Behind the beautiful forevers : life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity

by Katherine Boo

Hardcover, 2011




New York : Random House, c2011.


The dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century's great, unequal cities. In this fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human. 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 fortune in the recyclable garbage of richer people. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a rural childhood, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to good times. But then, as the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed.--From publisher description.… (more)

Media reviews

Next I devoured Boo’s book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity,” which extended her probing and compassionate portrayal of poverty to India. Before becoming a journalist, I had spent nearly two years working with grass-roots groups in Mumbai slums just
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like Annawadi, the one she spent three years chronicling for the book. I’d been so upset by journalistic portrayals of these neighborhoods that I wrote an entire master’s thesis about the subject. Now, finally, here was an account that took slum residents seriously as protagonists in their own lives, without dismissing the inequality and corruption that stymied them.
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Boo, in letting go of her story, in dwelling with it relatively briefly in her book's 250 pages (in contrast to the years she spent with the slum-dwellers), allows it to resonate with us as a small classic of contemporary writing.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jnwelch
"Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. Rather, the Annawadians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when, around the same moment as the small slum's founding, the central government embraced
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economic liberalization. The Annawadians were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism, a narrative still unfolding.

True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy). True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner. A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge. And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors. They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility."

The poverty in this slum by the Mumbai airport, depicted in Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, is staggering. Central character Abdul is able, in good times, to make eleven dollars a day by his skill in recycling the trash that is dumped near the airport. It is a competitive industry, because so many of those in poverty are scavenging and working the trash to obtain something salable, something of value. It is even possible to be killed in that competition. Others steal from the construction projects springing up due to India's new high octane economy. Some dream of advancement in society through education, but education of any use is almost impossible to obtain. While non-profit organizations take government money intended for educational purposes, they only distribute it to a favored few who typically create false records of schools that don't really exist.

And all of this is accompanied by almost unimaginable political corruption. I live in a city, Chicago, known for its persistent and hearty corruption, and Chicago politicos would be pikers in this comprehensive system. Everything that transpires in Annawadian is based on its cash potential. If you are arrested, there are the police to pay and lawyers to pay and influential community members to pay who may be able to help your cause. Your arrest itself will be based on its cash potential, not what actually occurred. If you need medical treatment, only payment will assist you in getting decent quarters and (maybe) safe medical instruments. With apologies, the kind doctor will need additional payment if you really want that necessary treatment. Your family will sell whatever it can, and get loans, to try to get you proper treatment, or to help keep you from being convicted.

The book's title derives from a concrete wall bordering the slum that bears repeated advertisements for tiles that will be "Beautiful Forever". One slum dweller dreams of having such tiles for her home, but it is clear she never will. This remarkable insider look at the underside of the miraculous juvenation of India's economy is a gripping, heart-wrenching read. Katherine Boo at the end explains the nearly four years she spent coming to know the slum's inhabitants and societal system. All names are true, all events are true. It is eye-opening, and perhaps a basis for moving forward to improvement. It could hardly be worse. What is remarkable, as the author observes, is how many of those inhabitants are striving to live good, productive lives, while stymied by every conceivable obstacle to what we take so much for granted - health, sanitary conditions, basic education, basic medical treatment, a just system for resolving disputes and crime, and so on. Boo's writing is compelling, and her book gives a clear-eyed view of a circle of Hell that not even Dante imagined, filled with innocents who never asked or deserved to be there.
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LibraryThing member richardderus
Rating: four horrfied, repulsed, politically appalled stars of five

The Book Report: I'll keep this short. Boo set out to tell the cost that average Indians are paying for the rapid rise through the capitalist ranks that their country has embarked on. She chose as her lens the small tragedy (in the
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cosmic scheme of things) of a death and subsequent court case surrounding the death in Mumbai's slum called Annawadi.

Really and truly, this is all one needs to know; names, places, details aren't going to make this any easier to pre-process. One is best advised to enter into this book with little information about the events chronicled. It simply cannot be fathomed by those of us with thirty dollars to spend on a book, with access to a free public library, with an education sufficient to read the text, with lives so easy that we possess time to pass, as opposed to needs to meet, what this story will reveal. I will not steal Boo's thunder with a fuller report.

