752 of 770 people found the following review helpful
The author of this book is an American Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who is married to an Indian man. She has spent the last few years doing scrupulous research for this book which is a realistic portrayal of life in a Mumbai slum. All the people are real. All the incidents really happened. And the writing itself is so good that it hooked me from the very beginning and kept my eyes glued to the pages.
This is a world where whole families live in cardboard shacks where sewage runs raw after storms, education is mostly nonexistent and the worst forms of corruption is everywhere. Here we meet the real people in the area - the young boy who scavenges scrap metal, a woman who tries to be political and the one college student who hopes for a brighter future. We also learn about the diseases that disable people and the compromises made just in order to put some food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. And then there is the endemic corruption. The police are paid little and depend on graft to make a living. expect to collect it whenever they can. Hospitals are filthy stink holes. And members of the community are so afraid of getting involved that they will let a man with a broken leg lie in the street for several days until he eventually dies.
The book is so well written that it brought me into the hearts and minds of these people who live in the shadow of a luxury hotel and an expanding airport. In spite of their poverty they have learned to be resourceful and struggle along the best they can.
The book reads like a novel. And, in a way I sure wish it was. It is just too painful to realize that this is all real. Hopefully, its publication will help to make a difference.
323 of 337 people found the following review helpful
"Embedded journalism" is often applied only to military journalists, but it's not a new style at all. Author Katherine Boo basically embedded herself in this slum of Mumbai, India, so readers could see, hear, and - to a degree - understand the lives of the residents. Her 'characters' face daily lives that I don't think an American could deal with for five minutes.
The book succeeds because it lacks sympathy - which is a good thing. The girls, boys, men, women are fully-realized people, not cariactures of "poor, pathetic Indians." In an author's Q+A, Boo says conveying that was important to her, and she did succeed. So the narrative is harsh, depressing, uncompromising, and sad - but it's uplifting, because the girls, boys, and adults in Boo's book are going to keep on living the best they can. They aren't begging for my or your help - they're getting up in the morning and doing what they can do to make it through each day, though some don't make it. I felt like I learned about their individual stories and lives, and about the Mumbai slums - a place I'll never see - at least a little bit, and without being preached at.
The details came from Boo's close observations of events she witnessed, and hundreds of interviews after the fact. An argument could be made, "how reliable could interviews with slumdwellers be?" Well, how reliable are you, when somebody asks about your life? People are people, and I'm sure once they got to used to Boo's presence, they liked having somebody new to talk to. I've embedded with the military as a journalist, and after a few days even soldiers who dislike the media stop seeing reporters as the "press," and as just another guy. I'm sure it was the same here.
The book is not written in first person, which Boo defends as a way to make sure the focus remains on her characters, never on her. I agree, to a point. If this was in the "I" of a white westerner (though she's married to an Indian), it would change the reader's perspective. However, I think her presence changed the story and possibly the events more than she seems to think. The book opens with a tragedy, and I wonder if the extra attention Boo paid to the main family of the book led to jealousy within the slum community that might have led to the tragedy that followed. I have no idea. But the "I" is always there, whether written first person or not; the writer can't have it both ways, and I would have liked a little more acknowledgement of that within the narrative.
But, I loved this book - not 'love' like I wanted more, but because it captured a part of the human spirit I forgot exists. There are 7-8 billion people in the world, and far too many live in situations like these Mumbai slums - but they live and create and work all the same, despite rampant corruption by those supposed to protect them, and little chance for upward mobility. If you want to learn more about a half-dozen of those people, who you'll never meet, and whose lifestyle you'll likely never experience, this book opens that door a little bit. For those who talk about the concept of a "global economy," here it is for real.
211 of 231 people found the following review helpful
The interwoven stories of some of the 335 families in a tiny half-acre slum surrounded by luxury hotels at Mumbai's international airport reach out and grab the reader and pull you right in for a ride that I found to be intense and at times very painful. The author did intensive years-long research, interviewing,
videotaping, finding records, and hanging around until she was just part of
the environment. She makes herself invisible, not injecting her presence,
which I really enjoyed. Her point of view is clear, however.
