Summary and book reviews of Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2012, 288 pages
    Apr 2014, 288 pages

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Book Summary

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.

Winner of the BookBrowse 2012 Best Nonfiction Book Award

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.



Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station. Rewind, see Abdul running backward, away from the station and the airport, shirt buttons opening as he flies back toward his home. See the flames engulfing a disabled woman in a pink- flowered tunic shrink to nothing but a matchbook on the floor. See Fatima minutes earlier, dancing on crutches to a raucous love song, her delicate features unscathed. Keep rewinding, back seven more months, and stop at an ordinary day in January 2008. It was about as hopeful a season as there had ever been in the years since a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one-third of the planet's poor. A country dizzy now with development and circulating money.

Dawn came gusty, as it often did in January, the month of treed kites and head colds. Because his family lacked the floor space for all of its members to lie down, Abdul was asleep on the gritty maidan, which for years had passed as his...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Barbara Ehrenreich calls Behind the Beautiful Forevers "one of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I've ever read." Yet the book shows the world of the Indian rich - lavish Bollywood parties, an increasingly glamorous new airport - almost exclusively through the eyes of the Annawadians. Are they resentful? Are they envious? How does the wealth that surrounds the slumdwellers shape their own expectations and hopes?

  2. As Abdul works day and night with garbage, keeping his head down, trying to support his large family, some other citydwellers think of him as garbage, too. How does Abdul react to how other people view him? How would you react? How do Abdul and his sort-of friend, Sunil, try to protect themselves and ...
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The consensus is in: Katherine Boo's narrative nonfiction about corruption, struggle, and hope in Annawadi, India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, is very popular with BookBrowse reviewers; 30 out of 30 readers rate it 4 or 5 stars! Here's what people are saying:

Some books carry me along, this one pulled. It was not easy to read, yet not easily put down. Poverty, corruption, racism, economic envy, and brutal indifference toward human life pummel the inhabitants of Annawadi, Mumbai's undercity, yet amazingly, there exist pockets of hope and aspiration. I have been inspired by this book (Karen J). There have been few books in my life that have stayed with me long after reading them - for instance, To Kill a Mockingbird and Angela's Ashes - and now I will add Behind the Beautiful Forevers to the list (Anne B).   (Reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers).

Full Review Members Only (890 words).

Media Reviews

Marie Claire

The most riveting Indian story since Slumdog Millionaire - except hers is true.

The New York Times

[An] exquisitely accomplished first book. Novelists dream of defining characters this swiftly and beautifully, but Ms. Boo is not a novelist. She is one of those rare, deep-digging journalists who can make truth surpass fiction, a documentarian with a superb sense of human drama. She makes it very easy to forget that this book is the work of a reporter... Comparison to Dickens is not unwarranted.


A jaw-dropping achievement, an instant classic of narrative nonfiction… With a cinematic intensity… Boo transcends and subverts every cliché, cynical or earnest, that we harbor about Indian destitution and gazes directly into the hearts, hopes, and human promise of vibrant people whom you'll not soon forget.

Entertainment Weekly

Riveting, fearlessly reported… [Beautiful Forevers] plays out like a swift, richly plotted novel. That's partly because Boo writes so damn well. But it's also because over the course of three years in India she got extraordinary access to the lives and minds of the Annawadi slum, a settlement nestled jarringly close to a shiny international airport and a row of luxury hotels. Grade: A.


A tough-minded, inspiring, and irresistible book… Boo's extraordinary achievement is twofold. She shows us how people in the most desperate circumstances can find the resilience to hang on to their humanity. Just as importantly, she makes us care.

O, The Oprah Magazine

A shocking - and riveting - portrait of life in modern India. …This is one stunning piece of narrative nonfiction… Boo's prose is electric.

Christian Science Monitor

An unforgettable true story, meticulously researched with unblinking honesty… Pure, astonishing reportage with as unbiased a lens as possible.

Library Journal

Undoubtedly acute, beautiful writing for all informed readers...

Kirkus Reviews

Starred Review. The best book yet written on India in the throes of a brutal transition.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Deeply researched and brilliantly written... Boo's rigorous inquiry and transcendent prose leave an indelible impression of human beings behind the shibboleths of the New India.

Author Blurb David Sedaris
It might surprise you how completely enjoyable this book is, as rich and beautifully written as a novel. In the hierarchy of long form reporting, Katherine Boo is right up there.

Author Blurb Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed
I couldn't put Behind the Beautiful Forevers down even when I wanted to - when the misery, abuse and filth that Boo so elegantly and understatedly describes became almost overwhelming. Her book, situated in a slum on the edge of Mumbai's international airport, is one of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I've ever read. If Bollywood ever decides to do its own version of The Wire, this would be it.

Author Blurb Ramachandra Guha, author of India After Gandhi
Without question the best book yet written on contemporary India. Also, the best work of narrative nonfiction I've read in twenty-five years.

Author Blurb Amartya Sen, Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics
A beautiful account, told through real-life stories, of the sorrows and joys, the anxieties and stamina, in the lives of the precarious and powerless in urban India whom a booming country has failed to absorb and integrate. A brilliant book that simultaneously informs, agitates, angers, inspires, and instigates.

Author Blurb Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains and Strength in What Remains
There is a lot to like about this book: the prodigious research that it is built on, distilled so expertly that we hardly notice how much we are being taught; the graceful and vivid prose that never calls attention to itself; and above all, the true and moving renderings of the people of the Mumbai slum called Annawadi. Garbage pickers and petty thieves, victims of gruesome injustice - Ms. Boo draws us into their lives, and they do not let us go. This is a superb book.

Reader Reviews

Nicole S

Simply wonderful
I consider this book to be the best of 2012! It is that good. Interesting, intriguing, this book grabs you and holds on to you until the last page. I cannot recommend this book enough!

Louise J

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Katherine Boo has written a remarkable, thoroughly researched, engaging, insightful, educational, and informative ethnography of slum life on the outskirts of Mumbai in Annwadi. Boo’s ability to capture the devastating toll this type of living has ...   Read More

Sally D. (Racine, WI)

Very worth reading
People may be scared away by the description of the subject matter of this book. Am I really in the mood to read a sad, gut- wrenching story about these poor souls in The slums of India? My advise to those people is "Try it". From the very first ...   Read More

Sharon P. (Jacksonville, FL)

Behind the Beautiful Forevers
Katherine Roo has written an amazing story of people living in unimaginable poverty. An American writer married to an Indian man, she has seen the amazing transformation of many large cities in India; "skyscraping luxury condominiums with stirring ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book


According to the UN, the percentage of urban dwellers living in slums dropped 10% to 37% in the 15 years leading up to 2005. But before you break out into celebration, there's just one tiny catch - because of the rising population, the total number of people living in slums has actually increased substantially, and is expected to continue to rise from about one billion today to about two billion by 2030.

Map of Slums

Many residents vigorously oppose the description of "slum" on the basis that it leads to them being pathologized and opens them to threats of eviction (for example, this statement by the representatives of an informal settlement in Durban, South Africa). Even the United Nations (specifically the United Nations Human Settlements ...

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