Behind the Beautiful Forevers
|Behind the Beautiful Forevers|
The book describes a present-day slum of Mumbai, India, named Annawadi, and located near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. It follows the interconnected lives of several residents, including a young trash picker, a female "slumlord," and a college student.
Annawadi is a slum created on land belonging to the Mumbai Airport. It was settled initially by migrant workers who had come to work on the airport in 1991 and stayed behind. The workers reclaimed a piece of airport land that was marshy and otherwise unusable. It quickly grew into a sprawling, densely inhabited zone of makeshift shacks, filled primarily with recent migrants to Mumbai from all over India and Pakistan. Ethnically, it is a mixture of many different groups and languages. Boo got to know the people there during the course of three years and in this work writes about the daily stresses and problems that inhabitants must contend with, such as poverty, hunger, disease, dirt, ethnic strife, violence, the constant fear that the airport authority will bulldoze their homes since they are technically there illegally, corruption, fatigue, weather, and the interpersonal conflicts that are augmented by being forced to live in close quarters with many others. She focuses on people such as Sunil, a stunted orphan who is a garbage picker; Abdul, a second generation garbage picker; Fatima, an emotionally troubled woman with one leg who dreams of a different life; Monju, who is trying to become the first female resident of Annawadi to graduate from college, and her mother, Asha, who is trying to attain the role of "slumlord", giving her access to power, money, and respect, but at the price of becoming part of the corruption around her. One of the central dramas around which the book centers is the self-immolation of Fatima, who then makes a false statement to the police that it was the fault of Abdul, his sister, and his father.
Awards and honors
- 2012 National Book Award, winner, Nonfiction category.
- 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award, finalist, Nonfiction category.
- 2012 Samuel Johnson Prize, shortlist 
- 2012 Guardian First Book Award, shortlist 
- 2012 New York Times bestseller
- 2012 Salon What to Read Awards
- 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Current Interest)
- 2013 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award, Behind the Beautiful Forevers
- Katherine Boo (February 7, 2012). Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. United States: Random House. p. 288. ISBN 978-1400067558.
- Katherine Boo (7 June 2012). Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Slum. United Kingdom: Portobello Books. p. 288. ISBN 978-1846274497.
Sunil is an adolescent boy who was kicked out of his home because his older sister Paulette decided that any boy over the age of 11 was simply “too much to handle”. Thus, Sunil was introduced to the harsh life of living on the streets. Sunil’s younger sister Sunita refused to live without him, so he took on the responsibility of caring for her as well. Sunil went back and forth between the residence of his sister Paulette and Annawadi. “He was therefore used to the transition: accustoming himself to scavenging work, to rats that emerged from the woodpile to bite him as he slept, and to a state of almost constant hunger.” Sunil struggled a great deal with his size. “He looked closer to nine years old than to twelve, a fact that pained him on a masculine level”. While Sunil knew that he wanted to eat to be satisfied; he knew even more that he wanted to eat to grow, to be bigger than his sister, to look like a man. Unfortunately, Sunil’s body had stopped growing for a spell. “To jumpstart his system, he saw he’d have to become a better scavenger.”
Manju is a teenage girl in Annawadi who is trying to become the first female resident of the slum to graduate from college. Manju unlike her mother is a very sweet girl and cares greatly about the feelings of the people surrounding her. She stresses this greatly to her best friend Meena during their late night meetings. When her mother becomes privy to this information, she encourages to Manju to grow a tougher skin. This contrast in both characters’ beliefs causes an uneasiness inside of the household.
Asha is the mother of Manju. She is the ruthless unofficial slumlord of Annawadi, but everybody recognizes her. A slumlord is a “person chosen by local politicians and police officers to run the settlement according to the authorities’ interests.” She is actually a great rarity in India, for female slumlords are not common in the least bit. Usually if a woman is in power it is attributed to the success of her husband; she is considered a stand in. Asha, contrary to most women has the ability to hold her own. She is the mother of three children and took care of the household for the most part by herself. Many of her neighbors did not even think of her as a wife. Asha made her living by being manipulative. She would create problems or make problems seem larger than they really were and make people pay her to fix said problems. Even though she, herself started at the bottom, she is not sympathetic in the least bit when people need her help. Her logic is that everybody is afforded the same opportunities, so what is the point in giving back to her community. She has an “every man for himself” logic. 
A major institution that one might note in Behind the Beautiful Forevers is caste. “Caste is a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, hereditary transmission of a lifestyle which often includes an occupation, ritual status in a hierarchy and customary social interaction and exclusion based on cultural notions of purity and pollution.” The caste system is greatly attributed to Hinduism in the Indian society. The novel shows how many Annawadians have been stuck in the same spot for the entirety of their lives an even their parents have. This is quite foreign to Americans because for the most part, everybody is capable of achieving upward mobility. In India on the other hand, your caste determines one’s place in society and even the types of jobs that one is allowed to work. Moving from caste to caste is not a possibility either; the unwritten rules are pretty strict and everybody respects them. Even marriage is based on caste; a woman cannot marry up and vice versa. This breakdown may seem to be unfair to many Americans, but to many Indians it is very much fair and the way life goes. It is believed that if one lives right in this life, then in the next life there will be mercy and one can be promoted to a greater class.
