Behind the Beautiful Forevers – Book Club Central Pick (February 2013)

by Katherine Boo

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In Katherine Boo’s searing book, the Pulitzer Prize-winning-journalist explores life and death in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi. Through haunting and unforgettable inhabitants, Boo introduces us to some of India’s poorest living conditions, positioned just behind its wealthiest hotels. The book weaves humour and pathos into a tapestry of astonishing acts of courage, despair, and human limitations, while teaching its readers about India’s economy, politics and shifting social classes.

If you liked the book, rent the movie(s): Slumdog Millionaire, Monsoon Wedding, Earth.

“To Abdul’s right, disconcertingly, came quiet snores: a laconic cousin newly arrived from a rural village, who probably assumed that women burned in the city every day.” (p.1)

  • What does this book tell you about the state of women’s right in India: are they bound to improve? What are some examples, from the book, of women fighting against the system? Does this backfire?

  • What does this quote tell you about desensitization to scenes of human horror? Which other examples, in your experience, either through books, films, or personal anecdote, can you connect to this?

“Annawadians now spoke of better lives casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past” (p.1).

  • What does the book tell you about Indian people’s shifting ideas about their place in society? About their futures? How does this differ from the past system, specifically with regard to the caste system?

“Like most people in the slum, and in the world, for that matter, he believed his own dreams properly aligned to his capacities” (p.1).

  • Which parts of this book connected with you? Which universal themes can be found throughout?

“It was about as hopeful a season as there had ever been in the years since a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one-third of the planet’s poor. A country dizzy now with development and circulating money” (p.3).

  • What facts did you learn about India? Anything surprising?

“The friendship of Rahul and Mirchi transcended ethnic and religious politics, though” (p.12).

  • Can you relate these two characters’ relationship to that of others’ in films, books, your life, etc.?

“Rich people’s garbage was every year more complex, rife with hybrid materials, impurities, imposters. Planks that looked like wood were shot thorough with plastic. How was he to classify a loofah?” (p.13).

  • One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure: discuss.

  • Have you ever thought about what a person’s garbage says about them?

“Bad lungs were a toll you paid to live near progress” (p.14).

  • Can you relate to this statement in your current place of residence? Do you someone who can? Discuss.

“Asha grasped many of her own contradictions, among them that you could be proud of having spared your offspring hardship while also resenting them for having been spared” (p.33).

  • Do you view this as cruel or honest on Asha’s part? Which other parts of motherhood are portrayed in the book? Can you relate?

“[….] Sunil had now crossed an age line over which charity did not reliably extend” (P. 34).

  • Have you ever felt more charitable towards one age group than another? What factors make you want to give charitably to a certain group of people?

“For among the things that breakneck globalization had changed about India was its sensitivity to its slums” (p.42).

  • Do you think this [sarcastic] observation may be applied to any country? Under which circumstances? Which parts of human nature does this quote reveal?

“Abdul knew little of music, he had been enchanted by the concept: a small machine that let you hear only what you wanted to hear” (p. 86).

  • Has this book given you a newfound perspective on privacy?

“The idea was to get terrified prisoners to pay everything they had, and everything they could secure from a moneylender, to stop a false criminal charge from being recorded” (p. 107).

  • What were your reactions to the Indian judicial system as depicted in the book?

Elections were approaching and, with millions of slum voters to be won over, the city’s political class was in a generous mood” (p.181).

“Across India, poor people were the ones who took the vote seriously. It was the only real power they had.” (p. 217).

  • How do these two quotes differ / compare to your experience with elections & politicians in general? In your country?

Further quotes for discussion:

"Abdul had been aiming for a future like the past, but with more money” (p.111).

“To examine Asha properly, the older women had to crane their necks, since their bodies were bent from decades of agricultural labor” (p. 135).

“Now Mr. Kamble saw nothing but his own bottomless grief, because he knew miracles were possible in the new India and that he couldn’t have one” (p.153).

“If he had to sort all humanity by its material essence, he thought he would probably end up with a single gigantic pile. But here was the interesting thing. Ice was distinct from – and in his view, better than – what it was made of” (p.218).  

What do you think of the book’s title? Where can it be found in the book?

How do the different characters change over the course of the book?

What was the most shocking aspect(s) of the book for you?

What do you think of Katherine Boo’s decision to step into the slums to write a book? Do you view her as a hero? Crazy? Discuss.

Despite all of the depressing subject matter, Boo identifies the human spirit as prevailing throughout the book: can you think of any particular examples in which she does this?

Was there a particular character with which you more closely identified? One you disliked?

All books recommended on the website have been read by The Book Dumpling. New titles are added on a continuous basis. To recommend or suggest a book, please email me

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