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BGSU Common Experience 2015-16: Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Discussion Questions

A collection of resources about the 2015-16 Common Experience book selection "Behind the Beautiful Forevers"

Questions for Discussion

Writing and Reporting

  • Boo spent a great deal of time with the Annawadians and was present during a majority of the book’s events. Why do you think Boo chose to write in third person instead of as a first person account?
  • Boo follows many people in the book. Which person in the story do you think she focuses on the most? Why?
  • Considering the book is categorized as non-fiction, would you label the people who appear in the book as “characters” or something else? Does Boo blur this line in some way?
  • Is it your impression that Boo writes more like a novelist or a journalist in this book? Explain.
  • Katherine Boo opens Chapter 1 by rewinding back seven months before the event that begins the story. Why would she do this?
  • Boo chooses to only look at life in one particular slum rather than all of India or multiple slums. What are the advantages and disadvantages in doing this?
  • Over the course of the three to four years Boo spent observing the Annawadians, do you believe that Boo should have stepped in to help them physically, financially, or legally?  Why or why not?
  • If you were a journalist writing a similar book, which characteristics of Boo’s writing would you choose to emulate and what would you do differently?
  • Were you satisfied by the way Boo decides to end the ethnography? Why might Boo have chosen to end this way?

Storyline

  • “To be poor in Annawadi, or any Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another”(p. xviii).  What might this quotation say about the difference between law and survival?
  • The book mentions that fortunes in Annawadi not only came from a person’s occupation or skill, but also by the “accidents and catastrophes they dodged” (p. xx). What does this mean?
  • Is there a caste system within the Annawadi slums? What are some specific ways the slum dwellers determine who is better off and worse off?
  • What does Robert Pires, the slumlord, do to make up for his sin?
  • The hotel managers forbid the staff to look at the guests or even at the guests’ toilets. Why?
  • How is the education system in Mumbai different than the U.S system? What challenges does Boo indicate Mirchi will face even if he does get an education?
  • In what ways does Robert Pires seem to emulate the materialism often associated with the very rich? Why might he be considered fancy in the Annawadi slums?
  • How does the West and Indian Elites' definition of “corruption” differ from the poor and disenfranchised in the slums? Does this differing opinion exist elsewhere? If so, how and why?
  • What do you think about the Italianate floor tile signs and the slogan BEAUTIFUL FOREVER? How is this message ironic?
  • As much as the slum inhabitants want to move away from the filth, the garbage collectors and scavengers rely on waste in order to survive. Does Mumbai’s push to clean up the city actually hurt its most needy citizens? How would you deal with this paradox?
  • What is Eraz-Ex and what is it used for?
  • The Annawadians don’t seem to care that the Corporator, Subhash Sawant, is corrupt. Why?
  • Education is very important to the Annawadians because it means a way out of the slum life. They spend hard earned rupees to send their children to school, yet there is little drive to provide quality education. Why do you think this is the case?
  • Devo’s mother beats him for getting hit by the taxi. What are her reasons and why is this behavior not particularly surprising in Annawadi?
  • Consider the scene at the police station (pp. 90-92). How does the law work in Annawadi?
  • What do you think of “The Master” during his visit? Is he genuine or something else? Why do you think he visits?
  • In most of the book we see the police and security guards as an aggressive and imposing force. How do the police, security guards, and ambulances respond during the terrorist attack? What does this tell you about public service in Mumbai?
  • According to the book, what social class does most of the voting in India? Why? Why don’t the other groups care to vote?
  • How do you interpret the destruction of the “Beautiful Forevers” wall?
  • Why might Kehkashan and her father want to relocate when the garbage truck runs over the dog in front of the courthouse? Does this scene remind you of another scene? How so?

Abdul

  • By what process does a garbage trader like Abdul make his money?  How does this oddly fit a market?
  • What are some of the ways Abdul tests the quality of the trash he trades? Do these skills make him seem like something more than just a scavenger?
  • Big events such as the Olympics and peak tourism season create a lot of waste problems for Mumbai. How does Abdul view this “problem”?
  • Making 500 Rupees ($11 U.S) a day at the recycling center is a good haul for Abdul’s family. How do global markets affect a trash-trader like Abdul? Does this surprise you in some way?
  • In Chapter 3, what morbid wager do Abdul and his younger brothers make?
  • What conclusion does Abdul make about sorting people? Do you agree or disagree with him?
  • What does Abdul tell Allah that creates a lasting moral dilemma for him? What are your feelings about Abdul’s dilemma?
  • Abdul makes a comparison between water and ice. Which one does he want to be and why? What is Abdul’s final conclusion about which he will become? What does this mean to you?

Sunil

  • How do you feel the nuns at the orphanage treat Sunil and Sunita? What are some examples of their treatment?
  • What does Sunil fear even more than hunger? Why would such a fear matter to him?
  • In Chapter 3, what does Sunil notice that helps him become a better scavenger despite his small stature? What does this say about the enterprising ways of the Annawadians?
  • Why do you think the Will Smith film (I Am Legend) bothers Sunil so much?
  • What is the “full enjoy,” and does Sunil feel content scavenging rather than stealing?
  • What is the most valuable reward Sunil gains from becoming a thief? Do you think the risk is worth it?
  • What is so amusing, if not ironic, to Sunil and the road boys about PAWS getting justice?

