26 February 2015

In the Absence of Hope [Book Club]

[We're concluding our reading of and discussion on Behind the Beautiful Forevers. If you missed the previous posts, you can read them here: Prologue and Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.]

And so we reach the end--the end of Katherine Boo's narrative, the end of the expedited court case, the end of Asha's run for power. Is it also the end of hope?

Before we approach that delicate question, let's go back to the observations with which we began a month ago: the narrative style, the losses in success, and the absence of an antagonist.

The Personal Side of Boo's Reporting

The Author's Note is very insightful. Boo talks about how she gathered information firsthand in Annawadi from 2007 to 2011. While she writes the story as a narrative--a fluid, compelling, and soul-searching mess of conflicts--she is still reporting. Her commitment to accuracy is both astonishing and admirable. It's also telling to realize she was there for all these events, not just coming in afterward for interviews and pictures. She knows these residents, and it is her several years of being among them that allows her to speak for them.

How difficult it must have been for her to write the conclusions that were instead of the ones she wished for them. She set out to write the book she wanted to read about India. But we return to the basic question: Does her reporting bring hope?


  • Did you feel conclusion at the end of the book?
  • How would this story have been different if not told by a reporter? How would it have been affected if written by, say, a Christian who was looking for an "in" to the society? Does Boo interject her own philosophies or ideas? Should she have/not?

The Losses Plummet

When we started, the losses that characters took in hopes of success were health, integrity, and conscience. Now, as we end, we see that those losses seem small compared to what developed in those few years of intense conflict. How did this happen?


  • Is Abdul's conclusion about morality a result of his age (as he supposed) or his circumstances?
  • How has Manju changed? 
  • If Asha was already corrupt, what did she "lose" when wealth turned her cold against her neighbors?
  • Sunil's sad appearance in the closing paragraphs is quite the image of loss. Does he regret becoming a thief? Does he resent his life as a scavenger? How is it that the individual in the poorest physical condition seems the only one left with hope at the end of the book?

The Elusive Antagonist

If you're like me, anger was stirred in you several times while reading this book. At whom was it directed? At what? Poverty. Corrupt government. Harmful police. Uncaring courts. Abusive parents. Rats. The special executive officer with her palms up. The unfairness so obvious on every page.

Are these the antagonist? 

Here's another question: Who is the protagonist? These are real people, not invented personalities. Can we have hope for each one? Or is the protagonist something more universal, more internal--and fighting hard against injustice and the blockade of poverty?

Could the protagonist be hope?

Hope against despair. Resolve against depression. Truth against corruption. Beauty against slum-expected ugliness. Ice against the muddy waters. 

The Absence of Hope

Katherine Boo walks away from Annawadi in 2011, but their lives continue. The end of our book doesn't mean the end of their story. But how have we left Manju, Abdul, Sunil, Asha? 

Here is a quick look at where our four main characters have journeyed in a few short years:

BeginningMiddle End
Abdulrunning successful recyclable sorting businessaccused of beating Fatima, loses business, gains moralitylets go of morality, working to rebuild family income
Ashapursuing slumlord positionoverworked, growing indifferent and greedymaking dishonest money, enjoying wealth, ignoring needs around her
Manjustudying, teachingunsatisfied with mother's life, saddened by Meena's deathenjoying mother's success, no longer "giving back" to children
Sunilscavenging, survivingstealing, growing taller than his sisterback to scavenging, still smiling and joking

What were their hopes before the burning of the One Leg? And now?

Abdul hoped for a simple life, much like the one he had. Instead, he received a false accusation, a stolen business, and a morality that didn't seem "sensible" as he matured. His hope has melted as even he admits: "For some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting . . . But now I'm just becoming dirty water, like everyone else. I tell Allah I love him immensely, immensely. But I tell him I cannot be better, because of how the world is."

Asha hoped for power. Instead, she received money, which was fine with her. This shows she hadn't wanted authority to improve others' lives--only her own. Her hope for a dominant position was dumped along with the hopes any Annawadi residents had put in her to help them. She became calloused to her poor reputation and the sour stares of her neighbors because of the consolation of money.

Manju hoped for a college education and an honest advance into the middle class. Instead, she was pulled into her mother's corrupt schemes and eventually stopped objecting to the wrongs all around her. She stopped teaching the slum children to speak English. She lost interest in goodness when struck unexpectedly with illegal comfort.

Sunil hoped for height. He used his smallness to his advantage as a thief and began to grow taller than Sunita. But even when he returned to full-time scavenging, he looked forward to each day with the same resolve, the same sad humor. He said, "Always I was thinking how to try to make my life nicer, more okay, and nothing got better . . . So now I'm going to try to do it the other way. No thinking how to make anything better, just stopping my mind, then who knows? Maybe then something good could happen." He chooses to dismiss expectations altogether. If something good happens to him, it will be a pleasant surprise. 

In the absence of hope, these four characters resort to dishonesty, indifference, despair, and toleration. But can this be avoided? Boo notes that their "conditions . . . sabotaged their innate capacity for moral action." Yet she also concludes that "some people are good, and that many people try to be." 

Goodness Beautified

While Boo's conclusion about people's goodness is intended to highlight those in the slums who make unselfish decisions and do make the right choice despite the risk to themselves, her statement tugs at my heart because, really, none of us are good.

Romans 3:10 says, "There is none righteous, not even one" and 3:23 follows up with "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God." 

Our goodness in the middle and upper class may seem more beautiful, but is that because we have privilege? Is it because we have moments and money to spare? If we too were stripped of everything from honor to food, would we still be as "good"? Before pointing accusing fingers at the slum residents of Annawadi, let us point fingers at ourselves. 

