Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope In A Mumbai Undercity by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Katherine Boo is the culmination of four years of reporting from Annawadi, a “makeshift settlement” next to the luxury hotels of the Mumbai Airport in “New India”. A couple of years in the lives of several “slumdwellers” brings to life their desperation and determination to achieve something better for themselves and their families. Referred to as an “undercity”, Boo continually contrasts Annawadi with the “overcity” of Mumbai and its economy that has grown by leaps and bounds.
The title of the book brought to my mind something deep and spiritual and possibly something to do with the predominantly Hindu culture of India; however, I was not disappointed but pleasantly surprised when I realized the true significance of the title. Rising high above Annawadi along Airport Road, billboards advertising tile flooring proclaimed a floor that was “beautiful forever”. These words repeated several times.
The central story that Boo tells reveals the title’s further significance in that one of the minority Muslim families in Annawadi works hard enough to save a little money to buy this flooring for their hut. Their pride in their new floor and their ability to afford it sparks a series of jealousies among their neighbors that ultimately pushes the Muslim family into the corrupt Mumbai justice system and the infamous Arthur Road prison.
I respect Boo’s journalism in that she appears to present the people and situations in as unbiased a manner as possible. All of the people she describes have flaws as well as strengths. Many of her central characters are not necessarily likeable people. She does not utilize their situations to tug on our heart strings. She simply tells their story.
My favorite characters were the grade school and teenage boys that had to eek out a living because their fathers had become alcoholics (a seemingly chronic problem in Annawadi). They became increasingly daring in their attempts to steal recyclable material from the Airport construction sites. When a couple of them are murdered during their attempt and their death is covered up by the authorities, two of the boys grow closer:
Sunil and Abdul sat together more often than before, but when they spoke, it was with the curious formality of people who shared the understanding that much of what was said did not matter, and that much of what mattered could not be said.
Boo summarizes the slumdwellers she encountered during her time in Mumbai in the following:
The slumdwellers I’d already come to know in India were neither mythic nor pathetic. They were certainly not passive. Across the country, in communities decidedly short on saviours, they were improvising, often ingeniously, in pursuit of the new economic possibilities of the twenty-first century.