Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
Combats one-dimensional depictions of life in Indian slums
The “Indian slum” has become a trope in the popular Western imagination, often portrayed as an annoyance or eyesore, or else as a site of unspeakable misery and abjection. In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo combats these one-dimensional depictions with her empathic story of Annawadi, a slum on the outskirts of Mumbai’s international airport. Boo spent four years in Annawadi, getting to know its residents and their routines, their jobs, their money troubles, their inter-familial tensions and their hopes for the future. We meet Abdul, a seasoned teenage trash-sorter to whom young trash-pickers come to sell their scavenged goods; Manju, the first girl in Annawadi to go to college; and Fatima, a promiscuous, disabled woman known as the “one leg.” As Boo explains in her erudite afterword, in the current state of global capitalism the very poor frequently view themselves in competition with their neighbors for limited resources, and for the elusive means to “get ahead.” We see this play out in Annawadi, as Manju’s mother, Asha, strives to ingratiate herself to corrupt slumlords in order to become a corrupt slumlord herself, and as Fatima’s jealousy of Abdul’s family’s relative wealth leads to a tragedy that irremediably affects them all. We also see moments of friendship, of collaboration, of celebration, and of quiet contemplation. Read expertly by Sunil Malhotra, Boo’s nonfiction account of the lives of Annawadians reads like a novel. And, as in the best novels, Boo dignifies her “characters” with the opportunity to be as complex, multi-dimensional, and ever-changing as they are in real life.