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Mumbai

As I am Reading this Book....

As I read Behind the Beautiful Forevers I was struck by the way Katherine Boo portrays the people of Annawadi. Despite the wretched conditions in which they live and the misfortunes of birth and life which brought them there, we see both the tenacity and humanity in each individual. It would have been easy for Boo to hide the Annawadians’ flaws in order to make them more sympathetic to the reader. Instead, Boo makes us feel sympathy for these individuals because of her ability to introduce us to a set of very complex and human characters. I was intrigued by the way Boo examined the idea of justice throughout the book. During Karam and Kehkashan’s trial we are presented with the notion that the problems of Annawadi are of no concern to the rest of Mumbai, even though the outcome of the trial promises to define the future of the Husain family. As terrible as it sounds, I don’t think India is unique in the way it hurries the “less deserving” through the legal system, hoping to ignore the problems of these “inconsequential” citizens as much as possible. As I read about the dire situation of Annawadi’s inhabitants and the severe economic limitations placed on them, I saw how little control Annawadians have over their own destinies. As much as we like to think we have control over our own lives, I don’t think any of us has any more sway over our destinies than the poorest Annawadian street boy. If that’s true, then what, besides pure luck, separates us from the people of Annawadi?  

Hannah Smith, Class of 2016


To many Westerners, India seems a remote and very different place. We see colorful saris, farming villages or perhaps Gandhi. In her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo gives us a new image. In this picture, the clash of the global India populated by the rich and the undercity populated by the inconceivably poor dominates. Boo’s focus is on the slum-dwellers of Mumbai. These are not invented characters, but real people surviving in real poverty. The disparity between the rich and the poor is compounded by a cycle of corruption. Boo follows several families trying to pull themselves out of the slums, only to be pushed back by some unforeseen expense, like needing to pay off the police. Boo’s narrative is straightforward and unflinching. The reader gains an understanding of India’s growing place in the world market and the slum-dwellers' places within Mumbai.

Sarah Page, Class of 2012


How do we make meaning out of what we read, see, or experience on a daily basis?  Storytelling, even non-fiction storytelling, is presumably subject to the interpretations (and potential biases) of the researcher, journalist, or author.  As such, it is important to understand how stories can either reinforce and/or challenge dominant narratives.  In reviewing any text, one should question:  Whose story gets to be told?  When?  Why?  Who gets to tell the story?  How?  With what effect?  Might the same story be told differently by another person?  Whose perspective is privileged?  Whose voice is marginalized or missing?  Who has access to and control over the transmission of knowledge?  Who has the power in this relationship?  And, how do the social identities (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, social class, nationality, etc.) of the researcher, journalist, or author (un)intentionally affect the final product?

In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo writes:  “the events recounted in the preceding pages are real” (p. 249).  While I certainly do not dispute her methodological evidence (e.g., written notes, video recordings, audio-taped interviews, photographs, official government documents), what gets lost, literally or figuratively, in her translation?  And how might others differently construct an equally true reality?  In other words, positionality matters. 

To be clear, by highlighting the issue of positionality, I am not implying that a white woman from the U.S. cannot write about India.  But, as a social scientist who studies issues of identity, I do believe that any person who reports on the experiences of another group (whether the same or different from the researcher) needs to be aware of how her identities, biases, experiences, and subjectivities can and will influence her relationship to the work.  In sum, reflexivity in the data collection and analysis process is crucial.  While Boo, in the “author’s note,” briefly acknowledges the potential limitations of her work, and suggests that this story, which provides a micro-lens for viewing structures of poverty and oppression, is not necessarily reflective of (or generalizeable) to the experiences of all people in India, I was intrigued and left wanting more.

Reflections on Positionality - Prof. Ford of Sociology


As a professor in the English Department and the Director of the Environmental Studies Program, I typically think about the books I am reading in relation to these two disciplinary foci.  Not surprisingly,

Behind the Beautiful Forevers raised a number of complex issues for me in relation to the study of literature and in relation to Environmental Justice. Thinking like an English professor, I found the broader question of genre very important as I was reading the book (please note that I did not call the book a novel, a term for works of fiction).   Although not a work of fiction, the book reads more like a novel than a work of reporting; it employs many of the elements of fiction.  I’m particularly interested in consequences this blurring of the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction may have for the meaning, importance, and truthfulness of the book, which is a work of reporting.  If we respond to Abdul, Asha, and the people of Annawadi as fictional characters, do we diminish them as living human beings?  Does the fast-reading “plot” give us a feeling of having completed a “good story” when we come to the end of the book and thus permit us to safely place the book back on the shelf, allowing us to deny the socio-economic realities of the book and any responsibilities we may now bear because as readers of Behind the Beautiful Forevers we have been educated about the conditions of life in the Mumbai slums? Alternatively, do the fictional elements of the book heighten the nonfiction content of the book?   What is the purpose of nonfiction?

On a less abstract level, thinking of the book from the perspective of Environmental Studies, I am deeply moved by the theme of Environmental Justice that runs through the book.  The US Environmental Protection Agency defines Environmental Justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”  Yet, as the Natural Resources Defense Council reports, “Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts -- say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot.”  Although these definitions refer to conditions in the United States, like so much of Environmental Studies, Environmental Justice is a global issue.  The stark contrast between life on either side of the Beautiful Forevers fence speaks to the social inequities in Mumbai (and, symbolically, throughout the world). What is the relationship between the treatment of the environment (the land) and the treatment of the people in Annawadi?   Is the condition of the environment in Annawadi a reflection of the status of its residents?  Who bears responsibility for such conditions, of both the land and its people?   Is it inappropriate to be concerned with the environment when the basic human needs of the people are barely being met in Annawadi?  Can we strive for Environmental Justice in a place where the ideals of social and political justice are so corrupted and distorted?

Prof. Marx, Associate Professor of English


At times, it is easy to forget that Katherine Boo's Behind The Beautiful Forevers is a work of nonfiction. After all, it's hard to dislike even the cruelest, most self-serving of her "characters" as one follows how the actions of her subjects intertwine. The children of Annawadi falter, and triumph, if only to falter again. As strong as her story line is, even stronger is the thread of political consciousness that holds it together. It's evident that as much as the rise of globalization and "New India" hurts Abdul, Manju, and Kalu, without the refuse left behind from tourists and the wealthy elite, the fragile industry in which they work would not exist. That the very airport that threatens to displace the citizens of Annawadi also brings jobs and promise of limitless opportunities looms constant throughout the story. It is in this way that Boo so skillfully melds her narrative with investigative journalism, leaving the reader not only asking "what happened" to some of Boo's most memorable characters, but also with a greater understanding of both globalization and the realities of living in an undercity.

Jenna Postler, Class of 2013


Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is a riveting book exploring the pressures, politics, and power dynamics within a Mumbai slum as globalization encroaches. Boo follows families and individuals as they struggle to survive through inhumane conditions. The book forces readers to rethink their previous thoughts on topics such as globalization with graphic and moving imagery. No longer will the reader be able to glorify globalization’s impact on so-called “third world nations,” as the reality is shocking. Aid organizations, education initiatives, and tourist destinations are intertwined with government corruption, and Boo illustrates these issues with grace and understanding. Boo is able to create a beautiful and informative account of real life events in a way that speaks to even the most cynical readers.

Abigail Wyant, Class of 2013