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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity [Hardcover]

Katherine Boo
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1,399 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, February 2012: Katherine Boo spent three years among the residents of the Annawadi slum, a sprawling, cockeyed settlement of more than 300 tin-roof huts and shacks in the shadow of Mumbai’s International Airport. From within this “sumpy plug of slum” Boo unearths stories both tragic and poignant--about residents’ efforts to raise families, earn a living, or simply survive. These unforgettable characters all nurture far-fetched dreams of a better life. As one boy tells his brother: “Everything around us is roses. And we’re like the s**t in between.” A New Yorker writer and recipient of a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” grant, Boo’s writing is superb and the depth and courage of her reporting from this hidden world is astonishing. At times, it’s hard to believe this is nonfiction. --Neal Thompson

From Booklist

While the distance between rich and poor is growing in the U.S., the gap between the haves and have-nots in India is staggering to behold. This first book by a New Yorker staff writer (and Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the Washington Post) jolts the reader’s consciousness with the opposing realities of poverty and wealth in a searing visit to the Annawaldi settlement, a flimflam slum that has recently sprung up in the western suburbs of the gigantic city of Mumbai, perched tentatively along the modern highway leading to the airport and almost within a stone’s throw of new, luxurious hotels. We first meet Abdul, whose daily grind is to collect trash and sell it; in doing so, he has “lifted his large family above subsistence.” Boo takes us all around the community, introducing us to a slew of disadvantaged individuals who, nevertheless, draw on their inner strength to not only face the dreary day but also ponder a day to come that will, perhaps, be a little brighter. Sympathetic yet objective and eloquently rendered. --Brad Hooper

From Bookforum

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a testimony to the transcendent power of reportorial humility. Across almost three-hundred pages in which there is scarcely a single false note, Boo has managed a task I would have thought impossible for a foreign journalist in a Mumbai slum: to merge her eyes almost completely with those of her characters. —Jonathan Shainin

Review

“A book of extraordinary intelligence [and] humanity . . . beyond groundbreaking.”—Junot Díaz, The New York Times Book Review

“Reported like Watergate, written like Great Expectations, and handily the best international nonfiction in years.”New York

“This book is both a tour de force of social justice reportage and a literary masterpiece.”—Judges’ Citation for the PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award

“Incandescent writing and excruciatingly good storytelling.”—The Philadelphia Inquirer
 
“Outstanding.”—USA Today
 
“A richly detailed tapestry of tragedy and triumph told by a seemingly omniscient narrator with an attention to detail that reads like fiction while in possession of the urgent humanity of nonfiction.”—Los Angeles Times
 
“Rends the heart, thrills the mind, pricks the conscience, and burns the pages.”Washingtonian

“[An] exquisitely accomplished first book. Novelists dream of defining characters this swiftly and beautifully, but Ms. Boo is not a novelist. She is one of those rare, deep-digging journalists who can make truth surpass fiction, a documentarian with a superb sense of human drama. She makes it very easy to forget that this book is the work of a reporter. . . . Comparison to Dickens is not unwarranted.”—Janet Maslin, The New York Times
 
“A jaw-dropping achievement, an instant classic of narrative nonfiction . . . With a cinematic intensity . . . Boo transcends and subverts every cliché, cynical or earnest, that we harbor about Indian destitution and gazes directly into the hearts, hopes, and human promise of vibrant people whom you’ll not soon forget.”Elle

“Riveting, fearlessly reported . . . [Behind the Beautiful Forevers] plays out like a swift, richly plotted novel. That’s partly because Boo writes so damn well. But it’s also because over the course of three years in India she got extraordinary access to the lives and minds of the Annawadi slum, a settlement nestled jarringly close to a shiny international airport and a row of luxury hotels. Grade: A.”Entertainment Weekly
 
“A tough-minded, inspiring, and irresistible book . . . Boo’s extraordinary achievement is twofold. She shows us how people in the most desperate circumstances can find the resilience to hang on to their humanity. Just as importantly, she makes us care.”People (four stars) 

“A shocking—and riveting—portrait of life in modern India . . . This is one stunning piece of narrative nonfiction. . . . Boo’s prose is electric.”O: The Oprah Magazine
 
“[A] landmark book.”The Wall Street Journal
 
“Moving . . . a humane, powerful and insightful book . . . a book of nonfiction so stellar it puts most novels to shame.”The Boston Globe

“A mind-blowing read.”Redbook
 
“An unforgettable true story, meticulously researched with unblinking honesty . . . pure, astonishing reportage with as unbiased a lens as possible.”The Christian Science Monitor
 
“The most riveting Indian story since Slumdog Millionaire—except hers is true.”Marie Claire

“Seamless and intimate . . . a scrupulously true story . . . It’s tempting to compare [Behind the Beautiful Forevers] to a novel, but . . . that would hardly do it justice.”Salon
 