Asha

  • What does Asha want to become and how does she plan to go about it?
  • What is Asha willing to do that Robert Pires now feels guilty about?
  • Think about the advice Asha gives her supplicants and family members, particularly Raja Kamble. Consider what she wants to pray for. What does this say about her as a person and leader?
  • How did you feel about the staging of Annawadi’s “progress” by government officials and Asha (p.28)? Why would Asha assist with such misinformation?
  • What do Asha’s attempts to intervene in the police investigation in Chapter 7 say about her power?
  • Zuhrunisa cries over the loss of her quilt despite her many other problems. Why?
  • Asha abruptly leaves the house on her fortieth birthday. Where is she going and why?
  • In a somewhat humorous scene at the beginning of chapter 12, Asha proudly displays her gold chain and takes her seat next to the Corporator. On the one hand, we can see symbols of wealth and power. On the other, her chair is made of plastic and they sit next to a sewage lake. What do you make of status in the slums?

Manju

  • Manju disapproves of her mother’s actions, but those same kinds of activities have also helped provide Manju with food, upward mobility, and even a college education. Explain how might you feel and what you might do if you were Manju?
  • What is the new importance of English to Manju (p. 60)? What do these terms mean to you? 
  • Manju reads The Way of the World throughout the book but can’t really understand it.  What is so ironic about her problems with the story she reads?
  • How does Manju feel about marriage? How is marriage tied into social status in Annawadi?        
  • Vijay tells Manju, “In my next birth, you can be my wife…not this time.” Why do you think he makes this comment?
  • Why does Meena think the flowers in Manju’s hair die so quickly? How does Manju relate this to her mother?
  • What is Manju’s passive-aggressive way of dealing with her mother?
  • Why do Manju and the other Annawadi women quietly treat Meena when it is discovered that she ingested the rat poison?

Zehrunisa

  • What is Zehrunisa’s role in the Husain family? How does her role differ from most Annawadi women?
  • Why does Zehrunisa curse so often at neighbors and trash collectors? Also, why is she so verbally abusive to her own family? Is she mean-hearted or does she have other reasons?
  • Although we see Zehrunisa as an incredibly strong woman, she is described as a “tear-factory even on good days; it was one of her chief ways of starting conversation.” What do you make of this curious contrast?
  • Zehrunisa finds it important to share holidays with other Muslims, even if she doesn’t particularly like some of them. Why does she think the Muslims should stick together?
  • Are there other reasons besides her family’s health for Zehrunisa wanting to fix up their current home rather than moving to Vasai?
  • Why do you think Zehrunisa refuses to pay off Fatima or bribe the government agent? Would you have done the same?

Fatmina

  • How do the Annawadians view Fatima as a woman? A mother? A wife? How do you think Fatima views herself? How do you feel about her?
  • How did Fatima catch on fire? What is the reason behind the fire? How do her neighbors react?
  • The doctor calls Fatima’s husband irresponsible when he cannot buy her the bottled water. Based on what you know about Fatima’s husband, do you agree or disagree with the doctor?
  • In Chapter 12, Fatima’s suicide comes up again. What are the different perspectives of why she committed suicide? Did this make her into a martyr in some way?

Culture

  • Mirchi dreams of becoming a waiter and “having a bathroom as big as this hut.” What’s ironic about this dream compared to the career aspirations of most Americans? How does he identify success?
  • The Annawadi inhabitants or “dreamers” all have different aspirations even though they live in the same impoverished situation. Why do you think they have this hope?
  • Why does Fatima (a.k.a The One Leg) bother to wear makeup when she goes out if everyone laughs at her anyway?
  • The fancy hotels such as the Intercontinental and Hyatt border the slums. Despite their geographical orientation, how are they worlds apart?
  • Rahul calls the New Year’s rituals “moronic.” Why do people standing around and drinking seem so silly to him? Have you ever felt like Rahul when observing a social event you were an outsider to?
  • Kalu is one of the most popular children in Annawadi, often reenacting Bollywood scenes. How does his death counter the typical tropes of Bollywood culture?
  • Rahul seems confused by the “rich hero” who stuffed rolls in his pockets. What’s your interpretation of this party goer?
  • What are the holidays and festivals mentioned in the book? Why is each of these important to the young men and women in the slums?

Identity

  • What does “Annawadi” literally mean? Does the definition fit the identity of Annawadi?
  • What reasons does Zehrunisa give for her behavior? How has her identity been shaped by her familial situation rather than the social norms her parents expected of her?
  • Which character’s dreams can you most identify with? Why?
  • Recall when foreign journalists would visit the slums to ask about the self-help programs. How did Asha use this to her advantage? Is information and misinformation a form of currency and power? How can public identity differ from true identity?
  • Does the Annawadi vision of a “New India” identify with the “American Dream” in any way? 
  • In Chapter 5, we learn more about Fatima The One Leg. What internal and external factors have shaped her identity?
  • What does Zehrunisa think of Fatima and the brothel owner? Why brings them together? What kind of identity does this form?
  • What does Asha tell her husband that Fatima should do? Why does identifying as a Muslim in Annawadi carry consequences?
  • At the end of Chapter 7, Boo alternates between Fatima’s funeral procession and American representatives at Hotel Leena. What does this say about Mumbai’s dual identity?
  • What do the airport people do to conceal the identity of the slums?
  • Abdul notices three particular Indian eminences in Mumbai’s Juvenile Detention Center. Who does he notice and how do their contributions to Indian identity differ from the identity of Abdul’s slum?
  • What does Abdul realize about the doctor’s way of life during his examination at the detention center? What about the police officers? How does this change the way he identifies them?
  • How does the Shiv Sena man describe social status to Asha? Have you identified yourself or others based on similar factors?
  • Raja Kamble is identified as a successful man in the slum, even earning the title, Mister. What does Mr. Kamble have that makes him so successful? Does a similar idea of success exist here in the U.S?
  • Boo offers an “age line” where charity no longer extended to children. Around what age is this and what does it say about growing up in the slums?
  • Whom do you most identify with in the book? Why?