Injustice and the ‘Undercity’ Imagination

Book: Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Author: Katherine Boo
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 254
Price: Rs. 499
Year: 2012

Mumbai has shrunk the ethical space for voicing collective hope outside narratives of abject pain. This book says how
Sailen Routray Bengaluru

At the centre of the non-fictional account of Behind the Beautiful Forevers lies an event, a trial, and a question. The event is the self-immolation by Fatima, a resident of the Annawadi slum in the Mumbai suburb of Andheri, nestling on the edges of a sewage lake near the city airport. The trial involves Karam Husain, his “right-minded” son, Abdul Hakim Husain, and his dutiful daughter, Kehkashan, and concerns Fatima’s false accusations against the Husain family. And the question is this: in the relentless pursuit of neoliberal development, where does the quest for justice stand, and what effects does an unjust society have upon the ethical imagination of its members?

In many ways, this is the story of vicissitudes in the lives of two families that are, for all practical purposes, headed by two women: Asha and Zehrunisa (the wife of Karam Husain). Asha’s family belongs to the Kunbi caste, and has migrated from the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra’s hinterland. Zehrunisa’s family is from Uttar Pradesh, and comes from poor, conservative Muslim stock. Asha’s husband is a hopeless drunkard, and Asha manages to raise the family fortunes by a mix of guile, petty corruption and politicking. She is also an active member of the local shakha of the Shiv Sena.

Zehrunisa’s family, at the beginning, stands poised on the brink of a rise. Propelled by international demand for scrap, high rates of economic growth in India, and the skills of her son, Abdul, in sorting and dealing with garbage, the family has a flourishing trade in scrap and garbage, and has managed to make the required deposit for a piece of land under a development scheme in a Mumbai suburb.

Then the fortunes of the Husain family turn. Their one-legged neighbour, Fatima, insanely jealous of their schemes of home-improvement, tries to frame them by burning herself a little and accusing them of the deed. But this goes completely out of hand and she burns herself grievously. Karam, Abdul and Kehkashan get arrested because of her accusations, and a large part of the narrative is about the family’s struggles with the criminal justice system. The book shows with mind-numbing clarity (with the goings-on in the Sahar Police Station as a case in point) the marketplace that the Indian criminal justice system has become.


But this is also a story of childhood and innocence; of Sonu who never steals, wakes up at the crack of dawn, and studies in the night after a day’s hard labour as a garbage picker; of Abdul who wants the “good ice” and not the foetid water that he sees all around him in Mumbai; of Noori (Fatima’s eight-year-old daughter) who does not lie about the details surrounding her mother’s death.

Life in Mumbai seems all about competition, envy, and private hopes and griefs… where neighbour’s envy is owner’s pride, and the miseries of one’s fellow human beings seem to provide the gloss for the shine of one’s fortune

This innocence, however, does not seem to travel well into adulthood, and life in this ‘undercity’ seems all about competition, envy, and private hopes and griefs. The neoliberal remaking of the city seems to have made the poor into classic economic agents where neighbour’s envy is owner’s pride, and the miseries of one’s fellow human beings seem to provide the gloss for the shine of one’s fortune. What is lost in the process is a sense of public good, of an ethical space in which collective grief and hope can be articulated without being subsumed within narratives of hurt and offence.

This book does not soar above the lives of its protagonists. With meticulous research and documentation, it occupies the crevices between the hopes, fears and desires of the people of Annawadi. That is how it succeeds in communicating to us the kind of understanding and insight that can be gained only by intimately observing a small social space with passion, commitment and empathy.


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2012