A review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo
I would have sworn I was listening to a novel as I followed the saga of Abdul, a “trash-picker”, and his neighbors–all of whom live in Annawadi, a slum that sits right next to the airport in Mumbai, India. But there really is an Abdul, and there really was a one-legged woman named Fatima that lived next door to him. The bare facts of their life stories–a conflict that leads to a fiery death and an unjust imprisonment–are compelling enough. But the way the story is told–with vivid descriptions of the events and thoughts of the people involved, and with their own words–brings it to life in a way that usually only seems to happen in novels.
But this isn’t fiction, it’s real, and falling in love with the characters and wanting them to succeed in finding “the full enjoy” of life comes with a price. That price is seeing how the cruel realities of life often interfere with hopes and dreams. Even Manju, the best and brightest of Annawadi’s teenagers, faces maddening obstacles as she strives to become the first Annawadian to graduate from college. She teaches the children of the slum rudimentary classes in English–but some of those children will fall prey to disease, drugs, hunger, or the violence of the street and never make it to adulthood, much less to a life outside of the slum. And all the while, the presence of the hotel and nearby airport are felt acutely by the residents, who not only take advantage of the refuse that they leave behind but also observe lavish parties and feel threatened by a possible airport expansion that could leave them without even the Annawadi slum to call home.
I highly recommend this book to all who are interested in the human condition. It is a powerful read that will inform you of the social realities of our modern world–but it will feel like you are doing nothing more than reading a novel at times. If you listen to the audiobook version like I did you also to hear it wonderfully narrated by Sunil Malhotra who does a wonderful job giving each person a distinctive and fitting voice (not to mention effortlessly saying all of those Indian words that I would trip over). Another bonus is an interview with the author on the last CD in which you get to hear more about how she conducted the extensive research it took for her to write this moving story. This would also be an excellent choice for book discussion groups who could discuss how it gives us insight on our modern world and how reading about the various struggles of the people profiled affected them. Book discussion questions and more information about Behind the Beautiful Forevers are available from the book’s website.