Behind the Beautiful Forevers Life Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
The Portrayal of Individual Daily Struggles of Slum Dwellers in Behind the Beautiful Forevers
In the book “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” Katherine Boo brings her audience to a front row seat of the life many slum dwellers suffer from in the Indian city of Mumbai. She is able to represent the theme of the amount of struggle it can be to keep hope while being stuck in poverty. Katherine Boo is able to depict this theme to her audience through many tragic life events that many would take for granted not having to suffer from. These events include police beatings with no justice, political bribery, unsanitary hospital care, and many others. One of the most impressive things about Katherine Boo’s book is the first person journalist account she delivers to her audience. This allows for a non-filtered, pure take on what is happening in India today.
Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is a nonfiction first person account of the lives of a few slum dwellers that live in what is called the Annawadi Slum of the Indian city Mumbai. Boo focuses her work on the lives of the Husain Family who are Muslim. The Husain’s are a family of 11, The father is sick with Tuberculosis and the eldest son Abdul collects trash that can be recycled for money. The family begins saving money in an effort to buy land outside of the slum but disaster strikes when a neighbor lies of being beaten and set on fire by the family. The father Karam is arrested along with his eldest daughter Kehkashan, and his son Abdul. The neighbor of the Husain’s dies in the unsanitary hospital of infection and they are blamed for her death. By the end of the book the Husain’s are found not guilty though Abdul’s trial is still left open being stalled. The Husain’s suffer many hardships as they wait for their verdict that will decide their future. Boo also focuses on a local teacher who prospers to become a politician. Asha is the mother of Manju who is supposed to be the first female graduate of Annawadi. Asha controls power in the slum through different money maneuvering tricks she has learned. Asha ultimately gives up on her dreams of politics when she is presented a money making fraud in the form of the Depart of Education.
Boo is able to develop her theme of the struggle with keeping hope while being stuck in poverty through her examples of the hardships the slum dwellers endure. These include Suicides, Police Beatings, Political corruption through bribery, Garbage Collecting as a main source of income, and the struggle to have children graduate college for a better future. One of the main examples of Boos development of this theme is when she shows her audience the way suicide is viewed by some as better than living another day in the slum. Meena who is Manju’s good friend in the slum has just ingested rat poison for the third time in an effort to commit suicide, she was tired of not having a say in her life as well as the struggle of the slum “This was one decision about her life she got to make” (145) and it would relieve her pain so she thought. Meena went on to vomit the rat poison but suffered beatings from her brother and died a few days later. Another key example of how Boo develops her theme is when she describes how Asha talks about her daughter Manju. Asha is describing when journalists visit the city to see how women are being empowered and she shares “‘my girl will be a college graduate, not dependent on any man.’”(35) This is a real depiction of how Asha feels since her husband is a drunk that she feels is useless to society. Katherine Boo is able to greatly develop her theme through the immense imagery she uses throughout her book.
The development of Boo’s theme of the struggle of keeping hope while being stuck in poverty is amplified with her abilities to deliver great mental pictures of life in the slum. Boo is describing Zehrunisa while at the police station as “Hearing her Eldest son screaming as he got beaten at the police station. Seeing her gentle daughter escorted by officers into jail-a moment in which the single word in Zehrunisa head was qayamat, the end of the world.”(99) Any parent would ultimately be infuriated and scared that it was the end of the world if two of their children were being beaten and jailed for a crime they did not commit. Katherine Boo continues this imagery throughout the book to show her audience the struggle of the slum.
Throughout her book Katherine Boo uses a journalist style first person approach to her development of the story. Boo rights as a she is watching the drama unfold but also puts her own style on it to allow the audience to get the raw image of what’s really happening. Boo writes in a no holds and delivers an exciting, stomach upsetting epic of the trials that are struggled with in the slums of India.
The effort Katherine Boo gives in an attempt to deliver a glimpse in the life of many Indians is clearly seen throughout her development of the story through her effectiveness to show what is truly happening. This is clearly seen when the audience is being exposed to the amount of political bribery that takes place throughout Mumbai. A key example of this bribery is when Zehrunisa is trying to battle off police from creating a new charge against the Husain’s “The officers hinted that a new charge might be used to show the judge that the family had a pattern of criminality. So Zehrunisa paid bribe after bribe” (164) To many Americans bribing police is un heard of especially in petty crimes such as the one the Husain’s are being accused of. Boo specifically shows her audience this to show the amount of corruption that takes place throughout the slums and how many slum dwellers are taken advantage of even though they have near nothing. By Boo doing this she effectively displays her theme of the struggle with keeping hope while being stuck in poverty.
