I still remembered by my first flight to India in 2009. Back then I was blessed to be on a Singapore Airlines flight to Mumbai. I recalled being slightly taken aback then, when the plane circulated around the airport just before descending. Just next to the airport, brown wooden huts stood neck to neck with each other, covering the size of at least three football fields. These huts were dotted by colours of what seem to be blue or red. Alas, as I found out, those were garbage – plastic bottles, bags and covers. It was the first instance I had come into contact with the slums of India.
The plane landed, and I was scooted away in a private car, driving along the winding roads leading to the highway. I recalled the roads were being barricaded by concrete blocks, and I guess that’s why I never saw the slums again.
I used to wonder how it would be like to visit a slum. I wanted to know how was it like to live there? When a friend told local Indian professionals that she wanted to visit the slums, they were flabbergasted (naturally of course). “My dear! It is so dangerous. Don’t go!”
Unlike my friend, I wasn’t as gungho, but had to pass through a mini-slum on my way home. And unlike the grubby appearance outside, it’s not all that dirty. Probably three-quarters the size of a room in a Singapore Housing Board flat, families of 6-8 live in there. Cooking is done a few steps outside and that’s all the space they have.
I’ve since yearn to learn about the lives of slum-dwellers, but it’s difficult since I don’t know the language. So when Katherine Boo’s book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” came out, it was a godsend.
The book is non-fiction but tells like a novel. It tells of the lives of waste-pickers, and how a little boy Abdul, struggles to make ends meet for his family by sorting rubbish, and sending it to the recycling companies for cash. When he first started, he made errors, paying scavengers dearly for sacks worth of worthless things.
Then his father told him: “Use your nose, mouth and your ears, not just your scales. Tap the metal scrap with a nail. Its ring will tell you what it’s made of. Chew on the plastic to identify its grade. If it’s hard plastic, snap it in half and inhale. A fresh smell indicates good-quality polyurethane.”
I also loved the part where the little boy Abdul listed the qualities he wanted in a wife.
What Abdul wanted was this: a wife, innocent of words like p*** and !@#$, who didn’t mind how he smelled; and eventually a home somewhere, anywhere, that was not Annawadi. Like most people in the slum, and in the world, for that matter, he believed his own dreams properly aligned to his capacities.
Abdul and his family then gets implicated in a police case where their neighbour self-immolates after an argument. She accuses them of setting her on fire before she dies. The case stretches on for years, and their once successful garbage business goes to tatters. I’ll not add the spoiler just in case you’ll like to read it.
Katherine Boo spent four years working on this book, enlisting the help of translators and most importantly the slum dwellers. Some of them were threatened by the police for speaking to her. She describes her difficulties in getting the slum-dwellers to speak with her, especially about subjects that make them uncomfortable. The main character of the story Abdul, even calls her a dim-wit at one point in his frustration.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a tale that was painstakingly put together, for authenticity’s sake. It seeks to recount the seldom told accounts of the lower rungs of Indian society, and it’s a good book to help you understand India, from the humble perspective of a waste-picker.
*I’ll like to thank my Friend S for purchasing this book for me while on a trip to India.