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

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From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century's great, unequal cities.

In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.

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 reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees "a fortune beyond counting" in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter - Annawadi's "most-everything girl" - will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call "the full enjoy."

But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.

With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century's hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.

278 pages, Hardcover

First published April 8, 2012

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About the author

Katherine Boo

6 books546 followers
Katherine (Kate) J. Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. She learned to report at the alternative weekly, Washington City Paper, after which she worked as a writer and co-editor of The Washington Monthly magazine. Over the years, her reporting from disadvantaged communities has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India, the birthplace of her husband, Sunil Khilnani. Her first book "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, And Hope In A Mumbai Undercity" was published in 2012.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 11,594 reviews
Profile Image for Jeanette (Ms. Feisty).
2,179 reviews1,945 followers
May 13, 2012
I struggled a lot with how to review this because it's hard to separate the quality of the book from how it made me feel. So let me first say that Katherine Boo is an excellent writer and a dedicated observer. The book often reads like a novel, although it may not be the kind of novel you'd want to read.

Life in the Annawadi slum is brutal, and sometimes your neighbors are the ones most determined to make you suffer. The specific residents Boo chose to follow over a four-year period ended up embroiled in some ugly situations brought on by fellow sufferers who should have been helping rather than trying to hurt.

I had to work at not hating some of the people who live behind the wall advertising "BEAUTIFUL FOREVER" floor tiles. The competition for limited resources and the need for most human beings to feel superior to someone makes many of the slumdwellers behave abominably, thinking only of their own survival while lying, cheating, and ruining the lives of their neighbors.

I felt agitated the entire time I was reading this book. I can understand the author's purpose in showing us what life is like in a Mumbai slum, and how changes in the global economy affect those who subsist on the garbage left by the wealthy. I certainly feel compassion for these people, but aside from that, all I can feel is helpless. Perhaps the author does too good a job of illustrating how difficult it is to provide assistance. Corruption is so prevalent that foreign and domestic monies intended for educating and housing the poor never reach those in need.

I don't see a lot of hope for change here, although many of the Annawadi residents cling to hope while others around them are eating rat poison to escape the misery. This is the one thing I did find that was most praiseworthy about some of the people in the slum. Their hope for something better remains alive, and they keep trying one thing after another, no matter how many times they get beaten down and refused. They are brave and resourceful, even if they have to lie to themselves every day just to keep that hope from dying.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,217 reviews9,892 followers
March 10, 2014

What, we need another well-off well-bred well-fed well-educated white person to tell us about the miseries of extreme poverty in the developing world? Because we just know the poor people couldn’t tell us themselves. It’s like in so many movies about the poor countries, you have to have a white guy as the hero – The Last King of Scotland, which is about Uganda, or The Constant Gardener, about Kenya; and lots more. I hate that.


American hi-octane journalese, not my favourite form of entertainment. Sample sentence :

Sunil had inherited his father’s full lips, wide-set eyes, and the pelt of hair that swooshed up from his forehead.


Later he realized it was the first long rest he’d ever had, and that during it, something had happened to his heart.



I’ll try to explain, but commenting on this book at all – having read it – seems almost impertinent. This was such a labour of love


1. The poor are vicious bastards. They have no compassion for each other. Divide and rule has worked 100% in Indian society. There is no bothersome communal action from slum dwellers, because they all hate each other. Did you think there was any possible tiny shred of integrity or nobility to be found in extreme poverty? Think again.

Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.

2. It then follows that the poor view everything through a financial prism – “can I make any money out of this?” – which includes the misfortunes of their neighbours or their own family members. Almost any circumstance can be turned into something you might be able to sell – bits of discarded metal, bits of discovered information.

3. All of human society is crisscrossed by a complex mesh of conflicting hierarchies. In the west we’re familiar with the class struggle (which it has been modish to announce is a thing of the past – in your dreams, rightwingers!); the oppression of patriarchy; and the endemic racism that stereotypes everyone. In India you also have caste and regional affiliation; and then, of course, religion, which in the west never comes into the picture at all, being considered as an entirely private eccentricity.

4. Corruption : this word is bandied around so much in news reports about developing countries that it becomes tv news white noise. Boo gives you chapter and verse. Corruption is when every professional person charges the public for the services they are providing which they are already getting paid a salary to provide. The idea of professional standards for the police and medical profession is a polite fiction in such places. If an accident means your daughter has to go to hospital, woe to you. The nurse will not nurse your daughter unless a payment is made; and there will be no medicines in the cupboards because the nurses and doctors have sold them all; so you will have to go and buy the required items on the street. As for the police, they are like kidnap gangs where the victims politely walk up to them and ask to be kidnapped. Woe to you if the police ever notice your existence, as for instance, if you’re a suspect. They will explain that they will frame you and you’ll get 10 years unless payment is made. Sometimes the doctors and policemen must get out their terms and conditions of employment and have a great long laugh at them. These professions in India make Tony Soprano’s New Jersey mafia family look like acolytes of Mother Theresa by comparison.

5. Indian cursing consists of the forceful issuing of ridiculous threats –

I will tear out your eyes and fry them in front of you!


I will encourage evil dogs to eat the legs of your new baby!

OK, I made those up. (You can use them if you want.)


This excellent book is impossible. What are we to do with this information? Nothing. Yes, there's a lot of LIFE, and God knows, enough of DEATH, but I did not see any HOPE on offer in this Mumbai slum. I think Katherine's editor made her put that in to the subtitle to give a little bit of a feelgood spin for potential purchasers. But this is a feelbad book. It makes you feel bad. It turns you into a gawking rubbernecker, a connoisseur of squalor - how does this compare with the American book Random Family, or the British documentary series Benefit Street? Contrast the differing levels of poverty shown in these three productions, addressing in particular the question of relative happiness. Is the famous Indian fatalism now more likely to be found in the decayed working class of Birmingham England? Are the famed entrepreneurial skills of America now transplanted to Mumbai’s undercity? Discuss. You have two hours. Start now.
Profile Image for Suzanne.
152 reviews43 followers
February 2, 2015
This is much scarier than any STEPHEN KING novel. I KEPT ON ASKING HOW THIS COULD NOT BE FICTION. I knew that Mumbai was impoverished, in the past. Yet , I read about the growing middle and professional classes. I saw specials on TV, which showed beautiful new apartment complexes.
According to Boo's book,the "Undercity" is still there. It is being squished as the planners grab every inch from the poor. The corruption of every institution is more pervasive than I can imagine. I wished that this was a novel. This is an important read, but not preachy. It is hard to read because the details of life which I take for granted, are not even dreams for the scavengers of Mumbai. In one day, I throw away a garbage recyclers' fortune. This is a must read for anyone who thinks that he has a hard life. Although, the tale is of abject poverty and sanctioned cruelty by corrupt institutions and those with a little bit of power, the people (not characters) are well developed and memorable. Although, their destinies are pretty much predetermined, they have their dreams and try to get ahead by working, saving, and being creative. Some people can not hold to their dreams and give up. Who can blame them? Others leap at any chance to attain their dreams. I can not forget this book.
Profile Image for Clare.
1,460 reviews307 followers
August 27, 2016

I knew this wouldn't be a feel-good book, but somehow the evocative title and the tragically poetic cover led me to be unprepared for the shocks that awaited from page one right through to the end.

My advice to all who want to read it: first, read the author's note at the end, it is excellent. It situates the book in its proper context and prepares you to take it seriously. Without this anchor, the melodrama of the narrative seems like Days of Our Lives set in Indian slums. But apart from the author's admission that she used 'interpretive language', this is a true story.

The author explains that her subjects were generally short on words, which is why there is minimal dialogue in the predominantly third person narrative. She resorted to 'interpretive language' because she felt that the lack of variation in the language of these overworked people didn't reflect the deep idiosyncratic intelligences that she had detected in them in the four years she spent conducting interviews and spending time with them. Unfortunately it's difficult to know whether the abundant swearing and rough talk is real or part of her 'interpretation'.

We read about real struggles which reveal what these people must do to survive. The text shows the bitter reality of the caste system, and the difficulty faced by anyone who wants to break out of it. But don't imagine epic struggles of good versus evil, what's recorded here is the bitter, sometimes life-threatening squabbles between desperate neighbours in a shanty town. In addition to the language, frequent mature themes show that life is rough for most of these people, but though we are told about it on every page, the style of writing does not make us experience it. It feels like a rough documentary - peppered with coarse language - rather than an adult novel. We see suicides and attempts, prostitution, self-maiming, and we see the people's helplessness, the impossibilities they face, the injustice, and the corruption. But, particularly among the young, we also see hope, hard work, integrity and understanding.

It is not an attractive image of the rise of capitalist India, and though we know it is a narrow view which only considers one slum in one city, its reality carries weight.

Some more things that impressed me from the author's note: she says that the people who feature knew that everything they did and said would not come out 'pretty' in the book, but they participated because they shared the author's concerns about the distribution of opportunity in a fast changing country.

She found that the children were more sensitive, they were not yet the cold, indifferent adults who turn the other way when someone is hurt, or shrug when someone suicides. It is said that death matters little in India because the Hindus believe in reincarnation, yet she found that the young were shocked by death, and that if the adults were less so it was because conditions 'had sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action'.

She says: "From where we are, it is easy to overlook that in these conditions it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be. If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?" Reviewed for www.GoodReadingGuide.com
Profile Image for Riku Sayuj.
656 reviews7,103 followers
November 30, 2013

It often happens that I stay up with a book overnight because it is too good to be put down for something as mundane as sleep.

But it is a rare occurrence when I finish a book, turn the last page and go straight back to the beginning again, without even pausing to consider, without even thinking of a re-read, without a thought for the warm inviting bed (and without a thought even for the absurd challenge that looms in front of all reading towards the end of a year).

But this shockingly, heart-wrenchingly, even exhilaratingly real and excruciatingly beautiful book is definitely one of them.

[ This is my 'book-of-the-year' - being the one book I am most grateful to have read in the year. ]

- Full review will be put up after the second reading...
Profile Image for Petra on hiatus, really unwell.
2,457 reviews34.4k followers
June 1, 2020
I first listened to an abridged version of this book and was intrigued. But I wanted a more detailed look into a world I knew existed from films and other books so although the audio version wasn't a 5 star, my interest was kindled. 2 stars for the abridged version.

The book, the real deal, dead trees and ink made from oak gall and old rubber tyres was too verbose and repetitive, I felt like saying ok, I get it, time and again. I kept wondering if the author had a) mild asperger's syndrome, b) was paid by the word or c) wanted to hammer into our heads about just what we were supposed to be doing, that personal education was all. They'll have to find the money from somewhere.

Was her subtext give to support India charities? I wasn't sure. I personally would find it hard to give to an Indian charity as all the foreign aid it gets seems to go into its nuclear programme. Also because (most of) the rest of the world deplores the caste system, but to India it is divine reward or punishment, and in general, outside of those whom it affects most and have the least voice, they don't care or worse, thoroughly exploit it for their own benefit.

On an enjoyment level I would have to say I liked it. Simply that, not 'not very much' nor 'quite a lot' but just like. 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Frances Greenslade.
Author 9 books58 followers
May 23, 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.
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
617 reviews767 followers
April 19, 2013
Well, here’s a nice irony, to be reading this in the week that the results of a UNICEF survey reveal that one in seven German children and young people are unhappy, dissatisfied with their life or situation. Germany ranks only 22nd in the category ‘life satisfaction’ . Tssk tssk. All those poor little rich kids.

It would be a horrendously hackneyed platitude to now bang on about those who are worse off than you – what’s that supposed to say? Look, look, children, look at Mumbai garbage scavengers and the suppurating sores they suffer from clambering over razor wire to steal from dumpsters. See, see the rat bites that turn into boils and then erupt with worms. Take solace in thinking of others’ misery, add guilt to the burden of affluence, that’s supposed to make you feel better, is it? A nice bit of poverty porn and then we can go home to sleep in clean sheets and have freshly squeezed orange juice and muesli for breakfast?

Katherine Boo does not dwell pruriently on mass misery, although misery there is. She describes directly, and without sentimentality, individual lives to give a harrowing portrait of Annawadi, the slum clutching at the skirts of Mumbai airport, behind the hoardings that advertise Italian tiling to make your home beautiful forever. What shocks and disturbs even more than the dirt, pestilence and overcrowding is how capricious a master rules these people’s lives. For the life-blood of the system they live in is bribery and corruption, at every single strata of society, from the Tamil who runs a couple of garish video console games as a loss leader, lending the road boys the rupee they need to play Metal Slug 3 and thus locking them into dependency on him as agent for the rubbish they harvest; the slum school set up to rake in government funding where children are taught only on the days an inspector is due; to the police who give metal strippers a tip-off about lax construction site security for a share in the profit; through to the executive officer of the state of Maharashtra and the Corporator of Ward 27 who reinvents himself as low-caste, with all the requisite documentation, in order to comply with a new legal requirement that all candidates for election should come from the lower caste; right up to the rich who pay out small sums to part slum dwellers from their property and thus reserve for themselves certificates of long-term residency that qualify them for ownership of the valuable new government-funded slum replacement housing.

Such a structure of grace and favour patronage, bribery and terror is entirely arbitrary, and unfathomable to most. Who to bribe? Will it be effective, or will that person just bunk off with the money and no favour returned? Will you be tied forever to a blackmailing scheme that demands more and more for less and less, or is it true when the slumlord says best to pay up front, buy yourself out of trouble, because it will only get more costly as time goes by and fronts harden?

The front cover of this book promises ‘Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum’ and for the greatest part of the narrative I could not, for the life of me, detect any hope whatsoever. But there is one triumph, one that here in the so-called First World would be paltry, but in Annawadi represents a truly magnificent victory. Three members of the Husain family are arrested. Throughout the beatings by the police and the long, long delays in the proceedings at court, they refuse to try to buy their way out, maintaining their innocence. They defy the threats of further beatings if they don’t pay up, they deny the executive officer of the state a bribe to make her report more favourable, pointing out that they are paying a lawyer to defend them. She doesn’t let up. When there is a change of judge hearing the proceedings she comes back to try again, bringing with her the husband of Fatima, the woman whose death has led to their being charged.

The new judge was severe and likely to find the Husains guilty, the special executive officer said. Fortunately, Fatima’s husband was willing to take back the case. He would cancel his testimony and the testimony of his late wife, upon which the trial would shut down. The price for ending the trial would be two lakhs-more than four thousand dollars.
The special executive officer seemed to be banking on the ignorance of slumdwellers: that the Husains wouldn’t understand that the case against them was a criminal one, brought by the state of Maharashtra, and that Fatima’s husband didn’t have the power to call it off, no matter how much the Husains paid.
Before telling the woman off, Abdul’s father checked his facts with his lawyer. He wanted to make sure that what he’d gleaned about legal process from reading Urdu newspapers was correct. It was. Finally, a small triumph of information over corruption.

