Behind The Beautiful Forevers {Book Club}

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).

Photo Credit: nandadevieast via Compfight cc


  1. Shelly July 29, 2014

    Too much of the book frustrated me (as I have written in other comments). The whole case against the Husain family was so unjust. The police and its agents trying to get their share of the prize – what little the Husain’s had gained in their garbage business. I have to believe that not all who work for the legal system are corrupt, but the story makes it seem as though it would be very hard not to be.  And the woman who seems to make it (at least at the point of the story’s end) has done so by manipulating her own Anawadian neighbors.

    For all the frustration, I “enjoyed” the book.  Maybe it’s similar to “liking” a sad status update on Facebook. We don’t like the news, but we are glad to know it and to be able to stand with the person. There’s no one I can really “stand with” in this case, but it has opened up my world a little bit more. And to be honest, I don’t know what to do with this knowledge.

    I have to say that Boo’s postscript was extremely helpful for putting some things into perspective.

    That’s what I have at this point. Let me give your questions a bit more thought and I’ll come back later.


    1. Amy Young July 29, 2014

      I agree that the post script was super helpful. I also got to listen to this book on tape (well recording) and hearing her read the post script was especially (moving sounds too dramatic), but you get my point :). To hear her, in her own words and voice explain more about the process was helpful.

      Did this book remind you of China in the 90’s? I think that’s also why I “enjoyed” it — it felt familiar to me. I’ve had students whose siblings were given to family members, a young man I tutored tried to commit suicide one day by jumping off the building next to mine (he lived — thankfully– but had a limp and I knew was forever marked on our campus). I could go on :). But will stop here for now.

  2. Kimberly July 29, 2014

    I don’t love the story. Probably because it is more a harsh reality than a fairy tale. But I did enjoy her quality writing, the loveable man-kid Abdul and the crystal clear depiction of how poverty and corruption feed each other. I don’t think she’s promoting or condoning corruption. But it is rare in the West to get a look at just how complex the whole thing is. We often zoom in on some humanitarian project or other to hand out ice cream, never really knowing the context or extent of how that changes things on the ground. I keep this one to lend out to people who want to understand. India’s corruption issues seem very similar to the African ones we know so well. It begs the question, ‘What does real humanitarian aid look like here?’

    I had that same LONGING throughout the story, not purely for the hope of the gospel, but just for any Hope at all! I felt very disappointed that the Husain’s never really got to move, Abdul never really got to attend school, nothing really seemed to progress anywhere for all their striving. I LONGED for progress of any kind. There was no resolution. But again, this is perhaps the point. Dead end. Survival counts for something. The whole thing felt unfinished as a story. I also appreciated her epilogue. Very helpful to think about how people get out of poverty and how they blame each other and drag each other down.

    1. Kimberly July 29, 2014

      Not quite sure how that thumbnail took over the whole page!!! Feel free to edit or delete! 🙂

    2. Amy Young August 3, 2014


      You wrote: But it is rare in the West to get a look at just how complex the whole thing is.

      And I think that’s part of what drew me to this book. The word “corruption” seems to be in vogue now and as a westerner I think I get it. At least my head has no problems going “yes, yes, corruption is bad.” And I’m not trying to say we don’t have corruption in the west, but compared to a country that has existed far longer and has a very different relationship with corruption than the one I am from …. I have to say that my picture of corruption is a LOT tamer than what corruption often looks like. Though I don’t “like” it, this kind of book helps move my understanding from mere head to head AND heart.

      Sometimes I can’t wait to get to heaven and chat with God about how he lives with this tension. I KNOW he loves and sees all of these people in this book, but yet he restrains himself and waits for us to bring hope to the hopeless. Even as I write this, I sense an urgency stirring in me afresh. This is what good writing and good discussions can do. Thank you!

      1. Dee Sutton August 4, 2014

        I havent read the book yet (have just ordered it), but my husband and I talk alot about the issue of corruption, due to our love and time spent in Cambodia. And I think that there is a difference in thought between west and east. But mostly that is due to the eastern corruption being more in your face. Western corruption is more subtly. And what we see, is not always how it is. The media likes to blow it all out of proportion, or not share the full story.

        Maybe the corruption in the east is easier to see because we are faced with it daily, in our relationships with the people, that are living the life of bribery, land grabs, etc.

