Behind the Beautiful Forevers

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Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Analysis

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Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
The Local vs. The Global Theme Icon
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Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon

As India advances into the twenty-first century, its government hopes to show a narrative of constant progress towards a fairer society for all Indian citizens. Yet the old caste system, in which a person was born into a specific group that defined their social status, continues to shape who has power in Indian society and who remains poor and outcast. Given that the poor make up the large majority of India’s population, Katherine Boo investigates why such societies can maintain a status quo of drastic inequality. Why, she asks, when India claims to be a fair and democratic capitalist society, are those who live in poverty unable to improve their lives no matter how hard they work? And why, since poverty is so entrenched, do the poor not unite based on common interests to create change? By closely examining the internal dynamics of the slum community of Annawadi, Boo comes to believe that the best way for people to improve their lives would be to work together, but terrible circumstances and a new spirit of competition in India keep them from leveraging their common interests.

Boo examines the social dynamics between the individuals and families in Annawadi, showing the complex relationships that come from such an extreme living situation. Due to the incredibly close quarters of life in the slum, all the inhabitants of Annawadi are intimately involved in each other’s lives. This proximity fosters friendships in a few cases, such as the uneasy peace between Abdul, Sunil, and Kalu or the bond between Manju and Meena. Yet more often, the lack of space and the obligatory closeness create strife. While all the families in Annawadi have a similar goal—to build a better life—their proximity and similarity seems not to inspire them to band together to find solutions to problems and collectively improve their situations, but rather it fosters a spirit of competition between families over who can get ahead socially and financially. The feud between Fatima and the Husains, for example, begins because Fatima feels that the Husains are renovating their home in order to rub in her face their rise into the middle class. The Husains do in many ways feel superior to Fatima, though they are not renovating to belittle her. However, the rivalry between the two households—which could easily have been solved by renovating the home in a way that was mutually beneficial—descends into a drama that consumes all of their lives. Competition, then, is shown to be a toxic fact of life in the slums that keeps the poor in poverty by obscuring their common interests.

Another aspect of life in the slums that keeps the people of Annawadi from helping one another is that there is clear danger in becoming involved with unknown people or authority figures. The risks can be physical— slum residents, for example, often refuse to help those who have contagious diseases for fear of becoming infected themselves (the community does not have access to adequate healthcare). The risks can also be political, as when the other residents of Annawadi are afraid to speak out about how Fatima burned herself lest they are blamed and arrested by the corrupt Mumbai police. Boo also shows how religious and cultural differences divide Indian society, even in this “new” India that strives to be one united community. The Husains are hated in Annawadi because they are Muslim in a majority Hindu area, and young women of low caste have difficulty making advantageous marriages that could pull them from poverty because caste stigma is still so prevalent. Despite that residents of Annawadi have limited opportunities because of their caste, this collective oppression is not enough to make the poor band together—the attitude of the slums, fueled by India’s new capitalist ethos, is that individuals are responsible for getting ahead. Boo seems to lament the loss of community-fed movements in a world that is now governed by capitalist greed, implicitly critiquing the disadvantages that capitalism has brought to this country, despite the good a free market has done to India’s new cosmopolitan image in the eyes of the world.

All the families and individuals in Annawadi work hard to better their lives, but their efforts often include pushing other people down in order to raise themselves up. Despite many characters trying to selflessly help other people, such as Abdul’s concern for his baby brother, Manju’s attempts to keep the slum school open, or Sonu’s desire to teach Sunil how to be more than a thief, Boo points out that these acts are anomalies—signs of extraordinary compassion in an environment that ruthlessly pushes people, through the constant fear of death, to make short-sighted, selfish choices. Living in Annawadi means constantly fighting for resources, space, and basic respect—conditions that require individuals to look out for themselves. The community of Annawadi thus lives in close proximity, but remains unable to form a truly helpful community movement that would empower all the slum residents to change their lives.

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Society, Competition, and Social Division ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Society, Competition, and Social Division appears in each Chapter of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Society, Competition, and Social Division Quotes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Below you will find the important quotes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers related to the theme of Society, Competition, and Social Division.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. Rather, the Annawadians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when, around the same moment as the small slum's founding, the central government embraced economic liberalization. The Annawadians were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism, a narrative still unfolding.

Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

The residents of the Annawadi slum are part of India’s great success story, living above the official poverty line and acting as proof that India has fixed the problems that kept its citizens in deplorable conditions by embracing capitalism and joining the ranks of global business powers. Yet the numbers of people “freed” from poverty are not the full story. The Annawadians still live in huts with no running water, have limited or no access to health care, rarely receive a full education, and often do not know if they will have enough to eat that day. Their jobs are often temporary, seasonal, or outright dangerous while they pay a lower wage for more hours than most developed nations would ever consider fair. Even if most Annawadians make more than the amount that the World Bank defines as the poverty line, they are not actually as comfortable as the Indian government would like to make them appear. By revealing the true situation for the majority of Indian citizens – a far grimmer life than the Indian government usually admits – Boo suggests that protecting their international interests and building a good reputation is more important to the Indian government than actually taking care of the people who are supposedly enjoying the benefits of capitalism.

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True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.) True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner. A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge. And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors. They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility.

Related Characters: Abdul Husain
Page Number: 6
Explanation and Analysis:

Abdul, the slumdweller on whom Boo focuses, is a trash sorter that has been more successful than the majority of Annawadians – a fact which makes him ignore the often awful conditions of his life. Though Abdul must spend long days hunched over trash, often cutting his hands to separate the different materials into pure piles that the recycling center will accept, he sees his job as a step up from the people who must walk around collecting the trash. This “victory” gives Abdul a feeling of superiority over the Annawadians who are even worse off than he is. The sense of competition pervades the neighborhood of Annawadi. Many residents don’t seem to care how well they are doing in objective terms as long as they are doing better than their immediate neighbors. As long as there is someone worse off than they are, the Annawadians can pretend that they are part of the population of India that is rising – even if they do not actually have any of the benefits that would come from truly achieving a higher social or economic class. With everyone competing against each other, all of Annawadi stays in near poverty levels.

Chapter 2 Quotes

Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbors. But in the twenty-first-century city, fewer people joined up to take their disputes to the streets. As group identities based on caste, ethnicity, and religion gradually attenuated, anger and hope were being privatized, like so much else in Mumbai. This development increased the demand for canny mediators-human shock absorbers for the colliding, narrowly construed interests of one of the world's largest cities.

Related Characters: Asha Waghekar
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:

Asha, a mother in Annawadi who hopes to become the first female slumlord, muses on the new social divisions in India now that the caste system is over and Indian society as a whole delves into the notions of becoming more tolerant of multiculturalism. As Asha notes, old communities based purely on specific identities are rare in Mumbai where people of every walk of life live in close proximity to one another. Yet the disappearance of community ties does not mean that the old rivalries between these groups disappear. Whereas Asha sees the old India as a place where people could depend on their specific cultural group to help them deal with issues, Indians are now left with no source of support when they run into problems.

As a slumlord, Asha hopes to be the one who solves the disputes and troubles among the Annawadians for profit. No longer motivated by caste, religion, or ethnicity, the majority of Boo’s characters are motivated by money. The greed often brings people into contention, as competition for jobs, resources and even space is incredibly high in Mumbai. Asha sees a way to make a lot of money in this new world, taking on the old role of mediator between individuals now that the community mindset is no longer viable.

Chapter 4 Quotes

In calmer moments, Manju could argue that parents were terrified of losing control of their children in a city where dangers seemed to be multiplying-a city they didn't fully understand. And as much as Manju hated violence of any stripe, the odd thrashing, like the odd axe blow, could be effective in keeping a child close to home.

Related Characters: Manju Waghekar
Page Number: 64
Explanation and Analysis:

While running the slum school in Annawadi, Manju often has to deal with parents disciplining their children for straying too far from home. Manju notes the changing situation of many families in Annawadi, as children pull away from the traditional family obedience in favor of the wealth of opportunity in the new India. As India charges into a more “free” future – especially in Mumbai where the global influence of capitalism creates the illusion that children can escape the fates their parents had accepted – the younger generations leave behind the old traditions that kept India’s social structure rigid for so long. Children like those in Annawadi are no longer happy to accept the plans that their parents have for them.