This, perhaps, is where we can draw a comparison between that other world and ours, not to hammer into those depressed rich kids just how lucky they are to be able to go to the school they resent, to have food and a comfortable home when they’ve never known anything else, but rather to point out that actually, the system we have here is not as bad as it seems. The European political class may appear (be?) depraved, and Berlusconi certainly is no poster boy of moral rectitude, but a Jerome Cahuzac has to resign, and a German president with a tarnished past also resigns and is indicted for corruption. The rule of law is something that we can usually rely on to catch the bastards, no matter where they are on the ladder of influence. (Except if the bastard is Berlusconi.)
But how much courage did it take for Christian Wulff to refuse to pay a 50,000 euro fine in exchange for the state prosecutors dropping all charges, something that would also look suspiciously like buying your way out of trouble? He no doubt has access to the best (most expensive) legal advice. And although his reputation may have been damaged, he can still draw a generous state pension and also stands a good chance of being completely rehabilitated if found not guilty. What has he lost, what does he stand to gain? The Husains, on the other hand, had their small living destroyed by their time in remand prison. Guilty, not guilty, makes no material difference to them, the family has hit bottom. A moral victory is theirs, but they have to pay an enormous price for something that is precious only to themselves, their self-esteem. The balance of what they have lost, what they have gained is skewed towards the loss.

How would I design a society if I didn’t know where in its hierarchy I would be placed–if I didn’t know whether I would be a person of wealth and power, or a poor and vulnerable person? What system would I create that would be fair? There’s the rub.
Profile Image for Liz Nutting.
143 reviews16 followers
April 17, 2012
A former professor of mine once related to me a story of the time he escorted Brazilian educator and activist Paulo Freire, author of The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, on a driving tour of North Philadelphia. To most Americans, North Philly is the kind of neighborhood that defines poverty. Vacant and burned out houses, trash-filled streets and rampant drug crime. To Freire, however, North Philadelphia was a rich place--not rich in spirit or hope or faith, but rich as in wealthy, having money, not poor. After all, people had roofs over their heads, even if the house next door was an empty shell. People had transportation and public services and stores. Among the Brazilian oppressed with which Freire worked, such things were luxuries afforded to only the very few and fortunate.

So it is with the people of the Annawadi slum in Mumbai. Forget Slumdog Millionaire. There are no easy paths to wealth and fame in the real slums of Mumbai. And none of the people Katherine Boo chronicles in her poetic and moving book Behind the Beautiful Forevers comes anywhere close to winning a game show or finding the love of their lives. But for all the cruel reality Boo shows, there is epic resilience in the hearts of the slum dwellers of Annawadi.

The "Beautiful Forever" of the title refers to the aluminum fence that separates the international airport, with its regular influx of tourists and wealthy patrons, and the slum of Annawadi, built on a lake of raw sewage and home to tens of thousands in the space of only a few acres. Plastered on the airport side of that divide is an advertisement for Italianate floor tiles, with the slogan BEAUTIFUL FOREVER repeated the entire length of the fence.

But behind that wall it is anything but beautiful even for now, let alone forever. It is a world where the prosperity is measured by how much trash you can sort for recycling--or how many corrupt politicians and police will throw you their crumbs.

The "hero" of the book is Abdul Husain, a young Muslim man of uncertain age (but still a teenager), who supports his family through garbage sorting. He coordinates a network of young scavengers who spend their days (and often nights) prowling the airport grounds and the city at large for trash that can be sorted into recyclables and sold for a few dollars here and there. Abdul is good at what he does, and his family has amassed some measure of wealth--they have a three wheeled cart for transporting garbage and a shed for storing it, so they do not have to sell everything when the price is low but can hang onto the best pieces until their value rises again. But his family's relative prosperity incites envy among the neighbors, and when a spiteful neighbor seeks revenge for a perceived slight by dousing herself in kerosene and lighting herself on fire--with the intention of blaming it on Abdul and his family--Abdul's world comes crashing down.

Boo's tale is not fiction. The author spent nearly 4 years following the lives of the slum dwellers of Annawadi. She came to know intimately the hopes and fears and likes and dislikes of her subjects. And she bears witness to that world with a graceful prose that is never condescending or dehumanizing.

Yet the poverty is unrelenting and the corruption is rampant. At every turn, the people of Annawadi are being extorted by police and doctors and social workers and politicians. One woman who seeks to be a power broker in the slum through her association with the local politician makes her living running a school that doesn't exist, funded by foreign aid from NGOs seeking to lift the Indian poor from their abject poverty. And while living day to day is expensive because of the corruption, life itself is cheap in Annawadi. When several young scavengers start turning up dead, with throats cut or bodies brutalized, their official cause of death is listed as tuberculosis. Rat poison is the suicide tool of choice for several teenagers.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is more than just a chronicle of the life of one Mumbai slum. Ultimately, it is an examination of the moral impact of extreme poverty and inequality, and an object lesson in how that inequality undermines its victims. As Boo writes:

In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of a mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.

If Boo is right, then this presents a critical challenge to the philosophies of scholars like Paulo Friere and liberation theologians. Their work is predicated on the idea that the community of poor can itself be a vehicle of liberation, a way out of no way. Boo provides a much needed reminder that those of us who imagine ourselves working in solidarity with the poor and oppressed need to bear in mind: we cannot take this notion of community for granted. The forces mitigating against a more equal and just society come from above and below, without and within.

But Boo's book is not about despair, for she reminds us that morality is a human imperative. "It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in under-cities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be."
Profile Image for Michael.
1,094 reviews1,537 followers
April 23, 2014
I was greatly moved, and mostly uplifted, by this narrative account of the daily life and careers of real individuals and families in a slum near Mumbai’s airport called Annawadi. The contrast between the economic “haves” and “have nots” is so blatant here. Behind a wall emblazoned with an ad for tiles that will be “beautiful forever”, about 3,000 people live in 335 huts out of site from users of the modern airport and its luxury hotels. For most of us, an image or a vignette would be enough to make us feel a bit of pity and turn away. What value could there be learning any more about their miserable lives? Surely the rising global economy of India will eventually float all boats, so why dwell on a few failed lives?

I think Boo’s penetrating look at life in Annawadi holds some treasures for us all. Through the eyes of a handful of Annawadi residents, we get narrative of creative struggle and character development that equals that of good novels. The drama is compounded of the desperate work for daily survival and the nurturing of hope to find a way to something better. It didn’t take much to take to heart the old Phil Ochs’ line that “there but for fortune go you or I.”

My empathies were engaged the most for Abdul, a 16-something boy who has worked his heart out forever making money for his family from recycling of materials sorted from trash. He is now a step ahead, a middle-man who buys the scavengers’ finds and hauls it to industrial recycler companies for sale. His work, along with roles played some of his nine other siblings, is putting food on the table and and adding to the dream of his mother and alcoholic father to move to better neighborhood. One where their minority status as Muslims in a predominantly Hindu population won’t spur so much resentment. But all this turns to ashes one day when work on remodeling their shack leads to a fight with their neighbor known as One Leg, who ends up setting herself on fire. That results in an unjust arrest of Abdul, his sister, and his father. The family’s courage in the face of these events was amazing, and their brutal treatment by the police was shocking:

The idea was to get terrified prisoners to pay everything they had, and everything they could secure from a moneylender, to stop a false criminal charge from being recorded. Beatings, though outlawed in the human rights code, were practical, as they increased the price that detainees would pay for their release. …The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.

