05 February 2015

When Life is Garbage, Corruption, or Education [Book Club]

[In case you missed the announcement, on Thursdays we are having our online book club here. You are invited to join us for discussions every week! Today, we are covering the prologue and Part 1 of Behind the Beautiful Forevers.]


Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo, begins like a train wreck--shocking and sad but with an unexplainable lure that keeps your eyes glued. Then, we rewind and take a slower stroll through Annawadi by stepping into the personal struggles of four residents.

Today, we are discussing the prologue and part 1 of this award-winning book. There is so much that can be covered (and you're welcome to draw out further themes in the comments), but I will touch on three things to get us going: the power of Boo's narrative, the cost of success, and the ambiguous antagonist.

The Power of Boo's Narrative
Her writing is phenomenal. I'm sure I'm not the only one who stopped mid-page to admire the masterful way she combines the art of word sounds and the meanings they convey. How's this one: "Annawadi, the sumpy plug of slum in which he lived."* Or who can forget the taste of hunger that Asha recalled "burrowed into your tongue"? This book reads like a novel, and that can be dangerous.

Why? Well, we can forget that it's nonfiction. These people are real. Abdul, Sunil, Asha, the One Leg, Zehrunisa, Manju, Mr. Kamble. So even as we analyze this book, let's not let our hearts be calloused to the absolute vulnerability of these testimonies. I cannot imagine having my character laid bare on the pages of a bestseller--open for all to criticize.

On the positive side, though, the literary flow of Boo's writing does draw us in much deeper than would any other kind of reporting. This perspective is a gift that must be handled responsibly.

  • Do you like her writing style? What do you appreciate about it?
  • How have her different chapter perspectives affected the plot and character development in Part 1?

The Cost of Success
Boo cleverly gives us four perspectives of Annawadi, three of which are summarized well in this quote from chapter 4: "As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha placed her hopes; and education." Manju is, of course, our example of education.

[Sunil is the curious case that falls between the categories. What perspective does he give us of Annawadi? Is his of mere survival while the others are trying to rise even to the middle class?]

The three ways out of poverty are not without cost, though. Each case showed sacrifice, albeit different. Abdul's can probably best be seen in his appearance, as Sunil sees him: "Except for the child-eyes, black as keyholes, Abdul looked to him like a broken old man." And all three of the other characters struggle with what to give up and what to value.

  • What did Abdul give up in order to gain dominance in the mad race for garbage? 
  • And what did Asha sacrifice for her success? 
  • How does Manju carry the weight of her education: the expectations, the privilege?
  • Why does Sunil sacrifice the opportunity to scavenge and steal with Kalu? Was it worth it to his conscience?
  • And how do these four struggles echo universal conflicts involving success and survival?

The Ambiguity of the Antagonist
Who is the enemy? There are several possibilities.

Poverty. They are racing against their failing bodies, against hunger, against pollution and infection.

The uncaring affluent. Boo reports of fraudulent aid workers who break promises or steal money intended to improve living conditions. Sunil remembered how unfairly he was treated in the orphanage by those who were supposed to protect him--"why he and the other children received ice cream only when newspaper reporters came to visit, and why food and clothing donated for the children got furtively resold outside the orphanage gate."

Each other. Abdul "simply recognized Annawadi as a place booby-trapped with contentions, new and ancient, over which he was determined not to trip." With competition sometimes deadly, even longtime friends could not be trusted. Are our main characters antagonists of each other?

  • Do you have another antagonist to add to this list? 
  • Is it harder to make alliances in Annawadi mainly because of the unstable living conditions? Could the same people, comfortably in the middle class, live agreeably with each other? Or do their conflicts run deeper--with religion, or personality, or lifestyle? If you agree with the first statement, then do we in the middle/upper classes have any excuse for our squabbles?
  • Lastly, with these "enemies" in mind, how could outside help begin to impact this slum? Where could it begin? How? Under what circumstances? 

I invite you respond to any/all of the questions and topics brought up here. Please join our discussion about Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

Abide in Him,

*I'm reading this book on my Kindle and therefore do not have page numbers for my quotes. This probably upsets me more than you, but I wanted to clarify why my documentation is lacking. (Sorry.)

