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Publisher's Summary

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

Critic Reviews

“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)

What members say

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  • Dr.
  • Lake Oswego, OR, United States
  • 06-14-12

An Antidote for Shantaram

Katherine Boo's book is a good antidote for Gregory David Roberts' Shantaran. Whereas Shantaram appears to view its Mumbai slum through some type of fantasy haze that is ultimately used to glorify its author, Boo's Mumbai slum is stark, unadorned, and filled with people who are barely surviving (or in many cases, not surviving). At times, I felt like a car driver who has been mesmerized by an accident on the side of the road - at other times I simply felt sad and wondered what drew me to this story. For me, this book represents another important facet of India - the conflict between Hindus and Muslims, poverty, corruption, and misery - that needs to be appreciated along with all of the other literary efforts to portray India. Although this is a grim story, it also highlights the grit, ingenuity, and perseverance of people who live on the edge.

32 of 32 people found this review helpful

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This Is What Real Poverty Looks Like

While Behind the Beautiful Forevers describes in specific detail life in a makeshift community neighboring the Mumbai India international airport, it explains what poverty looks like, feels like and how it shapes the lives of millions who live without any basic resources, including shelter, water and sanitation, throughout the world. Anyone living in, or are a policy maker in, a first world country should read this book if he or she wants to understand the privileges they take for granted.

12 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Deborah
  • SCHENECTADY, NY, United States
  • 02-13-12

Fabulous Read

Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

Yes. I enjoyed this book tremendously. It is a fascinating bird's eye view into a world most of us will never see. I loved the narrator's voice and the voices he used for each of the various characters. The author is so gifted and her characterizations of each person are so tenderly drawn and engaging. I couldn't put the book down. If you liked the movie Slum Dog Millionaire, I think you will love this story too.

8 of 8 people found this review helpful

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  • Dale
  • Middletown, CT, United States
  • 03-12-12

A masterpiece of a book and an exquisite reading

What made the experience of listening to Behind the Beautiful Forevers the most enjoyable?

The transporting sense that you are there, in Annawadi, seeing the characters and their stories unfold -- thanks to the absolutely stunning research, magnificent writing and the gentle but commanding voice of the reader.

What was the most compelling aspect of this narrative?

The opportunity to understand life at its most desperate through the eyes of the people living it, and to discover their humanity, intelligence, drive and even the wit (in some cases, particularly the wit) that carry them through the awful trials of the undercity.

Any additional comments?

This was my first Audible book. I hadn't listened to a book on tape or on CD--ever. I bought this one because I had purchased the hardback book, and had read about a third of it and couldn't bear to stop. I had a 4-hour drive coming up and it occurred to me that I could continue

12 of 13 people found this review helpful

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  • Daryl
  • Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
  • 02-08-15

Powerful, difficult, inspiring

What made the experience of listening to Behind the Beautiful Forevers the most enjoyable?

I wouldn't call reading this book "enjoyable" in the sense of a happy book, or even a good sad fictionalized account; these are real people dealing with real poverty. But it was written in such a way that you could see the huts and taste the dust and feel like you knew the people who lived in these pages.

What does Sunil Malhotra bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

His narration is understated and well-suited to the book's subject matter.

Any additional comments?

This is a well-written narrative about 5 people living in one of India's slums - their hopes, dreams, successes, and failures. A comment was made that no one in the book asked if they were happy; survival took on too much time for them to worry about happiness.<br/>The author's epilogue added an extra personal adendum to these pages. Well done!

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

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  • Cariola
  • Chambersburg, PA USA
  • 11-02-13

Familiar Ground

I almost feel guilty giving this book only three and a half stars. Almost. It has been much honored with awards and much praised by reviewers both professional and non-professional, and its subject matter--the hard life of the poor living in one of Mumbai's airport slums--is certainly something of which the world should take more note. But for a number of reasons, Beyond the Beautiful Forevers, while a worthy enough book, did not quite live up to my expectations.

The first reason has more, perhaps, to do with me than with Boo's book. I have a great interest in India, it's history and culture. I have read so many books, both fiction and nonfiction, and seen so many documentaries on the subject that I didn't find much here that was new or surprising. Police and government corruption of all kinds; families killing sick or unwanted members; children digging through garbage in search of something to eat or to sell; supposedly 'free' clinics and doctors demanding bribes in return for treatment; neighbors stealing from and turning on one another; young women committing suicide rather than being forced into marriage or, once married, being burned to death in kitchen 'accidents'; children working at jobs we cannot imagine. It's awful, it's brutal. But it's the stuff on which a cadre of works about India are based, at least in part: City of Joy, Q & A (aka Slumdog Millionaire, A Fine Balance, The Death of Vishnu, documentaries like 'Born into Brothels' and National Geographic's 'The Real Slumdogs' and more.