My Review: I hate this woman's writing. It feels so chilly and so removed from the subject that I can't believe how much praise this aspect of the text has received. It's the kind of gawdawful New Journalism crapola...get in the middle of the story, get all the juice and dirt, and then spew it back at a faux-objective remove...that I associate with Norman Mailer's terrible Executioner's Song, of unlamented memory.

The story is this generation's 12 Million Black Voices. It deserves so much more than it got from its author. It is, quite simply, necessary reading for free marketeers and libertarians and their misguided, often foolishly optimistic, ilk.

THIS IS WHAT REALLY HAPPENS IN YOUR TERRIBLE, UNFORGIVING, “COMMUNITY STANDARDS” WORLD. Read it. Recognize yourselves in the unseen overclass. Your tax-o-phobic refusal to recognize your duty to your fellow human beings leads directly to this world, its injustices and cruelties, its inhumane and indifferent treatment of the innocent-of-any-crime hoi polloi.

If you don't feel deep and humiliating PERSONAL shame after reading Boo's awful story, I fear you are a sociopath.
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LibraryThing member Copperskye
The cover of Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows a child crouched on the ground, face tilted beseechingly to the sky. That, combined with the title, referring to something being forever beautiful, might lead a reader to believe that life, however bleak, will work out in this story, and everything
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will be right in the end. Beautiful forever. I don’t think I’m giving anything away if I say up front that, no, it really doesn't. This is real life, such as it is. “Beautiful forevers” refers to the ads for floor tiles that are plastered to the wall which runs along the Airport Road that separates Mumbai’s Annawadi slum from the city itself. On one side, there's an international airport, tourists, and huge luxury hotels; on the other, abject poverty, stunning cruelty, and rampant corruption. I expected the poverty. The senseless cruelty and corruption at every turn really overwhelmed me.

Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, lived among the people of Annawadi for almost four years. There is a lot of depth to this story, which loosely follows several families and young children through the economic upheaval and terrorist attacks of 2008, and the court trial of members of a local family. And, although not necessarily a beautiful forever, Boo somehow managed to end the book on a somewhat hopeful note.

This is a stunning, beautifully written piece of narrative non-fiction that is often difficult and painful to read. It almost read like fiction but had it been, it would have seemed too unbelievable. It is not the type of book I am typically drawn to, but after reading just the first few pages, I found that I couldn’t put it down. I also found that I couldn’t read anything else
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LibraryThing member Chatterbox
Several decades ago -- long before the "New India" about which Katherine Boo is writing was born, when Indira Gandhi was still running the country -- I made my first visit to India, arriving at the old international airport of Mumbai late at night. I was a teenager, and had never been outside the
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privileged nations of North America and Europe -- and now I was in a minivan, being driven to a nice hotel not far from the Taj. Outside the windows, I could see huddled buildings along the roadway, and smell something that reminded me of farmyard. I assumed that some rural Bombay residents kept their cattle or pigs or other animals in these rickety shacks. Then, a few miles later, I saw oil lamps flickering in some, and doors open on to the highway, and I realized that these were where people lived. Or rather, where they existed.

Katherine Boo's remarkable documentary book deals with life in one small sub-section of Mumbai's sprawling suburban slums near today's new international airport. The community of Annawadi, as the book begins, exists precariously near airport and several luxury hotels, screened from view by some signs advertising floor tiles that holler "Beautiful Forever". The airport and the hotels serve as a focus for the dreams of its residents -- oh, to become a waiter at the hotel! -- but also provides business opportunities for its scavengers and pragmatists. Boo tells the story of Annawadi and several of its inhabitants, following them intensively for a period of year as changes ripple through the community, which is threatened with being bulldozed.

Indirectly, and solely by heeding the facts -- what she observes and can document. She paints a picture of a city where everything is for sale. An educational diploma, if not education, can be purchased; where freedom from jail, if not true justice, can be acquired for a payment. The local police station "was not a place where victimhood was redressed and public safety held dear. It was a hectic bazaar ... and investigating ... death was not a profit-generating enterprise." India outside Annawadi may be changing, but the opportunities it creates for the slum's inhabitants aren't really leading them anywhere. Does it matter if Asha can become a slumlord? One teenager can see that new world on television, but, writes Boo, "it wasn't a place Meena knew how to get to."

