Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

Article Posted in: Research Articles

Katherine Boo’s delineation of modern India in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

By – K G Aiswarya Jyothi & Shilpa S (introduction at the end of the paper), Issue.XXX, Vol.III, July 2017


The Western writing about India has always been grotesque and is the common trend right from the days of Britain’s rule over India. This trend is still seen in this 21st Century. Albeit the British lost its hold on Indian subcontinent in mid-1940, they persist the interest in viewing India through their colonial eyes. India’s embrace of globalisation has reawakened their pre-existing prejudices. Through their writings, they distort real facts of India so as to give credence to their superior status. In contemporary nonfiction books, western writers’ portray “East” as savage minded, criminals and “West” as superior, dominant type. They have envisioned an image of East as the “Other” which is no way similar to them. This ideational distinction between East and West formed the basis of Edward Said’s “Orientalism”. The Eurocentric superiority perception compels them to distort reality to concur with their preferences. The new tropes of representing East as the ‘other’ can be seen in Katherine Boo’s description of India. Katherine Boo through her documental narrative style aims to keep the viewers engaged, but her documentary lacks meticulous investigation of the Indian subcontinent. Her book, Behind the Beautiful Forever’s: Life, Death and Hope in Mumbai Undercity can be considered as an archetypal example of new mode of Orientalist approach to Modern Eastern world.

Keywords: Orient; Occident; East; West; Orientalism; Neo-orientalism.

Katherine Boo, an American investigative journalist, is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a former reporter and editor for the Washington Post has also worked as a writer and co-editor of the Washington Monthly Magazine. For her insidious narration on Mumbai slum, Annawadi, Boo was awarded prizes in the non- fiction category from PEN, the Los Angeles Times Book Awards, the New York Public Library, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and National Book Award for Non- fiction.

Behind the Beautiful Forever’s: Life, Death and Hope in Mumbai Undercity by Katherine Boo is a non-fiction book about what fascinating depiction of poverty, corruption, inequality, superstitious rituals, communal wars, caste system, contemporary politics and rural lives of people in India. Katherine Boo through this book openly projects her bias through the imaginative representation of the lives of people in India. Oblivious of India’s past, she is audaciously dishonest in her portrait of situations in India. Boo claims that her book is a first- hand account of the conditions of people of India’s slum, but this cannot be fully relied as it can barely hold up against impartial facts.

The Slum ‘Annawadi’ is huddled in the shades of Mumbai International Airport. Residents of this slum were migrant workers from other states of India. Mimicking other major cities of the world relocating to large urban areas in search of more opportunities of a better livelihood, they shifted to Mumbai during early 90’s. Boo surveyed India’s dark planes during her short visit to India. In her prose work on India; she focuses exclusively on the unsettled lives of people in slums and rural villages. Her writings recount troubling details on the roots of India’s poverty and vulnerable environment and this kind of bleak rendering is rewarded in recent times. Through this repulsive narration, Boo tries to fake of India’s image to the outside world.

 In her prose on Annawadi slum, Katherine Boo deliberately portrays the stories of selected slum dwellers. Abdul, the book’s main character is a Muslim boy is a talented garbage collector, led a miserable life in Annawadi. He is powerless to do anything to bring change in his life awash with copious problems. His life is confined within the realms of Annawadi slum. Asha, a prominent woman character in this book, belonged to a poverty stricken village family. Later she rose to become a powerful political figure in the Annawadi slum, through malpractices and obscene behaviour. Manju, her daughter is the slum’s only college-going female. Fathima, another slum occupant, is the one legged illiterate neighbour of Abdul‘s family, was prone to violent rages, whose suicide brought bad fate on Abdul’s family. Kalu, Abdul’s friend, was a homeless fifteen-year-old boy whose hobby was to rob recycle bins in airport compounds. Sunil, another companion of Abdul, was described by the author as a smelly nerveless ragamuffin. All the characters introduced by the author in this book belong to below poverty level section of society. The author seemed to have shown extra ordinary enthusiasm in dealing with negative portrayal of characters. All the characters in this book were described variously as grotesque, smelly, disorderly, unsanitary, promiscuous and primitive. Non-Indian authors exaggerate the ills of a developing country like India, so as to reinforce the image of India as a third world country. There seems to be nothing good to talk about other than epidemic, inequality, poverty, corruption and so on. Neo-orientalists imagination finds a place in this description. Through the first-hand evidence, Boo constructs her own prejudice and extrapolates this to the rest of India.

