If I want to make an argument, a cogent argument, what do I need? A position. Data. Facts and figures. Hard evidence, to speak to the head. Soft evidence, to affect the heart. I will assemble these things and build a fortress around my position. I will state my case. I will strive to convince and persuade, eliminating that which does not support my point, polishing that which does.
This type of rhetoric floods our contemporary communications. Some go further still, expressing their political and religious positions in the new media of visual memes, a shorthand able to stir praise from those who agree, derision from those who do not.
How refreshing, then, to come in contact with a living story, not an deadening argument, one that illuminates the complexity of an issue. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo could be said to be about economic inequality, but that would be an unfair reduction. She chooses not the path of rhetoric, but rather the path of story, and the result is more than a book about social justice. It forces the reader into a discomfort that only comes as we walk in other people’s lives, imagining their cooking fires, smelling the sewage, sorting trash.
The title comes from the barrier between the seen and unseen parts of Mumbai. A wall divides them. One side of the wall faces Annawadi, a slum near the airport. The other side faces the overcity, and is covered in an advertisement selling flooring. The ad papers the wall, repeatedly using the phrase “beautiful forever.”
The book satisfies the nonfiction reader’s needs for facts: the origins of the people in Annawadi, the history of the place, the lives of the current dwellers, the struggles they face, how they intersect with the surrounding city and the authorities. She does this through the work of a reporter, but with the voice of a storyteller, delivering three years of journalistic exploration scene by scene and life by life, telling of three families who live behind the wall, with plots and subplots and a style that echos a novel.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers submerges its reader in Annawadi. The setting and statistics become the ecology, a context of which the people, and by extension the reader, are a part. When the book is finished, reality has been enhanced, challenged, changed. The reader has worn someone else’s skin, and it’s uncomfortable.
Discomfort starts as we move beyond statistics. Numbers give us a sense of scope but also provide us with distance and excuses. Three thousand residents and only six people with jobs sounds like a big problem, bigger than I. It would be easy to breeze past that sort of statistic in a straight news piece. On the other hand, Abdul and his efforts give me as a reader a way to empathize. He is one of the many who is not traditionally employed, yet finds ways to care for his family. This takes him off of a graph and puts him in my mind—a person kind of like me.
Discomfort continues as “the poor” are named and have successes and failures, both economic and moral. The aforementioned Abdul, along with Asha and Kalu and Zehrunisia and Fatima and others, are not representative of the poor or symbols of economic disparity. If they were, they might be easier to dismiss. Instead, their specific desires and heartaches allow us to consider that both systemic and individual ways can be corrupted. With full story, rather than glossy anecdote, the reader can no longer see the residents of Annawadi as merely oppressed or merely foolish. This opens a door that a chart cannot, an invitation to see ourselves, our systems, our motives for what they are.
A quick survey of responses to this book suggests that most reviewers were moved. It’s difficult to find naysayers, but their words are intriguing. One feels the book is good but not great, as it does not explore larger forces in play, the stories of the overcity. Is the author’s work lessened because she chooses to tell the story of a few people in Annawadi and not the story of those in charge? A second reviewer expresses concern that the narrative style might diminish the plight of the slumdwellers. Does an absence of forcefully expressed hard facts, combined with a compelling tale, lighten the weight of suffering for the reader?
Boo allows the people to stand with limited quantification, their morals unpolished; she shapes the story without fortifying the possible rhetoric. This is the final discomfort. When a story reveals systemic injustice and also broken people, will we act anyway, or do we champion justice only on behalf of innocents? Can we find the humility and mercy to enact justice even though we are broken people in a broken world?