In a slum made of temporary materials, everyone living in Annawadi strives to make themselves important enough not to be erased. In a way, by recording their lives in this book, Katherine Boo helps to make these lives visible and inerasable to those who might ignore them, such as the Indian government and the entire developed world, both of which tend to prefer not to look directly at poverty.
Boo spent three years living in the Annawadi slum, meticulously observing the people who live there and learning how they survive in the face of multiple threats of displacement and erasure. The slum itself is not even supposed to exist, as Annawadi is technically squatting on land that belongs to the airport conglomerate. This conglomerate has the right—and the intention—to bulldoze the neighborhood at any time with no care for the thousands of people who live there, so the residents live in constant fear that the lives they have fought to build might be destroyed in an instant. The legal system also erases entire lives with regularity. For example, slum residents who have been murdered, such as Kalu, are recorded as dying from sickness so that law enforcement does not have an obligation to investigate their deaths.
In the midst of all this erasure, Boo works to preserve the legacy of the Annawadians. She resists either infantilizing or glorifying the poor, and she refuses to see the Annawadians only as victims. Instead, Boo shows what the Annawadians are doing for themselves to make their lives safe, dignified, and permanent. For example, she shows the Husain family renovating their home to make it more hospitable and structurally stable, a gesture of defiance in the context of the slum. She also shows Manju working hard to educate slum children so that they might have opportunities that would otherwise be denied to them. Both of these acts invest labor and care into a slum that is at constant risk of disappearing, and such acts can be seen as a vote of confidence in the slum and a way to resist its erasure. Even cynical acts, such as Asha’s misuse of government funds intended to help the poor, demonstrate that Annawadians are using the resources available to them in order to stabilize and better their lives. Boo also specifically erases herself from the book so that the Annawadians’ efforts to solve their problems and improve their lives are the only thing that matters. The issues facing those living in Annawadi are huge, and Boo does nothing to suggest how those problems might be fixed. She simply tells readers about the things that the Annawadians live through and the ways that they themselves are trying to make their lives into something that cannot be taken away from them.
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure ThemeTracker
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Quotes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers
True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.) True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner. A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge. And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors. They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility.
The airport people had erected tall, gleaming aluminum fences on the side of the slum that most drivers passed before turning into the international terminal. Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements. The ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall's length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER. Sunil regularly walked atop the Beautiful Forever wall, surveying for trash, but Airport Road was unhelpfully clean.
And while some international businessmen descending into the Mumbai airport eyed the vista of slums with disgust, and others regarded it with pity, few took the sight as evidence of a high-functioning, well-managed city.
Annawadians understood that their settlement was widely perceived as a blight, and that their homes, like their work, were provisional. Still they clung to this half-acre…
The four-foot gray slab was uneven, as was the floor, so the shelf wobbled perilously on two supports he'd built to hold it up. Nothing in this idiot house was straight. The only way to stabilize the shelf, and make it level, would be to cut into the brick wall, itself uneven, and cement the slab in place…
Abdul was dismayed. The readiness of the bricks to disintegrate, long suspected, was now confirmed. They'd been made with too much sand, and the mortar between them had deteriorated. Crap bricks that weren't even glued to one another-less a wall than a tremulous stack.
"All murders we detect, 100 percent success," was how Senior Inspector Patil, who ran the Sahar station, liked to put it. But perhaps there was a trick to this success rate: not detecting the murders of inconsequential people.
Succumbed to an "irrecoverable illness" was the swift conclusion of Maruti Jadhav, the inspector in charge of Kalu's case. At the morgue of Cooper Hospital, the nature of the "irrecoverable illness" was decided. Fifteen-year-old Deepak Rai, known as Kalu, had died of his tuberculosis - the same cause of death tagged to the bleeding scavenger who had slowly expired on the road.
Trying to make sense of the deaths of Kalu and Sanjay, Sunil and Abdul grew closer. Not quite friends-rather, an unnameable, not-entirely-willing category of relationship in which two boys felt themselves bound to two boys who were dead. Sunil and Abdul sat together more often than before, but when they spoke, it was with the curious formality of people who shared the understanding that much of what was said did not matter, and that much of what mattered could not be said.
…she kept thinking she saw smoke coming out of Meena's mouth and nose-as if the girl had set herself on fire from the inside. No, that was impossible. Rat poison only. Her mind was looping. If she screamed for help, the whole slum would know that Meena had attempted suicide, which would ruin her reputation.
Impatient at the translation delays, the judge began telling the stenographer what to write. And so a slumdweller's nuanced replies to the prosecutor's questions became monosyllabic ones - the better to keep the case moving along.