The bigotry seen in Boo’s description about India is just an extension of colonial bias. Indian English journalists and academics description of India is quite a contrast from the Western idea of India. Britain, the powerful empire had conquered India and ruled more than two hundred years and they made use of all valuable possession in our country. In this twenty-first century, they are trying to impose power upon our country through various media sources. Through this, they are trying to shape the image of our country as per their preference. The history books were also slanted to western preference and often anti-national in nature. This kind of Eurocentric perception, distorted facts and this bizarre idea forms the very basis of Boo’s description of India. It is her ignorance, which reticence her narration with the description of the root cause of slavery, poverty and communal fights in India. Through superficial empirical observations about Indian societies and culture, like all Neo-orientalists, Boo tries to make sweeping statements about India.

The written rather than oral media owes a greater responsibility, as it stays as a stable proof forever. Writings on the miserable themes are the most commonly observed trend in Western writings on India. Boo’s prose can be viewed as an excellent example of misery journalism, as she portrays India as an unsafe place. She says her clear proof that people are “intrigued by the television ads for this insurance which allowed those who could afford it to insulate themselves from some of the volatility of Indian life” (144) and there is “so much tension out there – the mind cannot wander. Every second you have to be alert” (242). These kinds of unfair distortions are convincingly illustrated in Boo’s prose. What so ever, the writing is of, people will blindly believe it as reality. Ultimately, this poor, ugly depiction of India will be perceived as reality. Almost all Occidental writers, who have written about Indian themes, have declared either in the preface or in the afterword that s/he really loves India. Boo also begins with this kind of liking towards India whereas, through her descriptions of India, she contradicts her own aforementioned love.

The Western world views India through their vicious eyes. The sympathetic and hostile treatment of Oriental people as expected by West can be considered as a reason behind an Indian movie “Slumdog Millionaire” had been honoured with an Oscar award. Katherine Boo stresses on rural poverty, teenage marriage, corruption, suicides etc in order to evoke the reader’s sympathy. She opines that none of the Annawadians will make a profit out of progress and modernization. Through this  microcosmic world of people in Mumbai slums, Boo rounds up with the conclusion that  “India – an increasingly affluent and powerful that still housed one-third  of the poverty, and one-quarter of the hunger, on this planet”(42) and “the percentage of rich people is small in India”(115). While recounting the Indian-tale she never fails to mention about white’s superior status as described in the book as:

                        EVERY COUNTRY HAS ITS myths, and one that successful

                       Indian liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation –

 the idea that India’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic

 unpredictability of daily life. In America and Europe, it was said,

 people know what is going to happen when they turn on the water

 tap or flick the light switch. (Boo 219)

Through these aforementioned lines, Boo clearly projects her bias on non-west and created evidence to affirm the belief that the Westerners have been endowed with the reasons to shape and direct the world. This sort of belief is deeply entrenched in the consciousness of Europeans and Americans which forms a core part of their identities. The concept of “Orientalism” which was invented by English and French Orientalists was continued in the twentieth century by American Orientalists and a clear proof of this bias is seen in each and every sentence of Boo’s account of India.  In spite of numerous developmental activities in India, outside world never appreciates the advancement; instead, they rely upon a small proportion of negatives so as to assert the point that development always favours West and those who shadow their policies. Boo claims that India “is a place of festering grievance and ambient envy” (20). Katherine Boo had dwelled on ordinary Middle Eastern subjects and through her self-proclaimed authority sanctions her own discourse. 

