BOOK REVIEW: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo

Reviewed by  Michael D’Alimonte 

Integrating three years of research and reporting, Katherine Boo has streamlined the complex issues and social dynamics of a Mumbai slum into the compelling narrative, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Set in Annawadi, a slum in Mumbai surrounded by modern airports and hotels, Boo recounts the lives and hardships of its many residents in a manner that is both striking and yet very familiar. Despite the fact that the entire plot and its driving factors are based in foreign affairs and cultures, Western readers will find that the tale is surprisingly relatable.

All of the residents of Annawadi are in a constant state of struggle as no family can be seen as wealthy or secure. This constant state of hardship disheartens some but galvanizes most into striving for a path out of the slum way of life. Boo focuses on two families with such aspirations, the hopeful slumlord and mother Asha, and the Hussain family of garbage sellers, who have both began to prosper in their harsh surroundings. Both simply wish to achieve security and affluence in a country that has undergone drastic changes culturally and economically. As slums are technically illegal dwelling places in Mumbai, Annawadi almost acts as a country within a country, with its own rules and customs. Emphasising this contrast between the Annawadi slum culture against the wealthy population of Mumbai, Boo creates a context quite similar to the Western narrative trope of an aspiring immigrant to the Western world.

The sole goal of all Annawadians is to integrate themselves into a culture and caste deemed superior, refined, and wholly removed from their own. Each Annawadian’s aspiration to enter the upper echelons of Mumbai’s social hierarchy shares a striking resemblance to the desire of immigrants entering the Western world as recounted in various narratives found in what is typically referred to as “Immigration Literature”. Stories depicting foreign settlers entering America have often focused upon the sense of alienation that such migrants feel in a new environment, as well as their economic struggles and cultural persecution. Such tales include The Joy Luck Club, The Native Speaker, The Kite Runner and many others. The characters of these narratives and those found in Behind the Beautiful Forevers all wish to achieve the same goal of climbing the social and economic ladder and establishing themselves in an environment different from their origins.

By borrowing the narrative devices typically associated with immigration literature, Boo has effectively created an accessible pathway into the hearts and minds of her characters. As a Western reader, I myself was apprehensive as to whether I would be able to relate to a story so far removed from my own culture. My worries were abolished as soon as familiar tones began to resonate. The struggles of Asha, the Hussain family, and the many residents of Annawadi are portrayed in a manner that highlights their similarities and familiarity to the reader rather than their differences. Even if one is unfamiliar with the struggles of poverty and persecution, as most Western readers are, one can still empathize with Boo’s characters as through their Western parallels. Cultural differences are gapped and the reader is instantly engrossed and attached to foreign characters that are inherently quite familiar.
But that is not to say that Boo is simply rehashing stereotypical elements of other stories. Instead she creates a new kind of immigrant’s tale, one that is fit into a complex globalized context. The residents of Annawadi are not truly foreigners, they only seem to be due to the stark contrast between their slum environment and the monuments of modernity that surround them. In truth, it is the influence of Western society and foreign powers that are the cultural invaders and have forced the natives of Mumbai into a position of inferiority. For the wealthy of Mumbai, the effects of globalization pose no problem, but as Boo points out, the same cannot be said for the poor. New rules, customs, and designations of worth have shifted due to the influence of foreigners and the town of Annawadi, as well as the rest of the lower classes of Mumbai, can only try to keep up.

In this respect Behind the Beautiful Forevers offers readers a very interesting perspective on the effects of globalization. As cultures and economies have become increasingly linked so has their influence upon each other. But a hierarchy does exist. Asha, the Hussains, and the rest of Annawadi want to be just like the rich foreigners and the higher classes of Indians who emulate them. Globalization does not end at economies but extends even further and permeates into the cultures of nations. Biases, stereotypes, and cultural misconceptions are then created as only a stylized and partial depiction of a nation is portrayed through global media. Western readers will witness just how their own culture is viewed through the eyes of a lower class slum dweller of Mumbai and will alternatively realize their own uninformed prejudices regarding Indian culture. Offering an unbiased window into the lower class culture of India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a compelling tale that is both entertaining and informative.

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