Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is a nonfiction book written by acclaimed journalist Katherine Boo, first published in 2012.
India is growing at a faster pace than ever. This growth has been documented extensively in papers, journals and visual media all over the world. The economic growth rate of India is rocketing up, rivaled only by China. Indian leaders frequently make speeches about greater technology, smoother administration and carving out India’s place on the world map. The city of Mumbai on India’s Western coast is a big beneficiary of this growth. Known frequently as India’s financial capital, it boasts of hosting posh, buzzing business districts racking in million dollar deals from all over the globe and the infamous Bollywood industry. The tag of being the city of dreams is supported by thousands of rags to riches stories. From a bird’s eye view, the city of Mumbai is prospering like never before. But, in between the high rises and one of South Asia’s most swish, well designed airports lies the forgotten cracks where development hasn’t trickled down. This is the Annawadi slum, where “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” unfolds.
Katherine Boo has an impressive writing career, being a writer with the “New Yorker” and a former editor at “The Washington Post.” Her work is centered around the distribution of opportunity and disadvantaged communities in arguably the most developed nation on Earth and her home country, the United States of America. Her work in this field has earned her the prestigious Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” grant. In her own words, she believes the area in which she works and reports is the most “over theorized and under reported”. This is in reference to global poverty and marginalization. Boo first met her husband, Sunil Khilnani in 2001, and says that she “gained a country” when she married him. Though she had been reporting about what it was to be poor and what it took to escape this poverty in an American context, what she saw in India startled her. Mumbai as a city has the starkest contrast between the haves and the have nots. No better place embodied this for Boo than the Annawadi slum, which was separated from the airport by mere walls, and surrounded on all sides by luxury five star hotels. With the help of translators and assistants, she embarked on her most ambitious research project yet. Boo recalls that the residents of Annawadi initially thought she had simply lost her way from the airport to the luxury hotels and tried redirecting there, as it seemed completely bizarre to them why a white woman would intentionally happen to wander into a slum. Boo was persistent in her efforts, and three years of work on the field: interviews, observations, reviewing archives and creating visual content representative of the locals culminated in her novel “Behind the Beautiful Forevers.”
Boo's book is a work of nonfiction, but to the uninformed reader, it would seem to be a work of richly informed fiction. Told through multiple lenses and voices, it is hard to pin down any particular character as a protagonist in the story. Boo has carefully selected a wide range of characters to showcase the different approaches to life in Annawadi. Some characters aim to merely survive and avoid getting into trouble (Abdul) and others want to thrive and use the circumstances to propel their families with the upward mobility needed to claw their way into the middle class, a status coveted by the residents of the slum. Her characters also come from different socio cultural backgrounds, from native Maharashtrians (the Indian state in which Mumbai is located is called Maharashtra) and migrants from India’s Northern states. Using this diverse range of characters and their life experiences, she explores a wide range of themes in her novel, ranging from corruption, power, poverty and deprivation, family, sex and death. It is interesting to note that while many slums exist in the city of Mumbai, Boo has intentionally chosen Annawadi. Strategically located near the international airport and the luxury which comes with this location, it aids Boo in her desire of creating a juxtaposition of the life in Mumbai for her readers to experience the city the way she did.
While Behind the Beautiful Forevers was ultimately a novel based on hardcore reporting and fact, it is difficult to label the novel as a work of pure reporting and factual non fiction writing, because that would take away from the great burden of emotions that the reader ultimately bears reading about the struggles and the triumphs of the people of Annawadi. Interestingly, Boo does not aim for her novel to evoke sympathy from her readers for the community of Annawadi residents. She speaks of the hardships and the fight against all possible odds that the people must face, but also humanizes them greatly by giving voice to their thoughts, hopes and talents. This way, they are not glorified charity cases seeking pity through their misfortune of being born into poverty, but rather portrayed just as human as the rest of us.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers received a huge amount of critical acclaim and went on to become one of the most decorated novels on the subject of poverty in India. It was named as one of the best publications of 2012 by the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker and went onto either win or make it on to the shortlist of many prestigious prizes such as the Pulitzer, National Books Critics Circle Award, National Book Award for Non Fiction and the Samuel Johnson Prize. Boo has been praised for her incredible skills as a reporter, and for harnessing the tool of multiple perspectives: political, personal, economic and socio cultural while writing this novel.