Frances Greenslade's Reviews > Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
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May 22, 12

Read from April 19 to May 22, 2012

It's too easy to criticize this book. I had three days to spend in Mumbai this February, and, reading my Lonely Planet guidebook, I considered undertaking a "slum tour." According to Lonely Planet, there was a company that did it right, a "sensitive" tour. An Indian man I met had also recommended it. I even called the company. But I had to ask myself who had what to gain by it. And I couldn't go through with it because it was a question I couldn't answer. I'd seen the slums from the air, as we descended into Mumbai airport. Somehow, seeing pictures of it doesn't lessen the shock of seeing it in real life, the row on row of monochromatic dun-coloured ragged shacks ringing Mumbai's glitziest highrise hotels.

In the taxi on the way into the city, I saw inhabitants from the slums rush out into traffic, selling postcards, flowers, bottles of water, or drawing a scarf to reveal a disfigurement that might move a foreigner to sympathy. I know enough of life to understand that poverty makes for desperation, but that people everywhere long at root for the same basic things: a better life for themselves and, most of all, their children.

Katherine Boo's book was recommended to me by someone who knew I'd been to India. I began it, admiring her fine writing, the ability to make non-fiction as compelling as fiction. The book is a page-turner. I want to know what happens to these people. I want everything to turn out well for them.

But I was unsettled by it, too, and not just because of the horror of the injustices they had to endure daily, from "sewage lakes" to corrupt police to vengeful neighbours. I kept asking myself how the author knew these intimate details of people's lives and innermost thoughts. And I kept feeling that there was something circus-y about it all. The slum tour, sensitively done? Finally, halfway through the book, I turned to the author's notes. What she has to say about her research is convincing. But more than that, her motives for writing the book made me feel that it was important to tell the stories and that her way of telling them means that the book will be read widely and the stories will be heard.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Leslie (new)

Leslie Smith I just read a review of this book in The New Republic, and it sounded quite compelling, if disturbing - definitely on the to-read list!


Frances Greenslade Yes, it's both. But I recommend it.


DIana Stewart Disturbing but I would recommend.


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