I’ve just finished reading Katherine Boo’s critically-acclaimed work of narrative non-fiction Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. This book — about slum-dwelling, abject poverty, garbage collecting and death by self-immolation — is so hot right now that I was on the waiting list for over 2 months to check it out from my local library, although there are 15 copies in circulation.
The book is based on over 3 years that the author spent in Annawadi, a slum outside of Mumbai, India that is situated in the shadows of Mumbai International Airport and luxury hotels. The central characters of the book include a young Muslim garbage collector wrongly accused of murder, an aspiring female slumlord and her daughter who is studying to become the first female college graduate in Annawadi, and their one-legged neighbor.
I read the book through my own lens as someone who essentially makes a living writing about poverty, so for me the book did not have the “shock and awe” effect it may have on other readers. Although I’ve never been to India, I’ve visited a fair number of slums in countries such as Brazil, Kenya and South Africa. It was easy for me to believe that people live like this, but it took me a while to grasp Boo’s purpose in writing the book — something that I didn’t fully grasp until I read her Author’s Note after the 244-page story.
So often we read about how India is an up-and-coming nation, one of the victors of globalization. At first I was bothered by the frequent theme of corruption in the book, how nothing was achieved without a bribe, how Annawadi citizens and government officials conned foreign donors, how the slum’s inhabitants were operating fictitious schools. But gradually I grew to appreciate Boo’s style of “telling it like it is.”
One of the greatest achievements of this book is that Boo leaves herself entirely out of it, and there is no mention of her own role in the story until the Author’s Note addendum. Though it’s non-fiction, the book reads like a novel, and for the most part is told without judgment of the characters.
Post in Comments: Have you read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and if so, what did you think of it?