Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Katherine Boo – book review

Someone suggested we read this for the Las Vegas Non-Fiction Book Group that I co-ordinate. It’s a very easy read but it turned out not to be a particularly popular choice and the meeting wasn’t as well-attended as previous meetings. It did give us a good excuse to go for a curry, though.

The title of this book doesn’t tell you much, but the reason for it is explained as you read. The subtitle is “Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”, which is a bit more helpful to the prospective reader. Katherine Boo spent three years interviewing the people of a small area of a slum by Mumbai airport. She tells the stories of some of the people and families that live there over that period. It almost reads like a novel, it opens on a drama, and as the story goes on, we’re told how the circumstances that lead to that drama arose, and an attempt is made to explain the social situation that could lead to such a thing – a woman had set herself on fire.

The main story centres around a relatively well-off family, the eldest son works as a garbage collector and sorter, and he seems to be pretty successful within his community. There is a living to be made from recycling in India, and many slum-dwellers collect garbage from their own personal spot, and woe betide anyone who ventures onto anyone else’s turf. Boo interviews several of the garbage-sorters and we get a good view of their lives.

She speaks to a wide range of different women. From those who are married to lazy alcoholics, and have to live with their fate, to the more upwardly mobile, who might be defrauding the system in order to get their daughter and education which might lead to a better life. There’s quite a focus on the role of women in India, I think it’s probably because as this country sees such rapid change it’s the woman who are seeing the fastest change in lifestyle.

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. I think it’s important to try to keep that in mind as you read it, from our western perspective, life in the slums looks very bleak.

This is a well-written book, but poverty in the slums of India isn’t really breaking news, and I found myself wondering quite frequently what Boo’s point was. I think on the whole, if you’re interested in world affairs you know this is going on, the papers are full of this stuff. I don’t feel like I learnt anything new, and if you’re looking to learn more about modern India I would suggest reading this one, and Sideways on a Scooter by Miranda Kennedy. Then you’d be reading stories about the two very different sides of India, the lower classes and the middle classes – for whom the world is changing very rapidly in quite different ways.

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