India’s poor, up close
they can create a plausible charge against Fatima’s neighbors, they can solicit bribes from the neighbors to make the charge go away.
India has strict laws against encouraging people to commit suicide — these laws can be traced back to British rule and its attempt to stamp out “sati,” a cultural practice of forcing widows to kill themselves by walking into their husbands’ funeral pyres. So, Fatima simply claims that her neighbors taunted, threatened and beat her, leading to her suicide.
The arrest of Fatima’s neighbors, the Husains, gives us a glimpse inside India’s justice system. Confessions are extorted through beatings, favorable treatment in jail is bought and sold and trials are rushed, thanks to a severe backlog of cases.
Despite the fact that Ms. Boo clearly took a very hands-on, personal approach in her reporting, the book reads like a work of fiction with an omniscient narrator — the author is completely absent from the story, and nothing seems hidden from her view. At times, thoughts about the reporting process will interrupt the reader: Why should we trust Ms. Boo’s assertions about what people were thinking? How did she get so much detail about what happened while the police were beating a suspect?
The author explains her process in a brief essay at the end of the book. She witnessed most of what she wrote about, and the rest is painstakingly constructed from interviews and public documents. Some readers might still be uncomfortable with this approach, but one major advantage is that it avoids making the Western reporter the center of the story.
Economic inequality is an obvious focus of “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” and judging by the excited blurb provided by lefty activist Barbara Ehrenreich, the book will stir some liberals to action. But it’s rather hard to nail down Ms. Boo’s own politics. Like a conservative, she seems acutely aware that economic development has lifted far more people out of poverty than government programs ever could, but, like a liberal, she seems disappointed that the poor are politically disorganized and unable to demand much of the societies they live in.
Rather than fleshing out an argument as to how to solve the problems of Annawadi, she is content to explain the facts — empathetically, but with no attempt to gloss over the personal failings of her subjects. Just as we meet hard-working scavengers who never seem to get ahead, we encounter drunkenness, envy, corruption and Eraz-ex, a whiteout correction fluid that young men huff to get high.
As much of India emerges from poverty, some will undoubtedly be left behind, as they are in any society. Eventually, most poverty will be a symptom not of the country’s general lack of prosperity, but of some blend of counterproductive behavior and oppression. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a case study in how that process will unfold in a nation of more than 1 billion people.