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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: A Book Review

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

Book Review, Poverty, Non fiction

Edited by: Aneesha Chandra

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, is a story that takes the reader on a journey through Annawadi, one of Mumbai’s urban pockets of poverty, and its impoverished residents. The story highlights themes of poverty, caste, religion, sex, social and economic inequality, corruption, and global change by describing life-altering events as well as everyday events experienced by the individuals residing there. 

The story examines the lives and dreams of the people of Annawadi, a suffocating and dirty slum that squats between the glossy luxury hotels around Mumbai airport and a disease-borne lake of raw sewage. Jets scream overhead; the “honk-horn opera” of the airport road is played out beyond a concrete wall covered with hoardings for the Italianate floor tiles “Beautiful Forever”, which give the book its title. The wall hides and separates Annawadi from the airport’s rich international passengers.

Annawadi, born in 1991 when India’s economic liberalisation began, was the work of Tamil migrants who reclaimed the land from a snake-infested marshland at the edge of the airport. The slum comprises waste segregators, rag-pickers, and migrant labourers who have been thrown off their land. Annawadi is the only home they know. They try to find opportunities to overcome poverty and navigate their lives through this world of development, modernisation, and global economic change — a world they are excluded from. 

Boo paints a picture of Mumbai, one of India’s prided urbanised cities, a place of social, political, and economic inequality that is “starved of affordable formal housing.” It is shameful to see that in one city, there exists such a drastic gap between the rich and the poor. The poor do not have access to resources that are vital for survival and that have political influence in a democracy — denied the opportunity to vote, for example. This is mainly caused by corruption, not only by the government but also by many common men who practise it, as seen in the case of the character Asha. Asha, an Annawadi resident who represents the Shiv Sena Party, has the limitless urge to gain political power and influence, thus doing whatever it takes to earn profit and to become the slumlord. Robbed of opportunities, the only opportunity the poor have left is that of corruption. Poverty leads to the oppression of the poor in the social system, leading to them not having a voice to raise issues that affect them.

The book encompasses a wide range of themes. All the themes weave into each other in an effortless manner. In the developing social setting Annawadis were in, the old caste system — in which a person’s social status was defined by the specific group they were born into — continues to shape who has power in Indian society and who remains among the poor and the outcast. Thus, society decides an individual’s caste and occupation by birth, as occupation is closely linked to caste. 

“To be poor in Annawadi, or in any Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another.” Simply living in slums was illegal. Airport authorities wanted individuals in Annawadi to be displaced in order to extend the airport as well as to gain profit from businessmen. So, in a way, the rich of the society were in conflict with those people who lived in Annawadi.

Almost no one in the slum was considered poor by the official Indian benchmarks. Apparently, they were part of 100 million Indians to be freed from poverty. Thus, Annawadians were part of the most successful narratives in the history of capitalism. This is a clear contradiction between society and the individuals at Annawadi.

Due to the incredibly close quarters of life in the slum, all the inhabitants of Annawadi are intimately involved in each other’s lives. This proximity fosters friendships in a few cases, such as the uneasy peace between Abdul, Sunil, and Kalu or the bond between Manju and Meena. Yet more often, the lack of space and the obligatory closeness create strife. Their common goal  — to do better in life — fosters a spirit of competition between families over who can get ahead socially and financially. The feud between Fatima and the Husains, for example, begins because Fatima is jealous of the Hussains’ increase in income.

Another aspect of life in the slums that keeps the people of Annawadi from helping one another is that there is a clear danger in becoming involved with unknown people or authority figures. The risks can be physical — slum residents, for example, often refuse to help those who have contagious diseases for fear of becoming infected themselves (the community does not have access to adequate healthcare). The risks can also be political, as when the other residents of Annawadi are afraid to speak out about how Fatima burned herself in fear of the corrupt Mumbai police. Boo also shows how religious and cultural differences divide Indian society, even in “new” India that strives to be one united community. The Husains are hated in Annawadi because they are Muslims in a Hindu majority area, and young women of low caste have difficulty making advantageous marriages that could pull them from poverty because caste stigma is still so prevalent. But despite their religious difference, Abdul, Kalu, and Sunil interacted with each other on a day to day basis.

The story is fast-paced, intelligent, and filled with deep insight and subtle humour. Even though it is based on three years of diligent reporting, it does not read like a nonfiction piece. It transports the reader into the hidden world of the 21st century. 

Miloni Shah

Ashoka '23

Miloni Shah is currently studying at Ashoka University, Haryana and wishes to pursue Psychology and Sociology and Anthropology. Dance is her one true love. She is passionate about theatre, cooking, board games, music, and writing. She loves experimenting and adventure, and created a YouTube channel discover new things in life.
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