“Extraordinary . . . moving . . . Like the best journeys, Boo’s book cracks open our preconceptions and constructs an abiding bridge—at once daunting and inspiring—to a world we would never otherwise recognize as our own.”National Geographic Traveler
 
Behind the Beautiful Forevers offers a rebuke to official reports and dry statistics on the global poor. . . . Boo is one of few chroniclers providing this picture. She’s a moral force and . . . an artist of reverberating power.”The American Prospect

“Kate Boo’s reporting is a form of kinship. Abdul and Manju and Kalu of Annawadi will not be forgotten. She leads us through their unknown world, her gift of language rising up like a delicate string of necessary lights. There are books that change the way you feel and see; this is one of them. If we receive the fiery spirit from which it was written, it ought to change much more than that.”—Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, author of Random Family

“I couldn’t put Behind the Beautiful Forevers down even when I wanted to—when the misery, abuse and filth that Boo so elegantly and understatedly describes became almost overwhelming. Her book, situated in a slum on the edge of Mumbai’s international airport, is one of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I’ve ever read. If Bollywood ever decides to do its own version of The Wire, this would be it.”—Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed

“A beautiful account, told through real-life stories, of the sorrows and joys, the anxieties and stamina, in the lives of the precarious and powerless in urban India whom a booming country has failed to absorb and integrate. A brilliant book that simultaneously informs, agitates, angers, inspires, and instigates.”—Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics

“Without question the best book yet written on contemporary India. Also, the best work of narrative nonfiction I’ve read in twenty-five years.”—Ramachandra Guha, author of India After Gandhi

“There is a lot to like about this book: the prodigious research that it is built on, distilled so expertly that we hardly notice how much we are being taught; the graceful and vivid prose that never calls attention to itself; and above all, the true and moving renderings of the people of the Mumbai slum called Annawadi. Garbage pickers and petty thieves, victims of gruesome injustice—Ms. Boo draws us into their lives, and they do not let us go. This is a superb book.”—Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains and Strength in What Remains

"It might surprise you how completely enjoyable this book is, as rich and beautifully written as a novel. In the hierarchy of long form reporting, Katherine Boo is right up there.”—David Sedaris

About the Author

Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post. Her reporting has been awarded a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur “Genius” grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time between the United States and India. This is her first book.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

1.

Annawadi

LET IT KEEP, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station. Rewind, see Abdul running backward, away from the station and the airport, shirt buttons opening as he flies back toward his home. See the flames engulfing a disabled woman in a pink- flowered tunic shrink to nothing but a matchbook on the floor. See Fatima minutes earlier, dancing on crutches to a raucous love song, her delicate features unscathed. Keep rewinding, back seven more months, and stop at an ordinary day in January 2008. It was about as hopeful a season as there had ever been in the years since a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one-third of the planet's poor. A country dizzy now with development and circulating money.

Dawn came gusty, as it often did in January, the month of treed kites and head colds. Because his family lacked the floor space for all of its members to lie down, Abdul was asleep on the gritty maidan, which for years had passed as his bed. His mother stepped carefully over one of his younger brothers, and then another, bending low to Abdul's ear. "Wake up, fool!" she said exuberantly. "You think your work is dreaming?"

Superstitious, Zehrunisa had noticed that some of the family's most profitable days occurred after she had showered abuses on her eldest son. January's income being pivotal to the family's latest plan of escape from Annawadi, she had decided to make the curses routine.

Abdul rose with minimal whining, since the only whining his mother tolerated was her own. Besides, this was the gentle-going hour in which he hated Annawadi least. The pale sun lent the sewage lake a sparkling silver cast, and the parrots nesting at the far side of the lake could still be heard over the jets. Outside his neighbors' huts, some held together by duct tape and rope, damp rags were discreetly freshening bodies. Children in school-uniform neckties were hauling pots of water from the public taps. A languid line extended from an orange concrete block of public toilets. Even goats' eyes were heavy with sleep. It was the moment of the intimate and the familial, before the great pursuit of the small market niche got under way.

One by one, construction workers departed for a crowded intersection where site supervisors chose day laborers. Young girls began threading marigolds into garlands, to be hawked in Airport Road traffic. Older women sewed patches onto pink-and-blue cotton quilts for a company that paid by the piece. In a tiny, sweltering plastic- molding factory, bare-chested men cranked gears that would turn colored beads into ornaments to be hung from rearview mirrors-smiling ducks and pink cats with jewels around their necks that they couldn't imagine anyone, anywhere, buying. And Abdul crouched on the maidan, beginning to sort two weeks' worth of purchased trash, a stained shirt hitching up his knobby spine.

His general approach toward his neighbors was this: "The better I know you, the more I will dislike you, and the more you will dislike me. So let us keep to ourselves." But deep in his own work, as he would be this morning, he could imagine his fellow Annawadians laboring companionably alongside him.

