By Chet Yarbrough
By Katherine Boo
Narrated by Sunil Malhotra
The seamy side of disproportionate wealth frequently appears in books.
Some are classics of fiction like “The Grapes of Wrath”; others are modern fictions, apocryphal, and less renowned, like Aravind Adiga’s “White Tiger”. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” shows the ugly truth of a poorly regulated capitalist economy. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a true story of modern India that exposes the seams of an economic system that widens and perpetuates a gap between haves and have-nots. India’s current economic system guarantees a permanent underclass, characterized by poverty, malnutrition, and disease. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is about Mumbai’s poor; written by a seasoned reporter, Katherine Boo.
Boo writes a story of three families living next to a modernizing airport near Mumbai, India. Two families live next to each other in scrap built huts with a common wall. A third family lives in a similar dwelling with an ambitious mother that chooses to do whatever it takes to make a better life for herself and her children. All three families live in a neighborhood of filth and degradation.
These are families of an underclass that survive by scavenging the remains of discarded refuse. India’s economic system feeds on social corruption and creates a self-loathing underclass that perpetuates itself. There seems no exit. It is a Jean-Paul Sartre’ hell, a human soul’s repeating torture.
Boo explains the humanity of three families and how their lives depend on demeaning themselves for any chance of escape from poverty. One might argue that living a degraded life is caused by not understanding what one has never had. However, living next door to wealth reminds one every day of how different life can be. In a free society, the daily reminder of the gap between rich and poor corrupts morality, incites murder, tempts suicide, and invokes a whatever-it-takes mentality that invents and perpetuates generations of poor.
Boo’s story shows the grit and determination of mothers in Mumbai. Husbands seem riven with drink, slothfulness, and emotional bankruptcy. Ineffectual husbands are beaten down by the crushing life of poverty. By the time children are born and begin to contribute to the families’ welfare, fathers are exhausted by life. Boo shows young boys still have hope but as they grow older, their hope turns to cynicism. Mothers hold families together, push their children to succeed, and willfully prostitute themselves, literally and figuratively. Mothers struggle to break the cycle of wasted lives.
Boo reports on the lives of real people. She tells the story of the mother with one leg that becomes jealous of a family next door and sets her body on fire. The objective of the self-immolation is for the one-legged mother to strike back at a family on the other side of their common wall. With a false accusation to the police, the one-legged mother gets revenge, at the cost of her life, for the relative success of her neighbor. Undoubtedly, part of one-legged woman’s motive is to escape her miserable life, made more unbearable by her neighbor’s perceived success.
Boo shows that the accused family eventually proves their innocence but only after months of incarceration and many bribes paid to civil authorities. The story of the accused includes the family’s son, Abdul. Abdul begins his life in innocence but becomes disillusioned. His life experience shows that stealing, bribing, and lying are the way of the world and that corrupt policemen and civil authorities are no different from him. The police and civil authorities seek bribes because honest work does not pay enough for decent shelter and food.
A third family story is of a 40-year-old mother and her family. She schemes to become the go-to person whenever someone has a community problem. She seeks political power as a civil authority. She offers to solve community problems if community residents are willing to pay. Her alcoholic husband is of little help but her daughter is going to college based on family income set aside by her mother. The 40-year-old mother chooses to prostitute herself for her daughter’s schooling and her family’s survival but also to increase her political power by seducing local authorities. The mother’s prostitution begins to fail as a source of money and influence as younger competition steals her clients.
In the end, a piece of corrupt good luck seems to offer the prostituted mother a possible escape from poverty. The corrupt good luck requires involvement of her college age daughter in a scheme to defraud the government. A government grant is established to improve education opportunities for the poor but the money set aside for education is used to bribe local officials rather than create schools. The mechanism for bribery is a charitable foundation set up by the prostituted mother. The mother appoints her daughter as administrator to institutionalize the corruption. This is a corrupt scheme to insure future income, power, and prestige for the family.
There is “No Exit” for the poverty-stricken Mumbai underclass. Poverty is perpetuated by schemes like that of the 40-year-old mother. Future generations of the poor are guaranteed nothing but life, with little education and dwindling economic opportunity. The value of corruption is reinforced. The inner compass of human morality spins as schemes to defraud and grinding poverty guarantee an underclass existence in perpetual slums.
Mumbai is a daunting example of how disproportionate wealth corrupts morality, undermines democracy, and smears the reputation of capitalist economies.