Annawadi -- and, by extension, Mumbai, since perhaps half of the city's citizens life in various kinds of slums -- is a truly Darwinian world in Boo's book. As Boo intends, the reader does end up seeing that universe through the eyes of her characters, rather than through her own, as might have been the choice of other authors. (Indeed, having read recent books on modern India by Arundhati Roy -- Walking with the Comrades -- and Siddhartha Deb -- The Beautiful and the Damned -- I ended up appreciating this.) That's a decision I initially questioned, as the book felt strangely unfocused to me at first, and even slightly irritating. I jumped ahead to read the author's afterword and the Q&A for readers in a fit of exasperation at the lack of context, and in that light, went back and found finishing it was a much more straightforward and rewarding experience. (I still believe the book would be a better one with some of the afterword in a foreword, and with an epilogue that tells you what happens to her characters after she leaves them in the main narrative. Maybe there is one in the final version; I'm reading from an ER galley.)

Boo does a great job of juxtaposing the lives of the rich and the poor, her characters are vivid and compelling -- one of the downsides of her choice of narrative voice lead me to call them "her characters", because her choices sometimes make the book feel like a novel, when it is, terrifyingly enough, narrative non-fiction. Terrifyingly, because of what it implies about our world -- it reinforces the sense I have that we here in our privileged lives live atop a tiny crust of civility (yes, true, believe it or not, on a relative basis) and underneath lies a kind of desperation, organized chaos and brutal struggle of the kind seen in Annawadi. Our lives, in this globalizing world, are not the norm. The pluses of Boo's approach? The reader never sees what must have been an intensive and exhaustive research -- the narrative is simply beautifully constructed; we see through Manju's eyes her conflicted view towards her mother, we understand how a it becomes easier for the sponsors of a school to collect money for not running a school (or doing so on paper) than actually teaching. We feel empathy for someone we'd drive past and try to ignore if we went to Mumbai.

There are thousands of Abduls, Sunils, Manjus and Meeras in Mumbai alone; millions worldwide, and the wealth gap in India is no more egregious than that in other "emerging markets", or in Russia. Not to mention the widening wealth gap in Europe and North America. If that doesn't keep you awake at nights worrying, well, this won't be the kind of book you'll want to read. It's not a comfortable book, by any means, as Boo makes very clear that the endemic corruption stretches into the world of nonprofits -- when pictures have been taken for fund-raising brochures, a slum school never bothers to hold classes; Asha the slumlord distorts the intended purpose of microfinance grants to enrich her family at the expense of others, etc. Look to this book for an unflinching glimpse of reality rather than an optimistic view of the future.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
I almost feel guilty giving this book only three and a half stars. Almost. It has been much honored with awards and much praised by reviewers both professional and non-professional, and its subject matter--the hard life of the poor living in one of Mumbai's airport slums--is certainly something of
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which the world should take more note. But for a number of reasons, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, while a worthy enough book, did not quite live up to my expectations.

The first reason has more, perhaps, to do with me than with Boo's book. I have a great interest in India, it's history and culture. I have read so many books, both fiction and nonfiction, and seen so many documentaries on the subject that I didn't find much here that was new or surprising. Police and government corruption of all kinds; families killing sick or unwanted members; children digging through garbage in search of something to eat or to sell; supposedly 'free' clinics and doctors demanding bribes in return for treatment; neighbors stealing from and turning on one another; young women committing suicide rather than being forced into marriage or, once married, being burned to death in kitchen 'accidents'; children working at jobs we cannot imagine. It's awful, it's brutal. But it's the stuff on which a cadre of works about India are based, at least in part: City of Joy, Q & A (aka Slumdog Millionaire), A Fine Balance, The Death of Vishnu, documentaries like 'Born into Brothels' and National Geographic's 'The Real Slumdogs' and more.