The fate of Abdul and his family enough of a hook to keep one reading, but it is Boo’s mode of presentation that breathes life into the tale. These early paragraphs of the book did that for me:
Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station. Rewind, see Abdul running backward, away from the station and the airport, shirt buttons opening as he flies back toward his home. See the flames engulfing a disabled woman in a pink- flowered tunic shrink to nothing but a matchbook on the floor. See Fatima minutes earlier, dancing on crutches to a raucous love song, her delicate features unscathed. Keep rewinding, back seven more months, and stop at an ordinary day in January 2008. It was about as hopeful a season as there had ever been in the years since a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one-third of the planet's poor. A country dizzy now with development and circulating money.
Dawn came gusty, as it often did in January, the month of treed kites and head colds. Because his family lacked the floor space for all of its members to lie down, Abdul was asleep on the gritty maidan, which for years had passed as his bed. His mother stepped carefully over one of his younger brothers, and then another, bending low to Abdul's ear. "Wake up, fool!" she said exuberantly. "You think your work is dreaming?" …
Abdul rose with minimal whining, since the only whining his mother tolerated was her own. Besides, this was the gentle-going hour in which he hated Annawadi least. The pale sun lent the sewage lake a sparkling silver cast, and the parrots nesting at the far side of the lake could still be heard over the jets. Outside his neighbors' huts, some held together by duct tape and rope, damp rags were discreetly freshening bodies. Children in school-uniform neckties were hauling pots of water from the public taps. A languid line extended from an orange concrete block of public toilets. Even goats' eyes were heavy with sleep. It was the moment of the intimate and the familial, before the great pursuit of the small market niche got under way.

The story of middle-aged Asha and her family is equally vivid. Whereas Abdul’s family made a living from trash, Asha’s gift is making money from mediation and problem solving and from gaming anti-poverty programs. Slowly she builds leverage with and gets commissions from both with the authorities and community members. For example, she uses her unqualified daughter to manage sham private schools to teach English to the slum kids, getting money both from charities and from the parents. She has ambitions for municipal politics, an arena where she can get a real hand on the riches of corruption. Thus, she is the epitome of what is holding back any meaningful improvement in the status of the community. Yet it is such a human face, driven so much by her own hopes for her family never to be hungry again.

This work of investigative journalism is founded on nearly four years by Boo doing interviews and poring over public records. That she interprets her subject’s thoughts and feelings and resorts to what she calls paraphrasing is a method she feels the need to justify in the afterword of the book. As journalism, her take-home message is relatively simple, but potent nonetheless. She notes how the resentment over how little in the growing economy of India trickles down to the poor communities is not being translated into effective political action:

But the slumdwellers rarely got mad together--not even about the airport authority. Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked. Sometimes they tried to destroy one another. Sometimes, like Fatima, they destroyed themselves in the process. When they were fortunate, like Asha, they improved their lots by beggaring the life chances of other poor people.
What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalization, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously among themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace. ...

Extreme poverty is being alleviated gradually, unevenly, nonetheless significantly. But as capital rushes around the planet and the idea of permanent work becomes an anachronistic, the unpredictability of daily life has a way of grinding down individual promise. Ideally, the government eases some of the instability. Too often, weak government intensifies it and proves better at nourishing corruption than human capability.

For me the book speaks to the incredible resilience of the human spirit in the face of cruel circumstances of the place and family any of us might be subject to. As such it adds to the worthwhile experiences I have gained from broad areas of fiction, most recently by Ward’s “Salvage the Bones”, about a poor black family in the American Gulf Coast in the face of an impending hurricane. The closest fictional story I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing is the movie version of fable of a Mumbai resident “Slumdog Millionaire” (written by Vikas Swarup), and another film about a doctor in a Kolkata slum, “City of Joy” (based on the novel by Dominique Lapierre). Other satisfying reading experiences I would compare this book to have a focus on alleviating the disparities wrought by poverty, including Kidder’s account of Dr. Paul Farmer’s work in Haiti, “Mountains Beyond Mountains”, and the book by Kristof and WuDunn on the worldwide exploitation of young girls, “Half the Sky.”

Author Katherine Boo, a staff writer for the New Yorker and past investigative journalist and editor for The New York Post.
Profile Image for Bonnie_blu.
880 reviews20 followers
March 5, 2012
I was excited about reading this book after reading the reviews; however, it did not live up to the kudos. I found it disjointed and strangely unaffecting for most of its length, and even boring some of the time. I was raised in great poverty, and have a first-hand understanding of its effects. Extreme poverty usually strips "civilized" behavior from individuals and groups. When resources are scarce to non-existent, humans generally resort to whatever means necessary to ensure their survival. Selfishness (for oneself or one's family) is often the only thing standing between survival and death. Poverty without hope destroys humanity.

Boo highlights the lives of several Mumbai slum inhabitants. She explicitly describes the corruption rampant throughout Indian society and how it acts to squash hope among the poorest of the poor. While some of her interviewees have hope of escaping the slum, none do so in the book, and as she shows, their future chances are extremely slim. So why was the book unaffecting? Perhaps because Boo wrote it as though it were a novel. I had to continuously remind myself that this was the story of real individuals and not characters in a story. This resulted in difficulty becoming invested in the characters and remaining immersed in the book. I was lucky in that I was removed from poverty before it could destroy my spirit, but its effects linger in other ways. My heart goes out to the Mumbai slum dwellers, but I fear little can be done without a major overhaul to Indian society - - beginning with true education for all of its people. Educated people will not settle for less than a fair chance.

Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,481 reviews7,777 followers
February 11, 2015
Find all of my reviews at: http://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

3.5 Stars

“What you don’t want is always going to be with you
What you want is never going to be with you
Where you don’t want to go, you have to go
And the moment you think you’re going to live more, you’re going to die.”

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity has a blurb even longer than its title. To briefly sum up the plot, this is a the story of Annawadi, a slum settled right in the heart of the airport and luxury hotels of Mumbai, and what happened to its residents over the course of three years.

My glimpses of Mumbai have mainly been from the eyes of the stereotypical “ugly American” who passes through during one leg of the Amazing Race and from those glimpses I have developed a morose fascination (which probably makes me an even uglier American). I don’t get out much, so Katherine Boo’s novel is probably the closest I’ll ever come to experiencing life in the slums for myself. While I found the horrors I expected, such as unsanitary living conditions and life-threatening ways in which to earn enough money to survive, I also saw a people filled with hope. Hope for a better life – hope for a way out – hope for more equality – hope that the next generation wouldn’t have to experience quite as many hardships as the current one. The same hope as many of us here in America.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers loses some Stars because I got a little caught up in the mire of sooooooo many individual stories. While I realize that, were I in Ms. Boo’s situation, I too would want to share as much as possible about the Annawadi residents, at some point a line had to be drawn and characters cut. While the lives of Abdul and his family and Asha and hers felt nearly complete and were more vivid with detail, others like Kalu and Sunil seemed to be stories she had heard of “through the grapevine” so to speak and were included in order to add a bit more to the misery factor. At the end of the day, the main character of this book was the slum itself – the people only lived there.

Favorite quote:

“If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits is uneven, is it possible to make anything straight?”

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Holy moly – I read two smart people books in the same week. My brain is going to be HUGE!

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Profile Image for Abhijit Srivastava.
88 reviews10 followers
February 14, 2012
Stare. Stare straight. That’s the first thing I did after finishing reading it, and for quite a long time. I didn’t know what I was looking at, or more aptly, looking for – of course, there was this wall ahead, 3 feet ahead – but I wasn’t looking at it; I was looking for ‘faces’; faces that I’ve imagined floating between my eyes and the pages of the book while I was reading it; faces that don’t resemble anyone I know, but faces that might resemble closely with the people living right now, even as I write this and you read this, in Mumbai. Faces that I’ll see as I go to bed this morning, for time just passed as I immersed myself in this book.

