I’m currently reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a non-fiction book by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Katherine Boo. The book is extremely gripping, filled with enough action to rival many fictional stories. Boo stayed in Mumbai from November 2007 through to March 2011, reporting and documenting her experiences with the slum dwellers that she encountered. The book’s focus is on Annawadi, a slum located near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, in India’s capital city, Mumbai. It follows the interconnected lives of several of the slum’s inhabitants who live and work in the area, including young trash pickers, a female “slumlord,” and college students.
For me, the ability to be able to zoom in and focus so closely on such completely different ways of life whilst sitting reading this book curled up in front of a fire at home was a truly remarkable experience.
The first thing that I consider to be extremely poignant in the book is the vast juxtaposition of wealth, a factor from which the book’s title is taken. Mumbai is now one of the largest megacities in the entire world, and India is rained 10th in terms of number of millionaires in countries (and is expected to rise further to 5th place by 2020). Furthermore, Mumbai is ranked the 6th country in terms of its billionaires. This contrast between the super rich and the impoverished is where the book takes its unusual title from. Mumbai’s airport welcomes an abundance of wealthy travellers everyday who are greeted on arrival with the sight of a large advertisement wall that reads “Beautiful Forever” over and over again, hence the name Behind the Beautiful Forevers. In other words, behind this new home of economic prosperity lies Annawadi, a slum of both despair and hope.
Slums can be places of despair. The book documents scandals within the slums: hatred between neighbours; corrupt governing, political and police institutions; jealousy; make-shift houses on illegal land; illegal informal economies. Boo’s description truly illustrates Annawadi as Mumbai’s under city – an area of exchange and business almost concealed by the “Beautiful Forever” walls on the foot of Mumbai’s flourishing financial district.
Yet Boo’s work also reveals Annawadi to be a slum of hope. Despite the dismal appearance of slum life, the inhabitants are extremely entrepreneurial and resourceful working hard to extract a living from any rubbish they can collect and recycle, extrapolating everything they can in their surroundings. The language of corruption in the book further illustrates the degree to which Annawadi’s residents are striving to improve their own lives in search of not only a means of survival, but of a way out of the slums. Throughout the challenges faces within the book, the residents cling on to their individual hopes for their hard work and perseverance to be rewarded, whether that is for a brick wall instead of a sheet in their slum, a job in a hotel, or a way out of the slum for good.
The book has recently been adapted by David Hare for a National Theatre production. Behind the Beautiful Forevers runs at the Olivier Theatre, London (SE1) until 13th April 2015. I am hoping to see the production in London, but if circumstances do not permit this I will be watching a live screening from Norwich’s Picturehouse Cinema, Cinema City.
PHOTO: National Theatre
The book can be purchased for only £6.99 (paperback) or £1.29 (Kindle) here:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum