Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Humanity is destroying the world. We’re burning forests, killing the animals and other wildlife that live here, and filling everything with garbage. Each of these is preventable and changeable, but humanity suffers from the effects defined in the “helping experiment” by Richard Nisbett. If we see something happening that can cause serious harm, our likeliness to step in to prevent or stop the problem from happening correlates to the number of people we believe available to step in instead.

Basically, what this means is that many of us don’t work to recycle or reduce the waste we produce (or insert any other problem) because we think others are doing a good enough job at it or will do a better job than us. Rather than recycle our milk bottles and cans, we throw them in the garbage, because what is one more can going to hurt when a zillion other angelic households recycle for us?

Our world is drowning in plastic. Although some people have rallied to the cry and begun to clean and try to recycle what plastic they encounter, it’s still not enough. We need to do more, but there’s a problem with this too: the items we throw in the recycle bin aren’t guaranteed to stay out of our landfills.

Enter Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Set smack in the middle of the war against plastic and other poignant issues such as poverty, political warfare and corruption, and terrorism, Boo’s novel (which is not actually fiction but a socio-economic study reported from a journalistic point) strikes a nerve that even those in the most upper-class society can understand.

Young Abdul and his family are trash pickers. They gather the discarded trash from around their slum and the city of Mumbai and sell what is salvageable to recycling plants to make their living. Their slum hut is small and in order to eat, Abdul must be a competitive garbage sorter. Fortunately, he is good at his work, understanding as he is that in a few years, his young spine will be bent low from the labor. He may be sixteen, or perhaps eighteen. No one knows for sure, although forged documents attest to his youth when needed. This is only the beginning f a complex web Boo has captured in her account.

Boo’s work is a striking and original portrait of the poverty-stricken slums of India and all the corruption inherent in keeping the political and social system working. Her prose is vivid and accurate, sharp and unflinching. As the novel follows several slum-dwelling families, Boo takes a hard look at what it means to be poor in India, all set against a backdrop of the world’s environmental and political struggles.

Ready for a teaser? One of the smaller scenes has stayed with me. Abdul and his friend, Kalu, are preparing to gather a nice piece of iron they will sell for profit, but to do so, they cannot be caught. They go under cover of nightfall to the slum’s sewage-lake, and prepare to swim across it. The devastation and neglect, suffering and filth is captured in these few incredible lines:

“Now they were standing at the edge of a wide gully that took runoff from the Mithi River. Sunil came here from time to time to catch mangoor fish to sell back at the slum. When he was young, the water had been blue—‘like swimming pool water,’ he said. It had since turned black and reeking, but the fish still tasted sweet.”

To clarify: Sunil and Abdul eat fish that live in a sewage and trash lake and believe they taste sweet. Let that sink in. It’s representative of the filth and nastiness in which the slumdwellers live, and how everything nice they are able to obtain is eventually tarnished. And this doesn’t even touch the corruption of the government and the accepted norms that keep the canyon between poor and rich wide and unpassable.

When you read this, let all of Boo’s words sink in. She’s done an incredible job of showing the deprivation, bribery, and yet also the faint glimmer of hope for humanity in these stories. Boo does a brilliant job of juxtaposing the “haves” against the “have-nots” of India. A fine example of this is at the beginning of chapter eight, when the rich view the monsoon as “romantic” while the Annawadians view it as the reason the sewage lake will begin to creep and invade their living space. This flooding causes the inevitable illness and disease that would come with creeping sewage.

My final word. Read this if you want to break free from the image of India (and your country’s connections to it) as portrayed in the news and Bollywood films. Boo has lived and researched the reality she’s presented in her work, and it’s a fine, accurate, and heart-wrenching account that reads like a novel.