Behind the Beautiful Forevers is an attempt to go beyond the popular narrative of India as a rising global power experiencing an economic boom that is uplifting all of its citizens. The source of the book’s title is a concrete wall plastered with ads for ceramic tiles that will stay “beautiful forever”—this wall is intended to hide Annawadi from the sight of wealthy international travelers at the Mumbai airport. In other words, the wall tries to hide the local from the global, and Katherine Boo is going behind the wall to report on the local effects of globalization that have largely been unseen by the world. Boosterish narratives of capitalist progress reflect India’s increasing prestige in the global economy, but Boo argues that, like misleading tile ads, such narratives can hide realities at the local level: the residents of Annawadi are not thriving under India’s new global capitalism. In fact, it seems that globalization has made their lives worse.
Even as global concerns become more important to progress in India as a whole, individual people worry about the problems that globalization creates in their lives. Boo gives many examples of this. Annawadi is directly adjacent to the international airport, and the airport constantly threatens to destroy the entire slum in order to protect India’s reputation of progress from being tarnished by travelers witnessing the country’s poverty. In addition, India’s increased industrialization—which is largely responsible for India’s ability to compete in global markets—creates pollution that ruins the health of those who live in Annawadi. Finally, globalization means that the local economy of Annawadi is not insulated from the tribulations of larger markets. The 2008 recession, set off by American banks, has huge repercussions in the slum: Annawadians were already struggling, but after the recession depresses the value of goods (including trash), Annawadians’ lives become even more difficult and precarious.
Boo presents the slum of Annawadi in all its particular detail, making clear that she is talking only about Annawadi and does not intend to represent the conditions of all people in poverty or even all people in poverty in India. This deep dive into a small number of people humanizes the otherwise overwhelming statistics about those who live in poverty throughout the world, and asserts the significance of every individual. However, despite the particularities of Annawadi, Boo’s book does have something to say about poverty around the globe. Though the specific diseases that Annawadians must deal with are unique to their climate and environment, the lack of proper health care in Annawadi is representative of the larger problem of health and hygiene across the world. Issues of child labor (as shown by the trash scavengers), illiteracy and education (as shown in Manju’s school), and drug addiction (seen in the constant use of Eraz-ex by some of the Annawadians), are also global concerns seen in many situations of urban poverty around the world. Learning about the experiences particular to impoverished communities in India, and especially seeing complex individuals navigating these issues, can help readers from other parts of the world become more globally aware of the problems that others face.
The Local vs. The Global ThemeTracker
The Local vs. The Global 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.
And while some international businessmen descending into the Mumbai airport eyed the vista of slums with disgust, and others regarded it with pity, few took the sight as evidence of a high-functioning, well-managed city.
Annawadians understood that their settlement was widely perceived as a blight, and that their homes, like their work, were provisional. Still they clung to this half-acre…
"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.