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Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

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

by Katherine Boo

Narrative Nonfiction
Random House
Release Date: February 7, 2012
Paperback (Advance Reader’s Edition)
288 pages

(I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Katherine Boo is an investigative journalist who started her career writing editorial columns for Washington’s City Paper. From there, she went on to write for the Washington Monthly, and then was a writer for–and editor of–the Washington Post from 1993 to 2003. In 2003 she became a staff member of the New Yorker. Boo writes about poverty, education, the distribution of opportunity, and social and economic policy, and for the past ten years she has divided her time between the United States and India. She has won numerous awards for her work writing about the disadvantaged, including the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, and a MacArthur fellowship. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is Boo’s first book, and it focuses on the disadvantaged in Mumbai, India.

From the back cover:

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 teenager who sorts and sells recyclable airport garbage, believes that he’s on the verge of lifting his family of eleven out of poverty. Asha, a mother of three, is determined to make her sensitive teenage daughter, Manju, the first female college graduate in Annawadi. Meanwhile, even the poorest among them, like Kalu, a homeless, fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, feel themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call the “Full Enjoy.” But then Abdul is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terrorism and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the true contours of an unequal, desperately competitive market city are revealed, so too are the resilience and ingenuity of the people of Annawadi.

The stories of the people of Annawadi are both heartbreaking and full of hope.

Katherine Boo spent about three and a half years with the people of Annawadi, from November 2007 until March 2011. Behind the Beautiful Forevers documents not only the specific stories of people who live in Annawadi, but also the way corruption (starting with the government and then filtering down through common citizens) became a natural part of everyone’s lives with the booming of India’s economy. I am unsure of the statistics as I write this, but at the time Boo was doing her investigation for the book, the economy in India was growing ever larger, and the country still held one-third of the planet’s poor. Mumbai was the financial capital of the country, and still it held slums like Annawadi in which 3,000 people were packed into, and around, 335 huts. That is insane.

By focusing on one particular slum in Mumbai, Boo gave names and faces to the disadvantaged. She made a common story more personal. We hear about this stuff every day, not only from countries like India, but also from our very own cities here in the United States. Many times we hear about the poor in an abstract way–as a set of statistics–and it can be easy for us to put them out of our minds. By writing Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo reminds us that these are real people with names, faces, family, and friends. They are people like us with the same needs, feelings, and dreams. And these very real people are being shown complete indifference by their government, even to the point of some poor having their very real experiences erased from public record. No matter how far ahead a person thinks they may be getting, no matter how well things may seem to be going, the people in Annawadi know to stay vigilant. They know they can never rest or let their guard down. They are in constant competition with one another for the few resources they have, and in Abdul’s case, everything they’ve worked so hard for and everything they’ve gained can be taken away from them in the blink of an eye.

The story of Annawadi is heartbreaking, but there is a glimmer of hope mixed in with the corruption, competition, and despair. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is beautifully written, informative, and an important piece of investigative journalism. Boo’s writing and the use of personal narratives makes the book feel more like a novel than a work of nonfiction. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the people whom the book focuses on, and I wish I knew what has become of them. I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning more about Mumbai, its corruption, and the poverty that exists in the midst of India’s vast wealth.

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(To learn more about Katherine Boo, please visit her contributor page on the New Yorker website.)

**If you choose to purchase this title using the links below, I will receive a small percentage of the sale (to be used toward site maintenance and buying more books).

Amazon | Powell’s Books | IndieBound

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Michelle @ The True Book Addict January 20, 2012, 6:20 pm

    Wow…it sounds like a really hard read. I remember being so appalled by the conditions in Mumbai while watching Slumdog Millionaire. It is terribly tragic that a wealthy country cannot help it’s poor citizens. Great review, Heather.

    • Heather January 20, 2012, 11:12 pm

      Yes, it was kind of tough, but definitely worth it. The frustration and sadness was balanced out by the resourcefulness of the Annawadians, though (for the most part).

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