The people in these slums are mostly from other states in India
besides Maharasthra, where Bombay is located, and many are either of the
untouchable caste, or Muslim. Rather than forming a community to try
to fight to survive and prosper, the adults fight among themselves,
trying to cheat and steal from each other. The young people seem less
vicious and corrupt, as they have more hope and less understanding of
how calamities can come out of nowhere, just as things seem to be
getting better, and tear everything down again. The police, the local
government, and the poor people are alike in their corruption,
demanding money from the desperate to fix things. The lack of
compassion and any sense of justice was distressing. The condition
of the women and girls was horrible. A serial killer may have been
picking off garbage scavenger boys, but the police record their
deaths as being from illness, so they don't have to bother looking
for a killer.
Children are not allowed by law to work, even if that's the only way they can
eat. The law is only enforced as a way for the police to extort money
from them. In an orphanage run by nuns, goods sent by western
charities for the children are instead sold for money to support the
nuns, who ride in nice vehicles. In schools, teachers only show up
when inspectors will be there checking. Government social action attempts
are deflected into the pockets of politicians and phony non-profit
organizations. A dying neighbor is just another occasion to try to extort
money. The poor hate and fight each other instead of working together to
try improve their lot. It seemed to me that the sticky weight of corruption
holds everybody down, as the pollution and disease kills them.
It was news to me that suicide was an everyday fact in the lives
of the poor in India.
I long to know what happened to these people, who became so real to me
in this book. Despite the anguish it caused me, I highly recommend it
to everybody who is interested in India. I've read enormous numbers of
novels about India, but this nonfiction book, which feels in many ways like
fiction, moved me and frustrated me. I would have liked illustrations, a
bibliography, and perhaps some tables. I look forward to reading the
author's future work.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Katherine Boo's, "Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity", gives a whole new slant on the adage: "One man's trash is another man's treasure." After reading this compelling book, I know it will be a long time before I toss a plastic bottle in the recycle bin without thinking about Abdul the trash dealer.
Boo paints an extremely vivid and visceral portrait of one Indian slum called Annawadi, which is ironically overshadowed by the burgeoning Mumbai airport and various luxury hotels. Scenes from "Slumdog Millionaire" come to mind while reading about the denizens of Annawadi, which is located adjacent to a "sewage lake". (Thanks to Boo's olfactory descriptions of this sewage lake and what they do with its fish, I'm also re-thinking my fish oil supplements!) In Annawadi ambitions are so sadly minuscule; to become a waiter in one of the hotels, to have a hut with walls.
Boo's prose is quite unsentimental; it doesn't have to be to evoke horror and disgust. But can I, as a middle-class American, REALLY imagine rats biting my children at night? It's anathema to me and I find I recoil and then go a bit numb. What am I to DO with this knowledge? Aside from feeling grateful for that which I take for granted every single day; a hot shower, food, a roof, no rats.
What was most difficult for me to read about with my American sense of justice, was the seemingly inevitable vortex of corruption that unrelentingly traps the poor. The blatant UNFAIRNESS of it all was difficult to accept; Abdul and his father are unjustly and maliciously accused of burning the "One Leg" woman and can find no justice without bribes and graft. The description of their trail would be laughable if it's wasn't so incredibly absurd. I wanted to scream for them! Rousseau said; "When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich." But they DON'T, do they?
It's a hard book to read, but I highly recommend it. It's riveting and real and important. In many ways it reminded me of Rhinton Mistery's excellent novel, "A Fine Balance", which I also highly recommend.
