A definitive account of a Mumbai slum from one of the world’s best reporters

In The Caravan, Girish Shahane reviews “Behind The Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo [Penguin India]:

 Boo locates her book in Annawadi, a settlement established by Tamil labourers near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in 1991 when repairs were being made to a runway. The settlement’s character was altered by an influx of Marathi migrants, and is being reshaped again by a wave of North Indians. Its changing demographics and proximity to a recently privatised terminal make it an ideal site for exploring economic opportunity and gross inequality—the exacerbation as well as transcendence of social divisions that the metropolis engenders. Annawadi is hidden beyond a concrete wall painted with an advertisement for ceramic floor tiles that, if the repeated slogan is to be believed, remain “Beautiful Forever”. The effort to keep the shanties out of sight behind a high barrier is futile: once aloft, airline passengers are bound to notice slums spreading like eczema around the airport, alongside roads and railway tracks and across once-green hills. More than half the residents of Mumbai live in such settlements, which represent both the city’s capacity to offer jobs to millions of new migrants, and a catastrophic failure of urban planning.

More than half a century ago, the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss wrote in his book Tristes Tropiques, “Filth, chaos, promiscuity, congestion; ruins, huts, mud, dirt; dung, urine, pus, humors, secretions and running sores: all the things against which we expect urban life to give us organized protection, all the things we hate and guard against at such great cost, all these by-products of cohabitation do not set any limitation on it in India. They are more like a natural environment which the Indian town needs in order to prosper. To every individual, any street, footpath or alley affords a home, where he can sit, sleep, and even pick up his food straight from the glutinous filth.” Affluent Indians often suggest that eliminating the grime which so disgusted Lévi-Strauss demands a kind of delete button to erase squatter colonies from existence and memory. However, NGOs like the National Slum Dwellers Federation have led a salutary reimagining of shanty towns as centres of productive labour rather than the habitat of dispensable parasites. Foreign correspondents reporting on Mumbai’s emblematic slum, Dharavi, are now more likely to focus on textile exports than on poverty. More:

And here’s the link to Jonathan Shainin‘s review of the book

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