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

Land of Nams: living in Johannesburg, exploring the world, documenting the things I love

Every once in a while I read a nonfiction book that blows my mind- one that is engaging as it is informative and immaculately researched. Some examples include Common Ground by J. Anthony Lukas about busing and integration in Boston in the 1960s, and Ghost Wars by Steve Coll about Afghanistan and CIA involvement precluding Bin Laden. Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” while not as tome-like as the previous two, ranks in this category.

India is the country where I was born and where my family comes from. As anyone who has been there knows, the people, the poverty, the pollution, the dust, the noise all hit your senses at the same time, the juxtaposition of extreme poverty and extreme wealth fly screaming into your face. When I was little I remember being distraught that other girls my age could be kitchen maids at my own grandparents’ house or so poor they were literally sitting in shit in a slum as we drove past them. Unfortunately as I grew up and came back on many subsequent visits my horror eventually turned into acceptance. In India you quickly learn that some people are born lucky and some are not.

Which brings me to Katherine Boo. She is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, who doesn’t speak Hindi or Urdu. She researched this beautifully written book about a very run-of-the-mill slum surrounding Mumbai’s international airport called Annawadi with the help of three translators. Ms. Boo doesn’t judge or prescribe (thought I certainly wouldn’t mind if she would do some prescribing), just paints the story of 3 slum-dwelling families over the course of 3 years. While India experiences previously unknown growth there are many who are being left behind, and their stories are never told in the giddy articles about the exciting upward mobility of the middle class. Ms. Boo shows us a world that we know very little about. Often books about India or anywhere that there is extreme poverty are so eye roll inducing, (see: Maximum City, Three Cups of Tea). This humble vignette about the struggle of families trying to claw their way out of poverty is one you simply should not miss.

And while P prefers footnotes with reporting notes, Ms. Boo has a chapter about how she did her reporting at the end of her book:

“The slumdwellers I’d already come to know in India were neither mythic nor pathetic. They were certainly not passive.  Across the country, in communities decidedly short on saviors, they were improvising, often ingeniously, in pursuit of the new economic possibilities of the twenty-first century. Official statistics offered some indication of how such families were faring. But in India, like many places in the world, including my own country, statistics about the poor sometimes have a tenuous relation to lived experience.”

I’d also like to share a quote from the New York Times review of her book:

You wonder, intermittently, about the book’s omniscient narrator. Perhaps wisely, Boo has absented herself from her narrative. The story of how a white American journalist overcame the suspicion of her subjects (and the outright hostility of the police), or dealt with the many ethical conundrums created by close contact between the first and fourth worlds, belongs to another book. Instead of the faux-naïf explainer or the intrepid adventurer in Asian badlands, you get a reflective sensibility, subtly informing every page with previous experiences of deprivation and striving, and a gentle skepticism about ideological claims.

Get it here or download it to your ipad or kindle.

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