That's not to say that we shouldn't care; but it gets frustrating to read about these problems over and over without knowing what exactly one can do about them. Eighty years ago, it was easy to blame all the corruption and poverty and prejudice on the usurping British; once they were gone, the Hindus blamed it on the Muslims, the Muslims blamed the Hindus, and the Sikhs, Christians, and others got caught in the crossfire. So who or what is to blame today, in an increasingly wealthy India, and how can the ongoing problems of unimaginable poverty be solved? As another LT reviewer points out, Boo seems to want us to do something--but what? In the end, she wants us to be uplifted by the undaunted hope of some of Anawadi's young inhabitants. But it's hard to imagine that hope being sustained in a world where the police beat innocent children wrongfully accused of crimes and take bribes to stop the beatings; where a father pours a pot of boiling lentils on a sick child for whom he can't afford medical treatment; where a woman lights herself on fire, hoping to survive and blame it on her neighbors in hope of both petty revenge and financial restitution; where a boy drinks rat poison because he believes his future holds nothing but either being killed by gang members who know that he witnessed a murder or being beaten to death by the police who questioned him about that murder and covered it up; where a woman starts an organization to make small business loans to other poor women, then takes the funds to buy herself jewelry.

To some extent, I felt that Boo was piling on the horrors so thickly that it was difficult to stay focused on the main individuals whose stories she was telling. At other times, the stories were so familiar that I felt I was reading fiction. The narrative jumps around quite a bit, from character to character and back and forth in time, and with the large number of persons involved, it is easy to get lost and blur them all together. And that also makes it hard to stay focused on or empathize strongly with any one character. This is a problem, because what, I think, Boo hopes to achieve is to put a face on each of the suffering poor, not to lump them into the anonymous 'teeming masses'.

So overall, would I recommend this book? Despite the comments above, yes, perhaps especially to those who haven't read, seen or heard much about the lives of India's slum dwellers. It's hard for Americans and others in more generally prosperous countries to imagine their world, but knowing about it does make one grateful for what we have.

And leaves us wishing we knew what we could do to help them to help themselves.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
If I hadn’t won this book as an ER offering, I would probably read it anyway, as it’s written in the style of my new favorite genre, Narrative Non-Fiction. Annawadi is a crude slum on the outskirts of the airport in Mumbai, India. While the city is booming the resurgence passes these residents
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by. This is what poverty looks like when there are no government programs available to help the impoverished.

The author is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who, previously had done in depth stories about the poor in the U.S. as a staff writer for the New Yorker among other publications and is quite adept at drawing the reader into the lives of the people she uses to tell the story of life in the Annawadi slums. This is how the book maintains its “narrative” style. The dialogue and other narrative features that are predominant in the book were enabled by the author’s copious notes, tape recorded conversations, videotaped footage, and official documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The result is a smooth account, told by the people living this miserable life.

And miserable and heartbreaking it is. Abdul is a teenager who is trying to support his parents and eight siblings doing the only job available to him: collecting recyclables around the airport, which enables him to be able to maintain the hut the family is crowded into under deplorable conditions. Asha is a woman working her way up the political ladder in her area, very rare for a woman in a society where women have very few rights and are treated dreadfully by men. Asha’s daughter, Manju, is a college student and teacher of young children, who wants to be the first woman college graduate from Annawadi. Through these two families we meet other friends and relatives, each adding to the story of those on the invisible margins of society in India.

The corruption in India isn’t limited to the police. That’s a given. But the poorest of the poor have to be able to bribe on a regular basis. When the one-legged woman next door ends up in the hospital after self-immolation, they discover that the nurses, who want no contact with patients, ask the patients’ families to supply medication, and the doctors need to be bribed to care for patients. The courts require a bribe to conduct a speedy (fast-track court) trial. But even with that, if sufficient bribery hasn’t taken place, the results can be uncertain.

Unfortunately, the publisher asks that no quotations be used from the book until after it’s published in February. That would have helped me tremendously in illustrating the ways in which the author relates the story in glorious prose while, at the same time, not letting her language stand out. It’s the people’s story and their words need to be the ones to shine. Boo is tremendously clever at achieving this.

This is an unforgettable book, presenting an intimate portrait of the desperate lives being lived in the shadow of luxury hotels. As India’s most vibrant city continues its meteoric rise the slum-dwellers find themselves being left further and further behind.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
This is a book that I received for Early Reviewers. Since winning it, I've seen the book mentioned on several possible bests of 2012 lists so I was excited to read it. I wasn't disappointed, though I was highly disturbed by the book. Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has
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focused on poverty in the U.S. In this book, she shifts her focus to India, specifically a slum called Annawadi outside of the Mumbai airport. In an attempt to learn about the lives of these Indians, she spends from November 2007 until March of 2011 talking to, observing, and recording these people. In this book, she chooses a few of the people she met to focus on and details their lives through this time period. It is not pretty. Everything from sleeping on garbage, festering rat bites on malnourished children, and suicides by rat poison and burning. Difficult concepts to contemplate.

