You’ll recall Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 multi-oscar-winning feelgood film about a poverty-stricken Indian kid who gets rich on a quiz show. And you may also recall the subsequent semi-scandal about how the real slumkids in the film were all returned to their slum squalor after being paraded around the Oscar show like little flesh-and-blood trophies. The last I remember, the kids still hadn’t escaped despite Hollywood’s purported best efforts. After reading Katherine Boo‘s wonderful and excruciating behind the beautiful forevers, I’ve a little more insight into why the film’s producers’ efforts to improve the lives of their youthful actors might have been doomed from the beginning.
As its subtitle accurately puts it, Boo’s book looks deep into “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” It’s a simultaneous marvel of journalism and sociology, yet it reads like a first-rate novel. The spine of it is a murder trial. A one-legged neighbor of the principal family in the saga douses herself with kerosene and sets herself afire after a quarrel over a petty incident involving the construction of a common wall between two huts. She hadn’t intended suicide, but things get out of hand and she dies of infection. What happens next provides Boo with the material for exposing the depth and variety of the corruption that infests Indian society, not only in the slums but from the bottom all the way to the top. The court-appointed agent assigned to collect testimony from from various witnesses to the argument takes bribes to skew her report. The victim is Hindu, the accused Muslim, adding to the impulse to prosecute wherever a profit might be made. The police who arrest “suspects” require payment to stop beatings, to release, to not rearrest or expand the arrest list. Bribes from people who make their “living” scrounging for garbage on the highways and borders of the airport that neighbors the polluted lowland where the makeshift huts house a huge subculture. That subculture houses a hierarchy of venality itself. The government, for example, provides minigrants to women to start their own businesses or to operate schools. The money gets lent out at usurious rates. The schools consist of 12-year-old teachers of 5-year-old children and hold sessions on the sporadic occasions when either the teacher or the students can be spared from their garbage gathering or sorting. Periodic slum clearings create opportunities for new corruption. Amid all the twists and turns of the trial, these starving people try to keep up with the bribes to the attorneys, the court reporters. The trial, though it takes place in what’s called a “fast-track court,” stretches on and on, during which time, witnesses and others die, commit suicide (rife in the desperate circumstances), get arrested for non-related offenses. Given the despair, what, you might wonder, justifies the “hope” part of Boo’s subtitle. You can’t stamp it out. Certain of us are hardwired to believe things can and will get better despite all evidence to the contrary.
Getting back to Slumdog Millionaire, after reading behind the beautiful forevers, it’s easy to imagine quantities of Hollywood money dropped naively into this atmosphere where, in Boo’s words in her “Author’s Note:”
powerless individuals [blame] other powerless individuals for what they [lack]. Sometimes they [try] to destroy one another. Sometimes … they [destroy] themselves in the process. When they [are] fortunate … they [improve] their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.
and having that money disappear into the poverty and corruption like so much rice in the mud. That same afterword also contains enlightening accounts of Boo’s research and decision to render her subjects’ tale as a narrative rather than as a scholarly document. I applaud both her decision and the result. This is a landmark volume of life in a world where advancing corporate interests trample humans even as they pretend to care for them. Read it if you dare.