Behind the beautiful forevers – A sleepless (ranting) take

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“If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits is uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight?”[1] This closing, mildly disillusioned remark points to the daunting state of the Husains’ family house, but at its core serves best to describe the social environment of the Annawadi slum. Since the initial settlements of the early 2000, its residents lived in a constant state of whole-encompassing disenfranchisement. Deprived of any claims over a land they have no right to call their own, Annawadi dwellers live suspended amongst the tempting lights of modernity and a stubborn poverty that lingers on their best efforts to escape it. In the chaotic and frantic environment of the slum, corruption collides with hope, tradition with modernity and envy with honesty, while individualism and exhausting disillusionment depicts all too evidently the failure of the Indian government to deliver equitable development.

From this haze emerges a picture of internationally oriented make-believe, where the Annawadi residents are all but unfortunate nuisances, encouraged to engage in petty battles against one another. Involved in despicable yet brave attempts to overturn their condition, the actions of Annawadians remind those of Black Friday crowds, stampeding over one another to secure the best possible deal. But unlike the saddest interprets of Western consumerism, Annawadi’s residents do not seem to have other options at their disposal. Just like the ground under the Husains’ house, slum dwellers do not enjoy a leveled playing field: external forces which they must either concede or fall to, dictate most of the choices they make.

Children and teenagers are the ones who express hopes for a brighter future that grows dimmer to their eyes as age advances; as though life had progressively won them over. In the words of the main character Abdul Husain: “for some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting but now I’m just becoming dirty water, like everyone else. I tell Allah I love Him immensely, immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is”[2].

It is not poverty that crushes the hopes of Annawadi’s residents. In and of itself, slum dwellers interpret extreme poverty as a misfortune they were born into and not an unwelcome acquisition of living. Unlike the rich in suits beyond the grinning wall of the beautiful forevers, Annawadians do not fear to become poor, as all they have ever known is the desire not to be so. The repeated pattern of failed attempts to improve their condition is what truly crushes their hopes.

In such environment, applying value judgments to the actions of Annawadi’s residents is a patronizing temptation, rooted in the privileges that stem from wealth and opportunities. Like environmental awareness or careful planning of nutritional intake, ethics are a function of economic and social status. They are luxury goods, affordable only when more pressing concerns have been already addressed. Fortunately, some psychologist with an enviable determination went to great lengths to try codify them. His framework offers a much-needed context for analyzing the dynamics and forces at play within the Annawadi slum.

In a 1943 publication, Abraham Maslow theorized a pyramidal structure of human needs. Physiological demands sit at its bottom and, in ascending hierarchical order, follow safety, social, self-esteem and self-actualization needs[3]. Reinterpreting Maslow’s theory in a more economical sense, the pyramid can be reconstructed, bottom up, using the categories of health, wealth, equality and trust[4]. Health is interpreted as the ability to eat, drink and fulfill basic physiological needs. Wealth encompasses income generation, accumulation of assets and achievement of financial stability. To equality corresponds a balance in society across gender, ethnicity and class, which is paramount to each individual’s empowerment to participate, contribute or innovate without restrictions or bias. Finally, trust refers to transparency of information, ethical actions and credible decision processes. Achieving trust rewards a social environment with stability and durability, enabling it to constructively evaluate any decisions inconsistent with its underlying ethics, goals and values.  The lives of Annawadi’s residents are consumed almost entirely across the two most basic needs of health and wealth.

Zooming outward from the slum, the whole social fabric of Mumbai seems engaged in a battle to improve or consolidate either of these conditions. From police officers to government officials, from poor slum dwellers to poorer ones, everyone’s actions are subdued to a selfish but understandable desire to maintain or better one’s status and privileges. Ethics and solidarity fall victims to this looming practice and individual actions acquire Machiavellian traits, which qualify them as the by-product of a surviving strategy, rather than of reckless and unnecessary individualism.

