Katherine Boo is a journalist who has won a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service and various writing awards, including the 2012 National Book Award for non-fiction for Behind the Beautiful Forevers. For this work, she spent 4 years gathering information on the slums of Mumbai, particularly the Annawadi slum near the airport. Her question in approaching this research was, “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society?” Boo has frequently covered poverty and the attempt to rise above it in her highly regarded research. Far from a dry, tedious study of poverty and opportunity, Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads like a novel. Through her extensive interviews with residents of Annawadi and access to public records such as police, hospital and education records, Boo paints a detailed picture of the rise and fall of particular families and individuals against the backdrop of government corruption and a booming Indian economy that goes bust in 2008. In the e-book form, readers can also see short videos of Annawadi and its residents.
A few families and individuals dominate Boo’s research. The Husains are at the heart of the story. They are a Muslim family and therefore part of a minority, and the fact that they have become successful trash pickers makes them the object of envy and resentment. Eldest son Abdul (a teen) more or less runs the family business alongside his mother Zehrunisa. Abdul is a quiet young man without many friends, but as we discover throughout the story, he wants to be a good person and do the right thing. He understands that his family’s success could be the cause of trouble for them if they are not careful. Their neighbor Fatima or “One-leg” is a disabled woman married to an alcoholic. Her disability makes her an object of derision, and Fatima resents the way her neighbors treat her. Desiring to be valued, she takes in a variety of lovers but is mocked all the more by her neighbors for this. Asha is a savvy, ambitious woman who aspires to become the slum lord and then to move beyond the slum to the “over-city.” She tries to use the corrupt governing system to help herself and her family. Among the residents of Annawadi, Asha is recognized as the person who can get things done or make problems go away. She has important contacts among the police and in her political party. When an argument erupts between Fatima and the Husains, trouble rains down upon both families. Boo then exposes the corruption among the police, in the judicial system and in the hospitals that deal with the poor. As Boo writes, “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage …. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”
Boo shows readers that the slum-dwellers are hard working and ingenious at finding ways to make money and at trying to rise up in conditions that militate against such success and mobility. Their very poverty, however, prevents them from working together to collectively improve their lot and leads to fierce competition. In some cases this competition leads to self-destruction and in others, it leads to improving your own situation only at the expense of others’ well being. Asha creates a non-profit that filters money away from legitimate programs and into her own pocket. She says, “How can anyone say I am doing the wrong when the big people did all the papers — when the big people say that it’s right?” Abdul, who wants to be a good person says, “I tell [Allah] I cannot be better because of how the world is.” In her afterward, Boo addresses what outsiders see as indifference toward suffering in the slums. She writes that the seeming indifference toward suffering and death, particularly among children, “… had a good deal to do with conditions that sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action.”
In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo treats the residents of Annawadi with respect and compassion and gives readers a new perspective on poverty and the poor — a perspective that many politicians and policy makers in the West would benefit from considering.