Behind the Beautiful Forevers
: Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity
Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. Her reporting 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. This is her first book.1.AnnawadiLET 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?"Superstitious, Zehrunisa had noticed that some of the family's most profitable days occurred after she had showered abuses on her eldest son. January's income being pivotal to the family's latest plan of escape from Annawadi, she had decided to make the curses routine.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.One by one, construction workers departed for a crowded intersection where site supervisors chose day laborers. Young girls began threading marigolds into garlands, to be hawked in Airport Road traffic. Older women sewed patches onto pink-and-blue cotton quilts for a company that paid by the piece. In a tiny, sweltering plastic- molding factory, bare-chested men cranked gears that would turn colored beads into ornaments to be hung from rearview mirrors-smiling ducks and pink cats with jewels around their necks that they couldn't imagine anyone, anywhere, buying. And Abdul crouched on the maidan, beginning to sort two weeks' worth of purchased trash, a stained shirt hitching up his knobby spine.His general approach toward his neighbors was this: "The better I know you, the more I will dislike you, and the more you will dislike me. So let us keep to ourselves." But deep in his own work, as he would be this morning, he could imagine his fellow Annawadians laboring companionably alongside him.ANNAWADI SAT TWO hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India collided with old India and made new India late. Chauffeurs in SUVs honked furiously at the bicycle delivery boys peeling off from a slum chicken shop, each carrying a rack of three hundred eggs. Annawadi itself was nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life.The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked in from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the international airport. When the runway work was complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.Other poor people considered the spot too wet to be habitable, but the Tamils set to work, hacking down the brush that harbored the snakes, digging up dirt in drier places and packing it into the mud. After a month, their bamboo poles stopped flopping over when they were stuck in the ground. Draping empty cement sacks over the poles for cover, they had a settlement. Residents of neighboring slums provided its name: Annawadi-t
This is beautifully written with humor and sensitivity. The characters come alive and you quickly care very much about them and their attempts to leave the Annawadi. The subject matter is sometimes grim, but the author shines another light on it with intelligence, wit and humor. It's a fast-paced story showing the courage of these poor people. I recommend this excellent book because there is so much for people to learn here and be grateful for the good things in their own lives. You will have a heavy heart when you finish.
An excellent book; best book I've read about India since City of Joy. Boo is an amazing author drawing you into the lives of each of her friends of Anawadi. She'll open your eyes, break your heart, and drive you to prayer.
There are moments of innocence, and a bit of unexpected wit amidst the descriptions of horrific suffering, abject misery and violence that are juxtaposed against each other and accepted as a normal way of life by the residents of Annawandi, an unbelievably impoverished community of the poor in India. It sits just adjacent to opulent, luxury hotels on airport property, built for the rich and famous. The squalid huts barely provide shelter or privacy for the inhabitants as they scavenge the leavings of these monuments and its dwellers. The contrast is stark and unforgiving. Envy is in no short supply there, and they each prey upon the other, the weak on the weaker, the poor on the poorer, simply to survive. Children are commodities, education is minimal, girls are not as valuable as boys, blame is always assigned someplace else rather than on one’s own shoulders and few accept responsibility for their own behavior and its consequences.The jobs of the poor create a hierarchy in the community. Each different level earns a different small amount of respect for residents. There seemed to be little that was beyond the pale regarding what these poor souls would attempt in order to live another day. Suicides were common in the face of such hopelessness. What made it so hard to read was the realization that this story is based on real families; it is non-fiction; your hair will rise as you realize this is really happening in this day and age, in a culture still steeped in prejudice and memories of the hateful caste system. Their superstition is evidenced in statements like this: “He beats his wife but lets her live.” This is supposed to be commendable.Abdul is a young Muslim man who makes his living as a waste collector. His family has been moving up the ladder of success, saving for the day when they can become landowners, in a community of Muslims, where they will be treated with respect and have a better life. In huts with walls, sometimes no thicker than paper separating families, the residents will do anything necessary to earn money. They turn against each other, they are superstitious, they are cruel and vengeful, looking to blame someone for their troubles, even, and often wrongfully, never turning back even after they realize they have committed a grave injustice. It is important to maintain appearances, even in the face of such squalor; lies flourish.Separated by only a few inches from the one legged woman who filled with envy and anger, falsely accuses his family of setting her aflame, Abdul and his family must enter into a nightmare scenario simply to survive the corruption and graft necessary to earn their freedom and end the injustice. Even though Fatima’s young daughter witnessed her self-immolation, the wheels of justice are not just, but are filled with low-lifes, frauds of all stripes, corrupt police who beat innocent victims, dishonest and dishonorable advocates encouraging neighbors to lie so they may then offer bribes that they swear will guarantee their innocence, if only they will pay. Whom shall they pay? They have no money; they can't afford to squander any of it on a chance, not a guarantee. Each player in this wicked game tells a greater lie, simply to get paid for services often worthless and never rendered. It feels very much like Kafka's trial, a hopeless situation without solution.The author, married to a native of India, spent several years investigating these residents, and she has written a beautifully crafted rendition of their lives, albeit steeped in corruption and disaster, as they simply try to survive in a nearly impossible situation. She has captured the texture of their lives and the tone of their conversations, clearly illustrating the struggle they endure daily. Although the hopelessness of their lives appears to be largely of their own making, they are unable to stop the pendulum from swinging back and forth, from disaster to disaster, as they victimize each other. She does not paint a pretty picture and consequently it is difficult to look at it objectively, without disliking many of the characters, even as you understand the motives for their reckless behavior. They are uneducated and backward, and they are unable to see the pain they cause or the disastrous end results approaching for their own future. There is often more concern for animals than people and investors in charitable projects, sponsored by the government, are often corrupt, stealing from the very charity they support and inhibiting even the lackluster efforts of the government.One can only hope that, as India prospers, the wealth and benefits will trickle down beyond the borders of the airports wealthy hotels and the neighborhoods of the rich and famous; but these people seem so blind to the plight of the masses of indigent people, it is really hard to imagine.
