Forlorn lives of a Mumbai slum

“Sir, I work in plastics,” the man before the judge says, his voice hesitant with humility. The judge gives him a quick appraisal. “Plastics? I suppose that means plastic bottles and bags,” he says dismissively. “You collect them, yes? Why not say so?”

Thus are people brutally divided into classes – like the sorted recyclables that many of the characters subsist by collecting – in the harsh human economy of Mumbai depicted in “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” David Hare’s vivid stage adaptation of the best-selling book by Katherine Boo, making its premiere at the National Theatre in London.

Set primarily in a slum called Annawadi, where hundreds of people live in squalor near a fetid lake of sewage, the play explores with empathy but unblinking honesty the desperate lives of the Indian underclasses. They have remained impoverished even as the country’s economic boom has minted new millionaires and billionaires, and transformed Mumbai into a major hub of global business. High walls separate the slums of Annawadi from the gleaming new hotels circling the airport.

Boo used a gruesome death, and the family brought to trial for causing it, as a focal point for an intimately researched study of toxins of Indian culture: the endemic corruption that trickles down to the poor from above, even as precious little economic opportunity does; the dire living conditions that make morality a luxury few can afford; and the prejudice against the Muslim minority evinced by Hindus of even the lower classes.

Hare has done a creditable job of capturing Boo’s panoramic, populous exploration of a culture too few in the West have ever examined in such scrupulous detail. For those who have not read the book, in particular, this trauma-stuffed and well-acted evening may come as a revelation, albeit a dispiriting one, as we watch men, women and children ground down under the pressures of poverty, rigid traditions and that eternal international epidemic, man’s cruelty to man.

The primary strand of the story follows the descending fortunes of the Husain family. The elder son, Abdul is the primary breadwinner. He sorts the trash collected by “pickers” like his friend Sunil. Picking is less prestigious and profitable than sorting, so the family – Abdul’s mother, Zehrunisa, his sister Kehkashan, father Karam and brother Mirchi – lives comparatively well.

In the opening moments, we watch as Abdul’s hands flicker like a magician’s over a pile of bottles, cans and anything else thrown out by people moving in and around the airport. Paul Arditti’s sound design and the video by Jack Henry James regularly startle us with the whoosh of a jetliner descending, symbolic of the larger world that the play’s characters know only from the detritus the passengers toss in trash cans.

Seen at a distance on Katrina Lindsay’s complex set, screens at the back of the stage advertise the latest lush Bollywood movie or luxury product.

The relative prosperity of the Husains indirectly causes the calamity that befalls them. While renovating a wall of their small house, they squabble with their neighbour, the one-legged Fatima. Hysterical with envy and the shame of her own life, Fatima avenges herself upon the Husains by committing a gruesome act of self-destruction.

Although there are plenty of witnesses who know that Fatima alone is to blame for her injuries, their jealousy of the Husains and the absurd workings of the Indian justice system conspire to land almost all the members of the family in jail. Their business collapses as bribe after bribe is demanded by everyone involved in the case.

Multiple strands

Still, inevitably the play makes shortcuts, as when Fatima, being attended by doctors in the hospital, exults, “At last I count, I count for something.” Lucid though Hare’s adaptation is the multiple strands of the plot make it impossible for him to do justice to the complexity of the book’s characters. Norris’ visceral direction drives the production forward and clarifies the storylines. Only occasionally does he lapse into heavy symbolism, as when the scales that Abdul uses to weigh his takings are used as a blunt image invoking the rusty wheels of justice.

The excellent cast illuminates the pressures that drive their characters either upward or downward. But in the figures  like Abdul, Sunil and Manju, the well-schooled daughter of the local “fixer,” “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” suggests that the sweet aroma of hope may be discerned even amid the stench of Annawadi.

In time, and with the attention that Boo’s book and Hare’s play may help bring to it, the privation so vividly enacted may gradually ease, allowing future generations to take a few hesitant steps up India’s perilously steep economic ladder.

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