Behind the Beautiful Forevers – The Great Gatsby and a Mumbai Slum
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the sort of book that illuminates a very small section of our ever surprising very large world. I haven’t read any other books about India, nor do I know anything about its slums, other than a stock catalogue of images you’d probably see on a charity advert. Rather than regurgitate these images of poverty, Katherine Boo focuses instead on India’s socio-economic status and asks what opportunities are there for people without status or privilege to work their way out of poverty?
I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers a couple of weeks ago, because it was chosen by John Green to be a part of the Nerdfighter Book Club. A good rule of thumb: If John Green mentions a book on one of his videos, it tends to be worth reading. Katherine Boo’s book about Annawadi – a slum that skirts the edge of Mumbai’s airport – has the additional acclaim of being shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson prize. Now that is a prize that always has an interesting shortlist.
The title refers to a long run of billboards that run along the edge of the airport in Mumbai like a perimeter fence. The adverts are for Italian tiles that will be Beautiful Forever. Like the ever watchful eyes T. J. Eckleburg in the Valley of Ashes, the Beautiful Forevers are all that separate glittering new high rise hotels from the trash collecting entrepreneurs and slum lords of Annawadi. Here capitalism is king – money is what you need to get on. Entrepreneurship and education are ways to do it. Corruption is another.
Of course it is important not to judge other societies by Western standards, but as a western reader this is a perspective that I cannot escape writing from. My mention of The Great Gatsby and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s metaphors come from my own opinions as regards to morality, money, life and the construction of stories. In our own society, corruption is perhaps no less prevalent but morally wrong. Look at the coverage of business tax dodging, for example. The media’s condemnation of such practices is often to reference how x amount of £ could be spent on healthcare or schools or protecting vulnerable people. However, who can really say what they would do in such a situation? Perhaps you would exploit those same loopholes if you had a fancy advisor and a lot of cash. Either way, Gatsby is new money, but it is dirty money. Money made through morally questionable means. In Annawadi, corruption is something more ordinary. Corruption is a way of making money and it is just another potential path to social mobility.
All in all, it feels important to look at the parts of the world that are out of reach. Being part of a family, a generation, a country, are all specifics. Thinking bigger for a moment, I wonder whether we are struck by stories so foreign in order to better comprehend what it is we are collectively capable of achieving.
I’m going to end this post with the passage of Behind the Beautiful Forevers that has kept me thinking since reading:
Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He himself was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him – the police officers and the special executive officer and the morgue doctor who fixed Kalu’s death. If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from – and in his view, better than – what it was made of.
He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai’s dirty water he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals.