Date completed: April 16, 2012
How I found this book: My boyfriend recommended this one and lent me his copy from the library. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is particularly special for me because I spent a week staying within a few miles of the area where the book is set.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a non-fiction book, but is written like fiction, telling the intertwined stories of several families living in Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai. The book does a great job showing the details of their lives. The author also shares the thoughts of the characters, which in some ways I am skeptical of in a non-fiction book. After all, it can only be her interpretation of their thoughts. But she does it so well:
It seemed to Abdul that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.
Abdul lives accordingly, with great caution, but even so he can’t avoid catastrophe.
The overwhelming message I got from the book was the power of rampant corruption to destroy any efforts at improvements. I knew beforehand, of course, that corruption is damaging, but I didn’t appreciate how insidious and widespread its effects could be. The central family in the book runs a relatively successful business purchasing garbage from scavengers and selling it for recycling*, but the gains they make are offset by the increased bribes from the police when they are doing better. When Abdul and his family members are arrested due to a false accusation, the full array of requests for bribery emerges- to the police to prevent them from beating the arrested family members, to officials to get a transfer to a less brutal prison, to a politically powerful Annawadi neighbor to try to get the accuser to drop charges. Efforts by social service organizations are similarly thwarted by corruption as even the nuns at the orphanage sell donated goods for their own benefit.
It was interesting to read this book after reading Poor Economics. Both books have given me a better understanding of what it means to live life as a very poor person, but each in a different way. Behind the Beautiful Forevers gives a more intimate and personalized story, while Poor Economics focuses on broad patterns in a more scientific way. What’s interesting is the several instances in Behind the Beautiful Forevers of anti-poverty interventions which also appear in Poor Economics. In each case, interventions which were found to be effective in the controlled studies of Poor Economics were derailed and ineffective in Annawadi. In one example, micro-lending went to better off or more powerful women who then loaned the money out to poorer women at higher rates. Another example relates to India’s law that specifies that a proportion of political positions be held by women and another proportion by underrepresented groups (known as scheduled castes). The law requires that particular seats (with the specific seats rotating each election cycle) can only be filled by women and others can only be filled by members of the scheduled castes. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers when the local seat is designated for a woman, it is filled by the powerful politician’s deaf and mute maid. The law is portrayed as being ineffective because the people elected will just be puppets of the more powerful. However, Poor Economics addressed that exact argument, which was also made by many politicians. In a study comparing villages which had been designated to have a female leader with villages which had not, the villages which had had women leaders were more likely to have improved their water supply and local schools. Women were also viewed as more capable of being leaders in those villages. Thus it seems, that even if women were originally elected as puppets of male leaders, they ended up having an impact.
Which to believe? The science or the anecdote? One argument might be that the science isn’t trustworthy, that outsiders coming in and collecting data don’t get the real story. However, as both (a.) a scientist and (b.) an optimist, I tend to lend stronger credence to the controlled studies than to the individual stories of failure. If on average an action is demonstrated to be beneficial, I think that’s more convincing than single examples. I do think that the stories of failure are important as lessons of how things can go wrong, but they don’t necessarily represent the whole story.
* The character who sorts the collected for recycling complains that over time objects have become harder to recycle because they contain mixtures of different materials that are difficult to separate. I found this interesting because the book Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough and Michael Braungart makes the same point in a very different context, arguing that for a sustainable future we need to design products with separable components that can be reused more easily.