While capitalism and globalization initially gave Indians across all social classes hope that more opportunities would be available to them, these opportunities have not proved as transformative to the lives of the poor as they have to the lives of more privileged segments of society. Old inequalities, in other words, have still dominated 21st century Indian life. From what Behind the Beautiful Forevers shows of life in Mumbai, opportunities for social mobility reward a select few—those who are already of higher social status, and poor people who know how to work the broken systems to their own advantage, largely through corruption. Otherwise, the residents of Annawadi who strive earnestly to pull themselves into the middle class—as Manju does through education, or as the Husains do through their trash sorting business—find themselves kept down by the prejudice and corruption of the very institutions, such as the police and the government, who are supposedly there to help.
Even within Annawadi, there is a hierarchy of which residents have access to power and opportunity. Men, for example, fare far better than women. Meena, who lives completely under the thumb of her father and brothers, and Fatima, who is disabled and ridiculed by the entire slum, are both driven to suicide by feeling powerless and ignored. For them, choosing to end their lives seems like the only choice they can make for themselves. Additionally, the Husains, who are Muslim, experience obstacles that Hindus in Annawadi do not—the prison that Abdul goes to after he is falsely accused of murder, for example, is disproportionately full of Muslims, who are more likely to be punished than Hindus. On a related note, Boo shows how the government systems in India that claim to give the poor more opportunities to advance are, in fact, upholding the status quo. Boo gives examples, such as the government aid agencies that divert aid from their intended recipients into the pockets of wealthy investors, or the court system that depends almost solely on bribes to function (which rewards wealthy defendants while condemning poor ones). Though the Husains, falsely accused of a crime they did not commit, are judged not guilty, this verdict seems like a fluke in an otherwise corrupt system that keeps the poor disenfranchised whenever possible.
Living amid such rampant corruption makes it very difficult for people to hold on to any sense of a moral or ethical code. Anyone who tries to value selflessness or integrity amid this corruption cannot survive; they must eventually give in to this immoral way of life in order to make it. Asha, for example, fully embraces corruption as one of the only ways to make a better life for her daughter, Manju, while Manju herself tries to stay moral but also slips into helping with her mother’s corrupt schemes so that she can continue to try to get an education. Abdul also tries to be “good” by refusing to take any trash that he believes is stolen, but he is ultimately unable to keep this up when his family is starving. Corruption will continue, Boo suggests, as long as corrupt opportunities are the only opportunities available, and inequality will define Indian society until the government can be held accountable to the values of equality, fairness, and compassion that it professes.
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality ThemeTracker
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Quotes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers
There was too much wanting at Annawadi lately, or so it seemed to Abdul. As India began to prosper, old ideas about accepting the life assigned by one's caste or one's divinities were yielding to a belief in earthly reinvention. Annawadians now spoke of better lives casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past.
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.
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.
In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India's modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.
The airport people had erected tall, gleaming aluminum fences on the side of the slum that most drivers passed before turning into the international terminal. Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements. The ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall's length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER. Sunil regularly walked atop the Beautiful Forever wall, surveying for trash, but Airport Road was unhelpfully clean.
They understood Subhash Sawant to be corrupt. They assumed he'd faked his caste certificate. "But he alone comes here, shows his face," Annawadians said. Before each election, he'd used city money or tapped the largesse of a prominent American Christian charity, World Vision, to give Annawadi an amenity: a public toilet; a flag- pole; gutters; a concrete platform by the sewage lake, where he usually stood when he came.
As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha placed her hopes; and education.
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.
She was less and less sure she wanted to go to Vasai, less and less sure her husband would live to get there. She wanted a more hygienic home here, in the name of her children's vitality… On the floor she wanted ceramic tiles like the ones advertised on the Beautiful Forever wall - tiles that could be scrubbed clean, instead of broken concrete that harbored filth in each striation. With these small improvements, she thought her children might stay as healthy as children in Annawadi could be.
The four-foot gray slab was uneven, as was the floor, so the shelf wobbled perilously on two supports he'd built to hold it up. Nothing in this idiot house was straight. The only way to stabilize the shelf, and make it level, would be to cut into the brick wall, itself uneven, and cement the slab in place…
Abdul was dismayed. The readiness of the bricks to disintegrate, long suspected, was now confirmed. They'd been made with too much sand, and the mortar between them had deteriorated. Crap bricks that weren't even glued to one another-less a wall than a tremulous stack.
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.
To his family, Abdul's physical capability had been the mattering thing. He was the workhorse, his moral judgments irrelevant. He wasn't even sure that he had any moral judgments. But when The Master spoke of taufeez and izzat, respectability and honor, Abdul thought the man's stare had blazed across the rows of heads and come to rest on him alone. It was not too late, at seventeen or whatever age he was, to resist the corrupting influences of his world and his nature.
"The banks in America went in a loss, then the big people went in a loss, then the scrap market in the slum areas came down, too": This was how he explained the global economic crisis. A kilo of empty water bottles once worth twenty-five rupees was now worth ten, and a kilo of newspaper once worth five rupees was now worth two: This was how the global crisis was understood.
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.
A man, if sensible, didn't make bright distinctions between good and bad, truth and falsehood, justice and that other thing.
"For some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting," was how he put it. "But now I'm just becoming dirty water, like everyone else. I tell Allah I love Him immensely, immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is."