Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo


This book is gripping as it tells about the daily struggles of the slum dwellers, many of whom are women and children, in abject poverty, hunger, illnesses, the cast system, religious tensions, interpersonal conflict, police corruption and continuous extortion, and the constant fear of their homes being demolished by the airport authority, all with the hope of one day breaking into the middle-class and having a better life.

Book Cover
Book Cover

Katherine Boo tells a story of the side of India I didn’t see during my time there, or more appropriately, the side of India I saw but didn’t understand. Her story follows Abdul, a quiet trash sorter and his family, Fatima a one-legged wife and mother, Ashna a female slum lord and her daughter Manju, who aspires to become the first woman to graduate from college in Annawadi.

Now trouble begins when Zehrunisa, Abdul’s mother demands the installation of a cupboard in her kitchen. Sharing a wall with Fatima, the construction creates noise which Fatima finds unbearable because she has seen Zehrunisa’s family possessions outside and is bursting with envy. Fatima laments that the shaking wall has thrown rubble in her rice and insults ensue.

The quarrel escalates and Fatima vows to ruin the Hussain family, who are envied by a few others because of their successful garbage business. Later that night, Fatima’s 8-year-old daughter, Noori, watching through a hole in the wall, sees her mother dowse her body with kerosene and set herself alight. This act eventually leads to Fatima’s excruciating and expensive demise, but not before making a police statement stating that the Hussains, Muslims in a Hindu community, were responsible for her action.

Abdul’s father had developed an irritating habit of talking about the future as if it were a bus: “It’s moving past and you think you’re going to miss it but then you say, wait, maybe I won’t miss it—I just have to run faster than I’ve ever run before. Only now we’re all tired and damaged, so how fast can we really run? You have to try to catch it, even when you know you’re not going to catch it, when maybe it’s better just to let it go—”

This lands Abdul, the breadwinner of the family, his father and sister in prison. All attempts to secure their freedom are thwarted by police extortion and bribery. The once thriving family gradually loses its business to accomplice competition in the slum but survives on honour and hopes that justice will prevail.

“For some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting,” was how he put it. “But now I’m just becoming dirty water, like everyone else. I tell Allah I love Him immensely, immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is.”

From my previous post: Incredible India, it’s easy to see why I enjoyed this and found it relatable and easy to imagine. It’s a humorous but heart-wrenching book to read, especially knowing that all the people are real and their names are real.

Often, I found myself laughing at the thoughts of Manja who kept to a skincare routine despite her meagre earnings and screaming with joy after Cynthia’s botched testimony against the Hussain’s in court. In the same breath, this book brought me to tears when Kalu the scavenger was murdered and his friend Sanjay, who had witnessed the murder, took his own life in fear.

It’s a great book that takes us into the mind of the extremely poor, giving us detailed insights into their perspective of life and survival, and their struggle to be better despite the odds stacked against them. A world where having a walled home as opposed to one of polythene sheets is enviable, or a tiled floor instead of just cement means you are on the come-up.

It also leaves us with the question “Since there are more poor people than rich people in the world. Why don’t more of our unequal societies implode?” I’d like to know what you think.

If you’ve read this book, let me know what you think about it. If you haven’t but you’ve been to India and seen these slums, I’d love to hear your opinion.

Have you read Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo? Let me know what you think in the comments!
As always, thank you for reading!

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