Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Sophie SmithIndia. The awe-inspiring crush of humanity. Roads crowded with every sort of vehicle and person and animal.

These are the images, I’m told, that stick with any visitor.

I have never been to India. Everyone I’ve spoken to who has traveled there for work or school or pleasure has described its overwhelming beauty, alongside its devastating filth.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers book jacket

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo is available from the library in hardcover, large print, audiobook on CD, and downloadable audiobook.

Katherine Boo’s National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers delves deep into the muck of one slum in Mumbai and washes away the grime to expose the people eking out a life in any way possible.

Her story opens with the burning of a one-legged prostitute. The tragedy, as the story unfolds, is not just the death of the burned woman, Fatima, or the actions of the Husain family who live next door to her, but rather the culture of poverty and competition in Mumbai’s slums. Issues of caste, religion, money, and power set both real and artificial barriers among the residents of the slum.

Paths to survival
Boo’s narrative nonfiction follows a number of members of this community, each looking for a way to survive the slum either by beating the oppressive and corrupt system or by finding a way out. In all cases, this is much easier said than done.

For Abdul, it is making money by stealing trash and recycling it.

For Asha, it is gaining power through sex and corrupt government.

For Manju, it is continuing her education and escaping before being married off as a valuable commodity.

For many, the only way out is death.

All of this takes place in the slum that is literally on the grounds of  Mumbai’s international airport. It emphasizes just how oblivious visitors and people in successful social classes can be when it comes to the lives in urban slums. But even those in the slums are living complicated, full lives, with challenges vastly different than those around them.

As globalization spreads into forgotten areas of cities around the world, we need to remember the people whose lives are impacted, whose homes were displaced to allow our planes to taxi to the runway.

What fiction or nonfiction have you read lately that has opened your eyes?

About Sophie Smith

Sophie Smith is the supervisor of teen services at the Nashua Public Library and can also frequently be found at the reference desk. As a history and Spanish major at Kenyon College she spent a year in Salamanca, Spain. She earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

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