Social interactions take place within a zero-sum context, where margins for economic and personal gains are squeezed to a minimum. Summing to this difficulty is an almost total lack of privacy that keeps in check, and even exacerbates, long-standing traditions. In a world of aluminum roofs and paper-thin walls, the boundaries between public and private lives blur quickly and call for swift countermeasures. Slum dwellers prevent unwanted attention by concealing – with alternate fortunes – any possible reason to attract envy and by obeying socially accepted norms, in an attempt not to stand out as outliers.

The combined effect of this peer-enforced traditionalism with a widespread Darwinian strive to emerge – more often merely to survive – forces families and individuals to either make unpleasant choices or seek unconscious refuge in the very customary practices that contribute to constrain their freedom. In this process, everything and everyone becomes expendable to the higher goal of ensuring economic and social stability for the household: the education of children, the marriage of daughters and the lives of people more or less known.

Annawadi’s residents understand that the path to escape poverty and enter the rising Indian middle-class passes through education. Families make sacrifices to offer their children good schooling, often resorting to private institutions to circumvent the inefficient public system. Yet families operate on a tight margin and economic inconveniencies, big and small, can have a debilitating impact on the children’s education. When unforeseen circumstances arise, in the absence of adequate social buffers, families are forced to pull children from school in an effort to supplement the household’s income. Through this process short-term needs bleach the already meager opportunities nested in the children’s future.

A similar destiny is in store for the daughters, financial liabilities in a culture that demands generous dowries at marriage. Arranged unions are the norm and women have little room left, if any, to voice their preferences in picking a life partner.

In an environment that prioritizes the needs of the family over the happiness of the children, unrelated individuals receive even less consideration. Whether it is an unnamed beggar bleeding on a busy sidewalk, an old friend in need of a heart valve, or a teenage boy unduly beaten to death by the airport gates, compassion, justice and solidarity are mindlessly trumped over by one’s assessment of his or her own best interests. In a society where innocence and guilt can be bought and sold and the rule of law is auctioned to the highest bidder, self-preservation and personal interests are the most compelling incentives any sane person will see.

In this wave of pervasive pragmatism, Annawadians must either downsize their dreams or sacrifice themselves to them. Particularly for the younger generations, this unwelcome reality slowly unfolds with age. Raja Kamble’s dream of a new heart valve crashed, and never recovered, against Asha’s firm refusal to help. Manju’s dream of becoming the first Annawadi college graduate was simultaneously achieved and sacrificed to the questionable endeavors of her mother and her fraudulent non-profit organization. Abdul’s desire for rectitude went lost to the dynamics of a world that he could not overturn.

For those unwilling to compromise to a life they did not feel their own, holding on to their dreams came at a steeper price. Meena’s hopes of freedom ended entrusted to a bottle of rat poison. Sanjay’s shared fate. Anil’s expectations of a higher pay left hanging to a tree branch.

The only rewarded efforts are those that circumvent the rules and return the perpetrators an advantage that otherwise would have been out of reach. Sunil’s endearing dream to be properly nourished and grow in stature got finally fulfilled only through petty robberies. Asha’s dream to enter the middle class, within grasp in her position as regent slumlord, was eventually met through her fraudulent handling of non-profit funds.

In this context, the absolution of the Husains’ family – the only event that failed to get sold to the corruption of the system – appears merely as a fortunate coincidence.

To trace the reasons that lead the lives of Annawadians to play out in conditions that sabotage “the human innate capacity for moral action”[5], it is necessary to zoom away from the dynamics of the slum in favor of a more general perspective on the political and social environment of Mumbai and India as a whole. The exasperated individualism that drips from the book is, after all, the same force behind the world most treasured examples of economic development.

In the England of the 17th century, Thomas Hobbes laid the fundament of the modern theory of state, by tracing back its origins to basic inclinations of the human nature. Hobbes postulated that humans living in a “state of nature” would have the right and power to do anything in the world. In this environment social structures could not survive and men would be drawn to act as they see fit, in order to achieve whatever objectives they set forth for themselves. To paraphrase a famous Latin quote cited often to summarize this condition, every man would ruthlessly predate on other men[6]. Hobbes moved from this assumption, to justify the need to enact a social contract and establish a state as its guarantor. Such state, a Leviathan, would act as an unwelcome but necessary guardian of both individual rights and society as a whole. This entity would prevent “continual fear, [omissis] danger of violent death and solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short [human life]”[7]. Hobbes suggests that the state should be a super-partes entity, tasked with employing the rights given up to it by the citizens to ensure their own protection.

