity. However, the longer she stayed–long stretches over a period of four years–the more they became used to her. Her research resulted in a non-fiction account that reads like a novel. As Calkin writes:
Boo’s descriptions of life within are almost Dickensian, as are her characters: the former slumlord who paints his horses with stripes to look like zebras which he hires out for children’s parties; Kalu, the little thief with a legendary pain threshold whose skills at mimicry keep everyone entertained; Sunil, a touching scavenger who pretends that he goes to school. And there is Asha, the aspiring slumlord, uneducated, ambitious, unscrupulous but somehow very appealing, and her gorgeous daughter Manju, the only college graduate in Annawadi.
Boo writes what she sees. She doesn’t sentimentalize. Chekhov once advised another writer, “When you describe the miserable and unfortunate, and want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder — that seems to give a kind of background to another’s grief, against which it stands out more clearly.” Boo captures that grief with clear-eyed brilliance. She also captures the beauty in the agony and the irony in the literal lives of the Annawadi residents. Of Kalu, one of the many scavenger boy’s who survive off the trash discarded from travelers, Boo writes:
Kalu had no home to retreat to. He decided to go to the airport, taking off across the thoroughfare toward the bright blue signs that lead the way to the international terminal. ARRIVALS down. DEPARTURES up. HAPPY JOURNEY.
The following morning, Kalu lay outside Air India’s red-and-white gates: a shirtless corpse with a grown-out Salman Khan haircut, crumpled behind a flowering hedge.
In the story of the Annawadi slum, there is a lake sewer instead of a pond, rats instead of pets, tin and cardboard instead of walls, and trash collection instead of offices–lots of trash, which is the recycler’s currency, which is what boy’s like Kalu use for survival.
So now I think I have a clue why the Indian grandfather threw the plastic water bottle out the train window. Maybe he thought he was giving some scavenger, like Kalu, a rupee or two. Like the grandfather’s actions, behind the beautiful forevers is a glimpse at another way of life.