Colonialism brought immense changes to our county. The Western man had implemented modern education system but only a few Indians got the chance to study during the British rule. Hence, the eighty-three percent of Indians were illiterate at the time of India’s Independence. The literacy rate which was mere 14 percent in 1947 and now it stands high at 74.04 percent as per 2011 census. Without any keystone, Boo mentions in her book that “Indian liberal arts education was taught by rote” (59) and “Nearly 60 percent of the state’s government school teachers hadn’t finished college..”(59). This kind of remarks were unapologetic. Boo through this book brought out verisimilitude rather than objective reality.

   The Hindu- Muslim issues, caste riots were celebrated by Western authors while narrating the story of India. The Hindu- Muslim riots with mandatory mentions of the Babri Masjid demolition and 2002 Gujarat riots were mentioned in almost all books about India. Boo too mentions the same that the “whispers of the city’s 1992-1993 Hindu-Muslim riots and the 2002 riots in Gujarat they raised their children on a diet of patriotic songs about India”(32).Through her book, she brought out an impression that it is impossible for a Hindu to live along with a Muslim. Boo filled this book with quarrel and unrest between people belonging to a different religion. Through which she brought out an impression that there is no unity among the diversity in India. Agitation, turmoil, unrest, anarchy and uproar were the part of Indian’s culture. Here the cultural dynamics is effaced in the service of a Neo-orientalist regime of truth.

Boo describes slums as a taboo, the destructive part of a society. Most of the characters in Boo’s book are obsessed with collecting the garbage. The “garbage” is the often repeated word in her description of India. Boo uses the word “garbage” as a synonym to represent whole India. She says that “the Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage”(107); “Indian financial capital was alternately known as garbage”(42) and the slum people “slept on top of their garbage bags to prevent other scavengers from stealing them”(42). Through this absurd description, Boo is trying to establish that there is nothing productive happening in India, particularly in the slums. While stressing on the negative side, she fails to get a note of positive aspects. Huge garbage deposit is an obvious outcome of a thickly populated city like Mumbai with a population density of 20,482 people per The Indian slum does a great job of recycling than other developed countries like London. People like Boo, views slum as a wasteland. It is her ignorance which obstructs her from knowing that slum is the home of small- scale industries. The clear proof of this is mentioned in The Hindu newspaper article dated 1st April 2014 that

The leather business is one of the biggest contributions to the Mumbai slum’s informal economy, estimated to have an annual turnover of more than $500million.About 15,000 small-scale industries, spread over an area of 500 acres, deal in business such as pottery, plastic recycle and garment manufacturing.  

The “White” is another most repeated word in Boo’s prose work which stands as a synonym to the Western world. The virus of racism which was brought out by the white man is still carrying out through the ‘fair skin commercials’. The common advertisement slogan like “Fair is Beautiful” brought out an inferiority complex in the minds of Indians is purposefully brought into Boo’s account on India so as to showcase the white man’s so called superior race complex. Boo says that “the Fair and Lovely lotion was crucial to maintain her (Manju’s) light skin complexion, and thereby her status in marriage” (76).Through the phrase like white woman, white man, fair complexion etc., Boo tries to bring out an impression that the colour “white” itself has some attractive quality and that is the reason behind Western paradigms which is to be admired by the whole world.

For an Indian, the word, “Mumbai” conjures an image of a land of opportunity and entertainment with high skyscrapers, wide roads and the sea kissed marine drive. But the readers of this particular books get an image of Mumbai as a hopeless piece of land, over ridden with poverty, filthy environment, bird brain people with fallacious superstitious believes, political fights, malnutrition and so on. Boo, as a writer owns captive narrative power. Through her narrative, she draws a picture image of things undergoing in a slum, but that astonishing presentation is quite distinct from the reality. It is the journalistic empiricism which allows the Neo-orientalist like Boo to get into the heart of Middle Eastern societies and grasp their essential characteristics then produces a generalised cultural theory.

