One-Minute Book Reviews

November 18, 2012

‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers,’ 2012 National Book Award Winner

A Mumbai slum dweller falls into a judicial Bermuda triangle after a neighbor frames him for a crime

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. By Katherine Boo. Random House, 256 pp., $27

By Janice Harayda

In the United States, the word “corruption” has only negative connotations. But in India, Katherine Boo observes wryly, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty.

Boo doesn’t endorse that reality but suggests why it endures in this portrait of Annawadi, a slum of 3,000 people packed into 335 huts in the shadow of a sparkling blue-glass Hyatt near the Mumbai airport. The residents can’t count on improving their lives through education, because many public schools are shams, run by teenagers or unqualified teachers who bribed officials to get their jobs. Without education, slum dwellers are shut out of jobs, particularly if they are Muslims or low-born Hindus.

One of Boo’s sources who prospered against the odds was the slum boss Asha Waghekar, who traded sex with police officers for their willingness to fix cases of residents who bribed her to intercede. But Asha’s intervention helped little after an embittered woman with a deformed leg set herself on fire. Before she died, Fatima the One-Leg implicated three neighbors in her death: Karam Husain and his daughter Kehkashan and son Abdul, who supported the family by working as a garbage trader. The police learned quickly that the Husains were innocent but jailed them, anyway, hoping to extort payoffs for favorable treatment from their relatives. A judge absolved Karam and Kekashan of guilt, but Abdul fell into a judicial Bermuda triangle.

Boo finds the main narrative thread for her book in Abdul’s story and uses it to offer a much starker view of poverty than international relief agencies typically do in their pictures of hollow-eyed children and their assurances that pennies a day can change lives. She shows how corruption and destitution go hand-in-hand to a degree that may keep aid from reaching its intended recipients at all. In Annawadi, a government-sponsored self-help group for poor women foundered when Asha, the slum boss, siphoned off money from the program and lent it at usurious rates to destitute residents excluded from the program.

As she develops this bleak picture, Boo shows the exceptional courage and gift for reporting that helped her win a Pulitzer Prize at the Washington Post before she joined the staff of The New Yorker. She uses, less successfully, some of the techniques of creative nonfiction, such as claiming access to her subjects’ thoughts and submerging her voice and point of view in theirs. At times Boo tries to give the flavor of her slum-dwellers’ speech without quoting it directly by adopting their language: She uses “bitty” for small, and she writes of a eunuch whose “legs became slithery things” when he danced and of lake that “magicked into a thick mat of water-hyacinth weed.” Such language is more likely to come from from children or teenagers than from a writer for The New Yorker  and clashes with that of other passages in which Boo is clearly writing in her voice. Often she doesn’t identify the sources for questionable details and, as the New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted, appears not to have interviewed people whose version of events might have differed from that of her subjects.

Even so, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a welcome complement – and, in some ways, an antidote – to the brutal but ultimately romanticized portrait of India in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. “Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation – the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life,” Boo writes. “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. In India, a land of few assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted problem-solvers.”

Boo makes clear that among the Mumbai poor, instability does foster ingenuity, but it can also foster corruption – legal, moral, and political – among those who see no other way to improve their lives. Over time, Boo notes, “the lack of a link between effort and result could be debilitating.” One Annawadi girl told her: “We try so many things, but the world doesn’t seem to move in our favor.” The paradox of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is that it leaves you with little hope that things will change even as it persuades you that more books like this one might set changes in motion.

Best line: No. 1: “Food wasn’t one of the amenities at Cooper, the 500-bed hospital on which millions of poor people depended. Nor was medicine. ‘Out of stock today’ was the nurses’ official explanation. Plundered and resold out of supply cabinets was an unofficial one. What patients needed, families had to buy on the street and bring in.” No. 2: “As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha had placed here hopes; and education. Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition.”

Worst line: No. 1: “Asha clucked.” No. 2 “She’d started to be treated as a mattering person.”

Published: February 2012

Furthermore: The New Delhi bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal finds “sloppiness,” “caricaturing” Indians and other defects in “The Letdown of ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’,” which argues that Boo wrote a good, not great, book.

Reading group guide: A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to Behind the Beautiful Forevers appeared on One-Minute Book Reviews on Nov. 18, 2012, in the post that preceded this one.

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

A Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guide to ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ – Discussion Questions for Book Clubs and Others

Behind the Beautiful Forevers:
Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo
Source: One-Minute Book Reviews
http://www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com

This guide for reading groups and others was not authorized or approved by the author, publisher or agent for the book. It is copyrighted by Janice Harayda and is only for your personal use. Its sale or reproduction is illegal except by public libraries, which may make copies for use in their in-house reading programs. Other reading groups that would like to use this guide should link to it or check the “Contact” page on One-Minute Book Reviews to learn how to request permission to reproduce it.

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?

Extras:
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?

Vital statistics:
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.

Publishers’ reading group guides are marketing tools designed to sell books. They typically encourage cheerleading instead of a lively discussion of the merits or demerits of an author’s work. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides are an alternative to publishers’ guides and are intended to give books a fuller context and to promote a more stimulating conversation about them.

One-Minute Book Reviews does not accept free books from editors, publishers or authors, and all reviews and guides offer an independent evaluation of books. Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides appear frequently but not on a regular schedule. To avoid missing them, please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed.

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.
www.janiceharayda.com

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