Finally! We can talk about Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. I envision most of the conversation is going to happen in the comments … and boy is this book rich for conversation!
I’m tempted to ask, “Did you like the book?” But then I realize what a loaded question! Personally, I am thankful I read it. Up to now, most of my Indian reading has been novels and though well written, by the end of them I feel so frustrated (A Fine Balance by Rohintin Mistry comes to mind). I’m left thinking no matter what people do, it doesn’t matter, change isn’t possible in a system so stacked against someone.
And though I love novels, there is something about knowing you are reading about real people and not a fictional version of them. To know that Katherine and her team walked the streets of Annawadi and talked to the people we read about. To know that they may have read this book and seen their names in print, their stories brought to life. It makes me want to sit up and pay attention to the lessons they have to offer — both to me as a person and to me as a cross-cultural worker.
I come back to it, even though it’s not really a fair question. Did you like the book? What parts invigorated you? Frustrated you?
How did Behind the Beautiful Forevers relate to your context? In what ways did it raise questions for you about your own work? In what ways was it rather un-relateable to you?
I understand that Katherine came as an observer, one who wanted to look at the questions of poverty and opportunity in a context like Annawadi so her goals and dreams for the people she worked with are different than ours. But didn’t you the whole time LONG for the hope of eternity to be introduced? Or wonder how the gospel might make an in-road in a place like Annawadi?
The following questions come from “One Minute Book Reviews” with one or two bit of commentary from me clearly marked (you know I’d have to chime in, right?!).
1.. This book tells the linked stories of residents of the Annawadi slum, including the Husain family; the slum boss, Asha Waghekar, and her daughter Manju; and Abdul Husain’s friend Sunil. Which people did you find most and least memorable? Why?
2.. Janet Maslin praised Behind the Beautiful Forevers in the New York Times but had one reservation: She said that Boo “writes about so many scavenging kids, boisterously quarrelsome families and corrupt officials that the book is too crowded” (although she added that the Mumbai setting justified the density). Were you able to keep the characters straight easily? Or did you have to go back and reread parts to do that? If you had been the editor of this book, would you have suggested any changes?
3. Many of the events in this book are harrowing, such as the suicide of Manju’s friend Meena, a Dalit (the name that replaced old “untouchable”). Meena drank rat poison after being repeatedly beaten for offenses such as refusing to make her brother an omelet, and her parents blamed “Manju’s modern influence” for their daughter’s death. Which events did the book portray most vividly or effectively? (This is Amy here — in what ways have you needed to wrestle with modern and traditional influences in your context? How have the been confusing to the sharing, discipling, and living out faith with different generations?)
4. Behind the Beautiful Forevers implicitly faults people like Sister Paulette, a local nun who runs an orphanage, for actions such as giving the children ice cream only when newspaper photographers visit. The New Delhi bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal noted that Boo appears not to give the nun a chance to respond to this accusation as the journalistic ideals of fairness and balance usually require. Did Boo portray Sister Paulette fairly? What about other authority figures, such as the Mumbai police?
5. Boo says that the word “corruption” has only negative connotations in Western nations. But in India, graft and fraud are among the few “genuine opportunities” open to slum dwellers who hope to rise above poverty. Is Boo endorsing this reality? If not, what position does she seem to take on the rampant corruption she describes?
6. At the end of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Abdul’s legal case remains unresolved. Did Boo give the book a satisfying ending despite the uncertainty about his face? Why?
I’ve got my diet coke ready for the comments and the conversations we will have! Keep coming back throughout the week and this discussion slowly unfolds!
P.S. a reminder that August’s book is My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok. We’re going to end the summer on a must read novel before we read a memoir in September and another non-fiction in the fall. Here’s a brief plan for August:
August 5: Intro to the book (have fun diving in!).
August 12: Explore themes of tradition and spiritual leaders (roughly have finished Part 1).
August 19: Explore themes of calling/ gifting and being misunderstood (roughly have finished Part 2).
August 26: Explore themes of tensions that may exist between art and religion. Explore the ways the characters were formed (have finished the book).