Quite frankly, this book is like no other book of non-fiction written on contemporary India ever. This is the splendid result of a thorough and persistent research coupled by unrelenting passion and determined will to see through a gigantic task taken by a (relative) foreigner in a land where many of the native citizens choose to ignore the lead protagonists of this work in a manner that may border on their forced invisibleness.

The story is powerful, and as noted by Amartya Sen, it “simultaneously informs, agitates, angers, inspires and instigates”. The deaths (read suicides) of some of the lead characters are portrayed in the exact simplicity as their going to sleep after a hard day’s work. Sometimes, you maybe able to see it coming, but at other times, it will strike you out of the blue, and you may want to re-read the passage to digest that dreaded line.

This book is about India that many Indians try to conceal behind fancy establishments. Instead of attacking and eradicating the poverty, they attack and eradicate the poor. Though based in Mumbai, one can see different shades of the story unfolding daily, with varying degrees of volatility, in any other Indian metropolitan city. As a matter of fact, I see a fraction of the Annawadi slum (portrayed in the book) daily as I take that half kilometre walk to Saket Metro station in New Delhi. Maybe, i was imagining their faces as I was reading this book.

All this is going to stay with me for a while.
I’d suggest this book to anyone who wants to see more of India than those hyper-marketed “Incredible India” advertisements.
Profile Image for Roxane.
Author 120 books159k followers
November 24, 2012
This book is quite an achievement. The reportage is thorough and passionate and careful and what it does best is reveal both the simplicity and complexity of absolute poverty. Though this book is set in a Mumbai slum, it could be about nearly any place in the Third World. So much of the book echoed with what I know about the slums of Port au Prince, for example. What is also striking is seeing how the people Boo writes about have hope in circumstances, that from the outside, seem so wholly hopeless, so impossible to overcome. The corruption Boo details, corruption so deeply embedded at all levels of Indian society, is almost unbearable to read about but this information is shared without judgment and revealed, particularly for the residents of the Mumbai slum where Boo was embedded, as the only potential way out, however dim that potential might be. There's a lot to say about this book and a lot to think about.

The only part of the book I struggled with was the ending, which was really abrupt and odd. After the rich narrative Boo created, such an anemic ending was bizarre.
Profile Image for Praj.
314 reviews811 followers
September 9, 2018
It’s been a distressful morning. The milkman won’t be delivering the daily liter of milk; his house was razed by the local municipality. The family of six has to do with a makeshift shanty to prevent them from drowning in the dense showers of late night rains. Futile visits to the local political corporator and pleading to a rigid money-lender for a loan is what his weekly schedule looks like. Troublesome as it is for a detour to the supermarket for packaged milk, my domestic help decided to call it a day as it is the last day to confirm her receipt for a governmental pension of her deceased alcoholic husband. For all those vicious thrashings and numerous marital abuses she stomached for a decade, she truly deserved the so-called posthumous alimony; although a pitiful sum. Oh! What a wretched day it is!! Not only do I have to check the availability of another maid, but go and pick my dry cleaning as the delivery boy was arrested for trying to sell vegetables on the street corner disregarding any philanthropic duties to the patrolling authorities. Dear Lord! Am I the only victim of such suffering? Mercifully, my chauffeur seems to have escaped from any such problematic liabilities. His tardiness has got me a bit worried on missing my blow-dry appointment. However, I reckon shifting the spa-medic detoxification an hour later could comfortably ease the tea-garden brunch.
It’s still 9am and I’m half way through my anti-bacterial wipes. I need to make quick stop at the local pharmacy for more supplies; but the snail speed of this wretched sedan is making me perspire through the cool air of the designed interiors, dreading the inevitable. A knock on the window and I’m in no mood of indulging an urchin while fretting over the scarcity of the anti-germ armament. Few more taps and he moves on to the next door amongst the sea of vehicles. Bombay traffic; oh so nauseating! Couple red lights and I’m ready for a literary dialogue over freshly brewed oolong. As I alight from the car, a pair of white retinas stares at me with a half-broken smile. The offering of green pistachios macaroons seemed supplementary to the actual fancy; a few more arguments over the importance of food and then the ultimate dispensing of monetary funds. The cool sea breeze brushing my cheeks sarcastically mocks the cup of warm tea. I’m finally at peace. Argh! This unnerving stench rising from a nearby engulfment of reclaimed land festering with juxtaposed shoddy shanties ruins the temporary nirvana. Such a disgrace for a posh high-rise! I must take up this issue at the upcoming Housing meeting.

While meticulously placing their cups avoiding the untimely melody of their exquisite china, the urban snobs critique twirling their freshly sprayed coifs; applauded the heroic effort of a certain Katherine Boo for having the balls to submit herself to the putrid cocktail of sewage stench and decaying garbage for nearly four years. It is indeed a medal of honor; elsewhere the opinionated lecturer making a run out of the narrow congested lanes before the eau de cologne evaporates from their handkerchiefs. Katherine, in a news interview said that after her research on the inner-city housing in Oklahoma city, she was curious about the institution of poverty. What ways do the ‘poor’ people execute to get out their impoverish survival? How did they thrive in the existing circumstances? What would you want me to say? To pronounce, that poverty has become the selling point of Indian literary panorama? Does romanticizing poverty give a feel of diving into some kind of exotic uncharted waters? Or does it give one’s heart a philanthropic illusion? On an eventful itinerary to India pick out a slum and pen the daily events of a close knitted neighborhood huddled together in congested housing. If, appreciated by the designated literary elites, spare a thought towards the unfortunate over overtly publicized Literary fest and if Boyle &Co. decides to take another shot at the Oscars; Hallelujah!!! Stories are not only born in slums, allow the tales to pass through through many corners of the vast Indian landscapes. The residents of Annawadi are audacious, unafraid and above all optimistic dreamers. Poverty is the biggest crime. It is better to be a cold-blooded murderer, but it is a sin to be poor. To be poor is to be guilty of one or another thing. Commiserating Raja Kamble- the toilet cleaner; rag picker Sunil, one-legged Sita and the vulnerable Asha who dreams to be the first ever slumlord demeans their very existence. Applaud these residents of Annawadi through the lines of this text as they struggle through the dodgy circumstances with true grit; for if it was one of us we would sooner or later walk the path of death.

In a land where the supermarket does not boast ten different brands of toothpastes, give an Ayn Rand to a youth standing in the ration line and see a potent explosive rise. Crony capitalism, corruption, poverty and economic disparity are necessary evils in a country that is racing at an hare’s speed to meet the global finishing line. The sinister underbelly of Mumbai proliferates with every rise and fall in oil trade stocks. Does that give a leeway to the privileged to dig deep in the trenches and frolic in the slush? Stop romanticizing poverty!! Recognize the white elephant in the room and pen an epic of crony capitalism and its hoarders. Wouldn't it then be fun to see a panel of illustrious erudite critique the printed words. Would they find it rewarding as the scriptures of impecunious nether world or dismiss it as an unpatriotic insanity like they do with most of Arundhati Roy’s books. There my dearies lay the valid underbelly of a blossoming India and not through impoverished assiduous lives.

I reckon the raspberry macaroons go very well with oolong and I might skip the Housing meeting . As for my concerned nirvana I’ll just spray some Comme des Garçons,
Profile Image for Caroline.
506 reviews586 followers
May 20, 2015
My final impressions of the book 1/5/2014:

So, now I have finished Behind the Beautiful Forevers.... and I must say, unlike the bulk of people who have read it, I still have issues with it.

I would have infinitely preferred it if the author written a straightforward novel, based on her research, and friendships made in the Annawadi slum in Mumbai. My favourite novels are about different cultures (using the term in its broadest sense), but cultures that have been superbly researched, and therefore come alive for the reader. I feel that Katherine Boo could have done the same with what she learnt about life in Annawadi. But in choosing to write the book instead as "narrative non-fiction" she alienated me as a reader. I couldn't get away from the fact that these were real people and real experiences, being described in terms of a novel.

