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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

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BY KATHERINE BOO

NEW YORK: RANDOM HOUSE, 2012

288 PAGES, ISBN: 978-1400067558, HARDBACK

Reviewed by Alice Luthy Tym

At the 2012 University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Asia Conference, keynote speaker Professor Yasmeen Mohiuddin concluded that India’s greatest challenge in the future is to spread its concentrated wealth among more of its citizens. Katherine Boo’s nonfiction book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, portrays that challenge in heart-wrenching detail. This is an excellent read for high school and college students because it is a poignant story on one level and thought-provoking on many levels. It is a must-read for high school and university teachers of cultural anthropology, economics, and human geography because the book clarifies the many facets of corruption in India, portrays the action of the poor in a global market, and places the reader in the seldom-visited undercity of modern Mumbai.

This book’s characters are living economics models. They understand the reality of their lives, but many aspire to more as they see the world changing around them.

The story takes place in the slum of Annawadi near the Mumbai airport, where “the new India and old India collided and made new India late.” (5) The land is owned by the Airports Authority of India; the 3,000 residents are squatters who are part of the informal, unorganized economy. Only six have permanent jobs. The rest find opportunity in construction and garbage from the nearby airport and hotels. Many of the characters are the children who collect the garbage, suffer from related diseases, and deal with the competitive nature of the business. When Abdul, one of the collectors, sees a boy’s hand cut off in a plastic shredder, and the boy apologizes and assures the owner of the plant that he won’t report it and cause problems, Abdul realizes that “India still made a person know his place.” (15)

The mosaic of regions and religions of India is distinct in Annawadi. Many have come from the countryside seeking relief from grinding agricultural labor. Asha, a central character in the book, finds her entrepreneurial skills are best-served through politics and corruption. She realizes that she gets what she wants from the gods whether or not she prays and fasts. Asha works the system of donations for schools to her advantage so that she can send her daughter, Manju, to college. “Corruption,” the author concludes, is “one of the genuine opportunities that remained.” The reader can truly understand this by observing Asha’s journey through the political maze of the undercity.

The complex legal system is revealed when the one-legged Fatima pours kerosene on her head and sets herself on fire to protest a minor incident of dust in her cooking as a result of Abdul’s family’s home improvement. The cultural attitudes of India are revealed throughout the book in the attitudes of its characters. Abdul’s family is accused of the crime and must go to court. Muslims represent a disproportionate number of incarcerations in India, but Abdul’s Muslim family sticks together like bundled bamboo for strength.

The competition of the poor for slender gains kept them from uniting. Global market capitalism seemingly presented opportunity, but “powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.” (237)

This book’s characters are living economics models. They understand the reality of their lives, but many aspire to more as they see the world changing around them. The key to success in the largest democracy in the world is how to fulfill those aspirations of the inhabitants of the undercities of India. Behind the Beautiful Forevers illustrates that challenge in a very personal way.