Related articles you may also appreciate:
Book Club: Beginning (an overview and reading plan)
People Are People Everywhere
Missionaries Must Come Like Family Not Tourists
4 Cross-cultural Novels


  1. The perspective of the author in this book I find to be very interesting. It is like she is a fly on the wall; one of the many flies in Annawadi, going from house to house, person to person. It took me a little while to reconcile the documentary aspect of the book with the novel like presentation, but I do enjoy Ms. Boo’s descriptive style. I find the clipped sentences to be a little distracting at times, but perhaps that was intended as well.

    The statement you mentioned above, that success in Annawadi was to be found in entrepreneurship, corruption, or education, got my attention when I read it in the book as well. My immediate reaction when I read it was a despair that a life lived well was measured by the results of how well you rise above your current situation. To judge success so narrowly is a deep pit. But Abdul, Manju, and Sunil seem to be motivated by the inherent knowledge that satisfaction lies in a purpose beyond themselves. That a successful life is measured in who you are, not what you do. They are trying to better themselves with effort and education, but not at the expense of others.

    Human nature has always, and will always be, the same regardless of time, place, or circumstances. Because of this, I thought your observation regarding the ambiguity of an antagonist very insightful. Isn’t that usually the case in this mortal life? Sometimes difficulties and trials come from sources beyond our control, and sometimes we find ourselves in messes of our own making. Poverty, apathy, hatred and selfishness are obvious antagonists in the story of Annawadi, but that is the same for all of humanity. Our ultimate enemies are Satan and our own sinful nature, but it isn’t always easy to isolate the point of attack.

    Annawadi’s poverty is overwhelming to think of, but I also came away from reading this week with a reminder that hope for all of us is only in the Lord. We’re all in the same boat. Yes, we need to reach out to those in physical want and give and do all we can to help, but ultimately it is spiritual poverty that defeats us.

    1. Leigh, I really liked your last paragraph.. It has been hard for me to read this book, knowing that it is not just some story - but real life for someone who isn't sitting on their comfortable couch in a large house with a fully stomach. I squeeze my 15 month old's chubby hands and simultaneously thank the Lord for no rat bites and pray for the children who do face challenges like these as a normal part of their every day life. Such intense physical poverty for people who have risen above India's national poverty line.
      And with these challenges.. life is still life. Families to feed and raise. Work to do. Hope to seek after.
      A serious need for the Lord.
      Physical "poverty is overwhelming... but ultimately it is spiritual poverty that defeats us." <-- yes. Thanks for your thoughts!

    2. Yes, Leigh--absolutely! Your observations here are both enlightening to the text as well as applicable to our lives. I do like how you set apart Abdul, Manju, and Sunil from the cutthroat mentality of step-on-his-head-to-be-taller. They were trying to better themselves, but they had a morality about it, an unnamed pride or respect that prohibited them from lowering their standards. Abdul worked hard and didn't cheat his customers. Sunil refused to steal. Manju studied and served and still kept an attitude of grace. It makes them very likable, right? Isn't this what we, too, want in friends?

      And I wanted to cheer when reading how you summed up the antagonist in your third paragraph. The Bible says that all that is in the world boils down to pride and lust (see 1 John 2:16). The root of their struggles is the same root that spouts conflict everywhere. So the way to peace is not by bettering ourselves in this broken world but by receiving wholeness from Christ.

      Still, I hear that rebuttal that says, "They can't hear Jesus over the groaning of their bellies." So I am yet unsure how Christian aid could even begin to impact slums like Annawadi. Must they first live among them? Or would they need to feed everyone before offering the gospel?

    3. Malia, I am like you and am unsure of the details of reaching places like Annawadi with the gospel.
      Looking to Jesus as our example, we know that ministering to physical needs is an opening to offering the gospel, and that once seeds are planted Annawadians will tell Annawadians the good news. Someone must go in with feet on the ground, so to speak, but it is the Lord Who brings the increase and changes lives. Jesus said that the poor will always be with us. We cannot eradicate poverty completely, though we do what we can. Can we feed and clothe everyone? No, I don't think we can, but that shouldn't hinder us from trying, just as the knowledge that not all will come to salvation should not hinder us from telling everyone we can about Jesus.
      I have to believe that the Lord will work among those who welcome Him. I have to believe that He is bigger than the hopelessness we see.


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