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Jun 14, 2013
Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Summer Book Club: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

The word ‘behind’ is nearly as old as the English language itself. Originally ‘behindan’ in Old English, this word traces its roots to two parts: by – hindan, meaning from behind. The term was first used in theater in 1711 to refer to something as behind the scenes, and became commonplace by 1779. Today, we worry about being behind the curve and leaving a person behind, but can also demonstrate support in saying ‘I’m behind you on this.’

It is from this commonplace word that author Katherine Boo finds the impetus for her 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The book follows the interconnected lives of several residents of present-day Annawadi, a slum that sits in the crevices of the Mumbai airport.

Sunil is a scavenger. Twelve years old and responsible for his younger sister, he spends his days finding the discarded garbage around the airport and then selling the plastics and papers for pittances. As he makes his rounds, he cannot help but to notice the view of the city before him:

“It interested him that from Airport Road, only the smoke plumes of Annawadi’s cooking fires could now be seen. The airport people had erected tall, gleaming aluminum fences on the side of the slim 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.”

Indeed, it is behind these BEAUTIFUL FOREVERs that Sunil returns to each night and calls home, a space deliberately, visually blocked from the wealthy visitors traversing the rapidly-developing Mumbai. Boo asks her readers to go beyond the concrete wall – to challenge ourselves to examine the ‘behind’.

In considering this scene that led to the title of the book, it seems to me that, for international development, the word behind can be both a warning and a call to action.

In 1960, W.W. Rostow created the now-famous Rostow’s Stages of Growth. This theory postulates that all economic growth for countries occurs in five basic stages: traditional society, preconditions for take-off, take-off, drive to maturity, and age of high mass consumption. According to Rostow, all countries modernize along this set determined path – traditional societies are simply behind those, such as the United States, that are at a stage of high mass consumption. This theory dominated the field of international development for decades.

Today, Rostow’s writing is criticized for being Western-normative, ahistorical, and falsely linear. Yet, these notions of ‘behind’ and the accompanying implication of progress as a linear path forward remain embedded in our understanding of the world. We know that Brazil, Russia, and China are progressing; we understand that Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Sudan are falling behind. Surely, such constructs do provide a degree of utility. GlobeMed’s work is fundamentally driven by the recognition that absolute poverty is unconscionable and demands change. However, our work is also, in many ways, a rebellion against the word ‘behind’. The label proves reductionist, absolute, and operates in opposition to the notion of partnership, a frame of mind that demands horizontal rather than vertical relationships. We are acutely aware that it is far too simple of a story to label places, people, or ideas as ‘behind,’ a reality beautifully illustrated in Boo’s own story. In a world of ‘behind’ and ‘ahead,’ how could India have both the tenth largest GDP in the world and simultaneously house one-third of the planet’s poor?

It is simple to see high-rise hotels, international planes, and global travelers and summarize a scene as modern, progressed, successful. It is far harder to understand a situation by going behind the wall.

Ironically, Behind the Beautiful Forevers demands that we go beyond the linear understanding of ‘behind’ by doing just that: going behind. Only eyes that empathize and identify with Sunil could look at Airport Road, see the absence of Annawadi, and recognize the implications of a barricade. It is simple to see high-rise hotels, international planes, and global travelers and summarize a scene as modern, progressed, successful. It is far harder to understand a situation by going behind the wall.

I am reminded of the now-classic story in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains: standing with Dr. Paul Farmer on the hills surrounding Haiti’s Lake Péligre, Kidder reasonably admires the beauty of the clear water and green scenery before him. Both angry and sad, Farmer explains that this lake is the product of a dam that displaced and further marginalized the area’s poor farmers to the benefit of the wealthy. He tells Kidder, “If you saw with peasant eyes, the scene looked violent and ugly, a lake that had buried the good farmland and ravaged the highlands.” Slowly, Kidder learns to look beyond the obvious of the scene, to go behind, to seek the voices that exist quietly in the shadows.

The operative word in Boo’s title seems to be many things: destructive, necessary, useful, a challenge. Accordingly, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a call for complexity. In her Author’s Notes, Boo writes: “I quickly grew impatient with poignant snapshots of Indian squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes and other emblems of abjectness that one can’t help but see within five minutes of walking into a slum. For me … the more important line of inquiry is something that takes longer to discern.” As readers, thinkers, and actors, both during globalhealthU Summer Book Club and more broadly as GlobeMedders, we must seek nuance and engage fully with the complexity of being, going, and seeing behind.

Written by Rachel Markon, National Office globalhealthU staff

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