Behind the Beautiful Forevers Summary and Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 28-page guide for “Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 17 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 10 important quotes, discussion questions, and key themes like Beautiful Forevers and The brick wall.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers takes place in a Mumbai slum – an undercity near the modern, international airport – and follows the lives of several people in the slum from 2007 to 2011. Overall, conditions in Annawadi are poor, with people living on top of each other, amenities like running water available for only two hours a day, and a nearby “sewage lake” prone to flooding. In the Annawadi slum, it is every man for himself – and often, every child for himself, too. Those who do not learn how to navigate the slum and play by its rules face starvation.
Everyone in Annawadi is trying to elevate themselves from their situation and get out of the slum. The nearby international airport is a source of some options for success – in waste and recyclable scavenging, in metal thievery, and, for a lucky few, regular service jobs in the hotels. A wall plastered with the words of an Italian tile company (beautiful forever… beautiful forever…) separates the affluent area near the airport from its surrounding slums. Annawadi is a society that subsists on the leftovers and castoffs from this affluence, and a society where corruption runs rampant. Residents must make payments to police officers and even to each other, as a sort of Annawadi insurance policy: Pay today, and I will help you. Don’t pay, and your family will suffer.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers chronicles the story of the Husains, a migrant Muslim family that has risen to a level of success (in Annawadi terms) through the hard work of their son, Abdul, who has built a successful recycling business. Others, such as their next-door neighbor Fatima (the “One Leg”), resent the Husains’ relative prosperity. Although they live next door to each other and celebrate Muslim holidays together, tension between Fatima and the Husains continues to grow. One day while the Husains are improving their modest hut, Fatima starts a verbal argument with them that eventually grows to include all members of the family, as well as some bystanders. The argument ends with Fatima barricading herself inside her hut, dousing herself with cooking oil, and lighting a match.
The Husains are blamed for inciting Fatima to commit suicide – a serious crime under India’s penal code. When Fatima eventually dies of an infection related to the treatment of her burns, three members of the Husain family are imprisoned – Abdul, his older sister Kehkashan, and his father Karam. Over a period of several years, the accused Husains are beaten and starved in prison, before eventually being released on parole, and finally brought to trial. Kehkashan and Karam are acquitted after a trial that often reads like a comedy of errors. At the end of the book, Abdul’s case is in a state of limbo. During this period, with the main breadwinner unable to work steadily, the family recycling business takes a serious hit, and the Husains find themselves scrambling just to provide food.
On the periphery of this central story is Asha, who aspires to be the slumlord of Annawadi, and her daughter Manju, the first college-educated girl in the slum. Asha has determined that her path to a better life can come through a corrupt system, where she is just a bit player – stumping for politicians, taking payments from her neighbors for any assistance she can provide, and receiving favors from the men she visits under the cover of night. Other scavengers or “road boys” such as Sunil, Kalu and Sonu populate the story, showing the extreme risks necessary to sleep with a full belly at night.