Behind the Beautiful Forevers Life Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
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.
Gender Division in Annawadian Society
Gender division has been a global struggle for centuries, from rights to the general treatment of women. Women have been struggling to achieve equality because they have been experiencing discrimination, been steadily concerned about their futures and safety because they are female, and undergoing brutal cultural oppression by their communities. The book Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo demonstrates a society in which the quality of life for women and girls is much poorer than it is for men and boys.
In Annawadi, rigid cultural restraints have formed restricting societal expectations and gender constructs that cause life to be worse for women than it is for men. Gender constructs influenced by societal expectations made life for women a constant battle of contemplating the risks of their actions that men would not need to consider. Unlike the men of Annawadi, the women are regularly conscious about how the results of their actions could be possibly detrimental to their societal ranking. Image plays a crucial role in making a decision that could be destructive to their placement in a community where survival is partially based on hierarchy. “A young woman in the slum had to weigh the value of each potential interaction with a male against the rumors it would inspire” (60). Throughout the novel, there are fewer indications that the men of the slum exhibit similar behaviors of worriment and consciousness or feel the same societal pressures. Having the constant fear of rumors threaten the women’s everyday interactions indicates that the gender constructs created by the slum’s community are not favorable to women and girls. Women in general seem to have less power and fewer opportunities than men. It is a mindset that is carried from generation to generation.
In Annawadi, both men and women seek safety; however, for women the endeavor proves much more difficult. Women are pressured into a constant state of anxiety for the futures of themselves and their daughter’s safety. Physical harm isn’t the only thing women are afraid of. A culture in which women are seen as sexual objects poses new threats. Boo writes “Her mother, fearing what might happen to a beautiful young woman in the police station, had pleaded with Officer Thokale to keep her out of custody as long as possible” (113), and “Asha was uneasy about sending her only daughter to Africa, where she’d heard that pretty girls got sold into slavery” (144). Being female in the slums of India is another component of difficulty and fear for mothers of girls.
By describing the women’s emotions as “fear” and “uneasiness,” the language is demonstrating the detriments of being female has on one’s conscious. If a woman or girl is considered “pretty” or “beautiful” horrific consequences like rape and slavery are insinuated unlike the men in Annawadi. These characteristics are of females that fall victim to threats that men don’t experience. Male expectations restrict Annawadi women from gaining power in society, and constrict them into a weaker, more targetable, and one dimensional stereotype. Mothers struggle to protect their daughters more than their sons because of the discrimination they have endured themselves for being women . These societal expectations and gender constructs are all derived from the rigid cultural restraints that make being female in Annawadi even more undesirable.
Women encounter the unfavorable repercussions of a merciless culture in Annawadi. The life of a female is portrayed as worse because the community interpretation of the gender as a whole is seen as inferior to men. Men and boys are fortunate to be culturally valued higher than women and girls. Boo describes the burden of being born a female by writing: “Young girls in the slums died all the time under dubious circumstances, since most slum families couldn’t afford the sonograms that allowed wealthier families to dispose of their female liabilities before birth” (76). Although poorer families may kill a child based on health instead of gender, the author is specifically describing what happens to females. Families may be more reluctant to kill a male baby if it is sick than they are to kill a girl. When the girl is married off, the family must pay a dowry, and that is seen as a negative reason for having a girl. By using the word dispose, the author is indicating to the reader that a female is similar in worth as garbage. Comparing a hypothetical girl to trash and describing her as a liability exemplifies what the general perception of females is in Annawadi. Since girls have fewer opportunities to make money and find jobs when they grow up, families consider them instantly less valuable than boys.
The cultural oppression begins at a young age, and is a contributor to the self depreciation of females in the future. For girls and women, the novel ranges from frustrations to suicides. Boo shows the reader an example of how cultural domination is yet another aspect of life women have to submit to: “Manju wanted to be a teacher when she finished college, and her great fear was that, in a fit of pique, her mother would wed her to a village boy who didn’t think that a woman should work” (61). Manju’s aspirations are threatened by the possibility of becoming involved with a man who may think differently than her. Once again, men are portrayed as the gender with an advantage in power over women. When a male character can solely and completely disallow a women from achieving her ambitions, it demonstrates a community and culture in which men have superior lives and more control than women. Manju has been raised to in a culture in which domestic submission will completely prevent her from succeeding.
Annawadi’s unequal culture allows men the power in any relationship, whether it with a stranger or a spouse. Due to the hierarchy between men and women in Annawadi, women’s opportunities are constricted, making life less apprehensive for men. The cultural stigmatization of women in Annawadi denies the community the possibility of convergence between genders because of generations of oppression. The reality of the Annawadian’s society ultimately benefits men to a greater extent than women.
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.