“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” explores the lives of slumdwellers in Annawadi, India

I’ve owned Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers for nearly three years. I find it quite difficult to read non-fiction, so I made one of my 2015 goals (I don’t do resolutions) to read at least five non-fiction books. I’d heard the term ‘creative non-fiction’ before, but I never knew what it meant, but I understand it now. Boo’s work is described as ‘narrative non-fiction’, and it tells the story of two families and an orphan boy in the Mumbai slum Annawadi over a period of four years, from 2007 to 2011. The first family is the Husains, a Muslim family living in Annawadi who are making money by sorting garbage and selling it to the nearby recycling centre. The second family is the Waghekars, a Hindu family, whose matriarch Asha has political aspirations, while her daughter Manju expects to be the first female college graduate in Annawadi. The final point-of-view ‘character’ is Sunil, who collects scrap metal to sell to the Husains, but turns to thievery during the global financial crisis.

If the premise seems simple, that was Boo’s intent. As she states in the Author’s Note at the end of the book:

I thought it would be useful to follow the inhabitants of a single, unexceptional slum over the course of several years to see who got ahead and who didn’t, and why, as India prospered. (page 249)

This book is fantastic. Despite having read the prologue two and a half years ago, I started from the start once again, and found it surprisingly easy to read, because Boo’s writing is both beautiful and compelling even while her source material was filled with tragedy. The plight of the Husains was serious, as their neighbour accused them of driving her to suicide by self-immolation, which, after she died became a murder charge. This put the family business at risk as Abdul, who was in charge of sorting garbage, was detained in a juvenile detention period for an unspecified amount of time. Manju’s best friend, Meena is one of several teenagers to commit suicide in Annawadi. Sunil’s friend Kalu (who became a police informant to avoid arrest) was allegedly murdered, and another boy who was suspected to have witnessed the murder also commits suicide. There’s terrorism, and garbage collecters are left to die on the side of the road. The writing is compelling, but most importantly there’s also a sense of hope among Annawadians that it’s possible to escape from the poverty cycle.

One of the most interesting parts of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is the Author’s Note. It’s always valuable to learn about a writer’s approach to writing, but Boo also outlines her research process as well as her decision to focus on the micro rather than the macro, which is described in the above quotation. Furthermore, Boo recognises that the poverty she witnesses in Annawadi, while not a representation of all poor communities across India, has similarities with other poor communities across the world:

In every community, the details differ, and matter. Still, in Annawadi, I was struck by commonalities with other poor communities in which I’ve spent time. (page 253)

I like that Boo realises that the details matter, and that by extension, every life matters as well. The decision to focus on a small group of people in Annawadi is what makes the book so good, not because the other people in the slum don’t matter, but because the reader is able to relate on some level with the Husains, Asha and Manju, or Sunil and then their lives matter to us. Their hope becomes our hope, which would not be possible if this was just a book about the economy in Annawadi.

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