Behind the Beautiful Forevers opens dramatically as Abdul Hussein, a teenaged garbage sorter, hides from police who are trying to connect him and his father to the suicide of his neighbor Fatima. Abdul crouches on a pile of trash in a room next to his home, hoping that the police will not bother to search the room when they come.
Abdul and his family live in a slum, Annawadi, located on the outskirts of the sprawling Mumbai Airport. Despite the airport’s cutting-edge terminals and a proliferation of luxury hotels nearby, this slum has grown up on airport property as waves of migrants from rural India have come to the city seeking to increase their fortune. The Husseins have done better than most of their neighbors. They run a thriving trash-sorting business, in which local scavengers and trash collectors bring their daily hauls to Abdul, who with his knack for sorting trash separates all the different kinds of materials so that they can be recycled. Abdul’s mother, Zehrunisia, is the principal manager of the operation, even though she has nine children to look after. His sickly father, Karam, is not able to do much work.
The suicide by burning of their neighbor, a one-legged woman called Fatima or simply One Leg, has put the Hussein’s dreams of a better life in jeopardy. Fatima is a brash presence in the neighborhood known to have had many affairs. After setting herself on fire, Fatima survived, and from her hospital bed accused Abdul, his father, and his older sister of beating her and driving her to commit suicide. The charge is false, but there is little Abdul and his family can do to sway the authorities. Now Fatima has died, and the police are on the hunt for Abdul and his father.
Tired of hiding, Abul goes to his mother, and she tells him he should go to the police. Zehrunisia realizes that Abdul doesn’t have the disposition to last very long as a fugitive: he has a timid, reflective personality. Abdul is almost glad as he enters the police station, ready to submit himself to the workings of the justice system.
(The entire section is 362 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
Describing the events that led up to Fatima’s suicide, Boo begins her narrative on a morning seven months earlier, in January 2008. After waking up on the sidewalk outside his house, where he has to sleep since there is not enough room on the floor in the Husseins’ shanty for all eleven family members, Abdul begins his day of labor.
Annawadi was settled in the early 1990s by Tamil migrants from the Indian state of Nadu who were brought in to work on the construction of the airport. They settled in a low-lying area near the international terminal, working with sandbags and bamboo to drain the muddy area and clear out the brush. The slum’s name comes from annas, a respectful Tamil term for older brothers. Nearly seventeen years later, hardly any of the slum’s residents have full-time jobs. Most survive scavenging, stealing, or begging. A select few find temporary work in the hotels or at the airport. Annawadians regularly cook and eat frogs and rats as a way of avoiding going hungry. Most sleep in small shanties or under the open stars.
Abdul’s assistant in sorting trash is his younger brother Mirchi, who isn’t nearly as skilled at the job as Abdul is. Mirchi’s best friend is Rahul, a Hindu boy who lives nearby and who has recently achieved the dream of many in Annawadi by acquiring a temp job in one of the nearby hotels. Rahul’s mother, Asha, is a kindergarten teacher and low-level political operator for Shiv Sena, a powerful Hindu political party. Like Zahrunisia, Asha is her family’s main breadwinner, as her husband is a drunk and often out of work. Unlike Zehrunisia, however, Asha has a reputation for sleeping around.
As Rahul boasts to Mirchi about his job at the hotel, where he interacts with high-powered Indians and visiting Westeners, Abdul reflects on how he envies their friendship. A quiet, intense boy, Abdul hardly has any friends. He is concerned first and foremost with making money for his family, especially his two-year-old sister Lallu, who he dotes upon. Later in the day, Zehrunisia asks why Mirchi isn’t at school. Mirchi is in ninth grade at a local private school, a luxury which many in Annawadi cannot afford, even if the quality of the education is suspect, and she wants to make sure Mirchi is learning as much as possible so he can one day have a better job than sorting trash. The Husseins have big dreams, for Mirchi as well as...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
Chapter 2 Summary
Rahul’s mother Asha also has big dreams for herself. She aspires to be the slumlord of Annawadi, the person who runs the neighborhood and who has the ears of the local politicians, policemen, and other power-brokers. No thanks to her alcoholic husband who only works sporadically, Asha has raised her three teenage children herself on the income she gets from working at a kindergarten. Because the job only requires minimal work, she spends most of her time working on behalf of Shiv Sena, the Hindu political party. Subhash Sawant, who has the title of "party corporator" for the region, has to come rely on Asha for dealing with local problems.
