This is a nonfiction book that reads somewhat as a fictional story. The author's bit at the end explains how she was able to write in this manner - something around 100+ interviews with different people to confirm one incident, or wading through thousands of official documents to compare with personal accounts as another example - and it's a bit mindboggling how much research and time was put into it.
This was not my most favorite book ever, ever, ever, but I gave it extra points for the accurate depiction of the residents of the Annawadi without any (or with very minimal) alterations to their characters, words, or actions. Annawadi is a real, very small, slum by the international airport in Mumbai, India, and the people in the story are real.
I think this (abbreviated) answer from a Q&A posted on the book's official website summarizes the story better than the official summary on the book's cover:
As a reader, I sometimes find that the “I” character becomes the character—that the writer can’t quite resist trying to make the reader like him just a little better than anyone else in the book. And I think that impedes the reader’s ability to connect with people who might be more interesting than the writer, and whose stories are less familiar. Which is not to say that the narrative without an “I” is a paragon of omniscience and objectivity... When you get to the last pages of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, I don’t want you to think about me sitting beside Abdul in that little garbage truck. I want you to be thinking about Abdul.
I can honestly say that I hadn't even realized the author would have been following them around like that while I was reading the book, so I would consider her to be successful in that respect. After looking at the other pages on the website, I discovered that the author is a Pulitzer Prize winner for a previous work so I guess her work ethic pays off.
I also made a lot of highlights in this book which is a bit unusual for me. Perhaps the Kindle is more convenient than I like to pretend ("Oh, I just bought this so I can read books in bed without dropping them on my face when I fall asleep. Those hardcovers really hurt when the corner gets you in the cheek.") The second greatest strength of this book is how some of these lines just hit you in the face like a 2x4 with how truthful and yet relatable they are regardless of your own socioeconomic position in the world.
-- "Like most people in the slum, and in the world, for that matter, he believed his own dreams properly aligned to his capacities."
-- "To be poor in Annawadi, or in any Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another." True of any impoverished neighborhood on the planet, isn't it?
-- "It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged." Contrast against the "Master of my fate, captain of my destiny" mindset. And is it fate, luck, or preparation that helps you dodge unfortunate events?
-- "As they said in her village, drops of rain fill the lake." I would make that second half of the sentence into one of those text pictures you hang on the wall in a hipster's apartment.
-- "Asha grasped many of her own contradictions, among them that you could be proud of having spared your offspring hardship while also resenting them for having been spared." ~~ "Manju looked at her mother with compassion, not comprehension, when Asha tried to describe it." Generational disconnect.
-- "But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained."
-- "Everyone in Annawadi wanted one of the life-changing miracles that were said to happen in the New India. They wanted to go from zero to hero, as the saying went, and they wanted to go there fast. Asha believed in New Indian miracles but thought they happened only gradually, as incremental advantages over one's neighbors were parlayed into larger ones." I read this and immediately wondered at the possible influence of Disney's Hercules, which possibly portrays the fastest change of circumstances from zero to hero ever, like really, isn't that song less than 4 minutes in length? So accurate though.
-- "A young woman in the slum had to weigh the value of each potential interaction with a male against the rumors it would inspire." Particularly without the influential factors of wealth or social clout to counteract the gossip. Hm, I wonder at how gossip affected marriage prospects in the past for women. (And men?)
-- "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." Applicable to anyone trying to improve their class level.
-- "Her students didn't understand the plot of Mrs. Dalloway any better than Manju did, but they got that Othello was distrusted because of his dark skin."
-- "The world seemed replete with people as bad off as himself, and this made him feel less alone."
-- "The key, she told Manju, was 'to study the first-class people. You see how they're living, how they walk, what they do. And then you do the same.'" I've never heard "first-class" used as an adjective for a group of people in American English unless it was in reference to the type of service offered by people who were service workers. I've only encountered it in this context in this book about India and in the Philippines, both with arguably similar class issues.
-- "[P]oor people were the ones who took the vote seriously. It was the only real power they had."
-- "What you don't want is always going to be with you / What you want is never going to be with you / Where you don't want to go, you have to go / And the moment you think you're going to live more, you're going to die."
-- "Becoming a success in the great, rigged market of the overcity required less effort and intelligence than getting by, day to day, in the slums. The crucial things were luck and the ability to sustain two convictions: that what you were doing wasn't all that wrong, in the scheme of things, and that you weren't all that likely to get caught." That is... hm, not inaccurate.
-- "Poor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional."