“Guilt…was an impediment to the effective work in the city’s back channels, and Asha considered it a luxury emotion. ‘Corruption, it’s all corruption,’ she told her children, fluttering her hands like two birds taking flight” (20). It would be impossible to ignore the fact that I, and the majority of my peers, hold an undeniably privileged position in society. Just by virtue of birth to two academics, I was guaranteed a full education, an opportunity granted to very little of the world’s population. When I reflect on luxury and privilege, I think of material possessions and societal advantages: cars, electricity, computers, houses, vacations, perfume, clothes, education, and personal connections. Although I understand that money and position in society give certain people a massive leg up, I always believed in the existence of universality. I considered emotions to be something that every person from every class, geographic location, and culture had in common.
The idea of “luxury emotions” is disturbing. What can we call common if not the mind? What can we believe transcends class and societal barriers if not the very building blocks of human life? Unfortunately, not all people have the comfort of the full spectrum of human emotions. Understanding the complex character of Asha centers around this concept. Originally, I was inclined to judge her as cruel and selfish, an example of the dysfunction that hinders the advancement of slum economy. But upon closer inspection I began to begrudgingly understand the justification of her corruption. In order to climb the hopeless social ladder of a Mumbai slum, Asha somewhat abandons morality. By focusing on personal gain, she is able to drag herself and her family just out of the deepest trenches of soul crushing poverty. It is easy for me, a teenager from a fairly affluent town in the United States, to pass judgments on her based on the uglier sides of human nature that I do not experience every day. But the Asha that Katherine Boo writes about is a product of necessity.
I do not believe that everybody responds in the same way to despair. Wonderful examples of generosity, such as Asha’s daughter running her mother’s school, speckle the slum. I do believe that this kind of poverty brings out desperation in even the most morally conscious people, and that desperation often rears its head in unpleasant ways. I do not necessarily agree with Asha’s selfish tendencies, but I believe that there are influencing factors and ideals far outside of my limited understanding that make up the morally gray area that consumes so much of Annawadi.