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From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of
narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes
heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in
one of the twenty-first century's great, unequal
In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years
of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and
inequality is made human.
Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels
near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper,
Annawadians are electric with hope. Abdul, a reflective and
enterprising Muslim teenager, sees "a fortune beyond counting" in
the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Asha, a woman
of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty,
has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political
corruption. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful
daughter-Annawadi's "most-everything girl"-will soon become its
first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians,
like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves
inching closer to the good lives and good times they call "the full
But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking
tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and
suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic
envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with
the greatest global truths, the true contours of a
competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and
courage of the people of Annawadi.
With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects
human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change,
Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong
into one of the twenty-first century's hidden worlds, and into the
lives of people impossible to forget.
About the Author
Katherine Boo is a staff writer at The New
Yorker and a former reporter and editor for The
Washington Post. Her reporting has been awarded a Pulitzer
Prize, a MacArthur "Genius" grant, and a National Magazine Award
for Feature Writing. For the last decade, she has divided her time
between the United States and India. This is her first book.
1. Barbara Ehrenreich calls Behind the Beautiful Forevers "one of
the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I've ever
read." Yet the book shows the world of the Indian rich-lavish
Bollywood parties, an increasingly glamorous new airport-almost
exclusively through the eyes of the Annawadians. Are they
resentful? Are they envious? How does the wealth that surrounds the
slumdwellers shape their own expectations and hopes?
2. As Abdul works day and night with garbage, keeping his head
down, trying to support his large family, some other citydwellers
think of him as garbage, too. How does Abdul react to how other
people view him? How would you react? How do Abdul and his sort-of
friend, Sunil, try to protect themselves and sustain self-esteem in
the face of other people's contempt?
3. The lives of ordinary women- their working lives, domestic
lives, and inner lives-are an important part of Behind the
Beautiful Forevers. The author has noted elsewhere that she'd felt
a shortage of such accounts in nonfiction about urban India. Do
women like Zehrunisa and Asha have more freedom in an urban slum
than they would have had in the villages where they were born? What
is Meena, a Dalit, spared by living in the city? What freedoms do
Meena, Asha, and Zehrunisa still lack, in your view?
4. Asha grew up in rural poverty, and the teenaged marriage
arranged by her family was to a man who drank more than he worked.
In Annawadi, she takes a series of calculated risks to give her
daughter Manju a life far more hopeful than that of other young
women such as Meena. What does Asha lose by her efforts to improve
her daughter's life chances? What does she gain? Were Asha's
choices understandable to you, in the end?
5. The author has said elsewhere that while the book brings to
light serious injustices, she believes there is also hope on almost
every single page: in the imaginations, intelligence and courage of
the people she writes about. What are the qualities of a child like
Sunil that might flourish in a society that did a better job of
recognizing his capacities?
6. When we think of corruption, the examples tend to be drawn from
big business or top levels of government. The kind of corruption
Behind the Beautiful Forevers show us is often described as
"petty". Do you agree with that characterization of the corruption
Annawadians encounter in their daily lives? Why might such
corrruption be on the increase as India grows wealthier as a
7. Does Asha have a point when she argues that something isn't
wrong if the powerful people say that it's right? How does constant
exposure to corruption change a person's internal understanding of
right and wrong?
8. Shortly before Abdul is sent to juvenile jail, a major
newspaper runs a story about the facility headlined: "Dongri Home
is a Living Hell." Abdul's experience of Dongri is more complex,
though. How does being wrenched away from his work responsibilities
at Annawadi change his understandings of the hardships of other
people? Are terms like liberty and freedom understood differently
by people who live in different conditions?
9. Fatima's neighbors view her whorling rages, like her bright
lipsticks, as free comic entertainments. How has her personality
been shaped by the fact that she has been defined since birth by
her disability-very literally named by it? Zehrunusa waivers
between sympathy for and disapproval of her difficult neighbor. In
the end, did you?
10. Zehrunisa remembers a time when every slumdweller was roughly
equal in his or her misery, and competition between neighbors
didn't get so out of hand. Abdul doesn't know whether or not to
believe her account of a gentler past. Do you believe it? Might
increased hopes for a better life have a dark as well as a bright
11. Many Annawadians-Hindu, Muslim, and Christian- spend less time
in religious observance than they did when they were younger, and a
pink temple on the edge of the sewage lake goes largely unused. In
a time of relative hope and constant improvisation for the
slumdwellers, why might religious practice be diminishing? What
role does religious faith still play in the slumdwellers'
12. Who do you think had the best life in the book, and why?
13. In the Author's Note Katherine Boo emphasizes the volatility
of an age in which capital moves quickly around the planet,
government supports decline, and temporary work proliferates. Had
the author followed the families of Annawadi for only a few weeks
or months, would you have come away with a different understanding
of the effects of that volatility? Does uncertainty about their
homes and incomes change how Annawadians view their neighbors? Does
economic uncertainty affect relationships where you live?
14. At one point in the book, Abdul takes to heart the moral of a
Hindu myth related by The Master: Allow your flesh to be eaten by
the eagles of the world. Suffer nobly, and you'll be rewarded in
the end. What is the connection between suffering and redemption in
this book? What connections between suffering and redemption do you
see in your own life? Are the sufferers ennobled? Are the good
rewarded in the end?
About the Book
From Pulitzer Prize-winner Boo comes a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the 21st century's great, unequal cities.