The surmised depiction of India as a “muddle” and “mystery” is described in the novel A Passage to India by E M Forster. The chaotic portrayal of India is stressed by Boo in various instances in her narration as a place of festering grievance and ambient envy. She says that”the slums as monuments to backwardness” (45) and brought out an impression that there is no hope of betterment in these people. Boo doesn’t limit her discourse only with slums, she describes poverty faced by people in rural areas of India. From specific location, Boo brought out a general image of India which is so dim and as a catastrophic piece of land.

            The Westerner’s general tendency is to categorise Indians as  illicit culture and it  is not  advisable  for  them  to deal  with  Indians  in  this manner.  In this non-fiction book ,Boo  manages to give vivid descriptions  of downs  of  a  small  number  of  household on which  she  has zoomed  in, so  as  to  make  the  tale  interesting  to  the Western  readers. The  portrayal  of  Indian women as  “sex  traders” degrades   the  Indian women’s  character  and  says  that  in order  to  overcome  poverty  they  rely  on satisfying their clients through sexual means. Like Forster’s A Passage to India, Boo too brought out clear distinction between the East and the West. She never fails to miss any chance of praising White’s so called superiority trait. Boo mentions with pride that Rahul, a slum dweller “had been awestruck by the New Year rituals of the westernized rich” (10). There is no doubt that the whole world is behind the imposed trend set by the Western world. They label their culture as the perfect role model and is considered to be the superior trend which is to be followed by whole mankind. The colonizers have refashioned almost every aspect of India to suit their colonial project. And it is this refashioned India that most of the today’s Western writers rely upon as a foundation for understanding India. Boo claims that using the Indian word ‘sa’ab’ will cheapen one’s status to D class and the English word ‘sir’ stands as an emblem of so called civilization. The white man wants others to adopt their style but wishes to keep the difference between themselves and the ‘Other‘orient.

At the end of more than two -hundred fifty pages of elaborate description of tormented, unrest, chaotic life record on the lives of people in India, Boo heedlessly arrests her narration as if the world is hopeless and there is no possible solution to revamp. Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity can be termed as cacographic scrawled record of India. Boo, in her unstoppable quest of digging out the worst, had comprehensively distorted the image of India in almost all aspects.


The Western writings about India over ages have comprehended extensively on the distorted reality. This inaccurate cultural representation through the Western thought forms the image of the Eastern world. This sort of dominant Western cultural discourse over the East forms the basis of Orientalism. It is carried on by Katherine Boo in her account of India. Her aim is to bring out an image that even if the colonial power lost its hold in our country, there is still the need of white man to project our country as underdeveloped. The occident’s texts about India can only provide a limited understanding of the Eastern life. This kind of contemporary non-fiction texts on India cannot be treated as reliable account of great India. The books about India by the western writers are qualified to be called a separate genre in itself. It is to be studied through careful consideration of actual history and parallel happenings.


Work cited

  1. Boo, Katherine.Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai   Undercity.USA:Random House.2012.Print.
  2. Balakrishna,Sandeep.”How the West still views India through a colonial mindset”. Art and Culture.9 Feb.2015.Web.20 March 2017.
  3. Carrier,James G.eds.Occidentalism Images of the West.Oxford:Clarendon press,2003.Print.
  4. Kalra,Aditya.”Dharavi once-booming leather industry losing its edge”.India Insight.1 April 2014.Web.
  5. Peter,Berger, and Laurence Harrison.eds.”How a Rich Nation became poor and will be rich again”.Developing Cultures:Case study.19 March 2007.Web.

Introduction to the Authors:

K G Aishwarya Jyothi is a student, MA English Langugae & Literature, Semester 10 at Amrita University, Kerala. The co-author, Shilpa S, is the assistant professor at Amrita School of Arts and Science, Amritapuri campus, Kerala.


Explore More in: Academic Research Paper

Read More Articles: