Katherine Boo won the 2012 Nonfiction National Book Award for Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Subtitled Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, it is an intensely challenging book. Beautiful Forevers tells the story of a select group of slum dwellers. They live in a place quite near Mumbai’s renovated international airport, with several large luxury hotels in close proximity.

And the book’s main subjects are select not by language, ethnicity, or ability, but by the author’s perception that they had possibility. It’s their perception of themselves as well. As if living near the wealth and progress of the airport district would bring them the same qualities by osmosis.

One subject Boo follows is young college student Manju, who teaches kids in her family’s home after she finishes taking her own classes. Her goal was to become the first female college graduate from Annawadi.

Her mother Asha has political aspirations, although admittedly the Mumbai political system and democratic perspective is not quite what we expect in the West. Asha is a conflicted woman, straddling the old traditions and new ways of thinking.

“Do you ever think when you look at someone, when you listen to someone, does that person really have a life?” … “But something he’d come to realize on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy’s life could still matter to himself.”

Boo also tells the story of a Muslim family, the Husains. They’ve made their living in the salvage business. Which basically means their son Abdul scavenges trash, trades it, sorts it, stockpiles it, and thus supports his large family. And they unintentionally become embroiled in a murder/suicide situation in Annawadi, which gives us insight into the Indian “justice” system.

My conclusions:

These are all real people, not fictional. But it’s absolutely “real life is crazier than fiction.” And by crazier I mean more difficult, more risky, and eminently less fair or just than it should be. Residents of Annawadi have less than nothing. They aren’t the sunny, happy poor people you see in movies, or even in books like Shantaram. They are beaten down, oppressed, and treated like the garbage they sort.

Katherine Boo does a fantastic job of telling these stories with a balance of hope and despair. Although, the stories do lean towards the depressing most of the time. Despite the subject matter, Boo keeps pulling the story forward. She explains the whys of ethnic conflict, the lack of proper health care, and makes everyday corruption and bribery seem perversely logical. Which, of course, it isn’t. However, it’s how life is in Annawadi.

Annawadians have difficult lives simply because they’re slum dwellers. The undercity is their home, even if they’re from small rural villages. Mumbai’s overcity, where tourists visit, makes a few small appearances. But mostly Boo brings us into Annawadi and leaves us within its environs.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers wasn’t a quick read. I had to put it down many times because Boo never whitewashes the truth. She’s created a tour de force of international social justice. Well worth the time for its heart, as well as its hurt.