“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo.

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“A book of extraordinary intelligence [and] humanity . . . beyond groundbreaking.”—Junot Díaz, The New York Times Book Review
 
“Reported like Watergate, written like Great Expectations, and handily the best international nonfiction in years.”New York

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.

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“What you don’t want is always going to be with you
What you want is never going to be with you
Where you don’t want to go, you have to go
And the moment you think you’re going to live more, you’re going to die”

Literary Awards: Pulitzer Prize Nominee for General Nonfiction (2013), National Book Award for Non-Fiction (2012), Guardian First Book Award Nominee (2012), PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction (2013), Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Current Interest (2012), Dayton Literary Peace Prize Nominee for Nonfiction (2013), Ryszard Kapuściński Prize Nominee (2013), NAIBA Book of the Year for Nonfiction (2012), Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction Nominee (2012).

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Annawadi, India with Airport in View
India Daily Life
Annawadi’s Sewer Lake

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The Players:

ABDUL HUSAIN

  • Hussein, has an adolescent son named Abdul. Abdul helps his family modestly by sorting garbage and bringing home scraps, a common practice in the slums.
  • Abdul begins the book as a quiet, hardworking boy. He obeys his parents and lives on a low key.
  • Fatima  immolates herself to try and blame the Husain’s after a disagreement. The police then detain Abdul, his father, and his older sister. Abdul is sent to a juvenile detention center, while his other family is sent to prison.
  • In prison he encounters “The Master” whom he dubs his savior who completely rearranges the view of his life. He is transformed and mesmerized by the “Master”
  • Abdul is a different man in prison, as he doesn’t care about his family or his future anymore, which occupied his every thought before that.
  • He no longer carries the pressure of providing for a family which consumed his life before prison.
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Abdul (from the play)

ASHA WAGHEKAR

  • Asha is the mother of Manju. She is the “slum lord” or at least aspires to be. 
  • A slum lord is someone chosen by politicians and police officers to fund the settlement according to the authorities’ interests.
  • Asha grew up in rural poverty.  The 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 in the slum.
  • Asha ultimately falls from power but recovers in the end and gives up politics.
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Asha

FATIMA

  • The Husain’s neighbor.
  • She is a one-legged crippled woman. Fatima regularly abuses her children. 
  • She is very angry at life because of her crippled body and her family, who ostracizes her. 
  • She sets herself on fire and makes false accusations of attempted murder and abuse about the Husain boys.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Theatre Photocall, Olivier Theatre, London , UK
Fatima fights with Zehrunsia (Abdul’s mother)

MANJU WAGHEKAR

  • Daughter of Asha
  • Hopes to be the first in the slum to get a college education.
  • She objects to her mothers thirst for power and has long talks in the slum bathrooms with her friend Meena (who eventually poisons herself).
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Manju Narrating a Passage from the Book (taken on Feb. 28, 2002)

SUNIL & KALU

  • Sunil is a young boy who follows the lead of Abdul and Kalu in the recyclables business and eventually is corrupted by his need for money and begins stealing.
  • By the end of the book however, he stops stealing and finds luck as the recyclables business rises again.
  • Kalu: One of the poorest of Annawadi, a 15-year-old scrap metal thief.
  • He steals from construction sites, which shows how being poor can drive you to corruption.
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Sunil on the left, Kalu on the right

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 slum-dwellers 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 city dwellers 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 corruption 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 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? Zehrunsia Husain waivers between sympathy for and disapproval of her difficult neighbor. In the end, did you?

10. Zehrunisa remembers a time when every slum-dweller was roughly equal in his or her misery, and competition between neighbors didn’t get so out of hand. Abdul doesn’t know whether 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 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 slum-dwellers, why might religious practice be diminishing? What role does religious faith still play in the slum-dwellers’ 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?

Of Interest: For some information on how the main characters are doing since Boo wrote the book, see this interview-http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/interview-with-katherine-boo/article6658707.ece

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Mirchi Husain waits for business
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The Annawadi Lake
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Annawadi from the Air

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. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is her first book.

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