I would have also enjoyed the book if it had been written purely as a straightforward work of investigative journalism. Katherine Boo obviously spent a lot of time in Annawadi, and was deeply committed to the people there. They had extraordinary stories to tell her, and I feel these would have stood better on their own, without her putting words into people mouths. More interviews, more "this happened, and then this happened"; less the well-oiled seamlessness of narrative.

As for the content of the book - I found this as harrowing as everyone else did. The corruption that seeped through everything, all those organisations that should have been doing good - the police, the magistrates, the hospital, the schools, the politicians, the re-housing plan, the NGOs......but all of them rotten with bribery and corruption. The harshness of the lives that people experienced in Annawadi - and their endless ingenuity and tenacity in making a living for themselves. The sharp contrast between the inhabitants of the nearby luxury hotel, and the people living in the Annawadi. The incredibly sad lack of social cohesion amongst the people there..........poor communities can be close and mutually supportive, but life was just too tough and too confrontational to allow that here. In Annawadi it is survival of the fittest.

I was extremely glad to have read the book. Like everyone else I think I need to know what is happening in places like Annawadi. I just feel that the writing approach (for me) let the book down a bit.


My first impression of the book 27/4/2014:

This book is described as "narrative non-fiction". The term perplexes me. I thought this book was non-fiction, but it turns out to be a novel. Or at least I THINK it is a novel. Given my inability to read novels at the moment it's not surprising I am going to give up on it. I am not awarding it any stars - I was obviously was the wrong audience for this book in the first place.

My one criticism would be for the people who wrote the blurb. The term "narrative non-fiction" is misleading. Or at least if they were going to describe the book this way they should have given more explanation of what the term means.

I have now checked Wikipedia - it describes the book as non-fiction too! I am totally muddled. I wish I had the capacity to add a picture of that emo of the face with its eyes rolling round and round in its head. C'est moi.
Profile Image for Shawn.
251 reviews43 followers
July 29, 2012
What disturbed Me most about this book is that it didn't disturb Me more. How is it that a book about the poorest, most exploited, ignored, trodden upon people didn't evoke more feeling or sustain more engagement? I spent the entire reading reminding myself that these were real people so that I would endeavor to feel something toward their story.

I'm not sure if it was the choice of writing style -- that of making the story "feel like a novel" -- that made this so easy to disengage from or not, but something didn't work. This should have been a powerful, heart wrenching, gut twisting story of subsistence, yet it felt almost breezy in its telling. I'm sorely disappointed because I was prepared to be moved. Boo is clearly a good writer, I just wish she had done more with the opportunity she had.

Profile Image for Lorna.
719 reviews418 followers
November 1, 2021
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Pultitzer prize winning staffer for The New Yorker, Katherine Boo, was a gripping and riveting and harrowing non-fiction narrative about the makeshift, impoverished undercity, Annawadi, just outside the shining airport and high-end hotels in Mumbai. In the Author's Note Katherine Boo states that all of the events and names of the people in her book are true. She notes that she did extensive reporting and documentation from November 2007 when she walked into Annawadi and met Asha and Manju until March 2011 when she completed her reporting. As graphically noted by the author:

"Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements. These ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall's length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER"

In addition to this sometimes heartbreaking book being a National Book Award winner, it needs to be read by anyone with an interest in global poverty and the issue of justice and of questions surrounding our humanity throughout world. The predominant thread throughout this book was one of resilience in looking for ways to improve one's lot. And thus some of my favorite quotes by Katherine Boo:

"You didn't keep track of a child's years when you were fighting daily to keep him from starving, as she and many other Annawadi mothers had been doing when their teenagers were young."

"Ice was distinct from--and in his view, better than--what it was made of. He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai's dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals. For self-interested reasons, one of the ideals he most wanted to have was a belief in the possibility of justice."

And the overriding truth that emerged from these pages as follows:

"Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. Was there a soul in this enriching, unequal city who didn't blame his dissatisfaction on someone else? Wealthy citizens accused the slumdwellers of making the city filthy and unlivable, even as an oversupply of human capital kept the wages of their maids and chauffeurs low. Slumdwellers complained about the obstacles the rich and powerful erected to prevent them from sharing in new profit. Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbors."
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,719 followers
September 3, 2014
This is an amazing story about families who live and work in a Mumbai slum. Katherine Boo spent years reporting in the airport settlement of Annawadi, and the book unfolds like a novel. It's a fascinating look at how the underclass tries to survive and get ahead in a 21st-century economy.

One of the things I found most interesting was how the families were constantly fighting with others in the slum, literally over scraps. And the police, the courts, the hospitals -- everyone, really -- were so corrupted that they're all trying to fleece somebody. In the author's note at the end, Boo points out how there was little sense of a shared community, because they were all so desperate to get ahead of their neighbors. In one disturbing scene, a man in the slum had been hit by a car and was left on the side of the road. Dozens of people walked by, but no one stopped to help because they were too wrapped up in their own affairs and couldn't afford to waste time helping him. After several hours, the man had died, and only then did people stop to help pick up the corpse.

Despite the abject poverty, I found the book to be inspiring because so many of the families were hopeful that they could someday rise up out of the slum and join the more prosperous middle class of India. As Boo noted, there were three ways out of the slum: an entrepreneurial niche (like scavenging for scrap metals), politics (meaning corruption), or education. I'm pinning my hopes on Manju, a young woman who will be the first person in the slum to have graduated from college. Rise, Manju, rise!

Update Aug. 2013: This is still my favorite nonfiction book I've read this year. I have thought of it repeatedly since I read it in the spring, and I wish the author could write a sequel so I'd know what the families are up to. Highly recommended for everyone.
Profile Image for Jean.
Author 12 books18 followers
December 6, 2012
If you liked Slumdog Millionaire you will probably like this book. I hated Slumdog Millionaire and I didn't like this book. I know it's a Pulitzer Prize winner, and I really tried. Just couldn't get into it.

It's about Annawadi, a slum that grew up in the area of the airport in Mumbai. Boo tells the stories of several people who are trying to rise above their situations. Abdul is a smart teenager who sells scrap metal and is saving to move out. Asha is a woman who is trying to use political power and corruption to do the same. Then Abdul is accused of a crime, and the global recession hits Mumbai.

Why I didn't like this book:
1. These people don't seem to be real; I never felt any connection to or sympathy for them. Boo says she did years of research, countless interviews with the people in the book, and that she has even captured their thoughts. Really? I hope it's just her writing style I don't care for.

2. Nothing happens for long stretches of time. I started skimming after the first 100 pages, and discovered that wherever I opened the book, nothing much had happened since the last time. Yes, there was some action involving Abdul's legal troubles, but every page was the same as the page before it. Maybe that was Boo's point.

I'm sure someone will make a movie about the book. I suspect that in this case the movie might be better because it will compress the action to give it more tension. But I probably won't like the movie any better than I did Slumdog Millionaire.
Profile Image for Max.
347 reviews335 followers
April 18, 2022
Boo does a masterful job presenting the lives of the desperately poor dwelling in a Mumbai slum. Her descriptions are gripping and gritty but above all human. How do these people cope with a hopeless future and the greed, the market forces and endemic corruption that keeps them in their place? How do they maintain any sense of dignity? The answers are often not pretty, but Boo provides them. She describes the daily activities, relationships and thoughts of members of several families, their ups, downs, worries, hopes and dreams without passing judgement. She doesn’t lament their plight or offer solutions. Amazingly, despite the subject matter, this is a wonderful read. Very highly recommended.
Profile Image for Jill.
353 reviews342 followers
July 26, 2015
As I started to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I expected a book akin to poverty porn, a literary version of those awful commercials that broadcast photos of downtrodden children on squalid streets whom you can save for only “one dollar a day!” But what I read was both a meticulous character study and a treatise on the livelihoods of an undercity; a protest against all forms of corruption and a captivating, almost seemingly fictitious, legal narrative; a celebration of 21st century free-market capitalism and an indictment of 21st century free-market capitalism.

