Almost Fearless: Monthly Travel Book Club discussion

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
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Books We're Reading > Discussion Guide (Spoilers) for Behind the Beautiful Forevers

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Christine Gilbert | 48 comments Mod
I'm posting this separating from the main discussion thread because I think the questions have some spoilers in them. This is from the book's official website and you can feel free to respond to any of the questions that inspire you or just read through.

This is from the website: http://www.behindthebeautifulforevers... where you can also see a Q&A with Katherine and some photos/video from the book.

1. Barbara Ehrenreich calls Behind the Beautiful Forevers “one of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I’ve ever read.” Yet the book shows the world of the Indian rich–lavish Bollywood parties, an increasingly glamorous new airport–almost exclusively through the eyes of the Annawadians. Are they resentful? Are they envious? How does the wealth that surrounds the slumdwellers shape their own expectations and hopes?

2. As Abdul works day and night with garbage, keeping his head down, trying to support his large family, some other citydwellers think of him as garbage, too. How does Abdul react to how other people view him? How would you react? How do Abdul and his sort-of friend, Sunil, try to protect themselves and sustain self-esteem in the face of other people’s contempt?

3. The lives of ordinary women– their working lives, domestic lives, and inner lives–are an important part of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The author has noted elsewhere that she’d felt a shortage of such accounts in nonfiction about urban India. Do women like Zehrunisa and Asha have more freedom in an urban slum than they would have had in the villages where they were born? What is Meena, a Dalit, spared by living in the city? What freedoms do Meena, Asha, and Zehrunisa still lack, in your view?

4. Asha grew up in rural poverty, and the teenaged marriage arranged by her family was to a man who drank more than he worked. In Annawadi, she takes a series of calculated risks to give her daughter Manju a life far more hopeful than that of other young women such as Meena. What does Asha lose by her efforts to improve her daughter’s life chances? What does she gain? Were Asha’s choices understandable to you, in the end?

5. The author has said elsewhere that while the book brings to light serious injustices, she believes there is also hope on almost every single page: in the imaginations, intelligence and courage of the people she writes about. What are the qualities of a child like Sunil that might flourish in a society that did a better job of recognizing his capacities?

6. When we think of corruption, the examples tend to be drawn from big business or top levels of government. The kind of corruption Behind the Beautiful Forevers show us is often described as “petty”. Do you agree with that characterization of the corruption Annawadians encounter in their daily lives? Why might such corrruption be on the increase as India grows wealthier as a nation?

7. Does Asha have a point when she argues that something isn’t wrong if the powerful people say that it’s right? How does constant exposure to corruption change a person’s internal understanding of right and wrong?

8. Shortly before Abdul is sent to juvenile jail, a major newspaper runs a story about the facility headlined: “Dongri Home is a Living Hell.” Abdul’s experience of Dongri is more complex, though. How does being wrenched away from his work responsibilities at Annawadi change his understandings of the hardships of other people? Are terms like liberty and freedom understood differently by people who live in different conditions?

9. Fatima’s neighbors view her whorling rages, like her bright lipsticks, as free comic entertainments. How has her personality been shaped by the fact that she has been defined since birth by her disability–very literally named by it? Zehrunusa waivers between sympathy for and disapproval of her difficult neighbor. In the end, did you?

10. Zehrunisa remembers a time when every slumdweller was roughly equal in his or her misery, and competition between neighbors didn’t get so out of hand. Abdul doesn’t know whether or not to believe her account of a gentler past. Do you believe it? Might increased hopes for a better life have a dark as well as a bright side?

11. Many Annawadians–Hindu, Muslim, and Christian– spend less time in religious observance than they did when they were younger, and a pink temple on the edge of the sewage lake goes largely unused. In a time of relative hope and constant improvisation for the slumdwellers, why might religious practice be diminishing? What role does religious faith still play in the slumdwellers’ lives?

12. Who do you think had the best life in the book, and why?

13. In the Author’s Note Katherine Boo emphasizes the volatility of an age in which capital moves quickly around the planet, government supports decline, and temporary work proliferates. Had the author followed the families of Annawadi for only a few weeks or months, would you have come away with a different understanding of the effects of that volatility? Does uncertainty about their homes and incomes change how Annawadians view their neighbors? Does economic uncertainty affect relationships where you live?

14. At one point in the book, Abdul takes to heart the moral of a Hindu myth related by The Master: Allow your flesh to be eaten by the eagles of the world. Suffer nobly, and you’ll be rewarded in the end. What is the connection between suffering and redemption in this book? What connections between suffering and redemption do you see in your own life? Are the sufferers ennobled? Are the good rewarded in the end?

sarah  corbett morgan (scmorgan) I seem to be the exception here; I loved this book. While it was crammed full of characters, all seemingly related somehow, I felt Boo captured what I imagine the slums of Mumbai are really like--a cacophony of people with their minor to major problems, all scrambling to eek out a living, the competition intense, the stakes high. I told someone who asked about the book, It's full of people and names and I couldn't tell who was related to whom. When I finally figured out one relationship, the person ate rat poison and died. I was joking, of course, but there is some truth to this and I think it''s no mistake that Boo wrote it this way.

The women in the book seem to fare better than the men, with the exception of Abdul, or are at least are more ambitious, eager to make a change for their daughters so they do not suffer the same fate as their mothers, married off to village men to live a stifling life. In some ways, of course, they bring the village mentality to the city, but they are all there to get ahead, seeing the possibility of advancement within their caste, religion, and circumstances. The way I saw it, the surrounding wealth only affected the residents of Annawadi in that they can benefit from their castoffs. There is the undercurrent of fear, should development gain the upper hand, that they would be displaced. Hence the brick wall that caused the whole legal problem. If you have a solid structure, you are more likely to be considered for relocation should the slum be razed. I did not see them wishing, or even expecting, they should ever have the wealth of the others, just operating on another strata and competing among themselves.

There was the overriding overtone of jealousy that pervades this book, something I am all too familiar with in the small Caribbean village where I live. Get too big for your (collective) britches and the community, or neighbors, will take you down a notch. If they cannot do it personally, they will get it done using the corrupt judicial system. This was Abdul's problem; he was far too successful for the community as a whole to tolerate. I thought the thread of the judicial system, the bribes, and the hopelessness of that spider web was brilliantly woven thorough the book. Perhaps this is one reason I was so engrossed in the book; my particular WIP surrounds a legal case and land rights. So, I was interested in how Boo wove that story around slum life, the characters, and the place.

I breathed it all in and was sorry when it ended.

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