“Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity” by Katherine Boo

“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” (Boo 2012) is a deeply touching account of the lives of people living in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum adjoining the Sahar Airport, in the state of Maharashtra. The book is a razor-sharp indictment of the ‘new India’ as a place where inequalities, exploitation and injustice have become part of the fabric of everyday life.

I will be analysing the ethnography through the lens of bordering, ordering and othering (Van Houtum and Van Naerssen 2002), supporting my argument with two ethnographies in addition to the book under review – one relating to the impact of the partition between India and Pakistan, and the other conducted in the Indian city of Ahmedabad.

The Annawadi Slum

Katherine Boo focuses on the lives of two families who live in the Annawadi slum. These are the Husain family (Muslim migrants from northern India) and the Waghekar family (Hindu Maharashtrians).

She uses the tragic story of ‘Fatima the One Leg’ (Muslim convert, disabled), who in a fit of pique and envy sets herself on fire and points the finger of blame at the Husains, as a fulcrum around which to weave a thick description (Geertz 1973) of the othering of slumdwellers, Muslims and migrants.

Boo brings the othering of the inhabitants of the slum in sharp relief with a vignette describing the actions of activists who mobilize to save the horses owned by a slum inhabitant after two of them plunge to their death off a bridge during an illegal race, sparking a flurry of media headlines and a raid on the slum.

The reaction of the public at large and the zeal for justice for the horses contrasts sharply with society’s absolute disregard for the plight of the children in the slum and the murders of two boys, Kalu and Sanjay, cementing the belief of the slumdwellers that “their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces, and their deaths would matter not at all” (Boo 2012, p. 222).

While all the members of the slum are clearly othered by Mumbai society, Boo uses the rising fortunes of Asha Waghekar and her family as a foil to show that “some others are more welcome than other others” (Van Houtum & Van Naerssen 2002, p. 129).

An excellent example of this is the fact that Asha and her husband possessed voting documents, while Muslims and migrants from other states were totally disenfranchised, notwithstanding repeated attempts to register for the vote.

This discrimination between locals and migrants, and Hindus and Muslims, brings to the fore the fact that “‘some borders are no longer situated at the borders at all’ in geographical or political senses of the terms. Borders have become invisible borders, situated everywhere and nowhere. Hence the undesirable persons are not expelled by the border, they are forced to be border.” (Khosravi 2007, p. 333).

This ties in with one of the main themes of the book, with Boo asking, ‘What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society?’ (Boo 2012, p. 230). The answer is clear on every page. The bordering of slums and othering of migrants and Muslims in most cases destroys any chance these families might have of clawing their way out of poverty.

The Village of Khari

In an ethnographic study conducted in the village of Khari, in India, Sharma (2020) studies a community of people who prior to the partition were united by ties of ethnicity (Pahari), language (Pothowari) and kinship.

The community embraced different religions, and they all celebrated several festivals which combined aspects from different faiths. In 1947, after the intervention of the United Nations to negotiate a cease fire between the warring Muslim and Hindu factions, a cease-fire line was drawn which split the fiefdom of Poonch in two.

The governments in Pakistan and India then embarked on nation-building campaigns, indoctrinating citizens to believe that ethnicity and language were secondary to religion when it came to the definition of identity, and that differences in religious beliefs implied “otherness” (Chaturvedi 2001).

Both nations focused on creating a sense of national identity by demonising the other, presenting the cease-fire line as a boundary that created order by safeguarding the people of their territory from the impurity of the others.

The making of a place must hence be understood as an act of purification, as it is arbitrarily searching for a justifiable, bounded cohesion of people and their activities in space which can be compared and contrasted to other spatial entities

Van Houtum & Van Naerssen 2002 p. 126

The City of Ahmedabad

The transformation in ethnic identity exacerbated the schism between Hindus and Muslims., with the latter becoming the impersonification of the other in India. 

Chatterjee (2009) provides us with an excellent ethnographic example of the drawing of imaginary boundaries to oppress and exclude these others in the Indian city of Ahmedabad. The city was the scene of violent riots in 2002 where Hindus killed thousands of Muslims over a span of two and a half months, with the tacit support of the police and state authorities.

Around 100,000 Muslims fled from their homes and were forced out of the urban centre and towards the periphery of the city, where they were entrapped and segregated in slums with substandard conditions and much lower economic and educational opportunities.

A clear indicator of the ‘imaginary’ and ‘invisible’ border is the fact that Muslims are now banned from purchasing property in certain areas of the city. A rich Muslim businessman tells the ethnographer that

West Ahmedabad is rich Ahmedabad, it is clean and green – skyscrapers and malls stand proudly … I can afford to live there, but no one will sell me land or an apartment there, because I am a Muslim. The builders have hung notices to keep the Muslim-buyers out

Chatterjee 2009 p. 1009


These two ethnographies highlight the same intersectionalities evident in the Annawadi community, where issues such as ethnicity, gender, caste, language, religion and disability can make the difference between life and death for the slum dwellers.

One need only consider the different circumstances of Manju (Hindu, Maharashtrian, studying for a College degree, beautiful, privileged because of her mother’s political connections, Kunbi caste) and her friend Meena (Hindu, Tamil, denied an education because of her gender, victim of domestic violence, inferior Dalit caste), who commits suicide. The two girls were friends, and both lived in the slum, but faced vastly different realities.

In conclusion, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a heart-rending read that effectively illustrates the plight of people living in Mumbai slums, and how the forces of bordering, ordering and othering are blighting the life chances of many slumdwellers, with devastating consequences.


Boo, K. (2012) “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.” Random House, Inc., New York.

Chatterjee, I. (2009) “Violent morphologies: Landscape, Border and Scale in Ahmedabad Conflict.” Geoforum, vol. 40, no. 6, pp. 1003-1013.

Chaturvedi, S. (2002) “Process of Othering in the case of India and Pakistan”, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, vol. 93, no. 2, pp. 149-159.

Geertz, C. (1973) Interpretation of Cultures. New York, Basic Books.

Khosravi, S. (2007) “The ‘illegal’ Traveller: An Auto-ethnography of Borders.” Social Anthropology vol 15, no. 3, pp. 321-334.

Sharma, M. (2022) “Remaking of ethnic-boundaries: identity and religion among Sikhs in the borderland of Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir”, Asian Ethnicity, vol. 23, no. 2, pp. 279-297.

Van Houtum, H. & Van Naerssen, T. (2002) “Bordering, Ordering and Othering”, Tijdschrift voor Economische en Sociale Geografie, vol. 93, no. 2, pp. 125-136.

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