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Book Clubbing

Introduction

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
by Katherine Boo

Title

Author

Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo

Translators

Unnati Tripathi
Unnati Tripathi

Mrinmayee Ranade
Mrinmayee Ranade

Book Trailer

About the Book

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 cities. 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 enjoy." 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. She learned to report at the alternative weekly, Washington City Paper, after which she worked as a writer and co-editor of The Washington Monthly magazine. Over the years, her reporting from disadvantaged communities 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, the birthplace of her husband, Sunil Khilnani. This is her first book.

About the Translators

Unnati Tripathi started working for Katherine as a translator and researcher in April 2008. Three and a half years later, Unnati had become Katherine’s trusted co-investigator and critical interlocutor, helping to bring the stories of Annawadi residents to the page. Over those years, she also took many photographs of a changing slum. Some of the more recent photos are on this website.
Unnati has an M.A. in sociology from the University of Mumbai and is currently helping the Indian Association for Women’s Studies establish a digital archive. Previously, she provided research and editing assistance on a short documentary film, ‘Do Rafeeq Ek Chai,’ directed by Rafeeq Ellias, and wrote a report on madrasas in Mumbai for the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission under the supervision of Dr. Ranu Jain. An essay of her own, ‘The Precinct as Workspace: Snippets from Conversations,’ was published in Zero Point Bombay: In and Around Horniman Circle, a 2008 anthology edited by Kamala Ganesh, Usha Thakkar and Gita Chadha. Since 2009, she’s also been filming the annual Mahim fair in Mumbai. Her current intent is to make a short documentary on the religious significance and raucous beauty of the fair, and how it subtly illuminates the tensions and possibilities of the city.

Mrinmayee Ranade was the first translator to work regularly on this project. In the first half of 2008, she joined Katherine in Annawadi and several other slums, helping to draw out individuals’ stories with sensitivity and precision and remaining unflappable even in mob scenes. Her deepest sensitivity was to the domestic lives and choices of women, particularly those who were balancing work and family responsibilities, as Mrin herself does. Fittingly, she is now the editor of Madhurima, a weekly women’s supplement for the Bhaskar Group’s Divya Marathi newspaper.

Mrin earned her B.A. degree from the University of Mumbai and previously worked as a reporter and editor for many English- and Marathi-language publications, among them the Indian Express, Navashakti, Maharashtra Times, and Times of India. As a researcher and translator, she’s assisisted journalists from the BBC, The National Geographic, The Guardian and elsewhere. She’s also taught reporting and editing at Wilson College, V.G. Kelkar College, and Rai University.

Three other women also helped Katherine with translation in the first half of 2008. Kavita Mishra, an undergraduate at the University of Mumbai, helped interview residents of several slums in between the obligations of her coursework. Vijaya Chauhan, a veteran educationist, spent a single day at Annawadi and a second day watching Annawadi videotapes, and in that brief time taught Katherine boatloads. Shobha Murthy was an equally generous teacher when she took time from her real work, running educational programs for low-income Navi Mumbai children, to help Katherine interview parents and children.

Discussion Questions

  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 nation?
  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 increase hopes for a better life have a dark as well as a bright side?
  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’ lives?
  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?

Additional Information and Awards

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD WINNER • NATIONAL BOOK CRITICS CIRCLE AWARD FINALIST NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times • The Washington Post • O: The Oprah Magazine • USA Today • New York • The Miami Herald • San Francisco Chronicle • Newsday NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New Yorker • People • Entertainment Weekly • The Wall Street Journal • The Boston Globe • The Economist • Financial Times • Newsweek /The Daily Beast • Foreign Policy • The Seattle Times • The Nation • St. Louis Post-Dispatch • The Denver Post • Minneapolis Star Tribune • Salon • The Plain Dealer • The Week • Kansas City Star • Slate • Time Out New York • Publishers Weekly