While the older generations are happy that their children will be doing better than they, there is also fear of the unknown future that these children face. They deal with their fear by punishing their children into obedience, as when a parent beats one of Manju’s students for going into the street, or when Manju’s own mother struck her with an axe for taking money and going into the city. Manju seems resigned to recognize that this violence is just a part of life in Annawadi.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Zehrunisa would go, sighing, to separate the miserable couple, just as she sighed on Eid and other Muslim holidays before inviting them to share her mutton korma. The family of the child-abusing Fatima, the family of the skeezy brothel owner: This was the Muslim fellowship she had in Annawadi.

"It's easy to break a single bamboo stick, but when you bundle the sticks, you can't even bend them," she told her children. "It's the same with family and with the people of our faith. Despite the petty differences, Muslims have to join up in big sufferings, and for Eid."

Related Characters: Zehrunisa Husain
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:

Zehrunisa, despite not approving of her fellow Muslims in Annawadi, seeks out their company for the major Muslim holidays. Though Zehrunisa obviously feels competition with the other Muslim families, comparing her own family to the struggles of the others in order to feel better about her own life. Yet Zehrunisa cannot entirely escape the old community of faith, even if India is now supposed to be built on individual achievement. Zherunisa both wants the other Muslim families to fail, because she knows that will make her own family seem better in comparison. But she also wishes that the community of Muslim believers was a more welcoming place for her family in the face of the Hindu discrimination against Muslims in Mumbai.

Chapter 6 Quotes

"Everyone is jealous of us, fixing our house," Kehkashan explained to an older cousin who'd just arrived from the countryside.
"So let them be jealous," Zehrunisa exclaimed. "Why shouldn’t we live in a better room now that we are doing a little better?"

Related Characters: Zehrunisa Husain, Kehkashan
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

Zehrunisa, the matriarch of the Husain family, decides that her family should use the small savings they have managed to earn to improve their hut in Annawadi, sparking jealousy among the neighbors who feel that the Husains are rubbing their good fortune in their faces. In Annawadi, one person’s success is equated with another’s failure. Zehrunisa revels in this competition, wanting to enjoy this brief moment of feeling better than her neighbors to assure herself that her family really is doing well. The easiest way to experience the new promise of social mobility in India is to have another baseline of poverty to compare against. The small changes that the Husains can make to their house are not much, in terms of global wealth, but the immediate proximity of neighbors who are doing worse give Zehrunisa a tangible reminder that there really are opportunities to give her children a better life here.

Chapter 7 Quotes

He didn't know if his mother was right about an earlier, peaceful age in which poor people had accepted the fates that their respective gods had written on their foreheads, and in turn treated one another more kindly. He just knew that she didn't really long for companionable misery. She'd known abjectness, loathed its recollection, and raised her son for a modern age of ruthless competition. In this age, some people rose and some people fell, and ever since he was little, she'd made him understand that he had to rise.

Related Characters: Abdul Husain, Zehrunisa Husain
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:

With the Husain family garbage business failing and no money to post bail for Karam, Kehkashan, or Abdul, Zehrunisa laments the loss of community support when tragedy strikes. Zehrunisa grew up in a very different India than her children now live in, where there was less chance for social mobility but a greater sense of social cohesion. Though Zehrunisa’s childhood was full of suffering, she at least had a group of people who were of the same social class and caste to suffer with her.

The old caste system in India condemned people to live the same lives as their parents, with certain jobs only available to certain groups. Abdul and his generation now have the illusion of being able to reach for any future they want, but they are still missing a fundamental foundation of support. When circumstances get bad, as when Abdul and his father are wrongfully arrested, all their hard work means nothing. Boo shows both that Zehrunisa and Abdul think that competition increases their chances of success, and that the cut throat nature of this environment – in which every person is in charge of their own destiny and cannot help anyone else – actually keeps everyone down.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Only in detention had it occurred to him that drudge labor in an urban armpit like Annawadi might be considered freedom. He was gratified that boys from other urban armpits agreed.

Related Characters: Abdul Husain
Page Number: 128-129
Explanation and Analysis:

While Abdul is detained at Dongri awaiting trial for allegedly burning Fatima, he becomes furious that other boys are kept here for breaking child labor laws. Abdul recognizes that working hard throughout one’s childhood is a poor alternative to being able to study, but he also knows that work is a rare opportunity for kids to improve their lives. Putting these kids in a juvenile detention center keeps them from the chance to go to school and the chance to work and help their families. Abdul thinks that it is incredibly unfair that the families that are so poor that their children have to work are slammed with the extra charges of breaking child labor laws. Working long days as Abdul has since he was a pre-teen is not the normal definition of “freedom,” as Abdul has never gotten a chance to relax or think about what he wants to do in life. But it is at least more free than wasting away in the Dongri detention center.