But possibly the most disturbing aspects of this book were the pervasive cultural notions that bring everyone in the book down. One is the level of corruption in every aspect of life. The author states that for the poor in India, corruption is seen as a way to get a head - probably the only way. For that reason they welcome it, until it turns around on them as it does for several people in the book. The second is the thought that the unpredictability of life in India (never knowing if electricity will work or water will turn on) produces ingenuity. She states that people believe this, but then the lack of good results from hard work (usually due to all the corruption) erodes any malleability. The third thought is not unique to India. Boo says it exists in the U.S., South America, Nairobi, etc. This is that instead of banding together and demanding their rights and a better existence, the poor have turned on each other instead, and are stomping over each other in a frantic (and usually unsuccessful) effort to get ahead.

Obviously, this is all horribly depressing to read. I was left feeling utterly unable to effect any change. Every charity she mentions is horribly corrupt. It all seems so hopeless. The press around the book suggests a juxtaposition of happy moments and despair, but I can't really remember any happy moments. The book gives you some escape from this in the writing style. It is very narrative, and will let you believe that you are reading a novel instead of actual events for large chunks. At first this really bothered me, but I grew to appreciate it. The writing is pretty, even when the subject is very ugly. Overall, I would recommend this book, though I can't say it will be a pleasant read.
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LibraryThing member sallysvenson
A tour de force. Boo has written a work of non-fiction that reads like a novel. (Be sure to read the Author's Note at the end of the book before reading the book itself in order to fully appreciate her accomplishment.) Not at all an easy read, but those who know anything about modern India will
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recognize its truth, and those who don't will learn a great deal about this incredible but puzzling and seemingly ungovernable country. Sure to be included on all the "best books" lists of 2012 and deserves to be.
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LibraryThing member Lcanon
This book delves into the lives of the poorest of the poor in an emerging India. Squatters in a slum alongside the Mumbai airport, they live mainly by collecting and recycling trash produced by the airport and the hotels. This is also illegal, and the residents must fight for access to the trash
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from those who have the official right to recycle it. Boo concentrates on 2 families: one of skilled, and somewhat successful Muslims, one of a Hindu woman who is determined to get ahead through political connections.
What is really eye-opening about this book is not the poverty, but the incredible level of corruption that dominates everyday life. One comes away with the impression that literally nothing in India functions without graft, and those who are unable to pay it are trapped forever on the bottom. Boo notes often that efforts to improve life in the slums through education and aid from the developing world are futile because middlemen and fixers end up lining their pockets with the money. Just one example of the graft she cites: the authorities plan to raze the slum in order to expand the airport. They announce that slum residents will be moved to new apartment blocks. Immediately non-slum residents throughout Mumbai start buying up the slum housing and falsifying papers stating that they live there so they can get placed in the new apartments and sell them for a profit.
Boo does a a good job with the characters and lives she writes about. It's hard not to be outraged, sympathetic and fascinated. Because Boo removes herself from the story, putting you in the characters' heads without writing her impressions, the book seemed a little strange to me at times. (Boo explains in the afterword why she does this.) I thought of both Dickens and Zola while reading this book -- Boo does for the 21st century underclass what those writers did for their times, and like them she's a great storyteller.
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LibraryThing member WisteriaLeigh
Sixteen year old Abdul is a collector of garbage, an astute teenager who makes a success of his trade. He deals and competes for small economic gains in the Annadawi slum. Located just beyond the financial capital of Mumbai, it is owned by the Airports Authority of India, yet travelers heading
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toward the international terminal are greeted by a concrete wall of sunny yellow. A corporate slogan weaves along the wall, “Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever Beautiful Forever, yet the irony is what is just on the other side.

Abdul’s younger brother Mirchi says it best:

“Everything around us is roses, and we’re the shit in between.”
Katherine Boo reports the uncomfortable truth that several families must endure in the Undercity. The three thousand residents belong to all castes and sub-castes, Muslims, Hindus and the untouchables. They live in 335 huts that sit atop a landscape of slushy waste, toxic debris, unimaginable combinations of obnoxious odors, offal and filth laden with disease. Despite the pervasive dangers and keen competition, Abdul has acquired more than most, and his family’s future appears to be on the rise, but will this trend continue?

