Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492
One way to analyze journalist Katherine Boo’s 2012 book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, is through the prism of social welfare, or societal well-being.
In the book, Boo takes up the subject of social welfare in the larger context of wealth inequality borne of globalization in India and worldwide. She details the lives and random stories of individuals living in a Mumbai slum called Annawadi. The slum itself is juxtaposed with nearby luxury hotels intended to serve those wealthy enough to travel through Mumbai International Airport. The existence of the slum, and the existence of its residents, is inextricable from the existence of these wealthy neighborhoods and hotels near the airport. This links the fates of those who are well-off in Mumbai society to those who are desperately in need of social aid (social welfare). Though the two are connected, it is clear that the living standards of those who travel through Mumbai International Airport and frequent these luxury hotels are wildly different from those who reside in the adjoining slum of Annawadi.
Despite the fact that most of the slum’s residents are constantly pursuing social mobility and trying to better their situation (whether it be through a college education, entrepreneurial pursuits, or picking the waste of the wealthy who frequent the nearby luxury hotels), the book constantly hints that these goals are very elusive. The system itself seems stacked against these hard-working residents who are caught in a vicious cycle of poverty and ultimately lack access to the fruits of globalization and wealth that they seek. Elements of the system include an incompetent and corrupt government, a deeply flawed criminal justice system, ineffective laws, and other elements which conspire against Annawadi’s residents. This cycle is very visible in the story of one particular character whose entrepreneurial spirit and hopes for social mobility are quashed because of inter-slum wealth inequality and politics and corrupt policing. These ultimately land him in a correctional facility and threaten to economically destroy his family.
Through these and similar and related stories, Boo seems to raise the question of whether social mobility and wealth equality are really possible for the residents of Annawadi. Though some manage to achieve measures of success, in the greater context of wealth and globalization in Mumbai and India at large, their forward strides seem limited, meager, and temporary. In other words, their social landscape and their social welfare seem to remain very much the same no matter how hard they work. In some ways, the things that motivate these residents are the same things that threaten to keep them down.
There are certainly other prisms to analyze the book through, such as religion, gender, and social class. I would encourage you to explore these and others in order to produce a very well-rounded analysis of the book. For further reading, I would recommend the following two reviews, but most importantly, the book itself.