In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo tells the story of people in Annawadi, a slum right next to the airport in Mumbai, India’s financial, business, and entertainment capital. Over 3 and a half years, Boo follows the lives of the people like Abdul, a teenager who specializes in sorting out garbage for recycling or manufacturing; Asha, an ambitious wannabe slumlord who works her way up the community political structure using questionable means, and Manju, Asha’s daughter who is trying to be Annawadi’s first female university graduate. All these people live in very dirty surroundings, surrounded by sewage and rats and garbage. Characters die from sickness or from murder. Yet the most striking death is caused by a farcical dispute. Abdul’s neighbor Fatima, a one-legged strumpet, sets herself on fire after an argument with Abdul’s mother over a dispute, intending to get her neighbors in fire. Unfortunately things go too far and she ends up dying from her injuries. The resultant court case sees Abdul, his father, and sister jailed and tried over an agonising process that stretches on, while exposing the venality of the Indian justice system. Several times, Abdul’s mother is approached by police who demand bribes to remove the charges, even though as a murder case, this is not possible. Asha meanwhile is also in the mix, asking for money from Abdul’s family to get them off the hook.
This is not a cheerful book though. It would be a cliche to say that misery and poverty are common in the lives of these slum dwellers; but worse would be the rampant corruption that infects every aspect of the slumdwellers’ interaction with authorities, from dealing with the police to hospitals to their children’s education. The police will even demand a bribe from innocent people in order to not charge them. Certain slumdwellers aren’t completely innocent, as people like Asha game the system to get funds for phantom NGOs and schools, where students only gather for picturetaking. In addition to the hardship of slum life, we get snippets of caste, religion, and regional differences, all of which is strikingly common in India. Yet other than a few taunts and suspicions, these differences don’t significant roles. At the end, Abdul still strives not to give in to evil or despair while Asha continues her machinations. Boo gives a blunt commentary on the lives of the slumdwellers, saying the poor don’t stand together against anything; rather they blame, even try to destroy each other. Despite this, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an amazing book. It vividly shows the Annawadians as more than people just to be pitied or detested.