In her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo presents an image of the Indian slums with unusually dynamic characters. She vividly portrays the characters’ intertwined lives, differentiating her own writing about India from the often static portrayal of impoverished Indians in “squalor: the ribby children with flies in their eyes” shown in the commercials meant to raise money for people living in third-world countries (Boo author’s note). Rather than blindly portraying success stories or attempting to evoke pity, Boo depicts a diverse range of emotion; ambition, resignation, joys, and pain. She recreates an India in which there is both the relatable presence of universal human emotion and the foreign shock of life in the slums. The India depicted in Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows the heart-breaking effects of corruption upon the hopes of the impoverished slum residents—a slum in which the residents must make sacrifices for the government, rather than the government aiding them, and where hopes and inspiration are so often turned into resignation.
In many developed countries, there is the idea that citizens should not fear their government, but that the government should act in fear of the citizens. Thomas Jefferson said “when the people fear their government, there is tyranny; when the government fears the people, there is liberty.” This idea seems natural in our society, which makes India’s slum-life seem so foreign. Boo shows the reader what life is like for those who are victimized by the government, but who do not have the means or desire to fight back. The children in the book share some of the same universal worries as most children. “Sunil” for example, “was spooked by the deaths and the rumors, but of more immediate concern was the fact that his younger sister had grown another inch, increasing the height gap between them (154, Boo).” Yet, their sparks of hope and resistance to cynicism are changed by the harshness of the slum environment. While the scenes of children committing suicide out of fear for undeserved beatings and everyday hardships make the book heart-breaking, the scene in which Abdul—the book’s last stronghold of hope and innocence—admits defeat to poverty and corruption, is one of the book’s most powerful moments. Abdul tells Boo that “for some time [he] tried to keep the ice inside [him] from melting…but now [he was] just becoming dirty water, like everyone else.” He “tells Allah [that he] loves Him immensely…but…that [he cannot] be better, because of how the world is (Boo, 241).” In her description of Asha, a woman who hoped to rise above everything, Boo describes the ultimate effects of poverty in combination with government corruption, noting that “something bright in her had been eclipsed(Boo, number).” The people within the book show remarkable will and resourcefulness, and the tragedy of the novel is that their own government and birth hold them back, though they might succeed in other societies.
While Boo’s work seems unique in its exploration of the diverse of personalities and struggles within India’s airport slum, it sometimes seems that she only tells one side of the story. Although she received almost complete praise for her work of non-fiction, Paul Beckett criticized her for a lack of social representation, for being overly selective with whom she interviewed. Becket claims that, “behind the Beautiful Forevers” is an interesting book. It is an admirable book. It is a moving book. But it is not an authoritative book, which is disappointing given the extraordinary detail in it. We see the trees so closely that an ant can’t crawl up an inch of trunk without attracting our intimate attention to its precise path, the size of its steps and the topography of the bark it crosses. But the forest is painted in a messy, monotone, ominous, dark, dark brown (Paul Beckett, “The Let Down of Behind the Beautiful Forevers”). Beckett believes that because Boo interviewed the underclass, often avoiding the “other characters and trends in the book outside of the slum, which are held chiefly responsible for the slum dwellers’ collective misery,” she loses some of her journalistic “authority,” her ability to be a valid source of information on the true status of India and instead becomes more of an activist than unbiased reporter (Beckett, The Let Down of…). Shashi Tharoor, in a review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, states that Boo, “ who has an Indian husband, has not just lived with its people and gotten to know them; she has penetrated the dynamics of their relationships, acquired insights into their psyches, breathed the polluted air that suffuses their fears. Her empathy for the slum-dwellers, striving against impossible odds to earn enough for “the full enjoy” they can only dream about, is total (Shashi Tharoor, Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers).” This empathy, which Tharoor mentions in praise of the book also suggests that Boo is inherently biased, and that her selective interviewing helped her convey her sympathies rather than to portray the whole truth. However, her choices, her selectiveness and restraint, are what lend the book its power. The emotional force of the book is legitimate, the lack of representation for those who she and the people she interviews in the story might lessen the impact of the story save for Boo’s extensive research into government documents. While we might have heard about corrupt officials’ motivations for beating and taking bribes from the impoverished, for Boo’s story, the documents as well as the flagrant dishonesty within much of the government leave little room for redeeming excuses. It is unlikely that through interviews with the corrupt officials Boo would find a reasonable excuse for transforming a child who committed suicide from a “vulnerable witness to a murder [and] the victim of police threats and beatings” into a “heroin addict who had decided to kill himself because he couldn’t afford his next fix” in official public record, or for allowing the police to force the impoverished to pay bribes to avoid violent beatings (Boo, 172). In fact, Boo does portray several acts of kindness from government officials, and the rarity of these accounts within the story makes the government seem all the more corrupt. As she hoped, Behind the Beautiful Forevers reveals “the means by which government corruption and indifference erase from the public record the experience of poor citizens (Boo, 251).”
Tharoor states that “[Behind the Beautiful Forevers] is astonishing on several levels: as a worm’s-eye view of the “undercity” of one of the world’s largest metropolises; as an intensely reported, deeply felt account of the lives, hopes and fears of people traditionally excluded from literate narratives; as a story that truly hasn’t been told before, at least not about India and not by a foreigner (Shashi Tharoor, Book Review).” Overall Boo’s work remains significant because it reveals a side of India which we rarely see, in vibrant detail, bringing color to the emotions of each of the individuals in the story and highlighting India’s social problems. While one could complain that she does not detail the complexities of historical context and government perspective, Boo focuses in, centers on the story she finds important and reports on it, reports on the complexities of human interaction in relation to a changing India. She chronicles the side of India that the Indian government would rather remain unseen. Her extensive “fact-checking” and countless interviews give her the authority to report on the lives of the people of the slums (Boo, 250). While Beckett criticizes Boo for missing the forest for the trees, Boo acknowledges that the “story of Annawadi is not representative of a country as huge and diverse as India,” but instead focuses on the impoverished within an area small enough to gain perspective, yet similar to many Indian slums. She has authority because she is not trying to tell the story of India, but rather demonstrate the effects of the Indian system on the impoverished. Overcoming the obstacles to effective reporting posed by her class, gender, ethnicity and language, Boo follows their lives and experiences in an effort to understand the problems of poverty from the bottom up. The result is a searing account, in effective and racy prose, that reads like a thrilling novel but packs a punch Sinclair Lewis might have envied (Tharoor, Book Review).