The author has sccomplished something extraordinary. She has gotten inside the lives of marginalized people and made us feel them as real. India is a multiverse. This book deals wirh an India we hear about and even if we see, seldom understand. This book does not condemn, justify, or explain. It reveals.
A beautifully written book. If you are looking for happy endings then this book is not for you. But if you appreciate the plight of the very poor then you will gain first hand insight into their real lives. I kept waiting for good things to happen and maybe I didn't recognize them as I compared the good that we who will never know their depth poverty experience to their perceptions as to what is good to them.
Katherine Boo has certainly done her research well. She has peeled back the ugly truth of Mumbai's forgotten sons and daughters with a vivid, graphic picture of life in a slum land. This book was an excellent read, I highly recommend it!
“[An] exquisitely accomplished first book. Novelists dream of defining characters this swiftly and beautifully, but Ms. Boo is not a novelist. She is one of those rare, deepdigging journalists who can make truth surpass fiction, a documentarian with a superb sense of human drama. She makes it very easy to forget that this book is the work of a reporter. …. Comparison to Dickens is not unwarranted.”Janet Maslin, The New York Times “A jawdropping achievement, an instant classic of narrative nonfiction…With a cinematic intensity…Boo transcends and subverts every cliché, cynical or earnest, that we harbor about Indian destitution and gazes directly into the hearts, hopes, and human promise of vibrant people whom you’ll not soon forget.”Elle “Riveting, fearlessly reported….[Beautiful Forevers] plays out like a swift, richly plotted novel. That's partly because Boo writes so damn well. But it's also because over the course of three years in India she got extraordinary access to the lives and minds of the Annawadi slum, a settlement nestled jarringly close to a shiny international airport and a row of luxury hotels. Grade: A.”Entertainment Weekly “A toughminded, inspiring, and irresistible book … Boo's extraordinary achievement is twofold. She shows us how people in the most desperate circumstances can find the resilience to hang on to their humanity. Just as importantly, she makes us care."People (four stars) “Extraordinary.”The New York Times Book Review“A shockingand rivetingportrait of life in modern India. … This is one stunning piece of narrative nonfiction … Boo’s prose is electric.”O, The Oprah Magazine “Gripping…A brilliant novelistic narration.” Wall Street Journal “Moving…. a humane, powerful and insightful book….A book of nonfiction so stellar it puts most novels to shame.” Boston Globe“A mindblowing read.”Redbook “An unforgettable true story, meticulously researched with unblinking honesty….Pure, astonishing reportage with as unbiased a lens as possible.”Christian Science Monitor “The most riveting Indian story since Slumdog Millionaireexcept hers is true.”Marie Claire“Seamless and intimate….A scrupulously true story….It’s tempting to compare [Behind the Beautiful Forevers] to a novel, but…that would hardly do it justice.” Salon “Extraordinary….moving….Like the best journeys, Boo’s book cracks open our preconceptions and constructs an abiding bridgeat once daunting and inspiringto a world we would never otherwise recognize as our own.”National Geographic Traveler “An unforgettable true story, meticulously researched with unblinking honesty….Pure, astonishing reportage with as unbiased a lens as possible.”Christian Science Monitor “Behind the Beautiful Forevers offers a rebuke to official reports and dry statistics on the global poor...Boo is one of few chroniclers providing this picture. She’s a moral force and…an artist of reverberating power.”The American Prospect“Kate Boo’s reporting is a form of kinship. Abdul and Manju and Kalu of Annawadi will not be forgotten. She leads us through their unknown world, her gift of language rising up like a delicate string of necessary lights. There are books that change the way you feel and see; this is one of them. If we receive the fiery spirit from which it was written, it ought to change much more than that.”Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family“I couldn’t put Behind the Beautiful Forevers down even when I wanted towhen the misery, abuse and filth that Boo so elegantly and understatedly describes became almost overwhelming. Her book, situated in a slum on the edge of Mumbai’s international airport, is one of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I’ve ever read. If Bollywood ever decides to do its own version of The Wire, this would be it.”Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed“A beautiful account, told through reallife stories, of the sorrows and joys, the anxieties and stamina, in the lives of the precarious and powerless in urban India whom a booming country has failed to absorb and integrate. A brilliant book that simultaneously informs, agitates, angers, inspires, and instigates.”Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics“Without question the best book yet written on contemporary India. Also, the best work of narrative nonfiction I’ve read in twentyfive years.”Ramachandra Guha, author of India After Gandhi“There is a lot to like about this book: the prodigious research that it is built on, distilled so expertly that we hardly notice how much we are being taught; the graceful and vivid prose that never calls attention to itself; and above all, the true and moving renderings of the people of the Mumbai slum called Annawadi. Garbage pickers and petty thieves, victims of gruesome injusticeMs. Boo draws us into their lives, and they do not let us go. This is a superb book.”Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains and Strength in What Remains"It might surprise you how completely enjoyable this book is, as rich and beautifully written as a novel. In the hierarchy of long form reporting, Katherine Boo is right up there.”