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Running title: Behind The Beautiful Forevers – Life, Death And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity

This book was published in 2012 (yes, eight years old) and by some strange standards, it may be considered “old”. Whatever. For some strange reason I’ve always wanted to read this book (aside from the fact someone gave it to me eons ago and it was sitting on my bookshelf) and eventually it took a quarantine to force me to read it. Needless to say, I regret not having read this MUCH EARLIER. But enough with the bollocks and such and let’s get on with the bloody review.

Beautiful centers on the lives of inhabitants of a makeshift settlement, not too far from a group of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, called Annawadi. It is basically a settlement built by squatters who merely exists in the shadows of India’s society. The book, however, centers around some interesting characters.
There is Abdul, along with his mother Zehrunisa, a garbage sorter that has his trade down to a “science”. Barely a teen, along with his younger brother, this is what he does to provide for his family after his father suffered an injury to his back (which doesn’t seem to stop him from impregnating Zehrunisa). Then there is the mother/daughter team of Asha and Manju. Asha aims to be a top slumlord … someday … with great political affiliations, but in the meanwhile serves as the village councilor, that prostitutes herself and engages in little bouts of fraud and extortion. Yes, she’s quite the ambitious one. Manju, her daughter on the other hand has a decent education and earns money tutoring internet basics and classes that paid district teachers neglect to do. Did I mention that Manju is a prepubescent teen? Then there is Fatima or One-Leg, a one legged amputee (hence the nickname) that is a bit of a trouble maker but gets around in more ways than one and proving, simultaneously, that amputation does not dampen the libido or promiscuity. The Hussains (Abdul, Zehrunisa et al) have done quite well for themselves mostly due to Abdul’s discerning eye for scavenging “quality” garbage that can be sold to recyclers. Unfortunately, when you live on the margins of society, you are a sitting duck for every motivated hyena and coyote that comes by. In this case, the “coyotes” are usually police officers that shake down scavengers for the little that they earn. In some cases, successful scavengers such as Abdul, simply because they’ve been granted “privileged access” to some of the prime “dumping grounds” by the police. If this sounds infuriating already, the bad news is that I’ve just gotten started. Asha, as the village councilor, is the person that people carry their grievances to and she, in turn, uses her affiliations to “help” them. Now when Asha “helps” someone it is actually a favour and tribute (money) is expected and this is not usually a one-time payout. To go against that protocol is to find yourself accosted by police officers under some trumped-up charge and eventually in the “rescuing” arms of Asha who just happened to be in the neighbourhood. Right. And that “rescue” will come at steep cost. The moral: don’t mess around with Asha’s tribute.

The story takes a dramatic turn when a vicious conflict occurs between Fatima (One-Leg) and the Hussains. As the Hussains were trying to “renovate” their shack, Fatima (out of pure envy) claimed that the renovation efforts were affecting her wall. Harsh words were exchanged, and threats were made, and no thought anymore of it. Except for Fatima, that took it to a new diabolical level: she poured kerosene on herself and set herself aflame with the hope that the Hussains would be blamed for her injuries or murder (should she actually die). Complete bollocks, one would say. Sadly, this incident was the catalyst that started the domino effect in revealing how permeated corruption and abuse is many nooks and crannies of India. Abdul and his father are arrested based on really, crappy, accounts that would stun most active and practicing nitwits. The harsh reality of this is that it was not even about justice, but a haphazard conspiracy to extort the Hussains. All coordinated by the police and … Asha. And just when things couldn’t get any lower, we’re introduced to special executive officer Poornima Paikrao. Her main task is to collect victim statements but instead choose to participate in this conspiracy by coaching the crime scene and the victim. She also attempted to extort the Hussains several times during the arrest, during the incarceration and then outside the courthouse DURING the trial. When often pleaded upon for her help, her favourite saying (with upturned palms) was: “But what can I do?” There were times I heard my inner voice scream (at this farcical behaviour): “Your bloody job!!!”.
Unfortunately, fate was not kinder to Fatima as experienced by her treatment in the hospital (that has probably never heard of the Hippocratic oath). Cringeworthy examples include her IV bag with a “used” needle sticking out of it, since the nurses thought it a waste to use a new needle. Don’t worry I’ll save you some the “juicy” stuff. Along the way there are some sad side stories such as Abdul’s friend, Kalu (the movie-teller) that was murdered but was written off as “due to sickness” by corrupt police investigators and it is so blatantly fraudulent that you’d be aghast reading about it. The other was the suicide of Meena, Manju’s friend, that was subjected to way too much beatings by her parents and even brothers. I shudder to think that she was subjected to more than just beatings … by her brothers. And sadly, suicide was her escape.

A slight detour. In case you’re wondering what a “movie-teller” is, it is basically someone that tells an entire movie from beginning to end. Yes, I know that is frowned upon in America, but imagine growing up in a society where you couldn’t afford to go the movies as often as you’d like (and, in my case, lived in country that did not broadcast tv waves until 1985). As teenagers, back in Guyana, it was always common sight (back then) to see your mates gathered around an animated character as he basically told you the entire movie (sound effects and action included, Micheal Winslow would have been proud). Some kids were so really good at it, so much that it was the next best thing to being at the movies. And yes, you’ve been privy to another strange bit of my life.

For a country that has given the world yoga, Gandhi, herbal medicine, delicious spices (it is hard to fathom life without a decent curry) … and call centers that staff a lot of “Americans”, Beautiful paints a slightly less flattering image. Unlike America, where even the poor can afford to have lofty dreams and even achieve it, Beautiful shows a world where the poor can’t even see past their surroundings (e.g. Asha’s slumlord ambition). The poor preys on the poor and even worse, those that are supposed to protect the poor and the innocent are the biggest predators of all. In short, life is cheaper than cheap in Annawadi.If you’re looking for sunny, upbeat stories, that feels like Bollywood song and dance sequence, then I am afraid that this is not the book. The writing and story, is however, very riveting and grabs you but be forewarned that your emotions will cycle faster than the changing colours of a steroid-infused Aurora Borealis.

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