Gender is the range of physical, mental and behavioral characteristics pertaining to, and differentiating between, masculinity and femininity. (5) Gender is not to be confused with sex which is the biological distinction between male and female (It should be noted that the definition of sex stated is not one that is used worldwide). (11) Depending on where one lives, the role of gender differs. Gender is social construction meaning one cannot be born with gender; it is something he/she must be conditioned into. In the novel, there are specific roles given to men and women. Women are expected to upkeep the household while men are expected to retain and education and become the main if not only breadwinner in the household. The importance of these roles can be seen through the character Meena. She is a teen living at home. Her marriage has been arranged and she is to take care of the household. At home she is under her father and brother’s rule and when she gets married, she will be under the rule of her husband. She commits suicide by consuming rat poison, but “this was the one decision about her life she got to make.” (3) She had never really had any say so in anything. While the structure of gender is similar in America, men and women’s roles have seemingly merged; this is due to the women’s right movement that started in 1848. (12) Many steps have been taken to change the societal views about women in America. Many things have stayed the same because they are cultural and cultural evolutions take more patience. All in all, while reading the novel because of cross cultural differences, it may be difficult to grasp some of the concepts concerning gender. American’s may see easy solutions in their minds, but those too had to be fought for.
The book has been favorably reviewed worldwide. The author is a white American woman with a special interest in India specifically Mumbai. That in and of itself can seemingly be a controversial issue because she is not living what she is writing. Thus, in order for Katherine Boo to get her point across in an effective manner, she must be objective not only in the eyes of the American people where her novel is published, but also in other nations. This especially applies to the reception of the novel in the actual setting of the story and that is in India. This reception will touch on the views from the Katherine Boo, the author herself, America and India. Behind the Beautiful Forevers has many themes that may be viewed differently on different soils. These themes include many power related tensions including: religion (Hinduism vs. Islam), economic status (caste system), sex, gender, sexuality and the dynamic of societies revolving around global cities. All of the said themes are issues that depending on where you are in the world can be looked at differently. It is no debate that your global position often has much to do with your views especially when one’s social supremacy is being disputed. (1) A large question is why Katherine Boo chose the Annawadian slum to begin with. Her biography shows that she has a somewhat deep connection with India with her husband being from India: “Ms. Boo says that she chose Annawadi because the scale of this “sumpy plug of slum” bordering a lake of sewage was small, and its location was fraught with possibilities. Annawadi sits beside the road to the Mumbai airport, on “a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late.” (6) A major point that the author makes is that she did not see in of the characters that she represented in the novel as a representation of Indian people as a whole. She emphasizes that none of her characters can really be used as a comparison to what life is like for all people in her cross cultural encounter. Furthermore, the author actually sees a little bit of herself in each of the characters she writes about. Each one of them is undergoing struggles that they must learn to overcome. Her novel does not give a depiction of “Representative Poor People;” in fact, she wishes that readers do not read the entire book with a feeling of pity in their hearts. The audience should not just be analyzing the struggles of others, but rather think about where they are and how they might handle it. (2) Within the American perception of the novel, it is common to be conflicted with the need to help, with the need to save the day. The encounter with this novel is one that tends to be quite emotional. The “undercity” is imagined in one’s mind causing pity to stir in one’s heart. Ultimately, there is a feeling of helplessness. Much of this audience is even shocked by the fact that people are even living in this condition or living this poor; slum, swampy and sewage are just a few of the commonly used words to describe the setting. This leaves the audience with a bit of uneasiness. While many of the people who read the novel are greatly intrigued by the idea of poverty affecting so many people, they do not see that poverty is right in their backyard. Poverty is the state of one who lacks a certain amount of material possessions or money. (9) The difference between poverty in America and poverty in India is the mere look of it. In America, 1 in 6 people are living below the poverty line. (7) America’s footprint is huge meaning when a huge change is made in America, it affects American citizens, as well as, the citizens in foreign nations. Overall, that means that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Nearly 40% of Americans will experience poverty in their lifetime. (10)That is not to devalue the impoverished situations that either people are living in, just to make clear that one does not have to look far for low income households. The Indian reception of the book differs a bit from the American perception of the novel. Indian critics are not as easily accepting of Boo’s work with Annawadi. That is not to say that they do not appreciate her work, but rather that some explanations have been laid out to further educate her audience on what is happening in Mumbai. Of the outside information that must be further explained is the institution of caste system (8)
- Poverty in India
- Pavement dwellers
- Corruption in India
- Black money in India
- Political corruption
- Mafia raj
- Socio-economic issues in India
- Psychological resilience
- Leslie Kaufman (November 14, 2012). "Novel About Racial Injustice Wins National Book Award". New York Times. Retrieved November 15, 2012.
- Katherine Boo (2012), Behind the Beautiful Forevers, New York: Random House
- John Williams (January 14, 2012). "National Book Critics Circle Names 2012 Award Finalists". New York Times. Retrieved January 15, 2013.
- Alison Flood (5 October 2012). "Six books to 'change our view of the world' on shortlist for non-fiction prize". The Guardian. Retrieved 5 October 2012.
- Alison Flood (8 November 2012). "Guardian First Book award 2012 shortlist announced". The Guardian. Retrieved November 8, 2012.
- David Daley (December 23, 2012). "The What To Read Awards: Top 10 Books of 2012". [[Salon (website)|]]. Retrieved December 24, 2012.
- Staff writer (April 19, 2013). "Announcing the 2012 Los Angeles Times Book Prize winners". LA Times. Retrieved April 21, 2013.
- Carolyn Kellogg (August 14, 2013). "Jacket Copy: PEN announces winners of its 2013 awards". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 14, 2013.
- Boo, Katherine (2012). Behind the Beautiful Forevers. New York: Random House. ISBN 1594136181.
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