Katherine Boo is able to effectively show her audience the hardships of life many suffer while being stuck in the slums of India. She is able to display this to her audience through many different examples. Katherine boo effectively shows her audience the struggle with a pure raw point of view to allow the reader a great understanding of life in India.
A Critique Interpretation of the Behind the Beautiful Forevers
The Accident of Birth
One’s birthplace can disproportionately influence one’s quality of life. Where per capita income is low and public education not as ubiquitous as in most of the first world, people often experience oppressive limits in terms of their economic opportunities. In India, the cultural remnants of their caste system as well as a general lack of social equality present nearly insurmountable barriers to those who are impoverished. Many Indian families, such as those seen in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, often spend generations with little to no improvement in their quality of life. The people that populate slums like Annawadi are usually victims of the accident of birth, meaning that they were born into poverty. However, although one’s birth determines their economic opportunity, it is worth noting that the accident of birth can have an aggregate effect when already resource-strained societies continue to increase population.
In Behind the Beautiful Forevers, it is shown that everyone in Annawadi is aware of the three main ways to get out of poverty (Boo 62). One can find an entrepreneurial niche and thus generate income for oneself, thus elevating one’s standard of living (62). One can also try to fight back against the corrupt system that tries to keep the masses impoverished for their own benefit (62). However, many people look to education as a means of elevating themselves from poverty (62). Each of these methods presents its own advantages and disadvantages, and each method is often very difficult for various reasons.
Finding an entrepreneurial niche is often cited as a method for getting out of poverty. For example, the Husains were able to use the skills that their family had accumulated over generations to have better-than-average success as scavengers for recyclable materials (62). However, without any kind of financial education, and without access to capital, it is often insurmountably difficult to realize any kind of entrepreneurial activity, in particular when the ultimate goal is to operate a business in these low-income regions. Additionally, because of the lack of financial expertise, many of these people may end up running nearly identical businesses and competing with each other often to a destructive degree. This is exemplified by the extraordinary number of scavengers living in Annawadi and other slums constantly fighting over dumpsters like street gangs. This is also a function of population, which brings up the aforementioned issue of high birth rates.
Working with a corrupt system can often provide a framework for an eventual legitimate ascent into the middle or upper class. For an example, we can look at Asha, who is the unofficial slumlord of Annawadi (17). One of her main sources of income is securing loans for residents of Annawadi, supposedly to jump-start businesses (24). However, she takes money from the loans as commission (25). In this scenario, the theft might not be considered corruption if the circumstances were normal. However, the loans are meant for small businesses and given out based on how many jobs the new business will create (24). Because Asha’s only stake in the loan is the commission, she does not care whether the business will create jobs, or even if there is a business. This myopic self-interest is bad for the economy of Mumbai because the borrowed government funds may not be repaid, and thus government money will have been wasted.
Asha is not only a de facto broker of government loans. She also provides residents with access to education or jobs, usually for a fee as well (21). With the money she had aggregated from these corrupt activities, Asha was able to send her daughter, Manju, to a reputable school so that she could be educated and lead a productive life. Through this investment in human capital, Asha will hopefully elevate her entire family’s standard of living. In keeping with the theme of birth rates, it is worth noting that Manju is an only child.
Education and vocational training are perhaps the most common way for one to elevate one’s standard of living. In general, the people that are impoverished are low-skilled or semi-skilled laborers. The fact that they are not necessarily trained in anything unique or sophisticated is what prevents them from finding gainful employment. This diminished opportunity for employment is derived from having a lesser skillset than someone who is more educated. Since they are unable to seek gainful employment, they are often unable to send their children to the same schools that they themselves were unable to afford, and the cycle continues.
One of the main problems in Annawadi is that there is very little public access to education. Additionally, the public schools that are available are generally of poor quality. For example, of the public schools that are available, only about 40% of the educators even have a college education themselves (63). Furthermore, the schools generally have access to minimal public funding. This can be attributed to the fact that these schools are often the result of corrupt attempts to maintain an image rather than any truly altruistic attempt to educate the people (63). In this society, the overarching corruption has subsumed the mission of education and investment in human capital.
Adding to the issue, a society with a quickly increasing population will make it more difficult to benefit from the pedagogical institutions because of increased pressure on resources. Large class sizes are proven to reduce the overall quality of education, but this is particularly true in environments where resources are already strained. For instance, it is highly improbable that there are any textbooks or workbooks available to students in the public schools of Annawadi. Therefore, although there are schools available, they do not necessarily provide the benefits one might imagine. This indicates that increasing access to education is likely not the sole solution to poverty.
