As a book lover, there is no better discovery than a story that is so compelling, you cannot put it down. It’s been some time since I have found such a book. I was surprised and delighted to find this in Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers (“BTBF”). Boo’s Pulitzer prize winning reporting led to her first book, a non-fiction account of life in Annawadi, a makeshift slum standing in stark contrast to the luxury hotels on the periphery of the airport in Mumbai, India. The author provides stunning insight to the life of a population on the fringe of society lacking the most basic necessities including running water, a sewage system – even adequate resources to buy or grow food.
The story centers around several residents including, Abdul, the oldest of his Muslim family’s ten children whose hard work has provided his family with the slum’s greatest potential for a success story. An entire economy grows and thrives on the airport’s cast-off trash and Abdul “the garbage sorter” plays an ambitious role in it. Unfortunately for Abdul, circumstances beyond his control threaten to damage his family’s future. I assumed it was India’s poverty and caste system that served as the greatest deterrent to elevating those on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder, it turns out corruption may play a greater role.
In addition to Abdul, Asha, a woman power hungry in the most unlikely of places features prominently in the book along with her beautiful and naive daughter. Most compelling may be young Kalu, one of the poorest and sweetest Annawadians featured.
Most books on such a serious and gloomy topic, highlighting the futility of life in the slum and the randomness of life’s misfortunes would no doubt prove a dismal read. However, Boo’s beautiful prose, along with the spirit of her characters, brings the story of the slum dwellers to life with care. Much like Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Boo’s book reveals moments of tenderness and humor where least expected. Startling corruption, quiet moments shared at the public toilets, the discovery of an exceptionally valuable piece of trash – when portrayed by this capable author all reveal the nature and personalities of the slum dwellers to be multidimensional.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a skillfully written book that leaves the reader wondering less what we have in common with slum-dwellers and more how alike our common humanity makes us.