47 of 53 people found the following review helpful
Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is great. I have not read a book as well written as this is in more than twenty years. Her use of language reminds me of my favorite fiction authors; however this is a work of narrative nonfiction. It feels like good fiction book yet the characters are real people and she used their names. I am reminded of the great works of Saul Bellow, William Shakespeare, Papa Hemingway, Mark Twain, or Harper Lee. I am reminded also of the prose work of Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. I loved every page, every sentence, and every word. The writing is exceptional. The hope is real. I was able to see how the subjects she writes about genuinely feel hope!
Her characters are real people who you can understand even without having to live the terrible existence they take as normal. Her characters are really subjects, they do live terrible existences. I don't know anyone who could live in their conditions for more than a few months and survive. Just as I would not survive a week in the Amazon forest; I could not survive a week in the hovels of these people Katherine Boo has come to know, who reside only a few yards from the Mumbai International Airport. Boo's husband is an Indian citizen. She was with these subjects in their slum for more than three years. She spent her days there; she spent evenings in the slum. She knows these people. The events she writes about occurred and she witnessed some of the most difficult scenes that she describes. She corroborated her stories with official government documents. What gets you is these are not statistics, these are people.
What is most powerful is that this is not a book about India . . . it is also a book about America and India. Read between the lines and you see that Katherine Boo wants her reader to look at America to see the parallels that connect us. We like to think that America is better off than India. However, we live in the same world; only the names are different. I read about thirty nonfiction books every year; this is the best book I have read in the last twenty years. Thank you Katherine Boo.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Narrowly speaking, this book is about the lives and individuals of a Mumbai slum near a new, modern airport. From a broader perspective, this book, to paraphrase the author towards the end of the book, is about the inability of poor people around the world to unite, how they compete with each other for the first world's spoils, and in so doing, fail to alter the society at large in which they live. This is the case in Mumbai, Rio or Washington DC. The lives of those described in the Annawadi slum is a constant struggle to survive, to find food, clean water and, maybe, even a moment of dignity and pleasure. To capture this as beautifully as she does, Boo spent years entrenched in the slum learning its ways. The picture she paints with remarkable clarity is one that should scare any first worlder that may read it. Whether you decide to do anything or not after reading this book is up to you, but this book is valuable not solely for the well-written journalism that it is, but because of the humbling perspective it brings to the reader. Anyone on Amazon reading this review should be grateful for what they have. This books shows it could be worse.
21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on December 30, 2011
Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a remarkably well written, thoroughly researched, insightful and informative ethnography of slum life on the fringe of the Indian city of Mumbai. Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads more like a brilliantly crafted work of the best quality fiction than empirical social science, and that is very much to its credit. As Boo introduces her characters in chapter after chapter and we come to see how their lives intersect, we discern a compelling narrative, a true story, written with economy of language and devoid of social science jargon, that teaches us far more than we commonly learn from one book, and does so in a way that captures and holds our attention throughout.
Many of the issues addressed by the author are not new, but the Mumbai slum setting, Annawadi, enables the author to address them in an especially graphic way. The juxtaposition of extremes of wealth and poverty, for example, is a commonplace device used by social critics in the U.S. and elsewhere. In Mumbai, however, the social and economic distance between unimagined opulence and stomach-turning poverty is exaggerated to a degree I've never seen before.
Similarly, detailed description of barriers to even short-distance upward mobility for the poorest of the poor is part and parcel of critical ethnographies, especially ethnographies of schooling in the U.S., Britain, and other so-called developed countries. However, I have never before read an account as persuasive and heart-breaking as the one offered in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Tuberculosis is not something that comes readily to mind when thinking of correlates of social mobility, but in Annawadi it's almost as common as stunted development due to long-term malnutrition.
Critical ethnographies of the lives of poor people almost invariably invoke government corruption as one of the factors that make the circumstances of poverty even more crippling than otherwise would be the case. In Mumbai, however, corruption takes a perniciously exaggerated form, and it thoroughly pervades every institution: education, health care, criminal justice, public utilities, and any other source of nominally essential services, including provision of drinkable water and disposal of raw sewage.
