Holly Morrow'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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Jan 18, 2013


This book is a genre that I hadn’t heard of before – narrative nonfiction. Its true, but told as a story, there is no “authorial” voice; its kind of like a Bob Woodward book set in a Mumbai slum. Katherine Boo spent several years with kids and families in Annawadi, a slum next to the Mumbai airport that she chose for the juxtaposition of extreme poverty alongside the glitz of “New India.” This is their story.

The things most notable about the slum-dwellers’ existence are the extreme squalor, and the viciousness and venality of everyone around them. Annawadi is set on a sewage lake – literally, a mass of untreated sewage. Everyone knows that’s what it is, and yet the kids swim in it, people fish in it and cook their catch for dinner. That’s on top of the coal cookstoves inside their huts and the general air pollution of Mumbai. The kids all have infected rat bites from sleeping among trash. Its kind of amazing that anyone lives past 40. And the people of Annwadi are preyed upon by everyone. Police come to shake them down regularly, the burn victim must pay bribes at the hospital in order to get a blanket, the child unfairly caught up in the legal system has to pay off the court-appointed doctor in order to have his age stipulated (so he doesn’t end up in the far scarier adult detention center), the nuns at the orphanage sell the food that is donated for the kids. And depressingly, the slumdwellers prey on each other too – there is no instinct towards collective action, just a search for narrow personal advantage which almost always comes at the expense of one another. Even children are regarded by their parents as vehicles for earning money. Government programs to help the poor are systematically dismantled and stripped by successive layers of corrupt officialdom. And on and on. Reading this book, the shocking recent story of the girl gang-raped in India seems not so shocking – yet another manifestation of a lawless, predatory society that pits man against man and allows for very little human empathy.

Some people will read the book and focus on the lively, sweet children trying to find their way amidst the chaos and deprivation. I just couldn’t stop thinking about the toxic mix of human sin and government fecklessness that creates such a situation. I’ve never been to India and I really only know about it in the context of comparison with East Asia, but I have to say this book reinforced some of my worst perceptions. India's big selling point - that its a democracy - doesnt count for much when it so utterly fails its citizens.
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message 1: by Virginia (new)

Virginia Does anyone see comparisons with Rohinton Mistry's "Fine Balance" - same kind of empathetic reporting on situations unlikely to change. Would love to hear from you.


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