Published on Sustainable Cities

What Katherine Boo’s book tells us about the modern city: garbage has more mobility than citizens do

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Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo. Random House, 2012.

Mumbai Slum, Girl on SwingKatherine Boo’s book, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” digs deep into life in a Mumbai undercity. The author escapes the dichotomies that roll off our tongues when we speak of places that are replete with disparity; instead she spends seven years interviewing and observing, and brings us a story of life, hope, and despair in Annawadi, a slum precariously perched between an international airport and a sewage pond. What emerges is a sensitive, careful, complex portrait of characters that use the means at their disposal – hard work, political connections, lies, or prayers – to climb over the high walls that separate their city from the rest of Mumbai.

Using trash as a thread to tell the story, Boo illustrates both the feudal nature of life in Annawadi and the absolute segregation – the boundaries, to use Richard Sennett’s term – between the slum residents and those who live on the other side of the great big wall dividing the slum from the international airport. The narration is centered on Abdul and his family, who make money by selling recyclable materials from the city’s garbage. Their relative wealth has afforded them a position above the trash pickers’ – they own a small storage facility that allows them to purchase waste from collectors and sell it to waste dealers.

In Annawadi, the trash pickers are young slum boys, who take great risks to collect materials that rich Mumbaikars throw away. Kalu would climb barbed wire fences to reach the dumpsters inside airline catering compounds. The local police allowed him to continue, as long as he played informant on local drug deals. Sunil would walk along the wall separating his slum from the airport, but finding Airport Road to be “unhelpfully clean,” he would scavenge around where air cargo was loaded – a place filled with garbage and competition for it – and would sell the collected materials that were not immediately stolen from him. Following the waste discarded from taxi cabs’ windows, he finds a narrow ledge, between the road and the river, which served as a collecting point for the trash. “He was willing to take risks in order not to be a runt… His sack grew bulky and awkward as he moved down the ledge, and he learned to concentrate only on the trash immediately in front of him, looking neither down or ahead.” His time horizon was short, and his life composed of a series of present moments, rather than a path towards an uncertain future. Both boys risked their lives, daily, for the hope that they found in garbage. The feudal structure of their world is enhanced by the presence of concrete boundaries – fences, walls, policemen, rivers – that prevented their exit. The great irony is that garbage, arriving from international flights and moving freely from the globalized swaths of Mumbai, has greater mobility than do the slumdwellers.
Beyond the beautiful narrations with punchy one-liners, Boo’s book is a story of the injustices, the exclusion of the poor from opportunity, and just how much of one’s life is determined by where one is born – in a modern city. Where cities can be sites of exchange, of fluidity, of borders, Mumbai’s undercity exposes its exclusion and impermeable boundaries. Boo’s book shows that the city, containing Bollywood stars and people who survive on the waste that they throw away, contains a multitude of worlds that are interconnected, but traversed by boundaries that rise so high that that there is no crossing between the slumlane and the airport, except by the lucky and the bold.

Photo credit: Sintana Vergara


Sintana Vergara

Environmental Engineer and Junior Professional Associate

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