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Behind the Beautiful Forevers

By Melanie Yap
April 12 2013




‘Rich people fight about stupid things. Why shouldn’t poor people do the same?’ observes Rambha Jha, one of the inhabitants of Annawadi, a slum circling the edges of Mumbai’s airport. And, it is these day-to-day relationships, passions and jealousies that dominate the landscape of slum life in Pulitzer Prize winner Katherine Boo’s first book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum. Boo’s unsentimental recreation of Annawadi is both intimate and unsparing in its detail of the intricate relationships that both hold and tear at this community that lies beyond the Italianate tile “Beautiful Forever” billboards of Mumbai airport.


Boo spent over three years visiting Annawadi, working with translators to interview and observe the host of individuals and families whose lives are so vividly pieced together in her first novel. The result is a highly readable and thought provoking account of, in Boo’s words, Mumbai’s “profound and juxtaposed inequality”.


Boo’s re-telling centers around the young Muslim garbage trader Abdul Husain and his family and friends. Abdul quietly works day in, day out, sorting out garbage for recycling.  It’s these expert sorting skills that feed his family’s growing mobility amongst the slum dwellers of Annawadi. But, as Boo shows in her skillful narrative, for those living in poverty, every step up comes with unforeseen travails.


For Abdul’s family, it’s their decision to improve their house that ignites the jealousy of their one-legged neighbor, Fatimah, who susequently sets herself alight in a bid for attention. It is an act of self-destruction that ends with Abdul and his father falsely accused of Fatimah’s murder. This accusation is fed by a cast of characters, from the police to neighbours, who each see the upcoming hearing as an opportunity to get ahead.


Central to this community is Asha, who works for the Shiv Sena, a right-wing political party. It’s Asha to whom Annawadians come for loans, to settle disputes and to negotiate the outside world. Asha is however motivated by her own ambition to become the next slumlord. It is the way in which Asha navigates this world of political figures, donors and businessmen that really shines a light on the infrastructure of opportunity and incentives that exists in impoverished communities like Annawadi.


Boo brings a fiction-like quality to her writing, as she reports the lives of the impoverished millions who inhabit the slums of India. Despite this, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is never sentimental or overly wrought. Instead, Boo retells the hopes, the hopelessness, the jealousies, the fights and the deaths with a ‘matter of factness’ that echoes those who live it, those inured to suffering.


Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum is available in paperback from Foyles and your local independent bookshop, priced at £6.99. A Kindle version is also available, priced at £4.99.

Rating 5/5


Other recommendations:

Slum Child by by Bina Shah

Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga

Poor Little Rich Slum by Rashmi Bansal

Melanie Yap



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