Title: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Author: Katherine Boo
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Publisher: Random House
Review: I have wanted to read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers since it came out in January, but didn’t make the effort to request it from my local library until it received the 2012 National Book Award in November. It’s a real shame I didn’t pick up the book sooner, as it has easily been one of the best books I’ve read this year. First, a summary:
Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl”—will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”
But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi. (Source)
The thing that makes Behind the Beautiful Forevers bigger than “just” a book about poverty in India is the lens with which Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for her work reporting on poor communities in the United States, uses when approaching the stories of Annawadi. Behind the Beautiful Forevers isn’t a book about the results of poverty, what Boo calls the “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.”
Instead, it’s a look at the institutions and structures of India and what it takes for individuals to navigate that infrastructure to try and lift themselves out of poverty. It’s a book about whether there is even a possibility for an “Indian Dream,” and which people benefit from the institutions put in place to try and make those dreams possible. It’s a slightly different focus to think about poverty, but a focus that makes all the difference in elevating this book from simply good to truly impressive.
Most of residents of Annawadi that Boo writes about start the book with some hope of changing their circumstances. That change seems small — a piece of land in a slightly better slum, a college degree, access to a slightly better garbage pile to scavenge recyclables from — but all of those goals represent the possibility for a better life. But by the end, it’s clear that the very structure of India and corruption at almost every level have created a world stacked against the people of Annawadi and the rest of Mumbai’s slums in such a massive way that it feels almost impossible for anything good to happen.
Take, for instance, the story of Abdul and his family. After being accused of instigating violence in their neighborhood, three members of the family are sent to jail and forced to reckon with the corrupt Indian justice system. The money it costs the family to bribe officials combined with the lost income while they sit in jail bankrupts the family and destroys their small hope of ever leaving the slum. The inability to navigate these institutions causes the residents of Annawadi to turn on one another, taking from each other when no one has enough.
I really can’t think of what to say that would do this book justice. It was heartbreaking and infuriating but so worth the time to read. Katherine Boo has truly written a masterpiece about life in an Indian slum that I cannot recommend highly enough.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!