That's not to say that we shouldn't care; but it gets frustrating to read about these problems over and over without knowing what exactly one can do about them. Eighty years ago, it was easy to blame all the corruption and poverty and prejudice on the usurping British; once they were gone, the Hindus blamed it on the Muslims, the Muslims blamed the Hindus, and the Sikhs, Christians, and others got caught in the crossfire. So who or what is to blame today, in an increasingly wealthy India, and how can the ongoing problems of unbelievable poverty be solved? As another LT reviewer points out, Boo seems to want us to do something--but what? In the end, she wants us to be uplifted by the undaunted hope of some of Anawadi's young inhabitants. But it's hard to imagine that hope being sustained in a world where the police beat innocent children wrongfully accused of crimes and take bribes to stop the beatings; where a father pours a pot of boiling lentils on a sick child for whom he can't afford medical treatment; where a woman lights herself on fire, hoping to survive and blame it on her neighbors in hope of both petty revenge and financial restitution; where a boy drinks rat poison because he believes his future holds nothing but either being killed by gang members who know that he witnessed a murder or being beaten to death by the police who questioned him about that murder and covered it up; where a woman starts an organization to make small business loans to other poor women, then takes the funds to buy herself jewelry.

To some extent, I felt that Boo was piling on the horrors so thickly that it was difficult to stay focused on the main individuals whose stories she was telling. At other times, the stories were so familiar that I felt I was reading fiction. The narrative jumps around quite a bit, from character to character and back and forth in time, and with the large number of persons involved, it is easy to get lost and blur them all together. And that also makes it hard to stay focused on or empathize strongly with any one character. This is a problem, because what, I think, Boo hopes to achieve is to put a face on each of the suffering poor, not to lump them into the anonymous 'teeming masses'.

So overall, would I recommend this book? Despite the comments above, yes, perhaps especially to those who haven't read, seen or heard much about the lives of India's slum dwellers. It's hard for Americans and others in more generally prosperous countries to imagine their world, but knowing about it does make one grateful for what we have.

And leaves us wishing we knew what we could do to help them to help themselves.

17 of 19 people found this review helpful

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  • KP
  • Oakland, CA
  • 02-17-15

Caught Between Genres

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.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Ron
  • Vancouver, BC, Canada
  • 02-12-12

expected a little more

What did you like best about Behind the Beautiful Forevers? What did you like least?

The stories were real, and factual, I believe. Liked the least.... the presentation.

Has Behind the Beautiful Forevers turned you off from other books in this genre?

No.

How did the narrator detract from the book?

The dull, flat monotone was a distraction that even the wonderful tales and brilliant descriptions could not overcome. This would have been a better book to read, rather than listen to, only because the narrator, although he was without flaws in his reading, could not impart any drama or emotion. I feel the author might have done better had she narrated the book herself. She lived it, she should of told it.

If this book were a movie would you go see it?

It is a great day by day account of life in the slum, but there was little chance for the listener to get emotionally attached to the characters. I found myself falling asleep and not knowing where I left off many times. Great content but rather boring, and without some major re-writes is not movie potential. Out of respect for the author I would go see it, but I would suspect it would be vastly different as a screen play.

Any additional comments?

Thank you to the author for her strong commitment to fact and realism.

11 of 13 people found this review helpful

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  • Andy
  • Westport, CT, United States
  • 02-22-12

eight hours of non-stop heartbreak

Super sad story, enlivened by solid narration. Difficult to hear how the largest democracy on the planet also includes human tragedy almost beyond comprehension.

10 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Paul
  • Portland, OR
  • 05-29-12

Very depressing and disappointing

I'm probably going against the swelling tide of accolades for this book but I was somewhat disappointed. Although the writing was excellent, the book began to drag in the second half. The characters were well drawn and, considering it is a non-fiction book, were very compelling. The problem for me is the subject matter. How much pain about the reality of the human poverty condition can anyone take? The fact that the main characters had drawn the deuce of diamonds in the genetic lottery was so clearly drawn and portrayed by the author that it began to grate on my patience. It would be like reading a book about sado-masochism; how many stories do I have to read before I get the point that some people are mean and horrible. Although I appreciate what Katherine Boo has done, has she really revealed anything that I didn't know before? Life is unfair. Corruption is everywhere. There is no hope for a better life for 80% of the world. The book really just confirmed what I already knew: people can adapt to any condition, even filthy, disgusting places like Indian slums. Did it really require three years of intensive research, 3,000 documents and thousands of interviews to discover that life is really dreadful for the poor? I appreciate that she didn't make up the stories and actually followed several of the characters from beginning to end but these stories could have just as easily occurred in the slums of Mexico City or Zimbabwe. I guess the contrast of this slum right up against the richness of the hotels was meant to emphasize the poverty. To be truthful, I thought "The White Tiger" was head and shoulders above this book for revealing the heart and soul of the Indian personality. In that book, the author, although in a humorous, cynical method, demonstrates why the average or impoverished Indian is stuck in his or her position in life. One of the best concepts that I don't believe Mrs. Boo intended was the repudiation of the "Trickle down" theory of economics. As India gets richer, it is only the top 1% who benefit. The rest of the Country still only gets water twice a day. (For those interested, read "The Big Thirst" to see how backward one of the "richest" countries of the world is. The best part of the book was a renewed appreciation for how wonderful my life is and how lucky I am to live in the United States with all its problems.

12 of 15 people found this review helpful