In the context of the book, the very fabric of Indian society seems to crumble under pressures that circumvent the state’s faint attempts at ensuring that selfish human impulses are contained or, at least, properly channeled. Within the Annawadi community, mutual support seems a good in scarce supply at best. Through a myopic view, one might consider it a localized anomaly; however, the interactions of peripheral actors with the community suggest that what occurs in Annawadi is influenced by an external environment that exhorts a destructive, rather than uniting force. To enable it is a widespread corruption, penetrating deep inside the Indian central government and cascading down to the most vulnerable, lowest income sections of the population. In this uneven territory, institutional power gains the upper hand on the principles it was supposed to abide and protect. In Annawadi, influence and power become the only effective lines of defense against the institutionalized abuse of power. By colluding with corrupt officials and consolidating their status in the slum, individuals like Asha achieve the safety and perhaps the momentum to fuel their social ascent. Most of the other slum dwellers remain equally ill equipped to protect themselves from the recurring abuses, let alone to promote a change in their own conditions. Disenfranchised of virtually any right, this group is left to fend for themselves without any institutional buffer. Natural human inclinations, cut loose and incentivized by the lack of integrity of political institutions, give birth to an aggressively competitive environment.

Conversely, those who choose to play by the rules – like the Husains – take a leap of faith that is as blunt as it is risky. By being unable, or choosing not to accommodate each and every bribe request of government officials, Zehrunisa gambles with the lives of her family without the possibility to leverage the truth in hedging her bet. In the widespread corruption of the Mumbai judiciary system, truth and justice lose all of their sacredness to acquire almost tragicomic connotations. In the blatant trading of principles and values, the very fabric of society loses one of its most critical assets.

Burdened by unstable incomes and vexed for each of their own small successes, most Annawadians lack the conditions to emerge from poverty. The institutional help directed towards them dries up in the web of corruption that pervades most strategic positions of power. Annawadi’s progress is hurdled by a form of institutionalized crime that has struck a fine balance between the use of excuses to extract wealth from the slum and the ability to ensure its survival. In the words of Abdul, “to be poor in Annawadi, or in any other Mumbai slum for that matter, was to be guilty of one thing or another”[8].

Despite the rights slum residents should enjoy by virtue of their citizenship, they are unable to influence politics collectively and unknowingly contribute to the divide-and-conquer strategy that ties them down ever more strongly to their condition. As some of them are pushed to rise and others to fall, Annawadians compete to climb the ladder of what remains, to the most of them, a very narrow horizon of opportunities. Beyond the wall of the beautiful forevers the Mumbai airport and its luxurious hotels continue to twinkle, like out-of-reach beacons of a world that reluctantly shares with Annawadi only some of its garbage and leftover jobs.


[1] Boo, Katherine, “Behind the beautiful forevers”, Random House, 2012, USA. Page 254.

[2] Boo, Katherine, cit. Page 241.

[3] Maslow, Abraham, “A theory of human motivation”, Psychological Review, Vol. 50, 1943. Pages 370-396.

[4] Herman, Paul, “The HIP investor”, Wiley, 2010, USA. Page 7.

[5] Boo, Katherine, cit. Page 254.

[6] In its original formulation: “homo homini lupus”.

[7] Hobbes, Thomas, “Leviathan”, Chapter 13 – “Of the natural condition of mankind as concerning their felicity, and misery”, in “The English works, Vol. III, Leviathan (1651)”, Bohn, 1839-45, London. Available at: http://tinyurl.com/3zymq52 – Accessed 2/23/2013

[8] Boo, Katherine, cit. Page 63.

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