Behind the Beautiful Forevers

by Katherine Boo

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After reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers, who do you feel most hopeful for and why? Whose future do you worry about most? Develop a position on the success or failure that the next generation face based on the experiences of the Annawadians that Boo depicts.

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In Katherine Boo ’s book, optimism and concern are closely related. The individuals she portrays who seem most likely to survive or even thrive in the very challenging circumstances of Annawadi are those with the greatest tenacity and determination. But the ability to formulate a goal and persist in achieving...

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In Katherine Boo’s book, optimism and concern are closely related. The individuals she portrays who seem most likely to survive or even thrive in the very challenging circumstances of Annawadi are those with the greatest tenacity and determination. But the ability to formulate a goal and persist in achieving it is often associated with a narrowly focused, pragmatic worldview. Because the political process favors those who bend the rules, what would be seen as “corruption” in places with a more secure rule of law becomes a routine part of the system in the conditions of extreme poverty that Boo describes. The worry that her text engenders has much to do with the ongoing manipulation of such a system, in which a handful of people may ascend a very steep ladder out of misery.

Boo presents individuals in different generations whose age and circumstances seem to have shaped their perspectives. This disparity emerges clearly in the case of Asha, a very ambitious woman who plans for a successful future within the local confines. But Asha understands that the boundaries within which she operates may not constrain her daughter to the same extent. In theory, she supports her daughter, Manju, in being optimistic and longing for more than she could have by staying close to home. Her own lack of education both inspires her to see education as a worthy goal but also keeps her from fully trusting it as Manju’s desired means of upward mobility.

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Hello! You asked about Behind The Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. Her story is about Annawadi, a slum situated near the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. Annawadi is filled with many migrants who come from all over India and Pakistan. They have to contend with hunger, poverty, disease, ethnic strife and the constant fear that their dwelling might be bull-dozed by airport authorities. Boo's non-fiction work highlights the plight of the Indian underclasses amidst the explosive economic growth and corresponding wealth which have minted new millionaires in India.

Who do you feel most hopeful for?

An example: Abdul is an entrepreneurial Muslim teenager who, with his family, is able to carve out a living by sorting through scavenged trash and then trading the recycled trash, albeit illegally. Though not a perfect representation, Abdul's entrepreneurialism symbolizes the self-determination espoused by Gandhi. Abdul's family does so well that they are soon able to put a down-payment on a plot of land they want to buy.

Manju, Asha's daughter, aims to escape from slum life through education. She aims to be the first Annawadian to attend college, a worthy dream.

Who do you worry about most?

This could be: Asha, who imagines that she will be Annawadi's first female slumlord. She utilizes the corruption inherent in local government in order to further her own cause, while oppressing her poorer neighbors. She rationalizes that "for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained."

Fatima, who has faced a whole lifetime of prejudice and rejection due to her disability, believes that the only way to claw her way to the top is by whatever means available to her, even self-immolation. Her one act of revenge is the only way she knows of to inflict maximum damage on Abdul, his mother, Zehrunisa and his father, Karam.

Success or failure that the next generation face based on the experiences of the Annawadians.

Take a position. Here, you might discuss the issues that are impediments to the upward social mobility of the Annawadians and how these issues must be addressed if future generations are to avoid failure and embrace success:

1) The caste system which perpetuates class envy. The caste system stems from centuries of deeply-rooted tradition and may never be discarded willingly by Indian society, but awareness of the rights of each caste level within the hierarchy is a critical first step towards promoting understanding.

2) The role of women in Indian society is determined by their caste. Asha tries to give her daughter Manju a better life. Traditionally arranged marriages may or may not lead to a better life for women, and Asha wants better things in life for her daughter. But will a woman like Asha have to sacrifice personal integrity for economic stability?

3) The corruption inherent in the government, among the Annawadians and the police. This corruption is portrayed in the novel when Boo showcases the plight of Abdul and his family at the instigation of the jealous Fatima. The corruption among local police and government officials is a great impediment to social justice for the poor of India. The experience of the Annawadians is but a microcosm of this pervasive internal cancer.

4) Annawadi represents the growing problem of urban slums in India. These slums represent a failure to integrate the needs of the poor within a growing industrialized and economic machine.

5) Education may be a valuable tool in opening up more economic opportunities for Annawadians and other slum-dwellers. The impact on the success of those living in economically marginalized areas can hardly be overestimated. Indeed, Manju may well represent the heart yearnings of possibly any number of Manjus in today's slums.

6) The age-old conflict between Muslims and Hindus must be addressed before it overwhelms both sides with unabated violence. Abdul and his family are representative of Muslims from Uttar Pradesh who must wrestle with the Maharashtrian Hindu far-right sector (represented by Asha, a Shiv Sena sympathizer and supporter) for a place in Indian society. Shiv Sena is a Hindu far-right party originally dedicated to advocating preferential treatment for Maharashtrians over Muslim migrants like Abdul and his family. 

Some links you might find useful:

How Indian slum children are leading the way.

Life in a Slum (click on links below the word 'Introduction.')

How a generation of leaders are emerging from India's slums.

How India's Prime Minister Modi hopes to provide 20 million homes to slum-dwellers  by 2022.

Muslims and Hindus: Slum diversity in Calcutta.

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