Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope

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This book was published in the year 2012 and captured the lives of people in a Mumbai slum – Annawadi from 2007 to 2011. The slum was settled in 1991 by laborers brought from southern Indian state Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the international airport. When they decided to stay near the airport, they cleared wet, snake-filled, an uninhabited small swamp area across the street from the international terminal and Annawadi – the land of annas, born. The stark contrast between the lifestyle of people in Annawadi and the surrounding area with shining luxury hotels, very big offices and modern airport and the hope, struggle, desire, happiness and death of the people of Annawadi is the core theme of this book.


Abdul Hakim Husain. “A coward: Abdul said it of himself” (P-IX), an extremely dedicated worker, a specialist in sorting garbage is the main character of this book. Abdul lifted his large family, by negotiating with scavengers, thieves and police and by buying and selling the things, that rich people threw away. Even though he was not interested or like the idea of fixing the family hut, he helped to revamp the hut as per his mother’s wish. He was always there to protect his family. After his mother’s confrontation with “One Leg” Fatima and after he was beaten by the police in the police station, he said to his father “I’d rather be beaten than see them beat you,” (P-107) which shows his care and love towards his father. He was always kind and caring to his entire family members.

Unlike other boys in Annawadi, Abdul was not having any illicit behavior as he had resisted Eraz-ex, desi liquor, brothel visits, or other diversions which could impact his business and ability to do his work. After hearing the story from The Master at Dongri jail, he decided to be more generous and noble as The Master’s words lit up a virtuous path in Abdul. He decided not to buy anything that he thought could be stolen and refused to encourage other boys to steal things. Further, he decided not to admit something he hadn’t done to Fatima even it would lead to greater difficulties to his family. Abdul lived with an operating principle of “Avoid Trouble” (P-XI). Though Abdul is hard working, his and his family life changed miserably, when he was wrongly accused by his neighbor Fatima - the One Leg, as she burned herself.

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Fatima the One Leg, who born in a Hindu family with birth name Sita and renamed as Fatima when she married a Muslim man and moved to Mumbai. As she was deprived affection from her parents during her young age due to her handicap, she hated herself during her younger days. She wanted to be respected and recognized as attractive in Annawadi. The deprival of affection led her to extra marital affairs with many men in Annawadi and she felt very happy when they praised about her body. She thought that she deserved a better life than the one she lives in Annawadi. Fatima was also not taking care of her children properly and people of Annawadi thinks that she only killed her daughter Medina, when she afraid that she could get TB from her daughter Medina. Fatima told people of Annawadi that Medina drowned in a pail. As a neighbor to Fatima, Husains family helped Fatima by paying Medina’s funeral shroud and burial plot; and whenever there was any fight between Fatima and her husband, Zehrunisa used to mediate and separate them. When Husains family, extended all possible help to One Leg, her heart is full of vengeance and jealous about Husain’s family. When Husains family started to revamp their hut, Fatima started to confront Husain family and which went to open bad mouth between Fatima and Zehrunisa, which lead Fatima to complain with police unnecessarily. And to take more revenge on Husain’s family, she poured kerosene on her head and immolate herself. When she admitted at Cooper Hospital, Zehrunisa went to meet her. Fatima was not ready to take the truce between her and Husain, brokered by Asha (slumlord) and made an accusation from her hospital bed that Abdul, his older sister, and their father had beaten her and set her on fire. Her vengeance, bad attitude and with the help of Special Executive Officer Poornima Paikrao, Abdul, his sister and his father Karam arrested by police and got brutal beats and punishment. The corrupted police officers punished Abdul and Karam to extract more money from Husains which eventually lead to the collapse of Husains family.

Plot Summary

Behind the Beautiful Forevers captures the life of people in Mumbai slum – Annawadi. Most of the people of Annawadi were very poor and only six of the slum’s three thousand residents had permanent jobs. Due to poverty and no income, few residents ate rat, frog and scrub grass. Husain and his family leads a successful life through their son Abdul’s hard work, who has built a successful recycling business. Other Annawadians, like their neighbor Fatima (the “One Leg”) jealous about the success of Husains. Husains family helps the Fatima family and celebrate the Muslim’s festival together, but the tension between two families continues to grow. When the Husains revamping their hut, verbal argument started by Fatima led to the arrest of Zehrunisa. To threaten the Husain family, Fatima self-immolates herself with cooking oil and the Husains were blamed for provoking Fatima to commit suicide. Fatima eventually dies after few days of treatment at hospital, three members of Husain family – Abdul, his father Karam, and his sister Kehkashan imprisoned. Husains were beaten and suffered a lot in prison, before eventually released on parole and brought to trial. During this period, Abdul couldn’t work steadily and Husains family also started to struggle as other families in Annawadi.

Key Themes

Socio Economic Inequality: Indian government wants to showcase to the world that the recent economic development and its benefits reached till the root level but the reality is different. In Annawadi, three thousand people had packed into, or on top of 335 huts. The people of Annawadi have only two hours of drinking water, no food and no safe place to stay during heavy rain, surrounded by mosquitoes, rats and buffalos.

But this slum is surrounded by extravagant hotels, big office buildings, and modern airport. As Abdul’s younger brother Mirchi quotes, “Everything around us is roses.” “And, we’re the shit in between.” When people in Annawadi don’t have proper house, India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani constructing twenty-seven story house for his family of five in South Mumbai. Six hundred servants will work in his house for his family of five members. Within Annawadi itself, we can see the socio economic inequality. Family of Asha and Husains are considerably doing better than other families in the slum. This socio economic inequality is one of the reasons for the feud between Fatima and Husains. The economy indifference makes neighbors into enemies.

Opportunity: Due to globalization, people of India across all social classes hoped that there might be more opportunities which may lead to prosperity in their lives but it proved that people who are already enjoying many benefits only could able to get those new benefits. The opportunities were not transformed the life of poor as it changed the lives of wealthy segment of the society. In Annawadi, different people got different opportunity based on their power and position. Asha (Slumlord) could able to get most of the government aided funds, schemes by using her political influence and by making some alternate arrangements. The author gave examples of how the government aid agencies divert the aid from their intended recipients in to the pockets of wealthy people. Asha utilizes the opportunity by manipulating the poor with phony schemes and works with politicians to gain power and money. With the opportunity provided to Asha, she could make her daughter Manju – Annawadi’s “most-everything girl” first college graduate of Annawadi. When Abdul and his family struggling between police and court procedures, his competitor old Tamil man utilized the opportunity and got most of the share of scavenger’s goods. The old Tamil man also utilized the opportunity by luring young scavengers with video game parlor, he loaned soap bars and money for food, tools for thieves to cut wires, etc. and there is no option left out to the scavengers and thieves, they had to sell their goods to the old Tamil man at lesser rate. Aspiring politicians used the opportunity by provoking the local people of Mumbai with anti-migrant campaign to gain more votes.

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