Survival is key with the hope that one day life will be better. Abdul has a theory for prosperity that speaks more to the randomness of his fate.

“It seemed to him fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught.”

Katherine Boo details everyday life, the repulsiveness, squirmy truth and the desperation of those who live in the Mumbai Undercity. She shares what she has witnessed in her book as she follows the lives of several families. Imagine living in this environment, let alone having to pay rent to a slumlord who oversees the residents small space carved out amid the detritus. The author manages to show the sorrowful sadness that divides the squalor of slum against the economic gains India has acquired as part of our borderless global community. She is sensitive and frank with objectivity, although I imagine her subjectivity was hard to curtail. Without hiding behind the airport wall of shining yellow, Katherine Boo reveals the inhumanity and suffering that the people endure and despite the odds, somehow survive. Katherine Boo has received meritorious praise and notable awards, which as readers will discover, are well deserved Thanks to the author for writing an unforgettable book. BEHIND THE BEAUTIFUL FOREVERS, is a reflective book with global appeal, heartfelt and insightful with a promise to linger long after the end.


© [Wisteria Leigh] and [Bookworm's Dinner], [2013].
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LibraryThing member -Cee-
This was an excellent book. Boo has written an enlightening expose of the poverty and corruption in modern India using a tiny sliver of connected/related people living in a slum of Mumbai. It took me awhile to understand the flow of the book, but it did all come together to portray disturbing
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I recommend reading the author blurb at the back of the book before reading the body of the story. It sets the reasons, hopes, and expectations of writing this particular account. It helped me understand where this was going. Like the author, I don't just want to hear how horrible slum life is. I want to explore what hope and opportunities are available to lift up the undercities and promising individuals within. Boo tried to address this. Obviously, there is no magic cure.

"... maybe because of the boiling April sun, he thought about water and ice. Water and ice were made of the same thing. He thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He, himself, was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him...
If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from -and in his view, better than - what it was made of.
He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai's dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals. For self interested reasons, one of the ideals he most wanted to have was a belief in the possiblity of justice...
He wanted to be recognized as better than the dirty water in which he lived. He wanted a verdict of ice."

Recommended reading.
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LibraryThing member Opinionated
A hugely readable slice of reportage about 4 years in the Annawadi slum just outside Mumbai airport. Katherine Boo is careful not to patronise her subjects, or to pity them; most of her characters are resourceful, hard working and entirely lacking in self pity. Mostly they expect no help and no
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justice and they are rarely disappointed. Although conditions are extremely harsh, most Annawadis are aware they could be very much worse. Live in a cramped small hut? You could be on the pavement. Living in a filthy slum? You could be back in your rural village.

As others have mentioned its hard not be moved by the entrepreunerial and resilient spirit of the slum dwellers, and hard not be be profoundly depressed, not so much by the poverty but by the relentless grinding corruption at every level of authority. The slum dwellers need to bribe police not to victimise them, doctors to treat them, local fixers to intercede for them at every level of officialdom. And hard not to be incensed at the fate of those who decide suicide, through drinking rat poison, to be a better way out
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LibraryThing member arubabookwoman
This book tracks the lives and fortunes of the slum-dwellers of Annawadi, a collection of raggle-taggle hovels near the Mubai airport and its surrounding luxury hotels. It focuses on several families, including the Husains and their son Abdul, garbage/recycle buyers, and Asha, community "fixer"
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(aka "bribe taker") and her beautiful daughter Manju who may become the first female Annawadi college graduate, as well as many, many of the scavengers and other inhabitants.

As the book opens, Fatima, the Husain's neighbor, has set herself on fire after an altercation with the Husains, and Abdul, his father, and his sister are arrested and jailed, charged with "instigating" Fatima's actions. Over the years covered in this book, there are many other deaths--suicide by rat poison is common--and TB, hunger, and other health problems are rampant. Generally, these tragedies and others are met with shrug, and life goes on. This is a heart-rending book, and what is almost as tragic as the suicides, deaths, poverty, hardships, and despair, is the ubiquitous corruption. Nothing gets done without payments to the unscrupulous, and, it seems, almost everyone is unscrupulous--policemen, teachers, government officials, employers of all ilks.

At one point Abdul comments that people are all alike, like water is all alike, but sometimes water is ice, and Abdul says, he wants to be ice. Boo states that her purpose in writing the book was to explore how children intent on being ice become dirty water.

This was an extraordinary book, and will long be on my mind. I'm only sorry I waited so long to read it.

Highly recommended.

4 1/2 stars
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LibraryThing member Crazymamie
This is a beautifully written work of narrative nonfiction that reads like a novel. Katherine Boo spent three years researching this book in Annawadi, a slum located behind the international airport in Mumbai, India. The author's notes at the end of the book describe just how meticulous her
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research for this project was and give valuable insight into the author's reasons for writing it.

The book itself follows several different families living in the slum which has become a melting pot of Hindu and Muslim, old India and modern India, dreams and despair. The struggle for everyday existence is about more than survival; it is about defining humanity. There is Abdul, a teenage Muslim boy who sorts garbage and is burdened with being his family's chief source of income. There is Asha, a Hindu mother and kindergarten teacher, who understands that there is power to be had by manipulating the corruption that is rampant in India. Asha's daughter, Manju, dreams of graduating from college and choosing her own destiny. And Fatima, a woman with only one leg whose bitter heart will change everything. The stories that unfold are heartbreaking and tragic, and yet they are stories that need to be told, that need to be heard in order to illustrate that before anything else we are all human.

"Water and ice were made of the same thing. He (Abdul) thought most people were made of the same thing, too. He himself was probably little different, constitutionally, from the cynical, corrupt people around him-the police officers and the special executive officer and the morgue doctor who fixed Kalu's death. If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from - and in his view, better than - what it was made of. He wanted to be better than what he was made of. In Mumbai's dirty water, he wanted to be ice. He wanted to have ideals. For self-interested reasons, one of the ideals he most wanted to have was a belief in the possibility of justice."
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LibraryThing member Librarianlacey
Reads like fiction; hurts like truth.
LibraryThing member mojomomma
Very chilling and sobering look at life in a Mumbai slum, focusing on one Muslim family as they deal with the every day ordeal of living and trying to get ahead at the turn of the 21st century. The level or corruption that this family encounters in their everyday life is harrowing, not to mention
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the dirt, sewage, disease, rats, garbage, hunger, and thirst. If the movie Slumdog Millionaire was oddly fascinating to you, you'll enjoy this book.
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LibraryThing member snail49
Are honesty and decency a prerogative of the middle and upper classes? The struggle for the peopleof Annawadi to get out of the slums and better themselves is made almost impossible by the amount of corruption in the system. To survive they have to be corrupt themselves. A horrifying book indeed .
LibraryThing member DaptoLibrary
This documentary style story of the Mumbai slum Annawadi was a great catalyst for our club’s thoughts on everything to do with poverty, corruption, cultural diversity and India’s caste system. Everyone was appalled by the life these people were forced to live, but a few commented on the lack of
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passion invoked by the writing style. This we all put down to the author’s documentary experience and believe she was able to give an honest, thought provoking account that was not swayed by, or biased with, personal emotion.
Ours is a well read group but we were all still amazed by the degree of corruption within India’s official systems. And although we are all aware, to a certain degree that this went on, Boo was able to give us a clear and heart-wrenching picture of what such fraud does to these poor communities.
Through our discussion we were able to come to some realisations though. The cultural and religious boundaries are deeply set and the complex caste system quite outside of our own understanding. So taking these and our own country’s faux pas in certain cultural areas into consideration, we felt that the book was an educational, informative and at times humorous look at a society replete with desperation but also hope.
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LibraryThing member agnesmack
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a creative non-fiction book written by Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Katherine Boo. She spent 3 years living amongst some of the world's most forgotten people in a Mumbai slum. This book is a novelized version of the things she saw and experienced.

The stories she
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told were haunting, and more than once I had to take a break in my reading to wipe away the tears. I won't soon forget the people in this book, or the fact that they're not just characters. These are their actual lives, and their own words are used to describe those lives.

