Back in 2012, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Katherine Boo published her first book, a nonfiction book called Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, and it won the National Book Award. That same year, my son and his friends started college, and their new school, the University of Delaware, selected Boo’s award-winning book as its All-Freshmen-Reads book. With all of that – plus a lot more accolades and publicity – I wanted to read Boo’s book for myself, but it’s taken me four years to finally get to it. I suggested it for one of my book groups, and we discussed it last night. I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this compelling, fascinating, powerful story of life in an Indian slum.
Although it is entirely nonfiction, Boo has written her book like a novel, introducing “characters” (who are real people) and following their lives through some incredible events that rocked their community. That community is Annawadi, a ramshackle shantytown with a sewage lake, built by squatters within sight of Mumbai’s big international airport. This real-life Mumbai slum houses 3,000 men, women, and children in 335 tiny, hand-built huts, people living from hand to mouth, literally, trying each day to earn enough money to feed their families.
As the book opens, Abdul, a sixteen-year old boy who earns his living – and supports his 11-person family – by collecting trash and sorting it for recycling, is hiding in the small shed where he runs his trash business. The police are coming for his father and will be looking for him, too, for a crime that neither of them committed. His mother, Zehrunisa, has urged him to hide, while his father, sick with TB, gives himself up to the police. This strategy will allow the family’s main income-earner to remain free for a little while longer. Abdul’s next-younger brother, Mirchi, has bigger dreams than sorting garbage. He still goes to school (their father recently told Abdul, “you didn’t have the mind for school anyway”) and hopes to get a job with a uniform in one of the luxury hotels near Annawadi.
There are many other young people living in close proximity in Annawadi’s huts. There is 15-year old Meena, who dreams of freedom; she’s been promised in an arranged marriage she doesn’t want. Little Sunil, just twelve years old, yearns for a “career” like Abdul’s – he wants to earn enough money so that he can finally stop being hungry all the time and start growing. Manju, a young woman, is an unusual citizen of the slum. She is attending college, with aspirations to be the very first female college graduate from Annawadi. When she isn’t studying herself, she leads a rudimentary school in her family’s hut, teaching eager young children – often teaching them the same things she herself is studying.
Manju’s mother, Asha, has her own aspirations, to both support her intelligent daughter and to boost their family’s income and position. Asha is interested in politics. Currently, she works unofficially for the Corporator, the elected official whose precinct includes Annawadi. She acts as his go-between on the ground, listening to the complaints of residents and trying to resolve them. She hopes to one day be the unofficial slumlord of Annawadi, and from there, move ahead in politics, thus moving her family into the middle-class on the backs of her neighbors.
The One-Leg is another resident of the slum, who rents a tiny room from Abdul’s family with her husband and two small children. Born disabled, her given name is Sita, but no one calls her that. They all call her the One-Leg, and she tries to prove she is worthy and attractive by making herself up and picking up men while she limps around on her crutches. There are no secrets in this community, with tiny huts crammed together, and thin walls between families (the lucky ones have walls; some separate their living spaces with sheets).
Boo introduces the reader to each of these people – and more – while also telling their stories: where they came from, their families, how they scrape by and try to support themselves. Meanwhile, the book starts with Abdul’s father’s arrest and then traces that event back to its origins and follows it through to what happens to each of the people involved. This nonfiction book reads so much like a gripping novel that I had to keep reminding myself while reading that these were real stories and real people. The author is completely absent from the book; it’s not about her experiences in Annawadi but about the residents there.
In the course of getting to know these individuals and following their lives, Boo naturally introduces (through the stories, not through any explanations of her own) issues of economics, politics, criminal justice (or lack thereof), and corruption. Oh, the corruption! It is absolutely unthinkable how corrupt systems are in India (and especially for these people with little money) – bribes are needed to get adequate medical attention, to get decent treatment from the police (I can’t say “fair treatment” because it’s all about who bribes more), and to participate in the justice system, such as it is. For those fed up with American or European politics who think all politicians are corrupt, wait till you hear what’s going on in India!
You may be thinking that this all sounds rather depressing…and certainly, it can be depressing to read about such extreme poverty. But this book isn’t about economics or politics; it’s about people. Boo lets us into the intimate details of these people’s lives, and we get to know them, as we would the characters in a great novel. The people living in Annawadi are not hopeless; in fact, they all have hopes, dreams, and aspirations. The children laugh, play, and joke just as children do all over the world. She shows us that poverty is not just a concept and that each of these people is an individual with their own story. In fact, the author said inan interview that she wants the reader to see hope on every page. Here she explains her goal in writing the book:
“Sunil and Sonu have tough, tough lives but if a reader comes away from this book thinking of them only as pathetic socioeconomic specimens I’ll have failed as a writer. They’re cool, interesting kids, and I want the reader to sense that, too. Because we can talk all we want about how corruption or indifference robs people of opportunity–of the promise our societies squander–but if we don’t really grasp the intelligences of those who are being denied, we’re not going to grasp the potential that’s being lost.”
And that is what is at the heart of this book – Boo puts real people, real faces, real hopes and dreams onto the sometimes abstract concept of poverty. With Annawadi, in particular, the reader clearly sees the absurd juxtaposition of the 5-star hotels and international airport right up against this world of raw sewage, little clean water, and scarce food. She takes the reader deep inside someplace that most of us have never been.
My book group had some great in-depth discussions last night about Behind the Beautiful Forevers. There is so much to talk about here, and the stories in the book provide insights into many different aspects of poverty and today’s world. We discussed that the lessons learned from this book are just as applicable here in the U.S. as they are in Mumbai. Everyone agreed the book had been interesting and engaging (ratings ranged from 6 to 10). As a bonus, one of our group is a woman who grew up in India and has actually been to Annawadi, so her observations and insights added more to our discussion.
This book is a perfect example of narrative nonfiction at its absolute best. As someone who reads about 90% fiction, I was completely riveted by this book and its stories. In fact, when rating books in my book groups, I rarely give anything a “10,” but that’s what I rated this one. To me, it was like the best of fiction and nonfiction combined: engrossing stories about interesting people, set against a fascinating backdrop that I knew little about. I learned a lot and loved reading this book – I wish that more nonfiction was written this well and this engagingly, and I can’t wait to see what Boo does next.
244 pages, Random House
I'm not usually a fan of book trailers, but this one is 100% actual video taken in Annawadi as Katherine Boo spent time there, and the photos & video of this vastly different world are fascinating. See Katherine Boo's website for more photos.