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In My Book Club Books on December 31, 2015 at 8:56 am

The Literary Epicurean Book Club Selection


Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Book Description (Courtesy of Goodreads):

From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities.

In this brilliantly written, fast-paced book, based on three years of uncompromising reporting, a bewildering age of global change and inequality is made human.

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. Abdul, a reflective and enterprising Muslim teenager, sees “a fortune beyond counting“ in the recyclable garbage that richer people throw away. 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. With a little luck, her sensitive, beautiful daughter — Annawadi’s “most-everything girl” — will soon become its first female college graduate. And even the poorest Annawadians, like Kalu, a fifteen-year-old scrap-metal thief, believe themselves inching closer to the good lives and good times they call “the full enjoy.”

But then Abdul the garbage sorter is falsely accused in a shocking tragedy; terror and a global recession rock the city; and suppressed tensions over religion, caste, sex, power and economic envy turn brutal. As the tenderest individual hopes intersect with the greatest global truths, the true contours of a competitive age are revealed. And so, too, are the imaginations and courage of the people of Annawadi.

With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.

Book Club Discussion:

We started our discussion with comments about how depressing this book was to read – the sad lives of the inhabitants of what has to be the worst of slums in the world surrounded by luxury hotels. Now there is a visual for the statistics that tell us 1/3 of the world’s poor live in India, a country with the highest growing economy in the world. This book put some names and faces to those people and showed us the abject poverty in which they lived. It also showed us the widespread corruption – at all levels – that only added to their misery. The added phrase to the title on the front cover states “Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” Must say, we had a difficult time finding any hope in this book.

One member cited this paragraph on p 219 as a great analogy: :“Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation—the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life. In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch. In India, a land of few safe assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted, creative problem-solvers.” That mention of “unpredictability of daily life” reminds us how truly lucky we are and makes us question all our petty complaints.

The real people cited in this book just break your heart. Manju tried to teach the neighborhood children, tried to be honorable, tried to do the right thing, but it was overwhelming because she had little choice when circumstances forced her to buy into the corruption. Then there was a similar situation with Abdul, arguably one of the hardest workers in Annawadi, rising with the sun and working long past sunset on his recycling business.He is falsely accused by his neighbor and his family got thrown into the corrupt legal system. Considering he was not educated, we were impressed that he had some amazing insights about the world he lived in. Such as this observation:  “The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags.”

We questioned why there was no public outrage. There was serious outrage with the incident of the zebra horses (p. 235), but not at the condition of the people in the slums. Members made comparisons between this Indian slum and the feudal system, where the powers that be made sure that everyone had just enough so they wouldn’t rise up. This line on p.254 also helps explain: “In places where government priorities and market imperatives create a world so capricious that to help a neighbor is to risk your ability to feed your family, and sometimes even your own liberty, the idea of the mutually supportive poor community is demolished. The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who are poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.”

Our discussion noted that there were many points the author was trying to make, but this one on p. 237 was one of the key ones: “What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, tooIn the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbleached  The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.” 

The book was published in 2012, and, as we wrapped up our discussion, we are curious to know what (if anything) has changed and what has happened to some of those key people cited in this book.

Other Resources: Behind the Beautiful Forevers (includes discussion guide and Q&A with the author)

Interview with Katherine Boo

Book Club Rating: This was not an easy read, but it was eye-opening and thought provoking. For those reasons, we rated it 4/5 Stars

Book Club Menu

(Authentic Indian Food from Bombay Clay Pit in Brentwood, CA)


Palak Pakoras and Samosa Vegetable


Lamb Curry

Chicken Tikka Masala

Indian Basmati Rice and Saffron Rice