Bethany Schumacher, 128 TCCS
Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo
Katherine Boo should be an honorary Peace Corps Volunteer. Her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, follows the interconnected lives of various individuals in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum. The story reads like a novel and serves as the antithesis to The Danger of a Single Story while frankly documenting the myriad ways development aid goes wrong. Not many people can relate to our experiences and perspectives as Peace Corps Volunteers, but Boo gets it and has more to share.
Annawadi is a small community stuck between the growing opulence of Mumbai’s gleaming airport with its five-star hotels, and a lake of sewage. The intersecting stories of its inhabitants display the desperation, ingenuity, perseverance, crushing disappointment, and hope of a life lived in poverty. The book reads well overall, but the candid explanations of corruption won me over. Boo documents corruption with understanding, even compassion. Her calm narrative offers a fresh voice.
As I read, a skeptical voice in my head complained about the author’s Western-sounding name. I felt uncomfortable reading a foreigner’s imaginations of Indian poverty. Then, at the end of the book, an extensive author’s note answered my concerns.
Boo is married to Sunil Khilnani, an Indian academic. Before moving to Mumbai with her husband, Boo was already a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter who wrote about impoverished communities and exposed the systems failing them. Behind the Beautiful Forevers is not, as I had assumed, a novel. Instead, it is a non-fiction work resulting from three years of research, investigation, and interviews.
Boo’s rationale for writing such an intimate story from an outside perspective isn’t ideal – I would still rather read a book about a group of people written by a member of that community – but her note did assuage my concerns. My favorite part was her reminder that this work should not serve as a representative example of Indian people, or Indian slum-dwellers, or even Annawadians in general, as it cannot capture the vast diversity of experiences of a slum, a people, or a country.
Boo’s investigative research, exhaustive interviews, and natural storytelling ability combine to tell a story that resonates with my Peace Corps experience while further broadening my perspective. Reading felt like a cathartic but passionate conversation with another PCV.
Boo won several awards for Behind the Beautiful Forevers including prizes from PEN, the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, the New York Public Library, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Behind the Beautiful Forevers came to me from a list of books by women authors in the last five years. Check out Behind the Beautiful Forevers and discover something else new, too!