Asha arrives home one afternoon from work and finds a line of local slum dwellers waiting outside her door. They have come to seek her help as someone well-connected politically. One woman comes to express her gratitude for Asha’s help three years earlier in securing her job for the city government clearing trash from clogged sewers. Asha accepts the woman’s gift of a cheap green sari even though it is not her color. Another supplicant, an exotic dancer fallen on hard times, asks Asha’s help in dealing with one of her paramours, a demanding police officer.
The most notable visit is from an old friend, Raja Kamble, who is trying to raise money for a heart operation he needs. Raja knows that Asha takes part in a scam sifting money from a government anti-poverty loan program. If Asha can get him one of these loans, he will give her some of the proceeds and put the rest toward his operation. Although Asha’s teenaged daughter Manju speaks on his behalf as well, Asha does not agree to the plan, and Raja leaves empty-handed.
Manju is in many ways the family’s best hope and its conscience. She is currently attending college, and in addition to her studies and helping her mother with her political efforts, she runs a free school in the slum every evening for children who have to work during the day. Although Manju judges Asha for her backroom dealings, as well as her many affairs, it is these illicit maneuvers that have helped to finance her education and could someday lead the family out of poverty.
(The entire section is 384 words.)
Chapter 3 Summary
As riots break out across the city against migrants from the north (called bhaiyas, whose presence in Mumbai is thought to have made jobs more scarce), Abdul stays inside to avoid the violence. Since his father is from the North, he is afraid of being caught up in the violence.
Sunil is a twelve-year old bhaiya scavenger who often brings his haul to Abdul’s sorting business. Sunil’s mother died of TB and is father is an alcoholic who lives in a hut ten feet by six feet wide, so Sunil lives on his own and is principally responsible for taking care of himself and his sister Sunita. Sunil has noticed that because of his meager diet, he has stopped growing. His goal is to increase his skills at scavenging so he can earn more money, eat more, and start growing again. Sunil does most of his scavenging around the airport, walking along a wall with advertisements for “Beautiful Forever” Italian tile which separates Airport Rode from Annawadi. Because he is undersized, Sunil is prone to being physically overpowered in the competitive search for trash. Finally Sunil finds a situation where his small size is an advantage. He discovers a narrow ledge just above the river where trash sometimes collects. He is able to climb down onto the ledge and scoop up its bounty of trash.
After two weeks, the riots end and Abdul is able to go back to work. Abdul’s principal competitor is an old Tamil man who buys trash from scavengers and runs a game parlor on the side. After selling their wares, scavengers hang around playing video games and snorting Eraz-ex, the Indian version of White-out.
Kalu is an older scavenger who is friends with Abdul and who takes a shine to Sunil. Kanul has a reputation around the slum for reenacting scenes from popular movies and telling long-winded tales. Through connections with local police officers, Kalu gets tips on thieving opportunities. One night Sunil overhears Kalu tell Abdul about a stash of metal that he plans on taking, and Sunil asks Kalu if he needs an accomplice. The two boys sneak onto the airport grounds to a construction area and bring back a heavy load of iron which they sell to Abdul. Later Kalu asks Sunil to join him on another thieving operation, but the boy decides against it. He is afraid of the dangers of thieving and thinks he should stick to the less risky job of scavenging.
(The entire section is 417 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
Things grow tense at Asha’s house due to the fact that Subhash Sawant, the man Asha hopes will elevate her to slumlord, has been arrested for committing electoral fraud. Asha is tasked with assembling the slumdwellers in the local temple as a show of support. Asha is able gather a sizeable crowd, but Sawant is late, and Asha has to do all she can to keep people from leaving. As the hour gets later, however, people start to trickle out until there are only a dozen people remaining. Asha is afraid that once Sawant does show up, he will see the sparse group and blame her. But around one that night he calls to say that he isn’t coming, bringing Asha great relief.
Manju has her mother’s smarts but none of her ambition. She goes to school, cooks and cleans for her family, and runs the slum’s only school. Her study of English literature consists solely of memorizing summaries of famous novels such as Mrs. Dalloway and The Way of the World. The school she runs for the children of the slum is paid for by a government grant, and the fact that she actually earns the money is rare: many people in Manju’s situation would simply take the government money and hold classes only on days when the supervisor is visiting.
Manju’s favorite pupil at the school is Meena, a fifteen-year-old girl from a conservative family whom Manju teaches English on the sly. Meena is often the brunt of harsh beatings from her father and brothers, usually for the crime of speaking out of turn. Sunil is an occasional student of Manju's, and Abdul attends the school sporadically as well, mostly to gaze upon Manju, who he feels is the most beautiful girl in Annawadi.
(The entire section is 303 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Although they do not always get along, Fatima and Zehrunisia are hardly enemies. Fatima, desperate for respect and love, feels that she deserves something better from life, and her one small rebellion against her fate is her practice of receiving lovers while her husband is away at work. On one hand, Zehrunisia pities Fatima for her difficult upbringing, being born a one-legged cripple and thus ostracized by her own family. But then again, Zehrunisia frowns upon how Fatima beats her children and is suspicious of the incident when Fatima’s youngest daughter, who was suffering from tuberculosis, drowned in a pail.
As the monsoon season hits Mumbai in early summer, jobs grow scarce as construction halts. Zehrunisia worries over recent developments with her children: Mirchi, the star student of the family, has failed ninth grade, and Kehkashan, her oldest daughter, has come home from her husband after finding evidence of his cheating. And yet the dreams of the plot of land in Vasai, a Muslim village outside Mumbai, keep the family’s hopes alive. Karam and Zehrunisia believe the village, with its community and religious ties, will offer a much more wholesome environment in which to raise their children. Zehrunisia is a little skeptical of the place, however, because of its strict religious traditions. She is afraid that once they move, she will have to wear a burqua, lose her independence as the matriarch of the family, and accept a more submissive role.
Zehrunisia and Karam argue about the future. Zehrunisia calls the unbuilt home on the plot of land the “ghost house,” claiming that Karam is putting all his hopes in this place when he could be improving their current situation. Karam placates Zehrunisia by agreeing to renovate their shack in Annawadi. With the proceeds from the flourishing garbage business, the Husseins can easily afford it. They agree to add a stone shelf in the kitchen as well as a window for ventilating cooking smoke. Zehrunisia believes these small improvements will improve her own life as well as the lives of her children.
(The entire section is 346 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
The Hole She Called a Window
The Husseins begin their renovation by taking all of their furniture and possessions out of the house and into the street. While some of the children guard the pile of stuff in the street, the rest of the family works on the renovation. Asha’s husband comes by and, offering his services for a small fee, joins the construction crew.
Kehkashan observes that everyone else in Annawadi must be jealous of her family for having the means to fix up their own home. But Zehrunisia is unapologetic. “Let them be jealous,” she says.
On the first day, the family finishes cutting out the window that will help ventilate the cooking smoke. The next day, they break up the floor in order to retile it. Zehrunisia sends Karam out to purchase ceramic tiles. Shortly after Karam leaves, Fatima starts to complain from next door. She says that all the hammering and noise is making it hard to hear the radio.
While Zehrunisia calls out to explain to Fatima what they are doing, Abdul focuses on the shelf. Because the floor is uneven, the shelf is uneven as well. It wobbles from the wall and will probably not be very effective. He decides to cut into the brick wall and use cement to slab the shelf to the wall.
As Abdul and his helper chip into the wall, Fatima complains loudly, but Abdul ignores her. Fatima shouts that they are tearing down her wall, and that rubble has fallen into her rice, ruining dinner. Enraged, Fatima makes explicit threats against Zehrunisia and her family. The two women meet in the street and tussle, but Abdul pulls them away from each other.
A few minutes later, a neighbor comes in and tells the Husseins that Fatima has gone to the police station and is accusing Zehrunisia of violent assault. Zehrunisia immediately goes to the station and confronts Fatima, proclaiming her innocence. Both women weep. The officer in charge raises her hands in the air and decides to call the political operator, Asha.
Asha mediates between Zehrunisia and Fatima by suggesting a bribe. For a thousand rupees, she tells Zehrunisia, she’ll make this "Fatima problem" go away. But Zehrunisia refuses. Fatima goes home but the police keep Zehrunisia at the station.
Back at home, Kehkashan can’t help but lash out at Fatima for the trouble she has caused. Fatima only responds with more threats, saying she can put Kehkashan in the...
(The entire section is 544 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Fatima wakes up in the burn unit at Cooper Hospital. At her side are a host of neighbors, including her friend Cynthia, Zehrunisia, and Asha. Whispering into Fatima’s ear, Asha tries to broker a truce between the two families, but it is too late. Upon entering the hospital Fatima has accused Abdul, Karam, and Kehkashan of setting her on fire. But Fatima’s own daughter Noori testifies differently, saying that she saw her mother pour the kerosene on herself, and so the police learn that Fatima’s accusation is false. Over the next few days, more police investigators arrive to question Fatima, and her story changes. Now, she says that threats made by the Husseins, especially Abdul, drove her to burn herself and attempt to commit suicide.
After Fatima’s accusation, Abdul and Karam are put into custody. Kehkashan is also implicated in Fatima’s accusation, although she is not arrested immediately. Subject to frequent beatings by police interrogators, Abdul and Karam continue to maintain their innocence. Meanwhile Zehrunisia works from the outside to free them. The Indian justice system is endlessly corrupt. At every turn there’s an officer or police authority trying to broker a bribe. The Husseins’ supply of money is limited, so they have to be judicious in choosing whom to pay off. Plus, they believe that their innocence will eventually be proven. Zehrunisia enlists Asha’s help in navigating the system, but Asha expects to be paid for her service as well (though she is willing to work for free in the beginning).
Later in the week, Fatima dies from an infection caught in the hospital. Zehrunisia and Kehkashan participate along with all the other Muslim women in Annwadi in the ceremonial washing of Fatima’s body, and then Fatima is buried.
(The entire section is 300 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
In Abdul’s absence, the garbage business in Annawadi suffers badly. Mirchi does not have the same ability at sorting as Abdul. Many of the scavengers such as Sunil start selling their hauls to the Tamil man with the video game parlor. While Mirchi tries to maintain the business, Zehrunisia devotes all of her energy to freeing her family from jail. Kehkashan has been booked at a woman’s jail and Karam is at another correctional facility, one of Mumbai’s largest.
Abdul has ended up at Mumbai’s juvenile detention center, thirteen miles south of Annawadi. Abdul is aloof from the other imprisoned boys and keeps to himself. He has never been so idle before, and so he struggles to make sense of where he is. Conditions at the juvenile jail are bleak, but Abdul is struck by a visit from a teacher known only as The Master. The Master encourages the boys at the center to turn themselves around and live according to the law. He tells them that they should strive to be generous and noble above all else.
(The entire section is 184 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
In July, Asha and her family visit her relatives in the country and attend a wedding. Asha is a mini-celebrity in her home village, as everyone admires how she has remade herself in the city.
The farming areas of India have struggled mightily during the country’s period of rapid modernization. Crop failures or droughts thus have tragic effects on local families. Many farmers cannot escape debt and suicide is not uncommon. In the areas where Asha and her husband grew up, Maoist revolutionaries have been conducting a guerrilla campaign against the government and are slowly garnering support among the local residents.
At the wedding, Asha’s daughter Manju meets a young soldier who appears interested in her. Although she is flattered by the soldier’s interest, Manju is hardly fond of the idea of being married to a man from the countryside because she doesn’t want to leave Mumbai.
Returning to Annawadi, Asha is determined to ignore the controversy between Fatima and the Husseins. Instead she wants to focus on self-improvement: she takes the courses required to keep her job as kindergarten teacher, tries to better her image, and prepares to arrange a good marriage for Manju. Her husband objects to the soldier from the village because soldiers have a reputation for being drunks. Besides, Asha believes that Manju, with her beauty and education, can do much better than a soldier.
Manju is one semester away from achieving her B.A., a huge achievement for someone of her low station. In addition to running the school in Annawadi, Manju joins a volunteer group called the Indian Civil Defense Corp, which trains middle-class citizens to save others in the event of a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. One of the other trainees is a college-educated man named Vijay. One night, Manju and Vijay have a flirtation and hold hands.
(The entire section is 313 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
Parrots, Caught and Sold
Late in July, Sunil, the scavenger who used to sell regularly to Abdul, passes a man lying on the side of the road in Annawadi; the stranger has been hit by a car. Too scared to go to the police station for help, Sunil continues on his way. The man cries out for water. Asha’s son Rahul soon passes by, followed by Zehrunisia and Mr. Kamble, the man needing the heart operation; they too fail to stop. Later in the afternoon, the man dies and the police arrive to pick up his corpse. Later in the week, two more bodies crop up, but autopsies are not performed on any of the dead. The authorities simply list the cause of death as “illness.”
Spooked by the deaths and the rumors surrounding them, Sunil continues to scavenge. He teams up with another Annawadi boy named Sonu, who is kind enough to split his earnings with Sunil as well as offer lots of advice on scavenging and life. A clever, courageous boy, Sonu attends seventh grade at a nearby school when he has time. Sunil expresses skepticism about the power of education, but Sonu argues competently that educating oneself is the only way to get ahead in life.
Sunil occasionally spends time with Kalu, the thief who led him to the unprotected construction site at the airport. Kalu is an expert at robbing recycling bins and trash trucks. One day, Kalu is caught by the police, but they allow him to continue if he gives them information about local drug dealers. Equally afraid of the drug dealers and the police, Kalu feels as if he is caught between two dangerous allies. His father works on a pipeline construction project in a nearby slum, and Kalu tells Sunil that he plans to join them. Sunil will miss his friend but realizes that it is the safest option he has.
Meanwhile Abdul is allowed to leave the juvenile detention center. When Zehrunisia picks him up, Abdul is disappointed to learn that his trash-sorting business has collapsed under the poor management of his brother Mirchi. As he starts to rebuild the business, he fills the ears of the scavengers with lessons remembered from The Master.
One evening, Kalu, Abdul, and Sunil are talking together at the game shed. An old man comes out of nowhere and slugs Abdul in the chest. Sunil and Abdul decide to go home, but Kalu goes out to the airport. The next morning, Kalu’s corpse is found outside an airline terminal.
(The entire section is 426 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
When the normally reticent Abdul finds out about the death of Kalu, the closest thing he has to a friend, he breaks down. He has been keeping in the trauma of his arrest and Fatima’s death, but Kalu’s death strikes an emotional chord. Sunil is similarly affected. As the other boys rush off to see the body, Sunil stays away for a time but finally relents. He arrives just as Kalu’s corpse is loaded into a police van.
Like the other recent deaths in Annawadi, Kalu’s murder is falsely classified as an illness by the Mumbai police. Because of corruption and the heavy load of cases, the police do not have the time or resources to fully investigate the death; thus they rule that Kalu succumbed to tuberculosis in order to close the case. The police department does use the death to clear the airport of other Annawadi boys, however. They pick up a handful of boys, take them to the station, and beat and interrogate them in the name of their “investigation.”
One of the boys taken in the by the police is sixteen-year-old Sanjay Shetty. After being released by the police, Sanjay frantically gathers and sells garbage in order to finance his getaway from Annawadi. When pressed by Zehrunisia, Sanjay admits that he witnessed Kalu’s murder by a gang of men near the Airport. As a witness, Sanjay fears both the killers and the police, so he plans to go to Dharavi, another Mumbai slum, to stay with his mother.
Once he arrives at the house in Dharavi, Sanjay begins giving advice to his fourteen-year-old sister about always being kind to their mother. He tells her she should “sleep properly.” Then Sanjay stretches out on the floor for a nap and listens to his favorite record. A few hours later Sanjay starts convulsing on the floor. Sanjay’s sister pulls him up and finds an empty bottle of rat poison in his hand. He dies later that night.
Everyone in the neighborhood theorizes about who killed Kalu. Sanil and Abdul grow closer as a result of Sanjay’s and Kalu’s tragic deaths. Sanjay’s mother, however, cannot understand the reason for her son’s suicide. When they see the grief-stricken woman, the road boys decide not to tell her the connections between Sanjay’s death and Kalu’s. All his mother learns is that her son “died with fear in his heart.”
(The entire section is 412 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
Nine Nights of Dance
By the fall of 2008, Asha is finally beginning to achieve the political status she has sought for so long. As she grows more successful, she grows bolder in her affairs, not even bothering to give her family members an excuse as she leaves in the evenings.
The affairs take their toll on Manju. She is ashamed and sickened by her mother’s running around, and at times she feels so wronged by Asha’s behavior that she contemplates suicide. Talking with her friend Meena, Manju relies on the Freud she has been studying recently in college, saying that she needs to repress the feelings about her mother so she can move on. She also wants to repress her feelings for the Indian Civil Defense Corp volunteer Vijay; after their brief flirtation, he told Manju that he can’t marry her because of her lowly status.
The holiday season arrives full of parties and parades. Asha plans to give an elaborate party for the neighborhood, bankrolled by donations from her political allies. She plans to have a DJ, a band, and fairy lights.
For Meena, however, the holiday period brings darkness instead of light. Meena is engaged to a boy she doesn’t love from a village far away. She’s at peace with the arrangement, and even likes the village boy a little, but she had fallen in love with someone else, a friend of her brother who works in a factory. Venturing to a payphone, Meena and the boy have secret conversations for a few weeks. Meena fears the thoughts of marrying without love and leaving the city. Manju can relate, since she believes her mother will marry her off to someone from her home village. Meena asks Manju what she would do if such a situation would occur and Manju replies that she would run away to her aunt. Meena suggests that perhaps it would be better to follow Fatima’s example, to escape a bad situation by committing suicide.
In preparation for Asha’s party, garbage piles on the sidewalk are swept away and lights are strung from shack to shack. Manju walks over to Meena’s house to get her friend, and finds Meena sitting on the front step, an unusual behavior since sitting outside is said to give a girl a loose reputation and Meena’s parents are strictly conservative. Meena looks sick and Manju asks her if she is okay. Meena shrugs and holds out her hand, revealing an empty bottle of rat poison.
Manju flies into action, quickly...
(The entire section is 467 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
By November, the fallout from the financial crisis in America is affecting the trash business in Annawadi, as prices for recyclable goods fall dramatically. Abdul tells Sunil that things will get better soon, but just the opposite happens: Muslim terrorists from Pakistan take over two luxury hotels in Mumbai and go on a killing spree. It’s the worst terrorist attack in India in years, and it has affects even in Annawadi. The Muslim inhabits of the slum stay in for fear of reprisals and riots. And security around the airport is ratcheted up significantly, making it harder for the scavengers and thieves to do their work.
As 2009 arrives, Sunil has switched from scavenging to stealing. Although his friend, the master-scavenger Sonu, disapproves, Sunil doesn’t really have a choice. He wasn’t making enough money as a scavenger to survive. Stealing metal from the airport is a much more lucrative proposition, even though the activity is morally conflicting. An able climber, Sunil is able to scale fences and fit through tight crevices.
Sunil and another thief named Taufeeq get together to rob a construction site at a hotel near the airport. Sunil wants to spend more time watching the guards so their operation will go off without a hitch. In the meantime he works a four-story car garage, where he’s able to occasionally lift scraps of silver. Plus, Sunil loves the view from the top of the garage, where he can see the neon-lit signs of the hotels and the airplanes taking off in the distance.
Back at Annawadi, conversations revolves around the death of Kalu and the suicides of Fatima, Meena, and Sanjay. Abdul contends that what Meena did was daring, and people call Kalu heroic as well. Sunil is not so sure of these commendations.
A month later, Tafeeq beats Sunil up and takes over the plan to rob the hotel. Sunil, however, isn’t concerned because he’s kept himself well fed stealing scrap metal from the car garage. One day, while standing next to his sister Sunita, Sunil notices something that shocks him. He has gotten taller, and therefore is growing.
(The entire section is 359 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
Finally, the trial to determine whether Karam and Kehkashan are complicit in Fatima’s death begins. Because of the large number of trials, Karam and Kehkashan’s trial will proceed piecemeal, along with many others, one hearing at a time and over the course of weeks. Abdul’s trial will happen later, in a juvenile court.
As the trial proceeds, it appears events are not in the Husseins’ favor. One police officer testifies that Karam and Kehkashan beat Fatima. Next, more “witnesses” who had not actually seen the altercation take the stand including Fatima’s husband and her two closest friends. Meanwhile various government officials attempt to extort money from the accused’s family. Karam and Zehrunisia refuse to buckle under the pressure.
The Husseins receive a small victory when Dinesh, a witness from the neighborhood, refuses to attest to a signed statement claiming to have seen the factory. Dinesh said he hadn’t been there on the night of Fatima’s burning, and therefore had never made any such statement.
Fatima’s husband Abdul is not happy with the way the trial is progressing. Witnesses keep saying that the fight was of a verbal, not physical, nature. But Abdul wants to blame someone for Fatima’s untimely death, and he wants the Husseins convicted. Finally Abdul gets to take the stand himself. He tells the judge that on her hospital bed, Fatima told him that the Husseins called her a prostitute and beat her with a big stone. Abdul’s testimony is a blow to the Husseins’ case.
Next to the witness stand is Cynthia, Fatima’s best friend. But Cynthia’s questioning does not go as she intends. She admits that her own trash business failed as a result of the Husseins, that she lived some distance from Annawadi, and that she had been at home when the fighting between Fatima and the Husseins is said to have occurred. Cynthia realizes she has wandered into a trap, and argues against her earlier testimony, that she did in fact see the fight. Before she can fully correct herself, Cynthia is escorted from the witness stand, shaking with anger.
Next on the docket are closing arguments, occurring in two weeks.
(The entire section is 372 words.)
Chapter 15 Summary
As they await closing arguments in the trial of Karam and Kehkashan, the Husseins’ business suffers further. Prices have dropped precipitously. Officers come regularly to be paid off. Per the advice of The Master, Abdul has decided to stop accepting goods that might have been stolen, further reducing the family’s daily haul.
Mirchi is able to get a job working construction with his friend Rahul. One of the subcontractors likes the way he looks and hires Mirchi to set up tables at a hotel. But he only gets one week of work and only one-fifth of what he was promised as payment. He is able to get another temp job loading food into a freezer, but it is miserable work for meager pay.
Much of Mumbai is wrapped up in the trial of Ajmal Kasab, the lone survivor of the Pakistani terrorist attacks. Abdul says that Kasab is lucky, for at least he will be convicted of something he knows he actually did.
Abdul sets up shop as a trader in another slum, but he struggles to make ends meat. He does appreciate the fact that in this slum, no one knows who he is or what happened to Fatima, Kalu, Sanjay, or Meena. As Abdul sits idly, he dwells on a philosophical metaphor of water and ice. Water and ice are made of the same thing, but the two are distinctly different. Abdul applies the metaphor to himself. He is made of the same thing as the corrupt officials, thieves, and other slumdwellers, but he aspires to be different: “In Mumbai’s dirty water, he wanted to be ice.”
The fate of Karam and Kehkashan takes a blow when a new judge takes over their trial. This judge is said to be stricter than the last and more likely to find them guilty. An official comes around hoping to buy off the Husseins’ chances, but Zehrunisia knows that at this late point in the game, bribery will have no effect.
(The entire section is 333 words.)
Chapter 16 Summary
Black and White
As parliamentary elections approach, Asha is supposed to be preparing to bring out the vote in Annawadi, but a string of misfortunes has her down. Her political partner, Subhash Sawant, has been expelled from the party for his election fraud. The grocery store she runs has fallen on hard times, and the other schemes for extorting government money have run dry.
Asha’s reputation in the slum is compromised by rumors that the authorities are going to finally make good on their promise to raze the slum in order to complete the airport. Annawadi is after all located on private land, and for years the threat of bulldozers rolling over their homes has hung over the residents. The government does have a plan, however, for slumdwellers who can claim to have permanent residence in the areas being razed: the private developers who own the land must construct apartment buildings for the residents. But corruption is endemic. As soon as word leaks that the government is proceeding with their plan to bulldoze Annawadi, outsiders start buying the shacks and coming up with fraudulent papers attesting to years of residence.
Asha herself profits by helping these speculators on commission, but one deal goes awry when Asha finds a buyer for the hut of a woman named Geeta and supplies him with fake papers. On the day that she is to move, Geeta has second thoughts about the deal. She refuses to leave her house and the police are ordered to take her away. The dramatic scene does not reflect well on Asha’s leadership.
But good luck finally comes to Asha in the form of a government aid program which will secure her family’s future. An administrator in the department of education has been charged with making elementary education universal in India. Asha has papers made claiming that she runs a nonprofit with twenty-four kindergartens for poor children. After the administrator and the officials who created the documents get their cut, Asha is paid a large sum of government money with which she can do anything she wants. Manju is skeptical of the scheme, but there is little she can do. Plus she is pleased when the government sends her her own computer as well as a set for her classroom.
People continue to come to Asha for political help, but she turns them away. She is no longer in the business of politics.
(The entire section is 406 words.)
Chapter 17 Summary
A School, a Hospital, a Cricket Field
The slum demolition begins, but the residents of Annawadi know that it will still be months, possibly years, before the bulldozers reach their homes. As a huge tract of land is leveled at the border of Annawadi, the road boys speculate on what will rise as a result: a school, a hospital, a cricket field?
A more interesting diversion emerges a few weeks later, as a former slumlord of Annawadi and owner of multiple horses is hounded by journalists and activists for the way he treats his livestock. The animal rights groups lead a raid on the slumlord’s horse shed and call for his arrest. The road boys notice, ironically, that justice has been done in this case while no one seems to care about the deaths of Meena, Kalu, and Sanjay.
As the rains begin in June, the new judge presiding over the trial of Karam and Kehkashan begins to call witnesses. The Husseins are distraught over the turn of events. Their garbage collection business has failed. They’ve stopped making payments on the house in the country to which they hoped to escape. Some of the younger siblings have dropped out of school.
Finally closing arguments are made in the trial, and the judge tells everyone to come back later that day for the verdict. When everyone returns, the Husseins’ hopes are finally answered: the judge pronounces Karam and Kehkashan not guilty. Abdul’s trial in juvenile court remains, but it will be pushed back and back until it seems likely that he will ever actually go to trial.
Over the next few years the Husseins are able to slowly rebuild their business and their savings as all the brothers are able to work. As the razing of the slum grows nearer, the Husseins believe that they will be compensated and given a unit in the new apartment building. Eventually Sunil stops thieving and returns to scavenging, collaborating once again with Sonu. Abdul and Sunil are reunited, with Sunil returning to his narrow ledge to retrieve the trash that no one else can access.
(The entire section is 354 words.)