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

Katherine Boo

Random House

“Always I was thinking how to try to make my life nicer, more okay, and nothing got better,” Sunil said. “So now I’m going to try to do it the other way. No thinking how to make anything better, just stopping my mind, then who knows? Maybe then something good could happen.”

Abdul swatted him. “I lose my head, listening to you,” he said. He felt old, sitting next to someone who still had ideas.

           from  Behind the Beautiful Forevers


Too poor to afford the luxury of guilt

Along the roadway leading to the Mumbai International Airport, there is a long concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements for floor tiles with the running slogan, “Beautiful Forever.” On the other side of the wall is the vast sprawling slum of Annawadi.

Katherine Boo, Pulitzer-prize winning reporter and staff writer for The New Yorker, spent three years getting to know the inhabitants of Annawadi, and has written a powerful and moving account of their lives that resembles a Dickens novel more than a sociological study.

Certainly, many are characters worthy of Dickens: wily and cunning Asha, who aspires to become a slumlord; Fatima the One Leg, hysterical and bitter, whose desperate self-immolation will scorch many innocent lives; Corporator Subhash Sawant, elected official of the slum district, epitomizes the corrupt politician, dressed in his white safari suit with “enough oil in his hair to fry garlic.”

And, as in any good Dickens tale, there are the waifs: Abdul, a youth who works hard as a garbage trader, supporting his disabled father and mother and their large family; Manju, Asha’s lovely 18-year old daughter, who aspires to teach and help others out of their poverty, a rare beautiful flower in a fetid swamp; and Sunil, a twelve year old street urchin who looks nine due to malnourishment, living by his wits and continually dreaming of a better life.

Dickens wrote his popular stories against the backdrop of the social ills of his time, a lesson Boo has learned. She portrays corruption in India as a way of life, among the politicians (to be expected), but also in the hospitals, schools, and the so-called justice system. When Abdul is falsely accused of a terrible tragedy, the court has him examined to determine whether he, at five-foot-one and weighing 105 pounds, is a minor or an adult. If determined to be an adult, he goes to the notorious Arthur Road prison where he faces rape and brutality while awaiting trial. After examining him, the doctor tells Abdul that he is seventeen years old if he pays four thousand rupees, twenty years old if he doesn’t.

An economic pecking order exists in the slum where the destitute prey on those even more destitute than themselves, and life is reduced to its basics: a 2-year old whose chronic ill health is draining a family’s meager resources “accidentally” drowns in a basin of water. The people of Annawadi are so poor they can’t even afford the luxury of guilt. Human values, like dignity, compassion, honesty, are subordinated to the primary value of survival.

Boo concludes, “It is easy, from a safe distance, to overlook the fact that in undercities governed by corruption, where exhausted people vie on scant terrain for very little, it is blisteringly hard to be good. The astonishment is that some people are good, and that many people try to be…”


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June15-July 14, 2012.) Reprinted with permission.