The horrors of Annawadi take a predictably devastating toll on its inhabitants. Nevertheless,the author's gift for capturing the distinctiveness of characters enables her to show us the unexpected diversity with which Annawadians approach life, and the varied ways in which they try to adjust to an impossible context, finding opportunities where others would see nothing but noxious garbage and imminent danger. Remarkably, ethnic, caste, religious, and familial differences are not completely demolished by the crushing burden of unfathomably grotesque poverty. In spite of alcoholism, drug addiction, disease, lack of rudimentary education, and other debilitating afflictions of slum life, identifiably different individuals with engaging personalities, well-developed codes of personal morality, and thought provoking world views emerge and animate the social life of Annawadi.
For reasons that I cannot discern, the author closes with a cautiously optimistic forecast for very slow improvement in the lives and prospects of Annawadians. I think, however, that she is much closer to the truth when she describes the privatization of effective social services of every sort by people of means, serving their interests only, and leaving corrupt and otherwise deficient public resources for the poor. Annawadians live in a world where the market is the only sacred institution, and they are, at best, marginal participants, casualties of globalization with its impersonal and amoral bottom-line ethos. It makes little difference who holds public office or which political party is in power. Public life is so thoroughly corrupt and financially overburdened that conventional notions as to what makes the world work have been nullified. The Annawadians, moreover, are so fractionated by conflict over scarce resources that they, and the hundreds of millions like them, have no chance of developing into a cohesive political force. These may seem to be circumstances that would give rise to terrorism born of desperation, but Annawadians are much more likely to destroy themselves than to inflict harm on others.
Every one knows that life in the Third World is often inhumanly difficult. Katherine Boo, however, takes this abstract notion and makes it powerfully concrete. As a result, Behind the Beautiful Forevers has changed the way I view the world.
As an addendum, Katherine Boo is not a methodologically self-conscious ethnographer. This puts her in the good company of accomplished researchers such as Ray Rist, Paul Willis, Elliott Liebow, and Jean Anyon. Boo's reliance on an interpreter raises more compelling questions as to her intrusiveness and the veracity of the her interpretations. Perhaps something longer and more technically adequate than her "Author's Note" is in order. I am inclined, however, to overlook Boo's lack of attention to discussion of method since, in my experience, such accounts are typically just statements of the obvious and lend little or nothing to the quality of an ethnography.
24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a poignant, inter-woven story of slum-dwellers in a small community immediately outside of Mumbai's International Airport which is rapidly expanding and as such the dwelling shacks of the inhabitants are threatened to make way for the expansion.
The author is so very gifted that I thought at times the book was fiction and not investigative reporting. The characters are real, from the garbage pickers, the beggars, the very young thieves, the children who attend school taught not by teachers, but by other older children, to the corrupt officials who prey on all of them. Greed, corruption, bribery all take their toll and in some instances result in suicides of teenagers as well as middle age women. That both the judiciary and hospital personnel ignore the most basic tenets of a civil society made me cringe.
After traveling across most of India and having taken many planes from Mumbai, I have in the past donated to non-profit organzations in India. Therefore, I was most upset to learn that some of these NGOs siphoned off to themselves money that was supposed to be used for the people they were supposed to serve.
This book was difficult to read, not because it wasn't well written, because it certainly was, but because it showed just how difficult it is for millions of people to survive, let alone live a good life. I highly recommend it.
302 of 381 people found the following review helpful
on February 12, 2012
I found this book riveting, thought provoking and highly annoying. The author has distilled what she explains in the Author's Note was a large number of interviews, research into government documents and time spent in the Mumbai slum where the book takes place. The result is a set of appealing characters who live difficult and precarious lives on land adjacent to Mumbai's International Airport. Partially submerged during monsoon season, at the mercy of everything from international financial markets to local police, the author movingly described the energy, and luck, required simply to survive from one day to the next. And any day might bring catastrophe.
