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on 22 March 2013
I must confess I picked this book up with some trepidation. The subtitle - "Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum" - and the cover (of my copy), a young boy sprinting up steps into bright sunlight, made me think it might be another of those. You know, those. The post-Slumdog reportage. "Yes, conditions in Indian slums are appalling. But wait! Look at the way the children run and play! The sights, the smells! The way they can still laugh, in the face of such hardship. The way they just get on with the life they've got!" (What else are they supposed to do?) "So life-affirming!"
The hope of it all!
"Slumdog" is a good film. And a lot of the reportage is also good, and if it's not it's generally well-meaning. But I find it all a bit discomfiting. It's human to believe in hope, but it seems to me that, as Westerners, focussing on the small hopes that slum-dwellers have might be a convenient way of deflecting our own guilt that people have to live this way. (And the likes of Amitabh Bachchan castigating "Slumdog" for focussing on a small part of Indian life might be an Indian way of doing the same thing).
I thought this book might be more of the same. It wasn't.
Boo is no polemicist. She's a true journalist, and she tells this story with a journalistic dispassion, making it all the more affecting. (She has a novelist's eye, though; at times, the prose is breathtaking.) The stories are set in a small slum, rather than one of the giant cities-within-a-city like Dharavi; a wise choice, as she manages to paint a picture of a whole community, almost like a small village. There are a lot of characters to keep up with, and at times it's downright confusing. But even this makes sense. After all, urban India is a confusing place, teeming with people.
Despite the wonderful writing, there were times when I felt I could not go on. When I read about the disease and the filth and children being bitten by rats as they slept. The fungus "like butterfly wings" that grows on feet in the monsoon season. The exploitation and corruption, the abuse of slum-dwellers by the authorities, the abuse of slum children by their own families. The unsolved murders and streets-sweepers left to die on the pavements, the infanticide and the many suicides. And the hope - what there is of it - is almost the worst. That a family, pursued by a rotten judicial system, might not go to prison for a crime they did not commit. That one slum-dweller might, just possibly, scramble over others and into a very slightly less hardscrabble life.
I cried again and again. I became very angry. Occasionally, I laughed out loud. At times I was so scared for the characters that I felt ill with it. And when I had finished, I thought about them all for a long time, and wondered what they are doing now, the ones that survived. Because, of course, there's no story-book ending. Jamal does not win his millions. He doesn't get his Latika. The story might end, but life in the slum staggers and claws and bites and struggles on.
The people of the slum do questionable things - sometimes terrible things - to survive. But I think there is hope. They also do good things. That people forced to live like this could ever be decent, live by any kind of moral code, gives one hope of a sort.
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on 24 March 2012
I work in IT in a large corporation and like many others we have moved a significant proportion of our software development to India. I have visited a few times over the last few years and have been impressed by the individuals I have worked with there. However, what I also noticed as I was driven between hotels, offices and the airport was a the widespread poverty and slums, particularly in Mumbai. Thus, when I read a review of this book in The Economist, I was very keen to learn more.

First of all the quality and style of the writing is second to none. The book is written in excellent, flowing prose and reads like a good novel. It is captivating and at times amusing. I got through it in about four sittings - as I found it hard to put it down. However, it also covers a topic that is both eye-opening and depressing. The corruption, the apparent hopelessness, the low value given to live are all quite sad to read.

If you're curious to learn more about the poor in Mumbai, then you should read this book. Maybe you should read it anyway? Katherine Boo deserves more prizes for this book and the work and research that went into it.
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on 12 June 2012
This is not sociology, nor is it psychology. But Katherine Boo gives a telling and unsentimental analysis of how people manage to survive in situations when they have so few options. There are no angels here, nor are there villains. People with so little learn to give and rely on the support of others, although often they also have to tread on their neighbours toes merely to get by. The writer treats these conflicts and crises with respect. No value judgements. Just beautiful writing.
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"Behind the Beautiful Forevers" is the first book from Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Katherine Boo, a staff writer at "The New Yorker," and former reporter and editor at "The Washington Post." It is a narrative nonfiction that tells the story of several families that live in Annawadi, a small makeshift slum located between the fancy new airport and luxury hotels, and a public toilet and sewage lagoon, in Mumbai (formerly, and better-known as Bombay), a dynamic and fast-growing Indian city.