Without Christ, our hearts are stone, and our appetites drive us with greed, lust, and cruelty. It's only by grace that we are released from the power of sin. It's only by faith that we are connected to our God and pulled from the implosion of our own selfishness. It's only by hope that we can rise from the grime of dishonesty, indifference, despair, and toleration. 

So we close the covers of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, but we cannot forget it: the depravity and despair, the corruption and cruelty. The bare human heart, the naked selfish soul, the starving rat-bitten will, the beaten broken dreams--these cancers thrive in the absence of hope.

Today, we talked about hope. You're invited to add your comments on this heavy topic or on other themes in Part 4. Please join our discussion on Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

Abide in Him,

At the request of readers, I've started a Facebook group to facilitate discussions on non-Thursdays and to encourage more casual remarks and questions. Please join us there!

Related articles you may also appreciate:


  1. This book has been an interesting experience in placing Scripture in a context very foreign to my own. Each of us relates to our Creator not only as an individual, but in the context of our environment and life experience. This does not mean that God must remake Himself to be relevant to each of us. He is always constant, and always relevant. He Is.

    This can be difficult to get a grip on, however, when our environment and experience appear to be insurmountably hopeless. Or when, in the case of reading of Annawadi, when others are facing lives of horror and hopelessness. It can be very easy to let the promises of God fade to the background of our heart when we are confronted with the darkness of this world. But the One Who said, “for I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future,” (Jer. 29:11) has not changed and His promises are for all who will acknowledge Him.

    I came to realize a long time ago that without Jesus I am capable of anything. Without Jesus, my deceitful, wretched heart would consume me regardless of the material blessings or moral teachings of this world. Whatever I have or am, it is because He has designed it so for His purposes. It is the same for all of us. There is always hope, because He is hope, and He always Is. Even in Annawadi.

    1. This is beautifully and wisely said, Leigh. The phrase "There, but by the grace of God, go I" comes to mind as I relate to your admission of what we are all capable of without Christ as our hope, purpose, and life.

      While religion was somewhat present in Annawadi, it did not direct any one life. Many may argue that none had time to think of spiritual matters, besides the Muslim holidays that Zehrunisa's and Fatima's family observed and the Hindu customs that the others blandly followed--so what change would the Holy Spirit enact in someone living there? We do not know. However, like you said, we do know that God is the same in every culture and would act according to His character: good, just, and holy.

      On a personal note, I've so appreciated your interaction and insight with this book, Leigh. Thank you for all you've written. I've enjoyed our online conversations. ^^

  2. Ok, trying my comment again. :)

    This book has been so hard to read, and there is so much that can be said at the end. First, I wonder what happened to everyone. She left in 2011...but what about the last three years?

    Mostly I've been thinking about two things - poverty and what our faith would look like in the Mumbai slum.

    In America, my family is considered as one living under the federal poverty level. Without government intervention we would not have food or electricity or a home...quite literally. We are given money from my parents each month to pay the bills. And yet...are we really poor? I have a three bedroom home, an education and I am able to work. There are no bribes to pay, no corruption to work through, no beatings or death or stench. I feel closer to their description of striving for each day, but yet so far away. Mostly, my children are safe. I am safe. My husband is safe. Can we really consider ourselves poor? I think those in that slum would laugh at our version of poverty. We try to fight against the bonds of our poverty like they do, and with just about as much luck, but from the outside we look pretty similar to everyone else around us. Unless I shared our situation no one would ever know we struggled. And yet when I look into the lives in this book and feel some similarities I also feel a mass of writhing inside me, struggling to comprehend what true poverty looks like. Would I stay honest in their place? Could I? There is such hopelessness...and yet such hope...and I had a hard time getting through the book wrestling with it all.

    And what about Jesus? What would Jesus look like in this slum? I suspect he'd look much closer to reality of what he really did look like compared to what our churches in affluent countries make him out to be. To hear of corruption in the Christian organizations hurt. To know places like this exist and no one is there with Jesus hurts. To want to do something and not know what hurts. What do we pray for? How can I pray? If you are standing in such a broken place, where can you begin? And yet I see the broken lives all around us and I feel just as helpless...frozen and unable to help. Yet I think of a song that talks about a person asking God where He is in the midst of the broken world, to which God responds, "where are you?" And I go back and forth and struggle.

    At the end, I wonder what the verdict on my life will be. And I wonder how to help when I feel like every day is a struggle just to survive. How can I give from my own need? But then, maybe that is the whole question of faith?

    I'm glad I read the book, but it hurt, and yet I don't want to shy away from that pain.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Cheryl. Your questions probe deep. My perception of poverty also changed while reading this novel. While I definitely recognize the struggle your family is facing, I believe you pinpointed the difference with your question "Would I stay honest in their place? Could I?" I'm realizing that integrity and hope seem stolen from Annawadi, as Abdul even released his former convictions as he grew into a "sensible" adult. It's a foreign world to us who can keep honest while striving. Still, the horrid decay of a place devoid of hope is an accurate picture of a heart devoid of Christ. I cannot forget that parallel.

      I also wonder what I should change in my life, now aware of places like Annawadi. I love the song quote you shared. As God asks me where I am, I want to know that my answer will please Him. What do I do with what I've learned? How can I help, and how must I change?

      Thanks again for sharing, Cheryl. You're right that the book was a painful, but necessary, realization of the world.


Note: Comments awaiting moderation may not appear for several hours or--if the kids and I fall asleep at the same time--at least a day. Thank you for your patience and please do not feel deterred; your feedback and insight are most welcomed!