In places like India that have a historical caste system with social effects that persist, often none of these aforementioned methods will improve one’s employment prospects. Their low caste may decrease access to education and employment to begin with. Additionally, attempts to include historically low-caste people into jobs and governments are often circumvented by corruption. For example, a man named Subhash Sawant, running for the role of Corporator, was not a member of a historically low-caste lineage (51). However, he was able to manufacture the paperwork that said so and he was able to enter and win the election (51). This instance of fraud entitled him to a position meant for historically oppressed Indians.
High levels of corruption will prevent even the noblest attempts to include oppressed peoples in the governance and economic activity of a society from achieving any significant result. Those that are in positions of power, without just governance, will simply continue to manipulate the system to keep their power. This means that attempts by the government to create opportunities for the existing population without changing the overall system of government cannot be the sole solution to poverty.
Because there is very little ability to educate one’s children and thereby improve the economic value of said child, it is very common for families to have multiple children, voluntarily or otherwise. This is because these children will each earn income in any way that they can. And, since the families have no substantial income, they end up spending little if anything on their children. Ergo, the marginal benefit of an additional child usually outweighs the marginal cost. Furthermore, high mortality rates make it difficult to know exactly how many children one will have even one year in the future, so families make it a practice to have many, which can be thought of as a sort of income insurance.
A consequence of high reproduction is perpetually increased competition for resources. Things like water and food become increasingly difficult to access over time if the population continues to grow with no economic improvement. For example, in all of Annawadi there were six faucets that would run water for a total of only three hours per day (53). As competition for resources increases, so do malnourishment and dehydration. These conditions can lead to increased health problems, and often can lead to obvious deficiencies like stunting the growth of a child or teenager (35). People often turn to alternative means to satisfy hunger when food is not available, like smoking the remains of a cigarette, or other cheap ways to achieve a drug high that eases the pain of hunger (35, 43). Since so much time is spent in the pursuit of these resources, it is no wonder that they are unable to focus on things like education or entrepreneurship.
The accident of birth is often thought of as the idea that one is born into poverty. However, the implications of many accidents of birth can be appreciated as an aggregate phenomenon as well. Often, people born in impoverished areas are in poverty because everyone else around them was born into poverty. High birth rates are common in underdeveloped regions of the world, often because the act of human reproduction is quite desirable, even under circumstances where the addition of children to a family is unfavorable, as in Abdul’s family in the book (2). This is largely because these families are not capable of investing in human capital through education or vocational training. Ergo, having a child adds to the income potential of a family.
Once these new people are born, they have individual needs to which society must attend. Also, these new children often end up in socially destructive behavior cycles identical to those of their parents and relatives. This will increase stress on society’s resources. Ergo, the accident of birth must not only be thought of as an individual’s circumstances of poverty, but also as an aggregate phenomenon of exponential population increase in already adverse circumstances, exacerbating the existing social and economic problems.
In conclusion, the place in which one is born can disproportionately influence one’s quality of life and economic opportunity. However, this is not solely a phenomenon related to the chances of an individual. The accident of birth is a situation in which high birth rates in underdeveloped areas of the world decrease opportunity for all by continuously putting stress on what little resources are available. This stress perpetually pushes the impoverished further below the poverty line. This issue will continue to be a problem for as long as people do not have access to reasonably priced methods of contraception in the developing world.
The Cost of Globalization: Two Accounts of India
In both Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a rapidly changing India threatens and deprives those adhering to a traditional way of life, such as Balram’s family in Laxmangarh, and the community of slum-dwellers in Annawadi. Therefore, the two of these groups must change in order to compete in this new world. Both Asha and Balram are negatively affected by the globalization of India; however, they plan to escape the restraints of globalized India by sacrificing their morals and justifying their actions with the belief that economic success is more important. Balram justifies his actions by calling them “acts of entrepreneurship” (9). The reality of globalization is either the surrendering of one’s morals to attain economic success, or being left stranded in the impoverished part of India that the other half has left behind.
Aravind Adiga and Katherine Boo vividly conjure the tension between the old and newly globalized India, indicating that succeeding in the modern world (as Balram does) requires a combination of ethical and personal compromises. The Americanization of India allows Balram to momentarily alter his caste. Balram also recognizes the nature of globalization and how to take advantage of it by saying; “I‘m always a man who sees ‘tomorrow’ when others see ‘today.’ ” (274). He makes the conscious choice sacrifice parts of himself and completely alter his identity in order to become successful. He states: “The tale of how I was corrupted from a sweet, innocent village fool into a citified fellow full of debauchery, depravity, and wickedness” (189). When he lived in the village, there is no doubt he was financially struggling, however he describes himself as sweet and innocent. By the time he is rich, he has become “full of debauchery” and even describes himself as wicked. Through the process of escaping the restraints of globalization, he had to surrender parts of himself in order to attain what he considered to be success. Balram’s recognition of the increasing competition resulting from globalization contributes to his actions that result in his corruption and loss of identity.
The effects of globalization in India do not stop at poverty and hunger. While the rest of the country is advancing quickly, those in economically unfortunate situations such as Balram and Asha are forced to sacrifice their identities, families, and morals. In the shadow of the other part of India which is reaping the benefits of globalization, the slum-dwellers of Annawadi struggle to survive. Capitalist globalization has resulted in hunger, unspeakable poverty and disease, racial and gender inequality, and an explosion of slums. Nevertheless, Asha has planned to become a slumlord and then “then ride the city’s inexorable corruption into the middle class.” (xvii) In a community of struggling families, there will always be those who are willing to abandon their morals and identities to achieve economic stability. Asha is selfishly driven by her poverty and greed. Similar to Balram, Asha has managed to overcome guilt because she cannot afford to feel it if she wants to be successful. “Guilt of the sort that had overcome Robert was an impediment to effective work in the city’s back channels, and Asha considered it a luxury emotion.” Gaining financial and political power in order to overcome the poverty globalization has caused take an emotional toll on Asha and Balram. Asha has to suppress her true feelings of guilt for what she does because she sees the emotion as an obstacle in the way of success. Surrounded by luxurious hotels and a large airport, Asha is in constant reminder that she is facing all the detriments of globalization, while other parts of India are prospering. She takes advantage of the corrupt politics influencing India.The influence of Western society and foreign powers are the cultural invaders and have forced the natives of Mumbai and Bangalore into positions of inferiority and created a corrupt society. For the wealthy, the effects of globalization pose no problem, but as Boo demonstrates, the same cannot be said for the poor. New rules, customs, and designations of worth have shifted due to the influence of foreigners.
Globalization does not end at economies but extends even further and permeates into the cultures of nations. Globalization has won in destruction of native culture, distribution of colonial power, mechanization and westernization. It has destroyed privacy in all fields and has helped to promote consumerist culture. It spread the concept that westernization is a part of civilization. Everything is superior if it is western liquor, girls, language, dressing. Globalization replaces the native culture by consumerist culture. Consumerist culture aims in the destruction of native culture and identity. As globalization strikes India, citizens like Balram adopt a new perception of society – a perception that values Western culture over their own. “I should explain to you, Mr Jiabao, that in this country we have two kinds of men: Indian liquor men and English liquor men. Indian liquor was for village boys like me – toddy, arrack, country hooch. English liquor, naturally is for rich. Rum, whisky, beer, gin – anything the English left behind”(73). Balram describes the English liquor as being “naturally” for the rich, as if it is something so commonly ingrained into society that one can predict that the upper class primarily consumes English over Indian because of their financial status. India has been divided into the rich and the poor. Due to Americanization and Globalization the cultures between the two parties are vastly dissimilar. “ ‘Please understand Your Excellency, that India is two countries in one: and India of light and and India of darkness’ ” (12). Because of this segregation, if the poor want to find the “India of light” they have to sacrifice a lot. The difference between the two Indias is mainly the advancement and globalization of the light India, compared to the traditional culture and poverty in the dark India. The issue with globalization for the characters Balram and Asha is that they are being taunted with a rapidly advancing society just out of their reaches. The faster the new India modernizes, the more different it becomes from the societies Balram and Asha are from. The towns left behind in poverty and hunger fall to corruption.
Those willing to, like Asha and Balram, recognize and take advantage of their corrupted governments: “Now that she had the Corporator’s ear, she could fix more such problems on commission. And when she had real control over the slum, she could create problems in order to fix them – a profitable sequence she’d learned by studying the Corporator” (20). Asha recognizes that success is attainable by “studying” others. The becomes ultimately corrupt when she plans to create problems just so she can fix them. She makes herself indisposable by sacrificing and suppressing parts of her identity. Those left behind from a globalizing India will only fall further and further back from the modernized society India is becoming unless they take full advantage of the corrupting the globalization has instigated in the slums. Getting out of the poverty of India comes at the high prices of internal oppression and the abandonment of tradition and culture.Without the knowledge of the advancements of globalization, it’s likely these character’s lives would never change the way they did. The sacrificing of their ethics comes down to the pursuit of their goals.
