How does Behind the Beautiful Forevers reflect the problems of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and powerlessness?
Katherine Boo’s 2012 nonfiction study of the poverty and despair that exists beyond the façade of Mumbai’s economic development, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, portrays the realities of a country that, despite enormous growth in its national economy and truly impressive technological advancements, remains mired in a centuries-old pattern of class-driven despair. India’s caste system condemned generations of impoverished citizens to a lifetime of hopelessness. Every class looked down upon those beneath it. Boo describes rat-infested slums lacking running water or electricity and the daily struggles of the occupants of these slums to survive. In one telling passage, Boo relates the story of Abdul, a young Muslim whose life consists of sorting garbage in rotting dumps for whatever money items of some miniscule value might bring to his family. This passage suggests the relentless cycle of poverty and hopelessness that defines millions of lives across India:
“Abdul didn’t dare voice the great flaw of his father, Karam Husain: too sick to sort much garbage, not sick enough to stay off his wife. The Wahhabi sect in which he’d been raised opposed birth control, and of Zehrunisa’s ten births, nine children had survived.
“Zehrunisa consoled herself each pregnancy that she was producing a work force for the future.”
If Boo’s descriptions of the endemic poverty that permeates Mumbai’s slums appear overwhelming, she does offer a glimmer of hope. Mumbai is a vibrant city with one of the world’s fastest-growing financial sectors. Those who occupy the lower rungs of society hope for a better future when they witness the business opportunities that have attracted so many investors to the city. For most, however, poverty defines both their present and their future. Data that reflects the growth in Mumbai’s economy means little to the occupants of the city’s huge slums, with their open sewers, makeshift shacks, and pervasive rat and mosquito populations. Behind the Beautiful Forevers depicts the many social, cultural, and economic problems that define Mumbai’s “undercity,” and any sense of hope remains elusive.
Clearly, Boo's prize winning non-fiction account of life in the slums of Mumbai deals with the key themes of poverty, inequality, unemployment and powerlessness through the presentation of the realities of life in a Mumbai slum. The initial description of the slum and its surroundings in the Prologue make these themes absolutely clear:
Serving the airport clientele, and encircling Annawadi, were five extravagant hotels: four ornate, marbly megaliths and one sleek blue-glass Hyatt, from the top-floor windows of which Annawadi and several adjacent squatter settlements looked like villages that had been airdropped into gaps between elegant modernities.
As Mirchi says, "Everything around us is roses... and we're the shit in between." The issues of powerlessness, poverty and inequality are therefore at the very centre of this work, and are developed through the description of the challenges that face these slum dwellers. The constant reminder of the massive inequality of India is represented in the uber-modern and wealthy buildings that encircle the slum. Boo's moving account traces the challenges that the various slum dwellers she follows have just to survive and to make ends meet in a world that gives them hardly any opportunity and little chance to improve themselves. Boo presents the Western reader, sitting comfortably in his or her armchair in their secure home in the suburbs, with a world where it is so impossibly hard to live a "good" life and where so many are forced into crime or corruption in order to survive. These are presented as necessary strategies by Boo in order to survive the inequality, unemployment, poverty and powerlessness that are such a daily reality for the slum dwellers depicted in this book.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is a nonfiction work portraying the lives of people in Annawadi, a slum area near a refuse dump in Mumbai. Mumbai itself is a strikingly unequal city, a center of vast new wealth from India's technology industry that is also home to vast slums. A graphic illustration of inequality in the book is seen in the proximity of Annawadi to the international airport and its adjacent luxury hotels. It can be seen but cannot be afforded by residents of Annawadi. Equally dramatic is the way that many of the residents of Annawadi survive by picking through the garbage tossed out by their wealthier neighbors.
Boo emphasizes how poverty affects every aspect of the lives of the Annawadi residents, including health and justice. The residents live in unhealthy conditions, exposed to toxic chemicals, and lack reliable access to clean water and good sanitation. The corruption of the justice system means that they have little recourse to legal defenses when cheated, as the wealthy can bribe judges and hire expert lawyers. This leads to powerlessness and makes it difficult for them to work their way out of poverty, no matter how hardworking and enterprising they are.