Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

11869272Blurb: 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.

Review: 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 believing this better world belongs to everyone?

5 out of 5 stars

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One thought on “Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

  1. […] The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (4 stars), Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld (4 stars), Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (5 stars–but never reviewed!), Cartwheel by Jennifer Dubois (4 stars), The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (4 stars), and Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (5 stars) […]

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