Thanks to fastidious reporting, Boo presents a sprawling, nearly four year long narrative of what happens to various residents of the Annawadi slum, a slum caught between the rapidly developing international airport and luxury hotels of Mumbai. She focuses on several individuals, carefully chipping away their facades to show their inner intricacies and humanize them. While most outsiders to Annawadi would likely look upon these people and think instantly of only one word—poor—Boo shows that this designation is nothing but simplistic caricature. Rather, the people of Annawadi are people who possess sundry personal qualities, one of which happens to be poor. Boo’s understanding of these people is acute; in single paragraphs she exposes the core of a person and introduces inner conflict that could motivate entire epic sagas. The characters—I can’t help but think of them as such, even though they are extant individuals—truly live on the pages; it is impossible to remain detached from their struggles as they sparkle with life under Boo’s deft hand.

Because the characters are so vividly sketched, the main intrigue is overwhelming. In investigating the ultimate origins of poverty and corruption, Boo slowly unfolds the terrible story of the Husains, a Muslim family on the verge of true success that meets terrible tragedy when falsely accused of prompting their neighbor to self-immolate. The story is remarkable and reads like fiction, and its greatest strength is that I had no idea how it would be resolved. Whenever I remembered that the individuals charged with this crime were real—they actually existed and went through this trauma—I flipped the pages faster, eager and anxious for the conclusion, for I knew that any consequences would be absolute.

What I’m left with after finishing Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a multitude of unanswerable questions. Such as: who do we blame for the problems of Annawadi? Who do we blame for the rampant corruption seeping through everything? In one particular instance, a doctor says he’ll lie about a wrongly incarcerated boy’s age in order to allow him to stay in the juvenile jail rather than the much harsher adult jail for the price of two thousand rupees. He explains that doctors receive substandard wages from the government, and accepting bribes is an unfortunate necessity of his job. It’s so easy to denounce the doctor, but honestly, is it right to do so? If everyone is trapped in this hypercompetitive system of making more and more, how can anyone do the moral thing? Everyone is suffering; is someone’s suffering lessened just because people like the residents of Annawadi are suffering more?

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a story of many things. But mostly, it’s a story of a city, a city that holds so much promise. A promise of a better world. This promise of a better world is not exclusive to Mumbai; it can be extended to every city in every country. But do we delude ourselves in thinking this better world belongs to everyone?
Profile Image for Matt Quann.
652 reviews387 followers
March 19, 2017
I've not read a ton of narrative nonfiction, but Katherine Boo's account of the Annawadi slum in Mumbai and the people who inhabit it makes for a thrilling and moving audiobook. Boo took home the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2012 for this novel about the injustice and cyclical nature of poverty in India, so I imagine it is rather well read by my fellow Goodreadians. So instead of me telling you what the book is about (there's a synopsis) or acting like an expert on poverty (which I am not), I'll offer a list. Here's four things I liked, and one thing I didn't like about the audiobook of Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

1. Powerful Representation. Each person in this book is represented with frank honesty. Not everyone behaves admirably, but being presented with a the warts-and-all of a human makes them more realistic.

2.Great Narration. Sunil Malhotra does a splendid job of taking on the role of each person in this book, helping to bring them to life. His voice has a great cadence and worked well for this book. I'll be on the lookout for him in the future.

3.A Harrowing Story of Abject Poverty. I was stunned by the depths to which these people sink out of desperation. Most notably, a woman immolates herself in the opening of this book in order to scorn a family whose garbage-picking business has been booming. There are many moments like this that both humanize and horrify.

4.It's a Thinker. Boo offers no easy answers to problems encountered in this book. My thoughts were disorganized by the end of the final chapter, but Boo's afterwords helped to expand my understanding of her undertaking. I'll continue to think about this book for some time to come.

One thing I didn't like:

The Big cast. Of course, this is part of the appeal of the book: it represents not just a single person or family's story, but is a story of many people. This is a critique aimed more at the audiobook as I would have been better able to remember the characters if I could see their names in front of me. If you have a hard time with names (like me!) then a paper copy of the book wouldn't go astray.
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews599 followers
July 17, 2012
I started this book yesterday -- finished it this morning. (I bought this book the first week it was released --hoping and waiting for my book club to 'choose' it). --Yet--I waited long enough!

I've already had some experience living 'in-the-slums' in India. (yet, it was not called 'slums' back in 1973) -- It was called a 'poor village'.

I experienced the filth, poverty, disease (in the streets, 'almost-dead-people' sitting under filthy sinks reaching for drips of water in train bathrooms) --dirty hospitals (trying to get help myself) --
Food shortage --(eating only one small meal myself in the small 'poor village'), --- not enough room for sleeping in the small 'hut' (either made of hay or cardboard).
and wiping my ass with my 'right' hand. (going into the ground).

Yes: I did those things!

I also had the opportunity during that year adventure in India to visit an Indian Woman who lived in Goa (Southern India) -- stay in her house (middle class standard) -- I was given 3 meals a day during this period. (still the hospitals were dirty).
In time I left India because I was sick. (Flew to England --stayed in the London hospital over night -- was put to bed for the next two weeks).---Blood poison from bad bug infections. (it only took 10+ years for my scars to go away)

So? What did I get from THIS book? More Awareness!
It reads like a novel. (I wish it were)>> SORRY! (page-turning--like a drama)

The people the author writes about are 'real':
...A young boy is framed for a murder. -- (wonderful young boy)
...A man on the street---with a leg smash & bleeding (people keep walking by --for days--until he dies)
...etc. etc.

What is new since being in India in the 1970's -- is the rapid growth in the cities (the hotels, large swimming pools, business buildings, tourist expansion)---
All this 'shares' land with 'the slums'. THIS I KNOW about. (I have many friends from India).---
What I 'didn't' really know about (not to this extent anyway), is how horrific the corruption of the Indian Government is all the way down to the 'very bottom'....such as the local police. (pretty scary).

In reading this NON-FICTION book -- Its clear of the wide range of challenges that India has to deal with --(no simple solution) --but writers like Katherine Boo (journalist Pulitzer prize winner) ---
and other such authors such as Nicolas D. Kristof and Sherly Wudunn who wrote "Half The Sky" (Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Woman Worldwide) are people who are making a difference.
For that: I thank them!

Profile Image for Sue.
1,272 reviews548 followers
July 7, 2013
As Katherine Boo states in her Author's Note,

"If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on
which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything
lie straight?"

This applies not only to one of the key incidents in her narrative but to all of India--it's judicial system, schools, police, economy, benevolent organizations. The crookedness and crumbling are everywhere and the people Boo chooses to visit and document over several years are those on the society's bottom rung.

This is a difficult book to read, at some times even more than others, but also important as it is real. These people are living now (or at least as of date of publication!) in what is in some respects one of the most thriving countries on earth, but also one of the most troubled.

