A Review of Behind the Beautiful Forevers

by Ashish

I was reading, just the other day, an article written by some gee-whiz person about how he manages his time. He spoke about some apps that he uses on his phone to keep track of his to-do list, about how he powers through the most important ones in the early morning… and you know by now how those articles bang on about the same thing. Yadda, yadda, efficiency, yadda, yadda, oh-look-at-me, yadda, yadda.

I confess, at one point of time, I tried to ape them. I’m sure all of us have. Downloaded those apps, prepared those to-do lists, and sworn to complete the five most important tasks by noon. Except of course, we simply can’t do it, us ordinary folk. No more than we can stick to the diet prescribed to us. Wasting time and breaking diets, I have realized, is what human beings were born to do, and I’m happy to report that I excel at both.

The reason I bring this up is because Self Important Person, in that article, spoke about how he doesn’t have a TV at home. “Simply wastes my time”, he sneered, before moving on to talk about how awesome the beta carotene is in the carrots that he has in his 47 second lunch.

My philosophy in life, on the other hand, is completely at odds with his. TV is good. Lounging without purpose in front of the TV every now and then (and more of the now than the then) is fantastic.  I didn’t buy the TV in order to watch beetles in the Amazon clamber up dead branches on Discovery Channel. I bought it to watch in-depth analyses of football matches that I didn’t see. I bought it to watch Karan Johar faff at filmstars on Sunday evening. I bought the TV, in other words, to be entertained.

And four seemingly meaningless paragraphs into this post, allow to me segue seamlessly on to the topic that you thought I had forgotten all about. My attitude towards books, in contrast to my hedonstic pursuits where TV is concerned, is nowadays all about information first, entertainment later. And it is for this reason that I think Katherine Boo’s book, “Behind The Beautiful Forevers” is excellent.

It is good writing, and the tale is (as far as I am concerned) fairly gripping in and of itself, but it is worth a read for more than simply an answer to the question “And then what happened?”.

Notionally, the book is about Abdul, a garbage buyer. A garbage buyer, in the world that Katherine Boo describes so ably, is a superior being, for a buyer is a notch above a plain old scavenger. His job is to ferret out, from the literal garbage pickings that scavengers bring him, stuff that is worth buying. He has a nose for this job, in a very real sense. Using skills that he has honed over a considerable amount of time, he is able to distinguish good, marketable garbage from your everyday, not-worth-your-time garbage. His entire family, it turns out, is engaged in one way or the other in the garbage trade. The book revolves around Abdul and his family, and the events that engulf them with bewildering speed and cruelty.

But it would be a mistake to read this book from the point of simply expecting to follow the skein of the tale. For the pace of the story, and if you are an especially unforgiving reader, the point of the story both dissipate roughly halfway through the book. There is no climax to the story, nor is there a sense that the story is hurtling towards a dramatic unfolding.

This book, then, should be read as it was intended to be read. More as a description of life in a slum, rather than a narration of what happens to Abdul and his family. And read as such, it is an outstanding piece of reporting.

There are many characters in the book, but the characters should be thought of not so much as dramatis personae as they should people who form a society that I, at any rate, was deeply unfamiliar with. And remain mostly unfamiliar with, even after reading the book, I should add. Asha, the social worker who would be a politician, for example – who she is, what her own, unique mannerisms are isn’t really as important a question as why it is inevitable that someone like her must crop up in a slum like Annawadi. This is a question that this book highlights, but doesn’t claim to answer.

Besides, the book covers topics that texts on development economics do, but in a far more in-your-face-manner than those tomes would even consider, and the learning is therefore more magnified. Young girls who “drown in pails” for example, do a far better job of highlighting issues relating to the girl child than do dry paragraphs on the same subject. That almost the entire slum is classified as not being poor exemplifies the problems associated with defining the poor in our country, especially when you consider that the slum can count as its geographical neighbours some of the toniest hotels in the city. That there are poorer people in the country is not under dispute, but is, and should, poverty be analyzed in the absolute, or in relation to what happens in close proximity?

Boo provides no answers in either her narration or her description, nor does she pretend to be able to. Her job, in this book, was to showcase accurately life in the slums, warts and hopes and all, and in this she succeeds handily. It is left to the reader to decide upon what should be done, or indeed, felt.

Don’t read this book is order to learn more about the theory of urban slum development, and do not read it in order to be entertained by Abdul’s story. Read it on order to be informed on how Mumbai can contain within itself the entire spectrum of income and lifestyles, and marvel at that mad city.

But please do read it – highly recommended.