I hesitate to recommend this book only because it was just overwhelmingly sad. There were virtually no bright moments in these people's lives, and certainly nothing has changed in the months since she wrote it. These are stories that need to be heard, but I know most people would rather turn away.
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LibraryThing member olevia
You're there with her in the slums. No judgments passed. It's all you can ask. Thank you, Ms. Boo.
LibraryThing member BridgetMary
Certainly one of the most powerfully moving books I have read all year, Boo's nonfiction piece grants the reader a haunting glimpse into the realities of everyday life in a Mumbai slum. The individual stories detailed by Boo stay with you for a very long time and make you feel completely helpless.
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I enjoyed Boo's writing style in that she adopted the persona of the individuals she was writing about. It was almost like a fictional novel in a way, with the stories being told from different characters' perspectives. Unfortunately, these stories are all too real.
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LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
Long ago when I read A Fine Balance I said I would never read another completely depressing book about financial and political oppression in India, yet I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers which is every bit as depressing and every bit as wonderful. To make matters worse, Katherine Boo says the
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people and situations are all real. I can see why people think that oppressed groups aren't quite human, don't feel things as deeply as the rest of us do. We can't understand how we could ever continue to live in such situations, though suicide rates among the impoverished show they feel the same way. I don't see how she could stand the research, but it's a book well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
Stunning, honest, inspiring, heartbreaking. I read a few comments that complained that this was too upsetting. This is not a novel people! It is sad because the escalating wealth of the few in India has made life completely untenable for the majority of India's urban dwellers. These are people who
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were already living a life too horrible for most of us to get our brains around. Also, this story should have some resonance for Americans (on a far less horrifying scale) as the divide between rich and poor widens.

I have spent quite a bit of time in Mumbai, and I have never felt the love of place that seems to engulf many others. Though I am more often repelled than enamored by the city, I am endlessly and undeniably fascinated. I have read a lot over the years trying to understand urban India better, and this is the single best non-fiction book on India I have read. A must read.
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LibraryThing member bnbookgirl
I am not a fan of the writing style in this book. It seems to me it could of been half the length and still told the story. WAY to much info was included that was not neccessary to the story. It is most definately a sad narrative and an atrocity to human life. I found it interesting that there are
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$800 night hotel rooms and a beautiful airport and this garbage heap of a slum in such close proximity. I couldn't find any character that I could really become totally immersed in while the description of the living conditions truely came to life. I know I will not read another book on India as they seem to carry this same tone, maybe I just pick the wrong ones. Boo seems to be a remarkable reporter and is willing to go the length to tell the story and I certainly applaud that aspect. It just wasn't for me.
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LibraryThing member actonbell
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, takes place in Annawadi, a slum cobbled together and located across the road from an international airport and a luxury hotel. Here, in Boo's narrative nonfictional account, we meet people who must struggle for basic sustenance, live the hardest of
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lives, but yet are hopeful of better things in the future.

As this story unfolds, we get to know several characters and learn of their aspirations. Most of them are very hard-working and goal-oriented, performing the kind of work most of us couldn't imagine. For instance, there are many teenaged boys in Annawadi who are scavengers, collecting and sometimes stealing trash that can be recycled. One of the boys we will follow is Abdul, who is a step higher than a scavenger--he appraises, sorts, and buys the trash the scavengers bring in, so he can turn around and sell the items to a recycling plant. Abdul is actually able to support his family this way.

Unfortunately, unforeseeable trouble lies ahead of Abdul and his family, dashing what was their most prominent dream, and this tragic, distressful subplot is a case study in judicial corruption and greed. We also follow the scavengers through their difficult and dangerous days, and watch as they form alliances and "sort-of" friendships. These boys are endearing and vulnerable, leading such precarious lives.

People die, young and old, in sad ways--those who lose hope by suicide (especially young women), some of awful infections and illness, while still others are murdered or die in accidents. Few of these deaths are deemed worthy of investigation.

How does one go on when life offers so little and the hope of anything better is so slight and can be blown away so easily? Even Asha, Annawadi's most ambitious woman, with her political dreams and the very real hope of having a college-educated daughter, has sold her soul, debased herself, and become involved in the corruption herself, but may never get out of Annawadi.

Abdul and Asha may be polar opposites in most ways, but they are both survivors. This is a fascinating study of life in a desperate place that I would recommend to absolutely anyone.
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