Highly recommended and, lest the reader forget, there are places like Annawadi all over the world whether they are physically the same or in the way they kill the inhabitants' spirit. (Yes here too in the US, though we try to cover up sewage lakes)
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,458 followers
April 30, 2017
This book leaves you feeling devastated. Yes, I am glad I listened to it. I listened to the audiobook narrated perfectly by Sunil Malhorta. The shrill women voices are really spot on! The author herself narrates the afterword which explains the author's methodology. Friends recommended that I listen to that first, which I did, but I listened to it again after completing the book. Reading this part twice is what I advise. The first time allows you to listen to the details of the individuals and judge their validity. The second time, having completed the book, you can better judge the author's conclusions. It is here that I wanted a bit more from the book. I wanted concrete suggestions from the author. What does she suggest be done to improve the situation? I want a further discussion of her ideas. I was left hanging and this was extremely unsatisfying. Half of the work is done.....

I did not find it difficult to follow the numerous individuals even when listening. The individuals became identities, each one reacting a bit differently. First I thought there were too many to follow in depth. Isn't it better to understand a few in depth rather than many only on the surface? I believe Boo wanted to show how different people will behave differently, but she also wanted to study which behavior would lead to improvement/success. It is pretty darn hard to define what success is! Is it more money, getting a house, or simply keeping alive? Is it reasonable to demand of these people high moral standards too?

I compare this book to the one I have just completed, also about the homeless and the poor: This Side of Brightness. The setting is different. One is fiction and one is not. I think they complement each other. I actually got closer to the souls of the fictional characters in McCann's book than I did to the real ones in Boo's! I don't mean this as a criticism, only as a statement of fact.

I can also recommend Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation. What happens to the honesty so characteristic of small children? Boo asks this question. She points to the honesty of children, and what happens to it as we get older.

I do recommend this book, and I feel that the acclaim given it is justly awarded.
December 30, 2012
A much hyped book - I had heard and read a lot about it including high praise from some usually trusty sources. While it started on a promising note and held my attention until about the halfway mark, I could sense a growing disappointment with both style and substance. The crisp writing aims to punch you in the guts as the unrelenting sequence of misery and death unfolds page after page. I get it - life in a Mumbai sluim is brutish but the writing style tries too hard to shock and quickly left me jaded. The substance also left me dissatisfied. While it is not the author's intent to offer solutions, I did not find her offering compelling explanations for what transpires in Annawadi. The depressing sequence of events is laid out starkly but the explantion of motives is not always convincing.

On the plus side, the book is a salutary reminder of the all pervasiveness of corruption - it permeates every level, and thwarts every well intentioned social scheme. Before penning this review, I asked myself if I was unfairly blaming the author for not holding out a sliver of hope. And no, much as I would have loved to read about change for the better, I am not judging her work for its bleakness. Kafka is bleak and yet he dazzles. Katherine Boo's book does not.
Profile Image for Madeline.
781 reviews47.2k followers
May 3, 2022
Trying to write a book about the slums of Mumbai is a daunting task, to say the least (and please bear in mind, I say that as a white lady whose only knowledge of India comes from a few Bollywood movies and Slumdog Millionare so if you’re looking for an analysis of how well-researched or factual Katherine Boo’s book is, this is not the review for you). Katherine Boo approaches her topic by shrinking it down to one family and one single, catastrophic event – teenage garbage picker Abdul's family has a long-running feud with their neighbor, a disabled woman named Fatima. One day, following an argument between Fatima and Abdul's mother (where the latter is overheard threatening physical violence), Fatima goes into her home, pours kerosene on herself, and lights a match. She survives, barely, and names Abdul as her attacker. The book chronicles the family’s lengthy legal battle as they attempt to prove their innocence in a system overrun with corruption and indifference. Other characters come in and out of the narrative, including slumlords, scavengers, orphans, and others who make up the population of Annawadi, a tiny slum just outside the Mumbai airport.

Boo manages to keep the book from being too exploitative or misery-porn-esque, but this is still a pretty grim slog of a book. There is very little redemption to be had, and we learn very quickly that anytime a character manages to snag a little bit of good luck, it certainly won’t last long.

For me, the most redeeming thing about this book is that Katherine Boo isn’t attempting to find some moral lesson within the lives of the people she spent years interviewing, and she doesn’t try to present any solutions for fixing India’s problems. She is merely doing her job as a journalist: seeking out a group of people often overlooked by the rest of the world, letting them tell their stories, and recording them faithfully. Any lesson or moral that you take from Behind the Beautiful Forevers is one you create yourself.
Profile Image for Scott.
292 reviews317 followers
December 20, 2018
Hell exists.

If you want to see it, visit a Mumbai slum.

Katherine Boo spent years getting to know the people of the Annawadi slum in Mumbai. She learned their hopes, their fears, the travails of their daily lives, and in behind The Beautiful Forevers she presents them in a compelling narrative that kept me glued to its pages at the same time as it broke my heart.

Through the stories of several people and families who cling to life in the stinking, ramshackle slum on the verge of the Mumbai airport Boo shows us a vision of a society stalked by hunger and deprivation, where corruption is rife.

Officials steal millions of rupees meant for educating poor children. Charities sell donated food at a profit to the poor it was meant to be given to. The police extort money to even reveal which crimes they have charged you with. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is on the take in a horrifying, nationwide version of the prisoner's dilemma where no-one chooses cooperation.

Boo tells us the stories of Abdul, a garbage dealer who sells rubbish to recyclers, and his family - Muslims in a slum where the Hindi nationalism of the local Shiv Sena party hangs over their heads like an axe. She introduces us to Asha, a corrupt aspiring slumlord with Shiv Sena connections who through many dubious schemes and near-outright prostitution to powerful men is also trying to better her lot in life.

We follow them as they try to escape the terrible gravitational pull of poverty. We watch as Abdul and his family are accused of driving a neighbor to suicide and sucked into the labyrinthine corruption of India's justice system. We see Asha as she rises in the local hierarchy, but still gets repeatedly ripped off by higher ups. We see as the people of the slum begin every day desperate to make enough money to stave off hunger for another day, or to buy some small distraction from their lives, be it booze or drugs, or movie ticket.

As I was reading one thought kept reoccurring to me: this is the 'gig economy' taken to it's zenith, where everyone is a casual on a zero-hours, no benefits contract with no legal protection.

This is how the plutocratic libertarians of the world- your Thiels, Kochs and the like - would love things to be. A dog-eat-dog world of spirit crushing uncertainty, where no one has a permanent job, no-one has any support from the state and everyone is doing piece work that provides barely enough for them to survive, while the people higher up in society pay their employees almost nothing and make off like bandits.

In this world, the world that Boo chronicles, the poor have no leverage against the richer, more connected people who extort money from them, cheat them, and steal the development money meant for them. Unable to fight against their exploiters they struggle among themselves, competing for tiny scraps in life and death fights where people will beat and maybe even kill each other for a dollar or two's worth of recyclable rubbish.

These people are too poor, too desperate to work together. The grind of a corrupt system and the Sisyphean nature of continual oppressive poverty means there can be no solidarity.

I've spent time in India. I love the people, the food, the myriad cultures. The reality of life for so many people there however, is heartbreaking. The misery and loss of human potential is truly epic. There is nothing noble, motivating or even slightly positive about poverty. Despite the observations of over-privileged tourists, people are not 'poor, but happy'. They are simply poor, and would no doubt be a damn sight happier if they didn't have to worry about affording medicine, or where they will get the money for their next meal.

Of course, this sort of poverty exists in many places around the world, even to a lesser extent in parts of developed nations like my own Australia. The fact that we tolerate it, that we even allow it to be, is something that our species should be ashamed of.

Considering all this, it's fitting that there is no happy ending in Behind The Beautiful Forevers. Happy endings are for Bollywood films, not for the harsh reality that the poor of the world face every day. This is a sad and disillusioning read, but its an essential one.
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