Slum Life Behind the Billboard {Book Club}

Ready for an almost about-face from The Secret Garden? The Pulitzer prize winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo fits the bill! One of the best parts of summer is reading! And while this may not be a beach book, we have the time this month to kick up our feet and settle down with this rich book.

If you haven’t heard about it before, here is how BookBrowse summarizes it:

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. 

Since this is a recent book that’s won several prestigious prizes, we have the advantage of hearing Katherine Boo share about Behind the Beautiful Forevers. I love hearing a bit about why an author got interested in a subject and what went into her book. This video is fairly short (and I’ll warn you it end abruptly), but it should get you excited about the book! And if you’re reading this in an email you can click here to watch the video

Because this takes place in a community, it might be easy to get lost in all of the names. But have no fear! Wikipedia has a helpful list and brief description of people mentioned in the book. It might be helpful to print it out (or at least know you can refer to it!).

Here’s a reminder of Behind the Beautiful Forever‘s  schedule.

We’re going to do the book club a little differently since it’s summer =).

July 8th — intro to the book and back ground info (that’s today!)

July 15th — short quotation or thought

July 22nd — short quotation or thought

July 29th —  we’ll have the main discussion at the end of the month. 


Katherine spent three years in Annawadi and used ethnographic interview style to gather information. As such, she tries to capture the real sense of how people speak, think, and believe using their own words. So, some of the language may be a bit saltier than you or I would use in daily life. I don’t believe it is so salty we can’t benefit from the book, but I did want to warn you, that at times, unredeemed people speak like … unredeemed people.

In your context, how prevalent are slums or beggars? In what ways to you see hope in the face of such overwhelming poverty? What are you looking forward to when it come to this book?

See you in the comments!




Disclosure : Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site. 


  1. ErinMP July 8, 2014

    I’m hoping to get a better look at this life, and how things are changing–and not changing–in India. Perhaps there are some stories in this book I will be able to link into the country I’m soon moving to. We shall see. And hope, where will hope come in?

    1. Amy Young July 8, 2014

      Erin, one of the things I love about reading is that I can visit/experience parts of the world I’ve never had the chance to visit. Such is the case with India. I really hope you (and others) who are familiar with India will chime in and let us know Boo’s account lines up with what you’ve experienced. In particular, Boo doesn’t write from a place of faith, and I’m curious to hear more about some of the Work being done in India! Thanks for your comment :)!

  2. Phyllis July 8, 2014

    I was excited about Velvet Ashes back when it started, but didn’t have time to get involved. Maybe I can now! 🙂

    I’m happy that I can read this book with you all. From the little bit I know in advance, I’m just looking forward to the people’s stories, written well.

    Poverty here… we don’t really have the extreme slums, but there are plenty of beggars, poverty is real, and learning about how to help without hurting has been a big theme in my life lately.

    1. Amy Young July 8, 2014

      Welcome Phyllis! Anytime is a good time to join in :).  And I’d love to hear what you and others have to say on your last comment/question. Such an important one! How to help without hurting –I’d almost add “too much” because the nature of changing a system — in any way, good, bad, ugly — is that there will be some unintended consequences. BUT that should stop us from helping. Thoughts?

  3. Kimberly July 8, 2014

    I’m a few chapters in and really enjoying this book. We spent our first few years in Africa in Nairobi where there are vast slums much like the book describes. We spent our last 4 years living in Congo where most of the population lives at this level, so in that sense there is ‘no slum’ – or everything operates as a slum? (There is also no garbage. It is useful, or buried in the backyard.) This year we’re in the US and friends are all very excited about giving to “the poor”. Having seen and lived in the corruption and complexities up close, I am baffled at how to go about that fruitfully. This story so far puts words to my experiences at being baffled at the many layers of poverty in our world.

    As for hope? Hope in the midst of poverty (or tragedy or war for that matter) looks to me like people who help each other. It may be spiritual help praying for each other, singing praises where they are lacking. It may be emotional help listening to each other, crying with each other. It may be physical help bringing meals to the sick, giving up precious scarce resources in concern or love for another. Hope might be as small as not being alone. A glimmer! I ‘hope’ to see some of that kind of ‘hope’ in this story!

    1. Amy Young July 11, 2014

      Kimberly this is rich! I love the word “baffled” — God has wired us to reach out and help, but as you aptly put, that wiring has gone ka-flu-y in some and the level of corruption can be SO DISHEARTENING. I like how you bring hope back to helping people. If we (I mean “i”) focus too much on systems it can be disheartening (at best!), but when I think of small things and being consistent, that gives me … hope 🙂

  4. Danielle Wheeler July 9, 2014

    I’m embarrassed to admit that I read this whole book and didn’t know until the author’s note at the end that it is non-fiction!!  I read it assuming that it was fiction that could be true.  I should have waited for your helpful introduction, Amy.  This completely changes the way I see the book and the characters.  I found the book fascinating before, but now that I know it’s all true it strikes a much deeper chord.

    1. Amy Young July 11, 2014

      Danielle, I think that is one sign of good writing … when the lines between fiction and non-fiction get blurred. But as you mentioned, when I know a story was TRUE, there is a different level to it for me. Not always a “deeper” one, but some how, it strikes a different chord for me.

  5. Alex K July 11, 2014

    Confession: I tried to read this book earlier this year and failed miserably. It is so hard to read about India while living here. However, I’m trying again with book club because sometimes we need to read things that are hard for us!

    We work with kids that are from the slums and it’s exciting to know that they have a way out through education. We also have friends who are doing some awesome things in our local slums. I just saw a video today of one of their older girls being baptized!

    1. Amy Young July 11, 2014

      Alek, I think we would all benefit from your perspective as one who lives in India! I’m so glad you’re here! And yes to sometimes needing to read hard things (and also yes to sometimes needing to give ourselves a break from them, no guilt for those who are in that season!).

  6. Elaine July 11, 2014

    I had heard about this book before and had resisted reading it. I would not have picked it up had it not been for this book club, so thanks! It was a good reminder for me that no matter where we live, we are all wanting similar things for our families – safety, security, opportunities. It was also a good reminder for me, living in a clean, suburban, middle class town right now, that this is not the norm for many, many people. And what do I do with that??

    1. Amy Young July 11, 2014

      Elaine, so glad to hear from you! And yes, yes, yes to the many similarities to our wants and desires for ourselves and loved ones. And your final question is one I hope to have more conversations about this month. Others, what are your thoughts?

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