Typical of the best of New Yorker writing, this author is able to make a point by obliquely calling attention to it. And that point is the devastation of poverty and the overwhelming odds required of those trying merely to accomplish what most readers of this book undoubtedly take for granted: a fair society that appropriately rewards hard work. The myth that by leaving their rural Indian communities, moving to a big city and being willing to work extremely hard that they can better the lives of themselves and their families.
None of the characters in the book are villainous. Some, such as Asha, are selfish, but the author is careful not to reduce any of the characters to a caricature. Yes, Asha is selfish, but there are reasons for that, and she does accomplish things for her community, even if her motivations are less than saintly. Other characters, such as Asha's daughter Manju, are intent on helping others. But the overwhelming requirements for simply getting through the day leave little room for distracting activities. When Manju's best friend swallows rat poison she is determined to save her friend, but worried about the time she can afford to devote to this. No one can afford the luxury of altruism.
Because of the careful attention to details of the characters daily lives, the ambiguities inherent in negotiating their world are made understandable, believable. If you are unable to feed your family with recycling legal garbage, is it really wrong to recycle stolen articles, particularly when those items are pieces of aluminum, miscellaneous screws, ketchup packets? The answer is that we in first world environments and middle class lives are unable to answer those questions honestly, because we simply can not accurately judge the decisions the people in this book must make. Is it wrong to beat your daughter who will not comply with the requirements of modesty that will allow an appropriate marriage? Is it wrong to sniff industrial solvents to relieve the boredom and agony of a life spent hungry searching through trash for salable items?
The language is colorful, and rarely are relationships, even familial relationships, described in loving terms. There is a good portion of salty language in this book. "Tomorrow if he does not sit with you and study, I will break his legs and pour kerosene on his face." That is fairly typical. But because of the endless (and endlessly oppressive, depressing) details with which these stories are told, that language, and the continual violence underlying so much of the book, is realistic, even understandable.
So why did I find this book so annoying? Because the author fails miserably in putting her well told tale into any larger context that has even a semblance of factual rigor. It is extremely odd that while the author adds a long note to assure the reader that she has spent a vast amount of time and resources to accurately tell the story of this slum and its inhabitants, her only explanations of their plight are stereotyped one liners utterly lacking in factual substantiation. Early in the book we are told that there are only three avenues for advancement: entrepreneurship, education, and politics with corruption. Again and again politics are equated with corruption, without a single fact to support this gross simplification. Political corruption is endemic in many countries, including India (and Mexico, where I live) but to simply equate the two without any analysis of this simplified summary is annoying, to put it mildly.
Manju, a college student, runs a school in the slum that is supposedly run by her mother, who has a 7th grade education. We are given a detailed description of this school, and Manju's teaching. But do we have any sort of overview of education in India? We are simply told that schools of this type are run by nonprofits financed by government money. "It was of little concern to them whether the schools were actually running." Really? And what is the factual basis for that sweeping generalization?
It is not that I particularly disagreed with the sweeping generalizations made by the author, what annoyed me was the utter lack of a factual basis for these broad generalizations. The New Yorker fact checkers would not have been amused.
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 5, 2013
While I'm sure this book represents skillful and faithful journalism, I didn't find it particularly engaging. It creates some very strong imagery (especially of squalor and stench) and provides an unpolished glimpse into a world and lifestyle that most of us would never come in contact with, and for that alone it deserves some credit. But as a story, it doesn't provide a particularly strong message or reason for caring about the residents of Annawadi. While I think its goal is to highlight these people's aspirations and struggles to get ahead in a tough world, it only really documents their repeated failures and general meanness. Almost every character is unlikable due to their sullenness, corruption, and uncivilized behavior toward their neighbors. Subsequently I felt little sympathy for any of them or their hard way of life. It also seems that the book comes to few grand conclusions and the author takes almost no opportunity to interject her own hypotheses, explanations, or synthesis of events. The book reads very much like a novel, but one with a fairly weak plot and no real purpose. I come away unmoved, when in most cases I expect a book about third-world poverty to inspire me to care, want to help, or at least think harder about the world's inequities.