ANNAWADI SAT TWO hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India collided with old India and made new India late. Chauffeurs in SUVs honked furiously at the bicycle delivery boys peeling off from a slum chicken shop, each carrying a rack of three hundred eggs. Annawadi itself was nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life.

The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked in from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the international airport. When the runway work was complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.

Other poor people considered the spot too wet to be habitable, but the Tamils set to work, hacking down the brush that harbored the snakes, digging up dirt in drier places and packing it into the mud. After a month, their bamboo poles stopped flopping over when they were stuck in the ground. Draping empty cement sacks over the poles for cover, they had a settlement. Residents of neighboring slums provided its name: Annawadi-the land of annas, a respectful Tamil word for older brothers. Less respectful terms for Tamil migrants were in wider currency. But other poor citizens had seen the Tamils sweat to summon solid land from a bog, and that labor had earned a certain deference.

Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. Rather, the Annawadians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when, around the same moment as the small slum's founding, the central government embraced economic liberalization. The Annawadians were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism, a narrative still unfolding.

True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.) True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner. A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge. And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors. They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility.

The airport district was spewing waste that winter, the peak season for tourism, business travel, and society weddings, whose lack of restraint in 2008 reflected a stock market at an all-time high. Better still for Abdul, a frenzy of Chinese construction in advance of the summer's Beijing Olympics had inflated the price of scrap metal worldwide. It was a fine time to be a Mumbai garbage-trader, not that that was the term passersby used for Abdul. Some called him garbage, and left it at that.

This morning, culling screws and hobnails from his pile, he tried to keep an eye on Annawadi's goats, who liked the smell of the dregs in his bottles and the taste of the paste beneath the labels. Abdul didn't ordinarily mind them nosing around, but these days they were fonts of liquid shit-a menace.

The goats belonged to a Muslim man who ran a brothel from his hut and considered his whores a pack of malingerers. In an attempt to diversify, he had been raising the animals to sell for sacrifice at Eid, the festival marking the end of Ramadan. The goats had proved as troublesome as the girls, though. Twelve of the herd of twenty-two had died, and the survivors were in intestinal distress. The brothelkeeper blamed black magic on the part of the Tamils who ran the local liquor still. Others suspected the goats' drinking source, the sewage lake.

Late at night, the contractors modernizing the airport dumped things in the lake. Annawadians also dumped things there: most recently, the decomposing carcasses of twelve goats. Whatever was in that soup, the pigs and dogs that slept in its shallows emerged with bellies stained blue. Some creatures survived the lake, though, and not only the malarial mosquitoes. As the morning went on, a fisherman waded through the water, one hand pushing aside cigarette packs and blue plastic bags, the other dimpling the surface with a net. He would take his catch to the Marol market to be ground into fish oil, a health product for which demand had surged now that it was valued in the West.

Rising to shake out a cramp in his calf, Abdul was surprised to find the sky as brown as flywings, the sun signaling through the haze of pollution the arrival of afternoon. When sorting, he routinely lost track of the hour. His little sisters were playing with the One Leg's daughters on a makeshift wheelchair, a cracked plastic lawn chair flanked by rusted bicycle wheels. Mirchi, already home from ninth grade, was sprawled in the doorway of the family hut, an unread math book on his lap.

Mirchi was impatiently awaiting his best friend, Rahul, a Hindu boy who lived a few huts away, and who had become an Annawadi celebrity. This month, Rahul had done what Mirchi dreamed of: broken the barrier between the slum world and the rich world.

Rahul's mother, Asha, a kindergarten teacher with mysterious connections to local politicians and the police, had managed to secure him several nights of temp work at the Intercontinental Hotel, across the sewage lake. Rahul-a pie-faced, snaggle-toothed ninth grader-had seen the overcity opulence firsthand.

And here he came, wearing an ensemble purchased from the profits of this stroke of fortune: cargo shorts that rode low on his hips, a shiny oval belt buckle of promising recyclable weight, a black knit cap pulled down to his eyes. "Hip-hop style," Rahul termed it. The previous day had been the sixtieth anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, a national holiday on which elite Indians once considered it poor taste to throw an extravagant party. But Rahul had worked a manic event at the Intercontinental, and knew Mirchi would appreciate the details.

"Mirchi, I cannot lie to you," Rahul said, grinning. "On my side of the hall there were five hundred women in only half-clothes-like they forgot to put on the bottom half before they left the house!"

"Aaagh, where was I?" said Mirchi. "Tell me. Anyone famous?"

"Everyone famous! A Bollywood party. Some of the stars were in the VIP area, behind a rope, but John Abraham came out to near where I was. He had this thick black coat, and he was smoking cigarettes right in front of me. And Bipasha Basu was supposedly there, but I couldn't be sure it was really her or just some other item girl, because if the manager sees you looking at t...
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