Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum

Katherine Boo

Published: 7 February 2013
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 288 pages
ISBN: 9781846274510


Annawadi is a slum at the edge of Mumbai Airport, in the shadow of shining new luxury hotels. Its residents are garbage recyclers and construction workers, economic migrants, all of them living in the hope that a small part of India's booming future will eventually be theirs. But when a crime rocks the slum community and global recession and terrorism shocks the city, tensions over religion, caste, sex, power, and economic envy begin to turn brutal. As Boo gets to know those who dwell at Mumbai's margins, she evokes an extraordinarily vivid and vigorous group of individuals flourishing against the odds amid the complications, corruptions and gross inequalities of the new India.

About the author

Image of Katherine Boo

Katherine Boo is an investigative journalist focusing on matters of poverty and opportunity. A staff writer at the New Yorker magazine since 2001, she was previously a writer and editor at the Washington Post. Among the honours her work has received are a MacArthur Foundation 'Genius' Grant, a National Magazine Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She is married to Sunil Khilnani, political historian and director of the King's India Institute in London. Behind the Beautiful Forevers (winner of the 2012 National Book Award for Non-Fiction) is her first book. More about the author


‘[A] finely hewn, gently humoured and tough-minded work of lasting import. Behind the Beautiful Forevers combines ethical clarity and writerly exactitude to stimulate outrage and unsettling pleasure’ Guy Mannes-Abbott



‘[A] heartbreaking account of life in a Mumbai slum’ Anita Singh

‘[Has the suspense, sensation and tragedy of a novel, except that every word is real.’

Behind the Beautiful Forevers is already a legend...It cannot be dismissed as yet another lazy excursion into slum poverty tourism, or as an outsider's account of India... Unforgettable.’ Nilanjana Roy

Behind the Beautiful Forevers neither sensationalises the squalor nor judges those responsible for it. Boo's studied understatement, her obsession with authenticity and her almost painful empathy are eloquent enough ... Honest and often deeply affecting, Katherine Boo's book deserves a place alongside the award-winning studies of North Korea and Sarajevo by Barbara Demick.’ John Keay

Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads like a novel by Dickens, but is a real-life depiction of the challenges hundreds of millions of people face every day in urban slums. It's also a reminder of the humanity that connects us all’ Bill Gates

‘A book [which] is no longer on the frontlist, but provide[s] vital ways for us to deepen the conversation... [it] stays with the reader and audience alike’ Ted Hodgkinson

‘A book of extraordinary intelligence, humanity and (formalistic) cunning... [Boo] humanizes with all the force of literature the impossible lives of the people at bottom of our pharaonic global order, and details with a journalist's unsparing exactitude the absolute suffering that undergirds India's economic boom. The portraits [are] indelible... groundbreaking’ Junot Díaz

‘A bravura work of non-fiction that goes beyond clichéd, patronising depictions of poverty to raise uncomfortable questions about justice and opportunity for India's urban poor in the age of global market capitalism ... Thanks to the transcendent quality of Boo's prose, this "sumpy plug of slum" springs to life with all the drama and vividness of great fiction ... Boo's great achievement is to have overcome barriers of language, culture and ethnicity to get inside the minds of her subjects to decode their innermost thoughts. And because she has written about the everyday experiences of real people, using real names, we get to rub our noses in the dirt of Annawadi, see the world through their eyes.’ Vikas Swarup

‘A classic... Combines a cool intelligence with a cinematic eye for detail’ Maggie Fergusson, Non-fiction Book of the Year

‘A devastating portrayal of street-dwellers struggling to survive against insurmountable odds’

‘A fantastic book.’ David Remnick

‘A fascinating, insightful and heartfelt piece of extended reportage’ Must Read 2012

‘A page-turner with a gripping human story, this is essential reading for anyone interested in the real India.’ Jonathan Foreman

‘A powerful and sobering book.’

