Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a frustratingly engaging read that perpetually establishes and upends expectations. The book profiles several inhabitants of Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai, through various episodes in their lives. A former reporter for the Washington Post, Katherine Boo blends familiar human emotions with brazenly alien circumstances and forces readers to humanize invisible members of India’s global city.
In an early chapter, Boo describes an Annawadi resident:
"Asha, a fighter-cock of a woman who lived by the public toilet, was differently ambitious. She longed to be Annawadi’s first female slumlord, then ride the city’s inexorable corruption into the middle class."
While I found it easy to object to Asha’s ready embrace of corruption, her aspirations to rise to the middle class are disarmingly modest.
In a later chapter, I found myself unsure who to root for. Following a young woman’s injuries, Boo chronicles the challenges of transporting her to a hospital:
"No autorickshaw driver had wanted to transport a woman in such a state as she, given the potential damage to seat covers. But three young men had intervened, getting her to the hospital by threatening a driver with his life."
I wasn’t sure whether the driver was being incredibly callous, or simply protecting his sole livelihood. I wasn’t sure whether the young men were Good Samaritans, or unforgivably violent. I knew the book was non-fiction, but wished it weren’t.
Through stories like these, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an engaging read that helps surface the fullness, complexities, and contradictions tucked away in modern Mumbai.
Published from San Francisco, California