Chapter 10 Quotes

Now the man's leg was mashed and bloody, and he was calling out to passersby for help. Sunil figured he'd been hit by a car. Some drivers weren't overly concerned about avoiding the trash-pickers who scoured the roadsides.

Sunil was too scared to go to the police station and ask for an ambulance, especially after what was rumored to have happened to Abdul. Instead he ran toward the battleground of the Cargo Road dumpsters, hoping an adult would brave the police station.

Related Characters: Sunil
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

A scavenger gets hit by a car in Annawadi and is too injured to move out of the road. Instead of helping him, everyone who passes thinks of a reason why they can’t stop to help. For Sunil, the first person to pass, he is too afraid that the police will frame him for the scavenger’s injury so they can extort money from Sunil to prove his innocence. Adults pass including Zehrunisa, but are too busy with their own troubles. As the scavenger gets weaker, more people avoid him for fear that they will catch the diseases that they assume the scavenger has. Eventually, the scavenger dies because no one was willing to help him.

Boo uses this incident as an illustration of how competitive the environment of Annawadi is. The residents of this slum cannot expend energy to help others – even if Sunil wants to – for fear of what might happen to them. Survival in Annawadi is a zero sum game – in which one person has to suffer for another to prosper.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Asha had always prized her competitiveness, a quality that she'd failed to pass on to her children. Perhaps because they lacked it, she had valued it more in herself. But over time, the compulsion to win could become self-deceiving. Instead of admitting that she was making little progress, she had invented new definitions of success. She had felt herself moving ahead, just a little, every time other people failed.

Related Characters: Asha Waghekar
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

Asha, who has striven for all of her adult life to become the slumlord of Annawadi, now sees how that was a false measure of power in her limited environment. While being slumlord addresses Asha’s immediate concerns to be doing better than her neighbors, she was not actually doing well by objective standards in India. Asha could feel successful because other people were doing worse than she was, a distraction that allowed her to put the actual disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor out of her mind.

By competing with the other Annawadians, Asha felt very rich – with a tiled house, a television, and a daughter going to college. But as Asha becomes more familiar with the luxuries of the middle class, she sees that her life is still pitiful by the standards of wealth others have reached in India’s middle class. Asha wants to win, a compulsion that keeps her from being truly happy or reaching real success. The job as the slumlord disappears, just as Annawadi itself will one day disappear. By constantly fighting to get ahead of her neighbors, Asha has made nothing that will last as her legacy.

Chapter 17 Quotes

But the slumdwellers rarely got mad together-not even about the airport authority.
Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked….
What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world's great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.

Page Number: 237
Explanation and Analysis:

As Boo comes to the end of her account of Annawadian lives, describing how the slum will soon be destroyed by the airport officials that own the land, she diagnoses what she sees as the worst problem in the slum – the lack of community support against common struggles. Though Boo is the first to point out how unfairly the odds are stacked against the slumdwellers in Annawadi, she also sees how these people contribute to their own oppression by insisting on dealing with their problems as individuals. Boo sees strength when the residents join together, powerful enough to possibly change the corrupt governmental and economic systems that keep those who live in the slum as “undercitizens.” Instead of building one another up so that the Annawadians can all fight the politicians and middle class for their fair due of human rights and respect in Mumbai, Boo suggests that the poor embody a spirit of competition that harms all of them.

Boo ties the competitive nature of the slumdwellers to global market capitalism, challenging the idea that a capitalist economy and a place in global markets truly mean progress for a county. While capitalism has enlivened hope for opportunity in India, Boo sees this as a false illusion that is not actually better than the communal grassroots efforts that the poor in India have always made to improve their lives. Focusing on individuals in a global world is not actually better than having a dynamic local community that helps its members when they are in trouble. The slumdwellers think only of their personal, immediate profit – as capitalism demands – and so miss out on long-term benefits. Boo’s answer for corruption in India is not to open up the markets, but to go back to a more sharing society.