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Behind the Beautiful Forevers Book Review

Behind the Beautiful Forevers


Many of the non-fictional books depicting the life of people in the developing countries describe the problems they have to face while living on the outskirts of the civilization. Unsanitary conditions, poverty, and the lack of drinking water – such living situation can hardly be called pleasant. The governments of such countries are trying to solve such problems, but the effect of their actions in not always positive. As a result, the fate of millions of people hangs in the balance. Thus, the authors of such publications try to attract the attention of the global society to their problems. Among the works on this subject is the book entitled Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, which focuses on the life of the residents of Mumbai, namely the poorest of them, who are forced to live in the slums. The author describes a wide array of hardships these people have to deal with but does not make significant attempts to uncover the reasons for their existence. However, it is possible to answer certain questions regarding the hard life in the slums of Mumbai from geographic perspective. Therefore, the following work focuses on the analysis of the reasons for the emergence of the problems presented by Katherine Boo from the geographical point of view.

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Behind the Beautiful Forevers describes the life in Annawadi – a slum that has emerged on a marshy, unusable land that belongs to Mumbai Airport. In several years, it has turned into a densely inhabited area that is primarily filled with the people both from different regions of India and from abroad, namely Pakistani, making its population a mixture a variety of groups and languages. The people that live there have to face such hardships as poverty, hunger, violence, ethnic conflicts, as well as the fear of destruction of their homes by the local authorities. The book features several main characters, including Abdul, a man working as a garbage picker, and Fatima, a crippled woman who was forced to marry an older man. One of the central problems presented by the author is the self-immolation of Fatima, which later touches Abdul and his family, making them responsible for this event in the eyes of the law (Boo 2012).

Thus, it is clear that the book presents a variety of issues that can be quite interesting for sociologists and psychologists. However, at the same time, they can be reviewed from the geographical point of view. In particular, geography may answer the question regarding the existence of a slum (Annawadi) right near the Mumbai Airport. It should be noted that its construction took place at the beginning of the 1990s, a period of rapid development of the Indian economy due to its liberalization. The reforms involved the overall expansion of freedom of the market by narrowing the scope of state regulation of prices, tariffs, and interest on deposits and loans of commercial banks. Additionally, the government liberalized the foreign trade by reducing import duties and abolishing quantitative import restrictions. Finally, foreign investments were encouraged. As a result, the country has become opener, attracting businessmen and investors from all over the world (Kohli 2006).

Naturally, such development has been accompanied by the creation of a wide array of infrastructural objects – roads, buildings, transport junctions, and many others. To build all these structures, the country required a significant amount of workforce. India is one of the most populated states in the world, with its total number of citizens being around 1.2 billion people (Ram 2014). Moreover, it is considered one of the most densely populated countries with about 320 people per square kilometer despite the fact that its mountainous northern regions are not as densely populated as the southern ones. Only during the past half century, India’s number of citizens has almost tripled, and currently takes approximately sixth part of the number of inhabitants of the world (Ram 2014). Considering all these facts, one may assume that the country has more than enough labor resources for the accomplishment of the mentioned tasks. However, there are several features that reduce its working potential drastically. First of all, rural population dominates in India, with the number of urban residents not exceeding 30% of the total number of citizens (Ram 2014). Additionally, these people speak a variety of languages, with Hindi and English being recognized on the national level. More than ten languages are considered to be public since the different regions of the country are inhabited by the distinct ethnic groups (Ram 2014). Such diversity creates many obstacles to the successful communication, which, in turn, prevent the efficient organization of labor. Finally, India is notable for a low level of literacy among the population– only 61% of Indians older than 15 years can be considered literate (Siddharthan & Narayanan 2013). Therefore, it was quite difficult to attract many locals to the construction. In fact, the economically active population in India accounts for about 400 million people, with only 14% of it being involved in the industry (Siddharthan & Narayanan 2013). As a result, the country had to rely on the inflow of the workforce from abroad in the form of labor migrants from such states as Pakistan.

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Moreover, the geographic location of Mumbai has contributed to the emergence of the slums near the important transport junctions. In particular, Mumbai is located at the mouth of Ulhas River and occupies the island of Bombay as well as the adjacent coast of the Arabian Sea. As a result, it has become a major hub of international routes. The city has a deep natural harbor being the largest port in western India. As a passenger terminal, it takes about a half of passenger traffic in the country (Green & Fairclough 2007). Moreover, it is one of the most important economic and cultural centers in the state, meaning that many of the new buildings and infrastructural objects had to be located and, thus, built there. Consequently, it is possible to say that Mumbai was the final destination for the majority of migrants that were coming there to work during the 1990s. One may assume that the newly arrived workers did not have much money with them, and, after the construction was finished, they became stranded. Being unable (or unwilling) to go back home or even move to another region of the country, they had no choice but to settle down in Mumbai. As a result, it has become a city of great contrasts, where luxury and wealth coexist with poverty, and modern blocks stand side by side with slums (Brook 2013). Moreover, the people inhabiting them represent a mixture of a variety of ethnical groups, languages, and religions.

