‘Behind the Beautiful Forevers’

Life in a Mumbai slum reveals how the ‘brutal capriciousness’ of daily life can undermine people's economic security.

April 08, 2012
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Global economy affects all

The book’s title comes from nearby billboard and wall advertisements for an expensive Italian floor tile that promises to stay beautiful forever. Slums like Annawadi, and the millions of Indians who are among the world’s poorest people, provide a striking contrast to the emerging wealth in India, whose economy’s phenomenal growth rivals China’s and is spurred by globalization.

Garbage is what spurs the economy of Annawadi, specifically the discards of the airport and the surrounding hotels. Living in small, haphazardly constructed huts with no running water, Annawadi’s Hindu and Muslim residents squeeze a life of pennies and dimes by scrounging the garbage heaps for recyclable items to resell.

Their lives, as contained as they are within the narrow confines of a Mumbai slum, are not immune from world events. The financial crisis and the subsequent world recession that began in 2007 also drove down the price of items recycled from India’s garbage, and thus the garbage pickers’ incomes.

And the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai at a couple of luxury hotels drove away tourists, so less garbage was discarded by the hotels near Annawadi.

We live in a global economy whose constant ups and downs affect even the most insular or isolated neighborhood economies and small businesses whether in the U.S. or India.

But as the garbage pickers must scrounge for other daily work to replace their lost income, we wonder as does Boo whether permanent work for the lowest-skilled workers, and even those with some skills, is becoming anachronistic as capital and the jobs it creates flow from one nation to the next.

Boo focuses primarily on several individuals and their families. Abdul is the eldest son and primary breadwinner of a Muslim family. He’s a silent but exceptionally hard-working individual who buys and sells the garbage pickings.

His mother is Zehrunisa, whose argument with a neighbor sets in motion a series of events that seriously undercuts her family’s fragile economic security.

Asha is a Hindu and a minor player in a local political party, but she wields considerable power among her fellow Annawadians by dispensing small favors of influence in return for money. Her daughter is Manju, a young woman at times appalled by her mother’s selfishness at the expense of neighbors and a sometime teacher who aspires to be the first Annawadian with a college education.

Next: Despair, yet hope

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