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The problem of inequality is topical for any society in the world. No community can exist without unequal distribution of profit and other types of assets, even if they declare equality as their primary goal. Therefore, the analysis of the inequality in its different forms has always been a priority for economists and sociologists. However, this topic is analyzed not only by scholars, but also by a great number of writers who describe this problem in their fiction and non-fiction works. Katherine Boo created a book called “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” that tells about the everyday life of Abdul, a young boy who lives in the Annawadi slums located near the modern Mumbai airport. The author also focuses on the life of his neighbors, their jobs, aspirations and outlooks. This essay is devoted to cover the economic, social and cultural aspects of the inequality described in Boo’s book.
Economic mechanisms of inequality
In general, the inhabitants of these slums tend to support, of course without formulating it in a scholarly way, the Marxist economic theory. They believe that the upper class society does not distribute the surplus profits in a just way. The slum dwellers, as well as the main ideologists of Marxist economics, argue that they do not get enough reward for their labor. They gradually become even poorer than earlier and this loop seems to have no end. Boo argues that this situation has not changed for a long time. Despite new political and economic realities, new rulers and governments, “exploitation of the weak by the less weak continued with minimal interference”. It is a very rare case when an inhabitant of Annawadi can break this cycle and join the people with higher incomes.
The Annawadians suffer not only from wealth and income inequality, they also consume much less than higher class representatives. This form of inequality results from the first two, but it is also connected with the nature of their consumption. The slum dwellers usually buy cheap products and sometimes they are of such low quality that may even damage their health. They do not have enough money to pay even for basic medical care, etc. The major reason of this situation is the way the Indian markets distribute the wages. Besides, the slum dwellers usually do not have proper qualifications to apply for jobs with higher salaries, so they tend to limit themselves to the unqualified jobs that can be done by many people; therefore there is no need for the employees to pay more. The role of the big corporations is also very important in this process. They tend to keep their profits and invest them back into their development without spending them on solving the problems of the economic inequalities. In case of Annawadi, it is, first of all, big Bollywood companies that prefer not to notice this problem.
Social mechanisms of inequality
The economic inequality analyzed above is closely connected with the social inequality. The author of the book pays much attention to the cases of the discriminative attitude of the society to the inhabitants of the Mumbai slums. She tries to find out the inner causes of such behavior and study its impact on the everyday life of these people.
An interesting example of the social inequality in the book is the episode when Fatima, Abdul’s disabled neighbor, sets herself on fire. Her skin is significantly burnt and she desperately needs urgent medical help. However, when her husband asks some rickshaws to take the woman to the nearby hospital, they refuse motivating it by “the potential damage to seat covers”. It is interesting that the rickshaws also do not belong to the high class of the society, however they find it appropriate to discriminate against the inhabitants of the slums as they are even poorer than they are. This example of the class conflict is very special as the tensions occur between two social groups that have in fact very similar economic status, but are divided by the social borders.
The poverty of the people described by Boo also affects many important social aspects as, for example, the relations in the family. People who are first of all interested in the survival and are used to constant struggle for their lives tend to treat the family connections in a manner that differs from the relations of the upper classes. The value of life is measured primarily in its financial equivalent and than in term of morality or ethics. Boo mentions an episode when a son of a neighboring family, one-year Danush was seen to have some serious problems with skin. His parents tried to help him spending much money on the operation, but everything was in vain. “Then one night in March, his father had beaten back his wife and emptied a pot of boiling lentils on the baby”. It is by all means a cruel and inhuman act, but Boo draws attention of the audience that it is not a single case. She argues that if the tendency of undervaluing human life is so widespread in the areas like Annawadi, it has some strong roots in the way these people are treated by the rest of the society. The book does not have any direct calls for changing this situation, but the general tone of Boo who in many cases condemns the government’s idleness makes the readers think of the ways that might solve at least some problems of these people.
Cultural mechanisms of inequality
India exerts every effort to combat its image of a poor and very dirty country. Mumbai as the city with the largest population in India does much to attract tourists and create an attractive atmosphere for investor. For example, Boo mentions “a civic campaign fronted by Bollywood heroines attempted to combat Mumbai’s reputation as a dirty city”. However, this campaign and the similar events do not work with the roots of the problem. The cultural image of Mumbai should be improved not by the exterior methods, but with the help of various campaigns directed precisely at the cultural cosmos of the slum dwellers. One of the spheres described by Boo is educational level of these people. As their primary aim is to earn money to support their families, many children, as, for example, the focal character Abdul, spends most of their time in sorting garbage to find food or something appropriate for sale. Children are often illiterate or have very poor command even of the most basic knowledge. Boo often mentions such individuals as “an illiterate young mother of three named Ceeta” and others. Even when some of the slum dwellers, like Manju, managed to enter a college, they had significant difficulties as their basic education did not match the required level. “Doing her college reading, Asha’s daughter felt so sluggish that she feared she’d caught dengue or malaria again”.
Another aspect of the cultural inequalities that were described in “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” is informational inequality. It is only partially connected to the educational problems. The inhabitants of the slums are deprived of the information about their rights, they do not know anything about the opportunities they might get if they apply to. Even during the electoral campaign they are not treated equally with more well-to-do inhabitants of Mumbai. Boo describes an episode that happened before the parliamentary elections. One party promised to cover the open sewers of Annawadi slums. Some people were very happy, but in a few days the workers returned and took back the sewer covers as they “were needed in one of the district’s larger slums, where the prop might influence a greater number of voters”. Such an attitude towards the Annawadians mean that the political elite relies on the absence of information about their programs among the slum dwellers. The political leaders believe that the decisions of these people can be easily manipulated, so they limit their efforts in gaining the votes of Annawadians to a single (unsuccessful) act of covering the sewers.
The psychological aspects of the problem
Boo does not limit her book only to the descriptions of the above-mentioned form of inequality. She also focuses on the psychological impact of this situation on the inhabitants of the slums. In many cases they treat the higher classes as rivals and even enemies. The feeling of envy is intensified by the fact that Annawadi is actually located quite close to the prestigious areas of the city and the people who live there have a perfect opportunity to observe the lifestyle of the top classes. Boo writes, “Mumbai was a place of festering grievance and ambient envy”. She also adds, “Slum dwellers complained about the obstacles the rich and powerful erected to prevent them from sharing in new profit. Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbours”.
The author of the book also gives much information about the frequent suicides in the districts similar to Annawadi. They are so common that the slum dwellers tend to develop quite an indifferent attitude to such cases in the community. When Meena eats a great quantity of rat poison as she does not want to go into an arranged marriage, her own mother does not believe she wanted to kill herself. The question that Meena’s friend asks her implies that there is even some “statistics” concerning such cases. She says, “A woman on this slumlane had recently consumed half a tube of the same brand of poison, Ratol, and survived”. The author of the book tries to show that a suicide is the final step when the person loses any hope of solving his or her serious psychological, social and economic problems. Therefore, the live of the people from the slums is not destructed only by outside surrounding world, but also by their inner tensions and conflicts.
The book “Behind the beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo is a very good example of the narrative that focuses on the problems of inequality in the modern world. Although right now India is one of the most powerful economies in Asia, it has not still managed to solve the problem of slums, even in such big and prosperous cities as Mumbai. Via describing the lives of the slum dweller, like Abdul, Meena, Zehrunisa and many others, the author of this impressive non-fiction book, highlights different forms of the inequalities that exist in the Indian society. Boo studies economic, social and cultural aspects of this problem and does not forget to pay attention to the psychological impact of this situation on the inner world of the slum dwellers. This book can also serve a good source for any additional information about the inequality in India.