Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

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

This is an astonishing, ground-breaking book. Katherine Boo, an award-winning American writer/reporter who has earned accolades for reporting on the poor, married an Indian man, Sunil Khilnani. They spend half of their time in the U.S. and half in India.

Over three years, she spent countless hours shadowing the residents of Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport filled with people without permanent work...each one of them struggling to make a living, mostly through garbage picking and recycling, temporary jobs, and theft. With the help of translators, she gradually got to know Annawadi's residents, and they finally got used to having the strange white woman around.

As she grew to learn their stories, a few stood out. Central to the book is the story of Abdul, a young Muslim who buys and recycles the garbage that others collect, whose family is accused of a crime by their angry neighbor. Manju hopes to become Annawadi's first college grad, but she's disturbed by her mother's constant conniving and corruption (which actually assist in paying her college bills). Kalu, a young thief, entertains the other boys by acting out scenes from Bollywood movies. A young woman commits suicide with poison to avoid the arranged marriage her family has made for her. As a Dalit, she knows that her life in a small village away from relatively progressive Mumbai will be miserable.

From Boo's web site
What struck me most about this book, more than the extreme poverty, lack of sanitation, and struggling for subsistence on the edge of the sewage lake, was the horrible corruption rife in Indian politics, law enforcement, business, and civil service. This, even more than the poverty, oppresses the disadvantaged and prevents them from advancing out of the slums. It made me think of the anti-corruption policies my company has in writing, and ponder how it does business in India or the Middle East without resorting to bribes. According to this book, when you give money to charities such as World Vision or Christian orphanages, you're lucky if the donation actually reaches the needy. Schools employ teachers without college educations (or even high school degrees), and the only way to get a government teaching job is to pay huge bribes. Boo writes about a nun who runs an orphanage and resells many of the clothes, food, and toys she receives for the children.

When Abdul and his father and sister are accused of inciting a spiteful neighbor woman to set herself aflame, everyone crowds in to make some money. They are tortured in jail and told, by many, that if they pay money, the problem will go away. Abdul's mother even goes directly to the other family to negotiate, but they believe they'll be able to extort more money through the courts.

From Boo's web site
This book is written like a novel even though it's hard-core, investigative reporting. Boo and her translators are completely invisible narrators. She took meticulous notes and recordings and documented her research thoroughly--important in the age of Greg Mortensons and the accusations thrown around about the "white savior complex." Boo's purpose was to shine the light on the Annawadians themselves and their environment instead of the white writer. Boo was threatened by the police and often felt insecure or threatened as she did her research. This book does not make the Indian government smell good.

And beyond that is an examination of the modernization and regentrification of India. Annawadi is located within sight of the huge, fancy Mumbai airport hotels, behind walls plastered with ads for ceramic tile that say "Beautiful Forever." As young Mirchi (Abdul's younger brother) is quoted in this review from The Times of India, "Everything around us is roses, and we are the shit between." Hovering over Annawadi and its residents is the constant fear that the slum--and their homes--will be leveled and destroyed.

This book has made me look at India and my own existence in a new way. It begs the question of what can be done to eradicate such corruption and extreme poverty in the world. It also makes one think about the price of affluence. When the economy began suffering, the Annawadians suffered as well. Yet on the other hand, what is the price of progress as the gap between rich and poor grows and grows?

For more information about Katherine Boo and this book, I encourage you to visit her web site, listen to this interview on NPR, or watch this video. This book and its stories of these desperately hard-working people will stick with me for a very long time.


  1. A fascinating look into an Indian slum. I have passed by and even been through many slums in India, often wondering how they function and how the people who live in these slums survive with so little. This story is both inspiring and disturbing, the innovation that so many that live in these slums in order to improve their lives is often interrupted by money hungry police officers and government officials. The unfairness of how so many on our planet have to live day to day just to survive is something I will never understand, but Katherine Boo paints a wonderful picture of how so many are surviving, loving, laughing, and making their lives matter in the slums of Mumbai, India

  2. Thanks for your comment, Danmark. I'm glad you liked the book too!

  3. Katherine Boo's, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity", gives a whole new slant on the adage: "One man's trash is another man's treasure." After reading this compelling book, I know it will be a long time before I toss a plastic bottle in the recycle bin without thinking about Abdul the trash dealer.