Behind the Beautiful Forevers:
Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
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Katherine Boo won the 2012 National Book Award for nonfiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a portrait of a Mumbai slum in which poverty and corruption go hand in hand. She tells the true story of Abdul Husain, a young garbage trader framed for the death of an embittered neighbor, and the rigged judicial system he faced. In doing so she challenges the myth that India’s rapid rise derives in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life. “In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen next when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch,” Boo writes. “In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.” Boo shows that if instability can foster ingenuity, it can also heighten despair in people whose efforts to improve their lives yield few results. A resident of Annawadi summed up a theme of the book when she said: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.”
10 Discussion Questions for Behind the Beautiful Forevers:
1. If you had been one of the National Book Awards judges, what arguments would you have made for or against giving a prize to this book?
2. This book tells the linked stories of residents of the Annawadi slum, including the Husain family; the slum boss, Asha Waghekar, and her daughter Manju; and Abdul Husain’s friend Sunil. Which people did you find most and least memorable? Why?
3. Janet Maslin praised Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the New York Times but had one reservation: She said that Boo “writes about so many scavenging kids, boisterously quarrelsome families and corrupt officials that the book is too crowded” (although she added that the Mumbai setting justified the density). Were you able to keep the characters straight easily? Or did you have to go back and reread parts to do that? If you had been the editor of this book, would you have suggested any changes?
4. Boo cuts back and forth between the stories of people she writes about, a technique that can slow a book down by breaking its momentum. Did this one maintain a pace that kept you reading? What held your attention?
5. Many of the events in this book are harrowing, such as the suicide of Manju’s friend Meena, a Dalit (the name that replaced old “untouchable”). Meena drank rat poison after being repeatedly beaten for offenses such as refusing to make her brother an omelet, and her parents blamed “Manju’s modern influence” for their daughter’s death. Which events did the book portray most vividly or effectively?
6. Boo has said in interviews that the big question she wanted to explore in this book was, in an age of globalization, “Who gets out of poverty, and why?” What is her answer?
7. Behind the Beautiful Forevers implicitly faults people like Sister Paulette, a local nun who runs an orphanage, for actions such as giving the children ice cream only when newspaper photographers visit. The New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted that Boo appears not to give the nun a chance to respond to this accusation as the journalistic ideals of fairness and balance usually require. Did Boo portray Sister Paulette fairly? What about other authority figures, such as the Mumbai police?
8. Boo says that the word “corruption” has only negative connotations in Western nations. But in India, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty. Is Boo endorsing this reality? If not, what position does she seem to take on the rampant corruption she describes?
9. At the end of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Abdul’s legal case remains unresolved. Did Boo give the book a satisfying ending despite the uncertainty about his face? Why?
10. Boo is clearly trying at times to merge her voice and point of view with that of her sources. For example, at times she uses the word “bitty” for small, and she speaks of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced, language you would be more likely to hear from children or teenagers than from a staff writer for The New Yorker. In other places, she is clearly writing in her own adult voice. How well did her approach work?
1. If you have seen the movie Slumdog Millionaire, what image of Indian slums did you get from the film? Did this book change it? Does Behind the Beautiful Forevers complement or clash with Slumdog Millionaire?
2. You may have seen other movies about modern India, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. If so, what did you learn from Behind the Beautiful Forevers that you didn’t learn from those films?
3. Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows poverty in a different light than do many international relief organizations. These groups often suggest that small donations, such as “pennies a day,” can change a child’s life. Did this book change your view of such promises? Would you be more or less likely to contribute to a charity that helped Mumbai slum children after reading this book?
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27. Published: February 2012.
A review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on [Date TK] in the post that directly preceded this review.
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Janice Harayda is a novelist and award-winning critic who has been the book columnist for Glamour, book editor of the Plain Dealer and a vice-president of the National Book Critics Circle. You can also follow her on Twitter, where she writes about books and often comments on book clubs, by clicking on the “Follow” button in the sidebar on this page.
© 2011 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.