The mentioned ethnical diversity raises another issue described in the book, namely the problem of ethnic conflicts. Several heroes of the story, including Abdul and his family, are not the natives of India (they are migrants), and, most importantly, are Muslims. As a result, they are constantly looked down on by the Hindus. For example, the only work Abdul is able to get is the one of a garbage picker, a job that is considered unclean by the majority of the locals. In the end, it is him and his family that are accused of the incitement of Fatima (a Hindu widow of a Muslim husband) to self-immolation (Boo 2012). Consequently, it is clear that the conflict between the Hindus and Muslims is indeed strong. The reasons for such a tension can be uncovered by studying the geography of the region. In particular, the activity of the various population groups has directly affected the fate of the state. For example, the confrontation between Muslims and Hindus has led to the emergence of Pakistan and Bangladesh and continues to influence the bilateral relations and the political situation in the South Asian region.

The modern India is a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional nation. The country’s population is divided by ethnicity, religion, and caste. Out of 1.21 billion people in the state, about 968 million (80% of the total number of citizens) are Hindus, which means they are professing one of the many forms of Hinduism (Puri 2009). About 165 million people (13.6%) are Muslims, with the rest being Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and the practitioners of Jainism (a teaching within Hinduism that has eventually transformed into an independent religion) (Puri 2009). Thus, it is clear that that four out of five people in the country are the followers of Hinduism. Hindu domination in India may be challenged only by Muslims, which include every seventh citizen of the state. As a result, the relationship between these two social groups has been difficult throughout Indian history. From the geographical point of view, the primary causes of the current strife between Hindus and Muslims include the memory of the victims of the armed conflicts that accompanied the partition of British India, as well as the presence of the areas densely inhabited by Muslims in the country.

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In the first case, during the 1940s, when the formation of the interim government was in process, Hindus refused to take into account the interests of Muslims perceiving them as a separate nation. In turn, the latter denied participation in this process, announcing the creation of Pakistan (Schaeffer 2007). As a result, a wave of riots has spread across the country with the centers in Punjab and Bengal. In 1947, it became clear that the only way out of this situation was the disunion of the three provinces – Punjab, Bengal, and Assam (Khan 2007). Out of them, the separation of Punjab was particularly painful, being carried out on the basis of the principle of the prevalence of non-Muslims or Muslims in some areas. The common irrigation systems and hydroelectric facilities were dissected, which disrupted links between the areas. East Punjab has received 37% of the territory, with 43% of the population and 29.7% of the irrigated land. West Punjab got most of the forest land and mineral resources, the lion’s share of enterprises with a closed-cycle production, as well as retained control over the waters of three of five rivers of the area and the important channels (Khan 2007). The division has led to numerous casualties and major destruction. Massacres that broke out in August 1947 and ended at the end of the year have claimed about 500,000 lives (Schaeffer 2007). In the end, the country has been divided, resulting in the emergence of the two states: India and Pakistan.
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Concerning the second reason, the Muslim population of India usually belongs to the low-level castes, meaning they usually have lower income than Hindus (the majority of whom also receive a less-than-average salary). Indeed, in most cases, they are stuck at the bottom of almost all economic and social processes in the country. While Muslims living in the cities are greatly urbanized, they have a particularly low proportion of the state (or any formal) employment places in schools and universities, as well as the involvement in public policy. They are less represented in banking and finance areas, spend fewer years in school, and have lower levels of literacy. As a result, Muslims usually live in the poor districts of the cities. In particular, the mentioned slums often have a significant share of the Muslim population, which frequently causes dissatisfaction of the local residents (Gayer & Jaffrelot 2013). Considering all these facts, it is of little surprise that the relationships between the Hindus and Muslims, including the ones described in Behind the Beautiful Forevers, are rather tense. Moreover, the fact that certain migrants originate from such countries as Pakistan or Bangladesh exacerbates the problem.

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As a conclusion, it is possible to say that many of the events that were described in Behind the Beautiful Forevers have been influenced by geographical factors. Some of them, on the one hand, have emerged relatively recently, namely the liberalization of the Indian economy and its subsequent growth during the 1990s, which has required an increased inflow of workforce, including the laborers from abroad. This aspect, along with the favorable geographical location of several Indian cities, such as Mumbai, has resulted in the emergence of slums inhabited by labor migrants, with Annawadi being one of them. On the other hand, such event as ethical conflict between Hindus and Muslims has a long history that has been accompanied by significant changes in the geography of the region (such as the creation of Pakistan), as well as massacres that took the lives of many people. In turn, the mutual dislike demonstrated by both of the sides of the conflict, and the governing position of the Hindus, explain the reason for framing the Muslim families living in the slums. Certainly, geography alone is often not enough to understand the reasons behind the emergence of particular problems. However, as was demonstrated in the work, it allows obtaining a clearer picture of the situation and understanding the origins of the current state of affairs. In turn, one may use this knowledge to prevent the events similar to the ones described in Behind the Beautiful Forevers from occurring in the future.