‘A remarkable book ... In the end one puts down this impressive work relieved that one can rest from the remorselessness of its tragedies yet grateful one has learned about them from a writer who combines such innate human sympathy with such high literary skill. We can be grateful too to that unabridged dictionary for serving an unintended purpose.’ David Gilmour

‘A remarkable debut... The book's strength lies in its relentless focus on the grim human realities of poverty’ Andrew Graham Dixon, BBC 2

‘A riveting, fearlessly reported portrait of a poverty so obliterating that it amounts to a slow-motion genocide. Behind the Beautiful Forevers will be one of the year's big books - a conversation starter, an award winner... The book plays out like a swift, richly plotted novel. That's partly because Boo writes so damn well.’

‘A small classic of contemporary writing’ Amit Chaudhuri

‘A small classic of contemporary writing.’ Amit Chaudhuri

‘A small masterpiece’ Travel Awards 2012

‘A small masterpiece ... thanks to several years of rigorous research on the ground, following her characters around as they live their lives, months of research retrieving court documents through India's Right to Information Act, and, most of all, through close observation and a deep human empathy, Boo has created as detailed, convincing and moving a portrait of urban deprivation as The Road to Wigan Pier. Throughout, Boo writes beautifully and, given her subject, surprisingly wittily. She is also wonderfully observant of human quirks ... There have been many attempts by writers in recent years to pin to the page the hopes and fears of the new India. Most have attempted to do so by giving a sense of the extraordinary scale of the changes transforming the world's largest democracy. Yet by homing in on one small group of characters, the bit-part players in the story of India's development, Boo has succeeded better than any of them in showing both the possibilities, and the human cost, of India's great leap forward.’ William Dalrymple

‘A small masterpiece of documentary storytelling. In its subject matter of poverty, its meticulous research and Boo's great gift for sympathy, the book seems an obvious next step in a successful career.’ Susannah Rustin

‘A superb book.’ Tracy Kidder, author of Mountains Beyond Mountains

‘A triumph of a book. A beautiful account of the sorrows and joys, anxieties and stamina, in the lives of the precarious and powerless in urban India... A brilliant book that simultaneously informs, agitates, angers, inspires and instigates.’ Amartya Sen, winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics

‘A worm's eye view of the corruption and gross inequality of the new India, which was ecstatically reviewed from New York to New Delhi’ Books of the Year

‘An astoundingly well-reported and beautifully crafted book on 21st century India...distilled into prose that blows you away with its beauty, wit and restraint.’

‘An exceptional piece of reportage.’

‘An exceptional work of reportage ... Boo makes no attempt to disguise the miseries involved in living close to a vast pool of sewage on land where feral pigs gorge on rotting leftovers from the airport hotels. She does not pretend that the Annawadians possess virtues that they do not. However, she does grant them individuality and respect, as real people, whose many pains and occasional pleasures she evokes with great skill and empathy.’ Nick Rennison

‘An exemplary piece of deep reporting... Meticulous and gripping’ Stephen Bleach, Books of the Year

‘An extraordinary, intimate and gripping book, which it is no exaggeration to describe as a milestone in writing about poverty, and already one of this year's most memorable reads ... Boo's seamlessly structured narrative allows these stories to unfold alongside the personal dramas of the characters. Her tone is admirably restrained, and never patronising or mawkish ... The close focus of Behind the Beautiful Forevers is what gives it its clarity, and makes it so affecting.’ Alex Von Tunzelmann

‘An inspiring portrait of the human struggle to make a home in the most hellish situation.’

‘Astonishingly vivid, beautifully written’ Steve Barfield

‘Boo has given us an insightful portrait of slum life’ Jan Breman

‘Boo produces a gripping narrative of urban deprivation, underworld scams, sexual abuse, social injustice and human tragedy... Boo shows the human cost of Mumbai's burgeoning economic prosperity with disturbing brilliance.’

‘Boo seems to have expanded the possibilities of the form with her scrupulous, novelistic imaginings of the thoughts of Mumbai slum-dwellers’ Paul Laity

‘Boo takes us to the slums of Mumbai and paints a vivid pictue of both poverty and resistance’

‘Boo's descriptions of life within are almost Dickensian, as are her characters ... The language of the book is beautiful, and she reconstructs scenes through endless interviews with her subjects.’

