Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Katherine Boo

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 15-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.

With intelligence, humour, and deep insight into what connects human beings in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the 21st century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.

Review

I was recently bemoaning the fact that good, groundbreaking, narrative non-fiction about India seems few and far between. So I was pleasantly surprised when this book came across my desk, mainly because of the sophistication the author has brought to her research and writing.

Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who spent three years visiting Annawadi, a Mumbai slum, observing the lives of the slum-dwellers and interviewing them with the help of translators. The resulting book is remarkable for its depth and breadth; it succeeds not only in delving into the inner lives of her subjects in a meaningful and honest way, but also gives equal weight to the stories of each character she has chosen to write about. By doing so, Boo avoids the usual trap ‘slum-writing’ falls into – that of generalisations and insisting that slum-dwellers are happy in their ‘simple’ lives.

Annawadi is situated near Mumbai airport, in the shadow of luxury hotels and a thriving, upwardly-mobile India. Boo’s book focuses on a handful of characters living in Annawadi, including Abdul, a Muslim teenager with a talent for seeing a fortune in the recyclable waste that rich people throw away; Asha, an ambitious woman who has moved to Mumbai from a rural village and is determined to succeed in politics no matter what corrupt path she has to take; and Asha’s daughter Manju, who hopes to be the first female college graduate in the slum. Boo’s narrative shows us the reality of their lives and of those immediately around them, but also examines their motivations and actions with a keen eye. The courage of the characters, convinced of their ability to prosper alongside their countrymen is inspiring, and Boo’s revelations of the dark side of their struggle are illuminating.

Kabita Dhara is editor of Readings Monthly

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