Without the globalization of India, Balram and Asha would not have these ideas of success in their minds that influenced their actions and internal betrayals. From observing a new India where money is more important than culture, these characters are adoptive of the modernized India’s societal expectations. The reality of globalization is exposed when it is shown that values and culture are not interchangeable with the new customs that a globalized society offers.
The unfathomable depths of corruption in Annawadi
In Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Boo employs the themes of corrupt law enforcement and false hope to signify that Annawadians are doomed to escape their lot in life due to the ‘uneven’ land on which their entire community lies. These themes are the ‘uneven land’ on which the Annawadians will never be able to escape from and are forever chained under tenuous change and improvement. As a result of this ‘uneven’ land, the Annawadians are restricted to a life of impoverishment, neglect and primitive survival.
The most momentous of themes that Boo uses to convey as a part of ‘uneven’ land is corruption. Corruption is by far the number one cause of this ‘uneven’ land in the fact that it seeps through every part of Annawadi’s society. From corrupt political leaders to corrupt charity organizations, this is only scratching the surface. A great example of this corruption negatively affecting the residents of Annawadians would be the law enforcement. The police force of Annawadi is a strong instigator of the ‘uneven’ land Annawadians are standing on since for the police, everything can be resolved as long as money is involved. While Abdul and Karam were incarcerated, the police officers constantly manipulated both of them to cough up money so they would not end up with criminal charges and receive beatings. “Beatings, though outlawed in the human rights code, were practical, as they increased the price that detainees would pay for their release.”(107). Primarily, the police officers can increase their profits by beating the prisoners which result in the prisoners going bankrupt after leaving the prison while the police officers are reveling in their new coerced cash. This is not morally right since police officers are supposed to protect people, keep people safe, while in Annawadi, it’s the complete opposite; the police in Annawadi are ‘killing’ people both literally and financially. This all points back to the ‘uneven’ land that Annawadi is sitting on. By letting this kind of law enforcement thrive in a slum-like Annawadi, there will only be chaos and trouble. Hence, the ground will never be ‘even.’ With police officers invariably looking for ways to drain the pocketbooks of residents, Annawadians will never have enough even to get by, always living on the very edge between life and death.
The most corrupt of all is the false hope that is promised to Annawadians by the government officials in which the residents of Annawadi are assured better housing, more job opportunities, and education. The Annawadians are optimistic that their lives will improve, but this is all just a guise as once again, the ‘uneven’ land restricts them from doing so. This false hope encompasses events such as the fictitious fundraiser facilitated by Asha; the money that Asha receives is supposed to help children obtain the proper education, but instead, the money is distributed among various ‘other people’ who are supposedly helping out with the schools, leaving Asha some of the money for herself. Virtually, none of the donations are used to improve education, but all of it is used for self-interest. “Working with community development officials across the city, he found frontmen to receive government funds in the name of educating children. Then he and his colluders would divvy up the spoils.”(227) This is the kind of false hope the authorities of Annawadi are campaigning towards. On the surface, the goal and purpose of bettering Annawadi may support a good cause, but on the underside, everything is linked to the ulterior motive of maximizing profits. If everything in Annawadi’s society operates this way, there is no opportunity for the slum to advance. Money will never reach the people that need it most; consequently, people will never be able to experience a better lifestyle, always made to think that what the officials of Annawadi are doing is for the benefit of the residents, but in reality, it’s all an illusion in which the advantage is really for the government officials. This false hope contributes to the ‘uneven’ land Annawadians live on by displaying a facade which always leads back to the Annawadians’ expectations and dreams being crushed by misleading promises.
Through the themes of corrupt law enforcement and false hope, Annawadians are doomed to escape their lot in life due to the ‘uneven’ land on which their entire community lies. The portrayal of corrupt law enforcement reinforces the concept that justice is based on who can pay the most and who is willing to succumb to police manipulation. While the portrayal of false hope serves to convey the insurmountable delusion that conditions in Annawadi will improve. Throughout the entire story, these two themes are sprinkled everywhere justifying the never advancing society of Annawadi and the ‘uneven’ land that its residents will forever be barred to.