‘Boo's masterclass in reportage is remarkable’ Craig Taylor, Books of the Year

‘Boo's praised account of the residents of Annawadi, a slum in the shadow of luxury hotels near Mumbai airport’ Emily Stokes, Books of the Year

‘Character development. An acute ear for dialogue and idiom. A sense of place. These are the essential ingredients of a good novel. So what's a fiction writer like me supposed to do when Boo employs all these and writes a book of nonfiction so stellar it puts most novels to shame? How can I not envy a work that takes us on harrowing journey into an unfamiliar world of an urban slum and makes us citizens of that world? To add salt to my literary wounds: That slum is located in Mumbai, the city of my birth, one I've written about frequently, and until now, claimed to know and understand. It turns out I knew little. And understood even less.’ Thrity Umrigar

‘Deploying spare, unadorned prose, Boo throws the slumdwellers into such sharp relief that, reading the book, one has the sense of seeing them at first hand ... By absenting herself, Boo endows her writing with an uncommon immediacy.’ Nikhil Kumar

‘Extraordinary... Behind the Beautiful Forevers does not descend into a catalog of atrocity... The product of prolonged and risky self-exposure to Annawadi, the book's narrative stitches, with much skillfully unspoken analysis, some carefully researched individual lives. Its considerable literary power is also derived from Boo's soberly elegant prose... Perhaps wisely, Boo has absented herself from the narrative... Instead of the faux-na?f explainer or the intrepid adventurer in Asian badlands, you get a reflective sensibility, subtly informing every page with previous experiences of deprivation and striving, and a gentle skepticism about ideological claims.’ Charles McGrath

‘Fascinating... Boo makes no political comment about the need for change but rather, like good writers before her who describe appalling inequalities, she allows her characters to speak for themselves’ Peter Gruner

‘Her prose is so beautiful, witty and economical, her narrative so powerful, that it's easy to forget this is an unprecedented piece of investigative journalism as well.’ Amy Walden

‘Honest and often deeply affecting, Boo's book deserves a place alongside the award-winning studies of North Korea and war-torn Sarajevo by Barbara Demick.’

‘If you have no idea what life in the slums is like then I suspect this book will shock you. I can see why many people are naming it as their book of the year.’

‘In the end one puts down this impressive work relieved that one can rest from the remorselessness of its tragedies yet grateful one has learned about them from a writer who combines such innate human sympathy with such high literary skill. We can be grateful too to that unabridged dictionary for serving an unintended purpose.’ David Gilmour

‘In this tough-minded debut, [Boo] asks why the poor don't rise up, and why unequal societies don't implode. Her answers are embedded in a narrative as pacy as a thriller’ Maggie Fergusson

‘It might surprise you how completely enjoyable this book is, as rich and beautifully written as a novel. In the hierarchy of long form reporting, Katherine Boo is right up there.’ David Sedaris

‘Kate Boo's reporting is a form of kinship. There are books that change the way you feel and see; this is one of them. If we receive the fiery spirit from which it was written, it ought to change much more than that.’ Adrian LeBlanc, author of Random Family

‘Katherine Boo's extraordinary first book is... above all, a moral enquiry. Her eye is as shrewdly trained on the essential facts of politics and commerce as on the intimate, the familial and, indeed, the monstrously absurd: the college-going girl who struggles to figure out "Mrs. Dalloway" while her closest friend, about to be forced into an arranged marriage, consumes rat poison, and dies (though not before the doctors attending her extort 5,000 rupees, or $100, from her parents).’ Pankaj Mishra

‘Looks hard into places of extreme despair, and comes back brimming with irrepressible life... A masterpiece’ Tim Adams, Books of the Year

‘Magnificent... Boo does not flinch from addressing Mumbai's social inequalities, in particular the plight of its underclass... A masterpiece... quite simply, one of the finest works on contemporary India yet written.’ Ian Thomson

‘Most recent books about the country, unselfconsciously suffused with the clichés of the age, speak of how free-market capitalism has ignited a general explosion of opportunity, fostering hope among the most destitute of Indians. Boo describes what really happens when opportunity accrues to the already privileged in the age of globalisation, when governments remain dysfunctional and corrupt.’ Pankaj Mishra

