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.
Society, Competition, and Social Division ThemeTracker
Society, Competition, and Social Division Quotes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers
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.
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 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.
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."
"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?"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.