        Just a thought x

  3. Whitney @ Journey Mercies July 29, 2014

    I think Abdul served as the main “eyes” of the book for me. I have to admit, it took me about three attempts before I really got into the book – partially because I was pretty confused by all the characters. I started reading it, then switched to audiobook, then switched back to reading! But after the introductory chapters on each character, it was easy to remember who was who.

    And honestly, how could you leave any characters out? That’s how life is – chaotic, messy, crowded, and everyone’s stories intertwining and tangling up.

    I think because Boo was handling this story from the perspective of slum dwellers, it wouldn’t have jived with the narrative to give the authorities a chance to speak. This isn’t about their lives; it’s about the Annawadians’ lives and how those in authority oppress and control those lives. And there was a section where the police talked about their own paltry salaries, health problems, family troubles, etc. – showing that poverty is always relative to where you stand in the social hierarchy.

    Corruption a way of life? Definitely. If people were to stand up for ethics and refuse bribes, their families would die for lack of medical care, or deliver their babies in the street (as happens occasionally here in Cambodia). Change has to happen from the top; unfortunately, corruption won’t stop just because those on the bottom want it to change.

    And as for Abdul’s case, it wouldn’t surprise me if it kept going on forever – always hanging over their heads, unresolved.

    I’m pretty sure this will become one of my must-recommend-to-everyone books…I’d love some of my non-expat friends to read it and tell me their reactions. Because I feel that it didn’t shock me as much as it should have, because it’s all stuff I’ve heard of or seen myself.

    It would be amazing to see what could happen in Annawadi if people who loved Jesus and were committed to doing community development the right way actually worked there!

    1. Amy Young August 3, 2014

      Whitney, I found myself going, yup …. yup …. yup … as I read through your comment. And I think you’re on to something wondering if Abdul’s case will ever be “over.” I find that coming from a land that has the idea of “case closed!” (even if someone gets off with a crime), this part of life can be especially maddening for me :). I want a clear sign that something is over (even if that ending may be unsatisfactory). Thanks for adding such rich comments to this discussion!

  4. Bayta July 30, 2014

    I just bought “My Name is Asher Lev” and look forward to being part of those conversations!

    1. Amy Young August 3, 2014

      Great!!! We look forward to your thoughts :)!

  5. Amy Young July 31, 2014

    You guys, I’m at a super intensive week long training for folks moving overseas and am up to my neck in helping them get ready. I LOVE the discussion going on her, but am having troubles getting to the internet or not being interrupted by super lovely folks who are super excited in their preparation for the field. By Saturday my time I will have more space to just BE present with you. So, until then, please carry on the discussions — I love reading them :). Thanks for your grace!

  6. Christy J July 31, 2014

    Like many of you, I am glad I read this book, but can’t say that I really “liked” it. Truly it broke my heart, because I saw so much of my own city in it. Poverty and corruption are such pervasive realities in W. Africa. I struggle living there to figure out what God is calling me to do. When corruption is the rule rather than the exception, how do people rise above? I currently have no answers. Honestly, I felt rather discouraged when I got to the end of the book. I’m on my way back to Africa now, and I’m praying for God to show me somehow a way to shine His light in the midst of it all.

    1. Amy Young August 3, 2014

      Christy have  you heard of Tattoos of the heart by Father Gregory Boyle? (Which makes me think we should read it as a community … maybe next spring! Oh I can’t wait!). He has a great chapter on what success and failure look like when we are talking about humans and ministry. I’m not sure why your comment made the connection in my soul with this book, but it did. I think sometimes we are simply called to be. And that what we “do” is hold a place for hope. Even if nothing big and spectacular happens, the mere fact that you have the Living Spirit in you, you declare wherever you are, “HOPE IS HERE and change is possible. And I am a person who believes in redemption!” As you head back to Africa, I hope (wink!) you will sense God’s pleasure in who are, knowing your doing will be a dance of “success” and “failure” and that those two concepts look so different than I think we often think.

      Does that make sense? Am I babbling? 🙂

  7. Jenny August 10, 2014

    So I’m late to the discussion of this book after much traveling this summer. I really resonated with those of you who commented about the lack of hope in the book. I don’t currently live in a place where the issues of Anndawadi are every day battles, but I still found myself longing for hope at the end.  Asking the question of where it is found? I know at the end of the day hope is found in Christ and in his word, but what about for those  people at that time. I know also that I can’t be every where and that God has me where I am right now for a reason, but sometimes it’s so hard to keep perspective when the fulfillment of our hope seems so a far away. My prayer this summer is that God would show me what it looks like to have present hope. And though I liked this book, it gave me more questions in that vein than answers.

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