It is based upon three years of onsite reporting, the author says. "From the day in November 2007 that I wandered into Annawadi until March 2011 when I completed my recording, I documented the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and photographs. Several children of the slum, having mastered my Flip video camera, also documented events recounted in this book. I also used more than 3,000 public records, many of them obtained after years of petitioning government agencies under the landmark Right to Information Act."

As India starts to prosper, and wealthier Indians begin to return home from their diaspora around the world, further deepening the gulch of inequality between the city's rich and poor, residents of Annawadi are hopeful. Abdul, a hard-working Muslim teenager, sees "a fortune beyond counting" in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman of high intelligence, deeply scarred from a childhood in rural poverty, believes she has found another route to the middle class: political corruption. She hopes that, with a little man-made luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter Manju, Annawadi's "most-everything girl"will soon become its first female college graduate. Even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, Sunil, and Sonu, teenaged scrap-metal thieves and garbage scavengers, who are addicted to "Erase-X," the Indian equivalent of "White-Out," of which middle-class office workers generally threw out the little bottles before they were finished. hopefully believed themselves getting closer to what they called "the full enjoy."

Then things take a turn for the worse. Abdul and his family are falsely accused of a shocking crime, and find themselves besieged by corrupt government officials at every turn. A global recession impinges on the economy of the city, until recently one of the fastest growing, most wealth-producing in the world. And three Pakistani terrorists attack the city at its heart, killing more than 100 victims, as the corrupt police stay well out of their way. Life in Annawadi gets tougher: some of its residents lose hope.

The book is beautifully written; although its subject matter is sometimes grim, Boo attacks it with intelligence, wit and humor. It's also surprisingly fast-paced, as it shows us the imagination, enterprise and courage of these slum dwellers. Boo's writing and reporting, in addition to winning a Pulitzer, has won a MacArthur "Genius" grant, and a National Magazine Award for Feature Writing. She has married an Indian, and, for the past decade, divided her time between the United States and India. She has built her career on examining the lives of the world's disadvantaged communities. The MacArthur Foundation said, "[Boo's] extended profiles of individuals struggling at the invisible margins of society open a powerful journalistic window into the obstacles faced by many." Personally, I am somewhat stunned at the authors breathtaking bravery: I don't know how she could have continued in this enterprise, at times when such depressing episodes were occurring. My hat's off to her.
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on 16 April 2012
This is news reporting at its most readable and insightful; it reads like a novel, yet you are assured at the end that all the events recounted are real, as are all the names. How important is it to understand the lives and problems of an Indian slum? I can't answer that; but I can say I have more hope of having an accurate perspective of those problems after reading this book. And despite those problems, its still a good read!

Frank Drake
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on 22 July 2014
This is a remarkable and remorseless portrait of contemporary life in a Mumbai slum told from the perspective of several true-life families - based upon 4 years of 'on location' research and daily contact with the people depicted.

Ruthlessly competitive garbage rifling and endemic corruption almost stifle the lives of the children and women at the centre of the book - but a certain stoic endurance enables most, though not all, to survive.

Alongside the powerfully told tales, Boo gives us compelling political and statistical data (in merciful brevity) which ground the grimness in a credible, broad context. In an afterword, Boo writes of her instinctive surprise that the poor do not take political action against their oppression - but, as she tells us implicitly and explicitly, most poor people blame and scheme against each other in the face of an overwhelmingly indifferent government and culture.

