It still seems a bit too soon to start reading fiction again after finishing A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, so I thought I would read some of the non-fiction I’ve been meaning to read for a long time instead. ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum’ by Katherine Boo follows the lives of three families who live in Annawadi, a large slum next to Sahar International Airport in Mumbai which was initially inhabited by migrant workers during the early 1990s. Over the course of three and a half years of reporting in the region between 2007 and 2011, Boo documented the experiences of the slum-dwellers and their day-to-day lives.
Somewhat ironically given that I was trying to avoid fiction this week, ‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ has a strong narrative style of prose which could easily be read as a novel. It is well suited to an exploration of the lives of Annawadi’s residents and also ensures that the book is entirely focused on the people living there. There is very little personal commentary from Boo about what she experienced until the Author’s Note at the very end where she outlines how she undertook her research and verified the facts.
The people of Annawadi are portrayed as characters rather than caricatures and their stories are closely observed and told with empathy and compassion whilst avoiding sentimentality. The book introduces the reader to Abdul Husain, a garbage trader in his teens whose family has been involved in a dispute with their one-legged neighbour Fatima who sets herself on fire after becoming enraged by their relative prosperity. After initially surviving, she falsely accuses the Husains of setting her alight and after her death, they lose their business. Meanwhile, the book also follows other residents in the community including Asha, a teacher who has no qualifications but has ambitions outside of Annawadi for both herself and her daughter.
The title of the book is taken from the wall which separates the slum from the hotels where adverts for “Beautiful Forever” Italian floor tiles are displayed. It is the close proximity of the slum between luxury hotels and a new airport terminal situated on “a stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late” which makes this such a poignant and at times unsettling read. As well as the stark contrast between these two settings, a strong hierarchy exists within Annawadi itself where the caste system and the prevalence of corruption dominates everyone’s lives. One of the most terrible examples occurs when Abdul is in the detention centre after Fatima’s death. With no official documents confirming his age, a doctor says that he will declare Abdul to be seventeen years old if he pays him two thousand rupees or twenty years old if he does not, meaning he would be tried for the crime as an adult and less likely to receive a lenient sentence.
‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ is a sensitive and subtle portrait of life in modern India. I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy narrative non-fiction, such as ‘Nothing to Envy‘ by Barbara Demick about life in North Korea.