‘Must read: a Mumbai slum imagined and understood as never before in language of intense beauty.’ Salman Rushdie

‘My favourite non-fiction book about the subcontinent, but one that reads like a soap opera. The tragedies, loves, disappointments and joys of the slum-dwellers of Mumbai are brought thrillingly to life by the author, who lived among them for two years. A testimony to brute survival and the human spirit.’ Author Deborah Moggach

‘Novelists dream of defining characters this swiftly and beautifully, but Boo is not a novelist. She is a rare deep-digging journalists who can make truth surpass fiction, a documentarian with a superb sense of human drama.’ Janet Maslin

‘One of the most powerful indictments of economic inequality I've ever read. If Bollywood ever decides to do its own version of The Wire, this would be it.’ Barbara Ehrenreich

‘One's first reaction is disbelief followed by stunned silence... takes us into the very engine room of the undercity and shines a light on each of the cogs and ratchets... Adamantine, unignorable, truthful.’ Neel Mukherjee

‘Painstaking reportage... page-turning in its novelistic sweep... meticulously researched. Vivid, clear-eyed, often bruising detail’

‘Read this book for its insights into the wealth divide that exists in India's "richest" city. But also enjoy its ability to entertain as a novel does.’

‘Reads so much like a well-crafted novel ... A compelling book which combines the skills of journalistic reportage and emotive storytelling, and excels at both.’ Alastair Mabbott


‘Remarkable.’ Ian Jack

‘Remember the title Behind the Beautiful Forevers because you will see it on upcoming nominee lists for the next round of Very Important Literary Prizes... An unforgettable true story, meticulously researched with unblinking honesty ... it is pure, astonishing reportage.’

‘She doesn't preach, she's not voyeuristic and rather than intrude on the action she saves the story of her own involvement for the afterword... A triumph’ Blake Morrison, Books of the Year

‘She grants the residents respect as real people, evoking their many pains and occasional pleasures with great skill and empathy’ Nick Rennison

‘She has the insight of a novelist [but] retains the integrity of a uncompromising investigative reporter’ Roy Foster, Books of the Year

‘Skilful and compassionate writing without sentimentality or mythic abstraction’ Martha Nussbaum

‘The harsh life of a Mumbai slum vividly recreated on the page in beautiful prose. Her characters are irresistibly alive. No slumdogs or millionaires here. Just the truth’ Salman Rushdie, Books of the Year

‘The hope - and the hopelessness - recorded here is utterly heartbreaking, but never mawkish or indulgent... Starkly documents the ever-growing disparity between India's rich and poor... Truly important'’ Bryony Gordon

‘The level of attention she gives the people in her book is so profound and respectful’

‘The narrative is so immediate and absorbing that I had stop and turn to the notes at the back to check that it really was a documentary account... A passionate work of reportage’ Kate Summerscale, Books of the Year

‘The product of prolonged and risky self-exposure to Annawadi, the narrative stitches, with much skilfully unspoken analysis, some carefully researched individual lives... [It has] considerable literary power.’ Pankaj Mishra

‘There are cult filmmakers and cult novelists, but Katherine Boo may be the world's only cult journalist.’

‘This is an astonishing book. It is astonishing on several levels: as a worm's-eye view of the "undercity" of one of the world's largest metropolises; as an intensely reported, deeply felt account of the lives, hopes and fears of people traditionally excluded from literate narratives; as a story that truly hasn't been told before, at least not about India and not by a foreigner ... The result is a searing account, in effective and racy prose, that reads like a thrilling novel but packs a punch Sinclair Lewis might have envied.’ Shashi Tharoor

‘This is reality - and a shocking one at that’ Vanessa Baird

‘Vivid’ Michael Neale

‘Vivid and full of insight’ Anjali Joseph

‘With her precise descriptions of relationships and the tragic lives of her characters, Katherine Boo's Behind the Beautiful Forevers reads like expertly crafted fiction’ President Barack Obama

‘Without question the best book thus written on contemporary India.’ Ramachandra Guha, author of India After Gandhi

‘You put it down enraged, entertained and richly informed about people who live in makeshift quarters at the end of an airport runway’ David Hare, Books of the Year

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