Annawadi is a makeshift settlement in the shadow of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport, and as India starts to prosper, Annawadians are electric with hope. Behind the Beautiful Forevers narrates the fate of three key families within this Mumbai slum, locked together in terrible and tragic circumstances. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. Fatima, neighbour, born with one leg and a bitter rival of Abdul’s family. Asha, a woman of formidable wit and deep scars from a childhood in rural poverty, has identified an alternate route to the middle class: political corruption, and seeks to intervene (and make) from the tragedies of every day.
I bought this book for my husband, at the time of its release, as he had lived and worked in Mumbai. I visited him there a few times, and had become charmed by India and its people. We took a slum tour, in Deravi, Mumbai’s largest slum, a morning that I will never forget. Reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers some years later adds a layer that is hard to accommodate. What left me, after this ‘responsible’ slum tour, was how much pride, hope and ‘place’ was exhibited in these communities. We saw plastic recyclers, tanneries, schools – and the dreaded public loos. We peered in the slum dwellings, and remarked on the beautifully turned out children. We saw mostly smiles. We saw the computer facility, funded by the tours. To coin a phrase, we left only footprints, as it was forbidden to take photographs. This was an experience, and not a zoo. So why has Boo’s book unsettled me? Boo’s book offers little hope, and little sense of community. Neighbours seek to out do each other, make money off each other, none more so than Asha. There is such little kindness in Boo’s account, and that sits at odds with the people we met in India.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a remarkable book. It is well-written, almost novel-like, with tension on every page. It is achingly sad, even more so as it is all true. This isn’t the creation of a novelist, making their darlings suffer. Boo spent three years living in Annawadi, aided by translators, to report on the lives of the people that feature in her book. It is an impressive project, boiled down to a highly engaging, if disturbing, read. I imagine that I will be thinking about it, haunted by it, long after shutting the book.