Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity | Study Guide

Katherine Boo

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity | Themes


Unrelenting Corruption Contracts the Moral Universe

Boo says in an author's note that "the effect of corruption [she] find[s] most underacknowledged is a contraction ... of our moral universe." She means that the unrelenting corruption of government at every level of authority creates a poisonous environment in which it is very difficult to do the right thing. Asha understands she is "a chit in a national game of make-believe," in which India's age-old problems, such as poverty, disease, and illiteracy, are "aggressively addressed," while equally old problems of "corruption and exploitation of the weak by the less weak, [persist] with minimal interference." Annawadi is a microcosm of the free market, where trade and competition are applied to all aspects of life. Among these aspects are things that, from a moral standpoint, should not be priced in the market. In the slum, though, pint-sized capitalism has free rein. As a result, Asha does not feel guilty about her extortion of money from desperate people. Furthermore, when she engages in a large-scale scam to defraud the government, she offers this defense: "the big people d[o] all the papers [and] say that it's right."

Abdul, who has a true moral compass, is moved to stop trading in stolen metals after he commits to leading a righteous life. Yet this decision has a significant financial impact on his family, who are further impoverished by his incarceration for a crime he didn't commit. Corruption is so much a fact of life that Abdul does not even stop to dwell on the injustice of his situation. Even though they have clear evidence of his innocence, the police hold him and send him to a detention center. Their goal in subjecting Abdul to the criminal justice system is to make money from his family in the form of bribes.

Others are forced to compromise their moral values. Sunil wishes to live a decent life and at first refuses to steal. But he needs to eat, and he is concerned that his body is malnourished since his younger sister is taller than he. He is responsible for both his sister, Sunita, and himself. The siblings are constantly bitten by rats, so much so that Sunita has become bald from the bites that become infected with worms. After the recession hits, Sunil steals more and more often just to get by. Eventually he begins sniffing the chemical Eraz-ex to dull the pain of his miserable life. Manju is another example of someone who fails her own moral aspirations. She wants to be a teacher, but there is no hope of her working in a government school since her family cannot pay the required bribes. She gives up teaching children at home—her mother's responsibility—and she finally agrees to participate with her mother in the scam of pretending to run 24 kindergartens.

Aspiration Springs Eternal in the Human Heart

Despite the horrendous conditions of the urban slum, people still have hope for themselves and their children. The people of Annawadi have come from the country to the city to seek opportunity. As Boo observes in her author's note, "They were improvising, often ingeniously, in pursuit of the new economic possibilities of the twenty-first century." Parts of the Indian economy are prospering, and the poor believe some of that prosperity might trickle down to them. City living loosens restrictions of caste and gender, and the women of Annawadi step up economically. Asha aspires to be slumlord and is appointed to the position even though she loses credibility with the Annawadians after she defrauds a young mother. Asha has paid for a third-rate education for her daughter in the hope that Manju can be catapulted into the middle-class. Indeed, by the end of the narrative, Asha lands a lucrative government contract to run 24 imaginary kindergartens.

The Husains are especially representative of hope, even in the worst of circumstances. After three of her family members are arrested, Zehrunisa spends her time trying to raise money for bail and bribes to get her family out of trouble. She eventually succeeds. By then, though, the family has been bankrupted by the results of Fatima's jealousy and corrupted officials. However, none of the Husains brood on this injustice, and none of them give up. They start from scratch to rebuild their bankrupt business. Mirchi learns how to sort garbage and contributes to the family by taking as many odd jobs as he can. Abdul travels over a much wider area to trade.

After making a long side trip into thievery during the recession, Sunil returns to scavenging. He renews his relationships with Sonu, his onetime scavenging partner, and Abdul, who trades what Sunil finds. Sunil has been worn down by circumstances, so he tries to make his life better by sniffing Eraz-ex. Making himself high will create more problems in the long run, but he is simply trying to keep himself from falling into melancholy. No matter how bad things get, most people choose life over death and continue to hope the future will be better than the past.

Some People Remain Good Even When Battered by Extreme Hardship

The world is full of stories of people who stayed pure or strong even in the most trying of circumstances. These are true stories, and while such heroes do not represent the majority, they do exist. Abdul is an example of such a person. He is born with a strong moral compass. He begins to sort garbage for his family at the age of six and never resents the work or his family's dependence on him. Both he and they take it as a given that someone has to be the breadwinner since his father has tuberculosis. As the eldest son, Abdul takes on that role. Even before going to jail, he stays away from bad influences and, although a loner, tries to steer Sunil in the right direction. Abdul scolds his mother for cursing and attempts to follow the tenets of his faith. The only thing he does that might be considered wrong is to sell stolen garbage—primarily metals—and he tries to avoid doing so.

After Abdul is arrested and has time to rest for the first time in his life, in jail, his heart begins to open. He looks around at the mostly Muslim boys and feels indignant on behalf of the younger ones, who have been arrested for working. He comes under the influence of a Hindu teacher, The Master. Although The Master is a crackpot, to Abdul he seems to offer the guidance of a respected and educated elder—something Abdul has been missing in his life. The Master extols the boys at the juvenile jail in Dongri to give up criminality, and Abdul believes The Master is refined and honest. Although innocent, Abdul begins to reflect on his life and determines to give up selling stolen garbage. He sticks to this resolve when he gets out of jail. Moreover, he tells Boo that he wants to rise above his circumstances and be better than them. Abdul could easily have become bitter after his experience with government corruption and gone further into criminality. Instead, however, he uses his trauma as a way to improve himself and continue living a righteous life to the best of his ability. Abdul is a rare person in the Annawadi slum—someone who aspires to goodness above material interest.

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