The Red Couch: Behind the Beautiful Forevers Introduction

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M_RedCouchWhen I think of India, I remember reading Lights of the Veil, the smell of a friend’s curry cooking in her dorm room, and Monsoon Wedding, one of my favorite Bollywood films. I call to mind memoirs which have included pilgrimages through India, which observe extreme poverty and begging children and then continue on their way to a Hindu temple.

When I think of India, I remember watching Mowgli in Jungle Book as a child. I envision shrines and saris. I flash to a pink tunic, discarded by my brother’s friend and worn by me for several years. (I rarely wear pink but I was enthralled by the intricate embroidered design.) I think of princes and tigers and slums. I don’t know anyone who currently lives in India but I have several friends who called it home at one point.

Up until several years ago, I didn’t think much about this swirling mix of stories I’d absorbed about India, the US, myself. I didn’t question the accuracy or assumptions made. As I pressed in to my then-job as a hospice social worker, I heard such a wide variety of stories from people with all manner of backgrounds, cultures, and class. I could not help but start to read books and hear stories (told by someone other than the individual) with a more critical lens.

To paraphrase Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, there’s danger in listening to only a single story. Although I trusted my friends who recommended Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I worried this look at an Indian slum would confirm the sole image many bring to mind when they hear “India.” What story would Katherine Boo share? I need not have worried.

When I started reading, I kept stopping to figure out if this was actually a novel. It reads differently than the average non-fiction book. Not quite memoir, certainly not fiction, wholly investigative journalism. Katherine Boo found a way to bring us right to the Annawadi slum and in to the world of the people we meet. Annawadi exists behind the airport, hidden by a wall covered in Beautiful Forever ads. The contrast is striking.

We see Asha plot, Manju study, Abdul barter, and Zehrunisa fight for her family. They live in the same settlement but hierarchies still exist. Those more well off than others. The Hindus compared to the Muslims. Men holding more power than women. They do have this in common: they dream of success and they work hard for it. Some through bribery, others picking up and reselling trash, a few through the power of education.

While Behind the Beautiful Forevers engages its reader, it is not always an easy read. It is not a spoiler to say it includes self-immolation, murder, illness, and rampant corruption. On the other hand, there are also stories of friendship, justice, and hope. The citizens of Annawadi strive for a better tomorrow, in spite of what many of us would call abject circumstances.

You will root for some of the people you meet in these pages and curse others. Boo humanizes them all.

“Abdul hadn’t previously thought of policemen as people with hearts and lungs who worried about money or their health. The world seemed replete with people as bad off as himself, and this made him feel less alone.” (p. 130) That Abdul is able to acknowledge this is all the more stunning when you consider how the policemen have treated him.

As for me, I’m thinking about what’s behind the Beautiful Forevers in my city. Though it may look different, India is not unique in its class division, corruption, and poverty. No place is exempt from these struggles.

It is for this reason I encourage you to read along with us. If you do, you will not view poverty or the poor in the same way again. We are in this together. Oh, that we would have eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to care.

Come back Wednesday March 26 for a discussion post led by D.L. Mayfield. We now have a Facebook group so we can share quotes and discuss the book throughout the month. Come join us! On Twitter, the official Red Couch Book Club hashtag is #redcouchbc. Next Wednesday we’ll announce the next quarter’s book selections. Pretty sure many of you already own (and love) our April book. Stay tuned!

The Nightstand at SheLoves Magazine

*Recommended by Sherry Naron, D.L. Mayfield, and Rachel Pieh Jones

Will you be reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers with us?

Disclosure : Amazon Affiliate links included in this post.  If you click through to Amazon, any purchase you make supports this site.

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Image credit: Chris

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Leigh Kramer
Leigh Kramer is on a quest; she’s living life on purpose. Her to-do list might look something like this: leave life in the Midwest for Nashville, Tennessee, followed by San Francisco, quit steady job as a social worker to chase her dreams of writing, suck the marrow out of life’s in-between places and revel in the now at every turn. Leigh shares this journey through words of transparency, heart, and just a dash of pluck at LeighKramer.com and on Twitter at @hopefulleigh.
Leigh Kramer

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  • AlissaBC

    A few chapters in and the storytelling has completely captured me. So glad for the extra push to finally pick this one up.

    • Fantastic, Alissa! Happy reading. Well, it might not be “happy” reading but it will be fully engaged reading. You know what I mean.

  • I had to keep reminding myself it’s not a novel, too. Amazing storytelling! I love how you brought this back to the Beautiful Forevers in our own cities. Adds new depth and thoughts as I continue to process this book.

    • I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one confused by the genre! It completely sucked me in. I’m so glad you’re considering the Beautiful Forevers where you live. I haven’t figured out what to do yet (seems to be a recent theme) but I’m motivated to figure it out.

  • Sherry Naron

    Oh my beloved India!…the land of extremes, and a place that is very difficult to capture or describe…I love it! I can not wait to read this book together and see it from Katherine’s perspective!

    • Definitely looking forward to hearing your thoughts, Sherry! Thanks for the help with our books on The Nightstand.

  • Bev Murrill

    Sounds like a fantastic book… I’ll put it on my ‘to read’ list

  • This one is on audiobook at my library. With no holds! Looking forward to joining in!

  • Just started it and already totally pulled in. Can’t wait to discuss it!

  • Nicole A. Joshua

    I just finished this book, and it’s left me flabbergasted.

  • Despite my recently-broken Kobo, I WILL finish this book before the 26th! Loving what I’ve read so far; so happy that this book was selected for the Red Couch!