National Book Award, Nonfiction, 2012
From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the 21st century’s great, unequal cities.
In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.
Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting” in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter—Annawadi’s “most-everything girl”—will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”
But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.
With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the 21st century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.
©2012 Katherine Boo (P)2012 Random House
“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 Econo)
There is no Frigate like a Book To take us Lands away Nor any Coursers like a Page Of prancing Poetry – Emily Dickinson
I have to admire the detailed research that went in to writing Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Katherine Boo shadowed so many people in the Annawadi slum of Mumbai for THREE YEARS. She does an amazing job of portraying their lives in all of their complexity. Her research didn’t end there, either. She evidently did much more intense document research as well. Her whole career has been spent examining disadvantaged communities in America and now India. She really opens up the eyes of the reader to what daily life is like and what the major issues are in Annawadi. Her website give a great overall look at how the book was written; I wish I had checked out the site before reading the book, actually. I think it deepened my appreciation for the task she undertook.
What I came away with is the sense that in the Annawadi slums, as in all or most of India it seems, corruption is practically bred into people’s lives. For the poorest people who live in these slums, a corrupt life is the only way most of them can eek out a means of survival. The majority of these people don’t even feel bothered by their own total lack of ethics and morals; they are too poor and too overwhelmed with trying to simply survive. The widespread corruption gives the people a sense that they have lost control over their lives. The ground is always shifting under them due to the forces of corruption everywhere.
The problem with the book for me is that it seems caught between two genres, creative non-fiction and the novel. I thought it would have been more interesting if Boo had just simply written a novel about the main characters in the book. Plenty of the factual info about their lives could have come across this way. As it was, the non-fiction tone and structure of the book got in the way of any enjoyment for me in the reading of it. It read like a catalogue of horrors and stories of corruption without enough glue to hold them together. Just when I finally learned the names of those that would become the main characters, the author would go off on a tangent to describe other characters and issues. The names became too many and after a while I didn’t really care. Luckily, the main characters finally came back into focus and the story carried on for a while, only to be derailed with more tangents which could illustrate more of the horrible issues going on in the Annawadi slums.
So, my review is based on my enjoyment of the book, which was almost non-existent at most points. If I were to rate it based on value and importance of the message, then I’d give it a top rating.
The description of Sunil ingratiating himself to the (catering?) security guards to gain preferred access to their trash.
Survival with globalization.
I emigrated from India to the US over 30 years ago. I'm planning to return there for good soon. I had to authenticate the author's references and listen to her interviews on NPR and PBS to verify her claims. I intend to use this work to frame my home country since I've never known it in this manner!
This was such a gripping account, I had to keep checking references to ensure that it was not fiction, or even based on a real story. The book is told in the third-person but such deep observations and presence that you even feel like you are right there, and the author must have been onsite more frequently than not, over the years. It was such a fascinating way of life to be told. Surprisingly, I did not have pity or disgust for the poverty and the way the families live in this common slum but, just the opposite. Most of the studied characters I could see rising upward, at least relatively speaking. They were enterprising, tireless, tried to pursue their education and advancement. It was really a fascinating study which made me wonder if this was really a necessary step in the evolution of developing countries and their people.
I started this book in hard copy, but when life kept getting in the way of my ability to find time to curl up with a good book, I turned to Audible to fill my commute hours with this masterpiece. (The narration was fantastic.) I actually started this book without knowing it is a work of nonfiction, and only realized it when I listened to the author's afterword. The most fantastic parts of this book, for me, are the respect the author shows for the characters and her restraint in how she describes the contrast of their lives from our lives and the lives of the people coming and going from the airport. She describes the lives and ambitions of each individual from a neutral place, without a hint of the patronization which could so easily and subconsciously pervade any depiction of lives in extreme poverty by one who is not. One of the most powerful moments in the book is when she takes a brief break from describing the tragedy that has turned two families against eachother to "listen in" on a Disney park executive's comments about how he just can't bring himself to visit a Universal theme park to check out the competition because he just can't stomach the idea of giving a penny to his competition. The author returns to the story of the families to describe how, despite the tragedy that has turned them into adversaries, they come together to help eachother fulfill a religious obligation. The contrast she creates with that brief snippet is so profound and moving, it haunted me for the rest of the book. Powerful read.
I've been listening to audio books for years and have been an audible subscriber for ? 10 years maybe? A long time anyway.
Less is more
Just too long
Certainly a wonderful narrator with accents
If you highlight any character, fleshing them out either not at all or a bit more would be better.
It just bogged down. I really wanted something good to happen, even in those terrible slums. Too sad to bare.
Faced with mindless duty, when an audio book player slips into a rear pocket and mini buds pop into ears, old is made new again.
The seamy side of disproportionate wealth frequently appears in books. Some are classics of fiction like “The Grapes of Wrath”; others are modern fictions, apocryphal, and less renowned, like Aravind Adiga’s “White Tiger”. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” shows the ugly truth of a poorly regulated capitalist economy. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a true story of modern India that exposes the seams of an economic system that widens and perpetuates a gap between haves and have-nots. India’s current economic system guarantees a permanent underclass, characterized by poverty, malnutrition, and disease. “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is about Mumbai’s poor; written by a seasoned reporter, Katherine Boo.
There is “No Exit” for the poverty-stricken Mumbai underclass. Future generations of the poor are guaranteed nothing but life, with little education and dwindling economic opportunity. The value of corruption is reinforced. The inner compass of human morality spins as schemes to defraud and grinding poverty guarantee an underclass existence in perpetual slums.
Mumbai is a daunting example of how disproportionate wealth corrupts morality, undermines democracy, and smears the reputation of capitalist economies.
This story is real, or very close to real. Descriptions of the lives of people in Annawadi were written in great, believable detail. In one way, the story makes you acknowledge just how much you have and how fortunate you are. In another way, it makes you feel inferior, of the amount of awareness and perseverance that the people in Annawadi have despite corruption, greed, and the weight of the caste system. This is a must read.
While reading this book...and now that I'm finished, I can't get it out of my mind. The real life characters of the story have taken hold of me & I feel like I'll never be the same again. Simply the best audiobook I've bought to date.
Such a fascinating culture. I spent a week in Mumbai and this book has given me some greater insight to the people that I fell in love with.
At times it was hard to keep the many people described straight. It was an incredibly real story of poverty in Mumbai and the paradox of finding strength in powerlessness. An important story to tell!
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