As a novel, this work lacks sufficient unity but as a factual narrative of great human interest, with an admirable lack of sentimentality, it is very readable. Occasionally, Boo loses steam or repeats herself, but her passionately dispassionate non-fictional narrative generally works at a literary level because we learn about the emotional and darker sides of the main characters, especially the children.
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on 3 November 2012
The book although well written was perhaps too long and the style ,written in a rather journalistic manner was not to my taste; I could not sort out the characters enough to follow the overall theme.However I did learn a lot about Life in the Indian slums.
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Katherine Boo researched this book over a period of four years. I was dubious about how she gained so much insight into the Mumbai slum of Annawadi and learned so much about its inhabitants. However we are told at the end that she used written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and photographs - as well as interpreters and translators.

The result is a brilliant journey into the dark heart of urban India. She has chosen to write this non-fiction work in novelistic form - and this works incredibly well. The book concentrates of three main characters. Abdul is a garbage sifter who is quick witted and good at this job which has brought a degree of prosperity to his family. His jealous neighbour Fatima is known for her unpleasant nature and huge sexual appetite. Asha is an ambitious woman who works for Shiv Sena - a rightwing Hindu party. Her dream is to become a "slumlord" and to be in a position to offer favours and take bribes from other slum dwellers.

Following a row about noise Fatima sets herself on fire and blames Abdul. From this a nightmare scenario ensues. The charges can be dropped if a sufficiently large bribe is paid. When it is pointed out that Abdul is too young to be tried in an adult court a doctor is willing to sign a certificate declaring his age but only if the right sum is paid.

Asha (a fascinating character) acts as a go-between in the corrupt negotiations. She is also employed as a paid teaching assistant but only attends the school when she is told the inspectors will be dropping in.

What Katherine Boo shows us is a world of caste and social stratification that offers many people little opportunity for advancement. Even the most able and hard-working come up against the system of corruption and bribery. There seems to be no community values at work in Annawadi. Grinding poverty and lack of opportunity seem to have eliminated them completely. Depressingly, the poor exploit each other.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an exhilarating read. It is beautifully written and deserves the prizes it has received.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 21 January 2013
Katherine Boo is a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, married to an Indian man, who lives partly in India. Over the course of 3.5 years between 2007-2011, she repeatedly visited the slum of Annawadi, nestled alongside the Mumbai International Airport behind a wall advertising "Beautiful Forever" floor tiles. This is a non-fiction account of the events that took place in the slum during that time, based on her observations, extensive interviews and official documentation. It is an incredibly powerful, harrowing and thought provoking book to read.

The inhabitants of Annawadi eke out an existence by scavenging rubbish, obtaining casual construction work or finding some way to game the system. They live by a sewage pool, share a public toilet, sleep on the ground and eat rats when money is short. If they are making even a small profit, they need to bribe the police regularly or they will be arrested on trumped up charges. When they are accused of a crime, there is only a small chance that their actual guilt or innocence will play a part in determining what happens to them. If they get sick, the odds of getting to hospital are slim, and of obtaining the care they need once there even slimmer. Over the course of the book, several lead "characters" give up and choose to kill themselves rather than keep going. Because everything is so difficult, there is only a limited sense of community. Your neighbour is your rival for survival.

To add to your sense of helplessness reading this book, it's clear that effecting change is near impossible. When the Government instigates measures to relocate slum dwellers or to educate children, for example, the monies are swallowed up by corrupt officials and scams.

As a narrative, this book is imperfect as Boo is constrained by reporting the events that actually took place. The ending in particular feels incomplete. If I were rating the book purely on its own terms I would probably only give it 4 stars, but for the sheer power and impact that it has, I am rating it 5.
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on 13 November 2012
An authentically written book about the appalling life of slum dwellers in Mumbai, cheek by jowl with the nouveau riche of that affluent city. It highlights the indomitable spirit of the poor in India as well as the obscene gulf between them and the increasing numbers of rich Indians, many of whom turn a blind eye to the starving millions around them. It also shows the corruption that is endemic in Indian society and one of its great evils that will probably never be fully eradicated. India is the most amazing country (I was born and brought up there) and its people are, by and large, wonderful but this book brought tears to my eyes at the injustice and cruelty of its social structure.
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