Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Are you one of those people who believe too much of our taxes go to entitlement programs and the poor are underserving of a helping hand?  Well, if you want to see what America would be like without Medicare, Social Security, Food Stamps, Unemployment Insurance, Aid to Dependent Families, etc, then you need to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo.  In this novel-like nonfiction book, Boo spent over three years getting to know the people of Annawadi, a shanty town that’s grown up next to the Mumbai Airport, where three thousand people struggle to survive at the bottom of the economic ladder by any means possible.  She focuses on a poor Muslim family living among even poorer Hindu families.  Katherine Boo beautifully weaves a web of stories around the connected lives of Abdul, a teenage garbage recycler, his mother Zehrunisa, their neighbor Fatima, a one legged prostitute, Asha, a middle age woman, corrupt wheeler dealer, slumlord, and low level politician, Manju, Asha’s daughter who is college educated and tutors slum kids, and a dozen more people who are friends and relatives to these main characters.


Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity won the National Book Award for Nonfiction this year and is on so many Best Books of 2012 lists that I’ve lost count.  That’s why I bought it from Audible to listen to over the Christmas holidays.  Strangely, it makes a wonderful holiday book for contemplating good will and compassion for our fellow humans.  Katherine Boo is my Ghost of Christmas Present.

Not only does reading about some of the poorest of the poor on Earth make me grateful for my comfortable life, but it makes me ask:  What is self-reliance, charity and basic human rights?  How can we help people like those living in Annawadi?  Should we let human beings live like this?  The folks in this story are all hustling to get ahead.  They all have dreams of a better life, although most of them have tiny dreams compared to our huge ambitions.  I’m a life long liberal that grew up with LBJ’s Great Society, so is food stamps a welfare the answer?  I don’t know.  And even in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, these people aren’t failures, as described by Slate Magazine,

Abdul and Zehrunisa are two of a handful of Annawadians whose fortunes Boo follows closely in the book. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the product of Boo’s three and a half years of reporting (with the help of translators) in Annawadi.  The slum is home to 3,000 people (crammed into 335 huts) and unknown numbers of goats, feral pigs, and water buffalo. Lest you get the wrong idea: “Almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks.” In spite of the fact that a few residents have to trap frogs and rats to fill out their meals, the slum is officially reckoned a success story, full of people on their way out of poverty, and the frog-eaters give other, non-frog-eating Annawadians “a felt sense of their own upward mobility.” Annawadi was built illegally on land next to the Mumbai International Airport and is under constant threat of slum clearance. It is surrounded by new luxury hotels, which make it “magnificently positioned for a trafficker in rich people’s garbage.”

The strange thing about this story is the biggest problems these people face are caused by their own making.  Abdul and his family were getting ahead with their garbage recycling business until they angered their neighbor Fatima and she caused a feud that brought the two families down tragically. 

In a way, I wished I had heard the last chapter first, where Katherine Boo explains how she wrote the story.  In fact, I wished she had chronicled her writing methods within the story throughout the book.  How she became accepted by these people is just as fascinating as their lives.  Katherine Boo does not look like she belongs in a Mumbai slum, so it’s incredibly hard to imagine her fitting in with these people.  One telling piece in the last chapter is where she admits her Annawadi friends got annoyed with her pestering them about the negative aspects of their lives.  They wanted to forget the bad and get on with the good.  So is our fascinating with their misery really a fair picture of their world?


I highly recommend reading her web site for the book before reading he book, because having the images of Annawadi and it’s people in my mind would have enhanced my reading pleasure.  Here’s the video from her site on YouTube.  My mental illustrations for the story was nothing like the real pictures.

In this interview Boo talks about her ambition to write a book about poverty without being sensational or sentimental, and I think she succeeds wonderfully.  When you read Behind the Beautiful Forevers it doesn’t make you want to look away in horror at their poverty.  I wish Boo would make a documentary out of her research, notes and videos she took.  One thing we see in the videos and photos is the people sometimes having fun.  That’s not in the book, and I wonder why?

Katherine Boo wrote a piece about Mumbai before, for the New Yorker about Slumdog Millionaire, “Opening Night” that gives another view of Mumbai’s slums.  Poverty is a more complex issue than just a lack of money.  We really are a global economy.  We really are all interconnected with a web of economics and culture.  We really are becoming a world society.

Other Reviews to Read

JWH – 12/28/12

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