Behind The Beautiful Forevers / Katherine Boo

Boo, a respected reporter and a former editor for The Washington Post, spent over three years observing the residents of Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai, India.  In this award-winning book, she documents in vivid detail the lives of a number of its citizens.  Unlike many other authors of narrative nonfiction, Boo does not insert herself into the story with editorial comments.  Instead, based on extensive interviews, she lets the characters speak for themselves.  While the residents’ stories are frequently heartbreaking, the majority of them refuse to give in to despair.  Even though their houses in the slum are off-kilter, poorly constructed, beset by floods of sewage, and lack indoor plumbing, life in Annawadi is considered a step up from the rural countryside.  The book’s main character is Adbul, a teenager who is enterprising and hard working.  He and his family are involved in recycling garbage.  Things are looking up in their lives, thanks to the economic boom at the time.  His family seems to be inching closer to the possibility of escaping this festering slum.  But then, Adbul is falsely accused of driving a bitter, jealous neighbor to set herself on fire.  In the ensuing drawn-out trial, the family’s resources are drained as the police and other officials demand bribes to insure a favorable outcome to the court case.  The India that Boo presents here is corrupt, brutal, and most of the money being spent to help the poor disappears into the deep pockets of the rich.  Yet despite the harsh conditions of Annawadi, its citizens show a stamina and resiliency that is truly inspiring.  While the book is nonfiction, it reads like a novel, and I found it hard to put down.  Even before its last page is turned, an indelible impression of Annawadi and its residents is sure to be seared into the reader’s memory.

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