What is the summary for Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity?

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Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity is all about Boo's work in Mumbai, India. There is an airport in Mumbai that was turned into a makeshift home for migrant workers in the 1990s. In the most marshy (and unusable) part of the land, it became a large pack of tents full of a diverse, poor population from many different countries and speaking many different languages. Boo worked extensively with the people there in what became known as the Annawadi slum.

The hardships at the camp are surreal: hunger, weather, fatigue, violence, corruption, disease, and poverty. There didn't seem to be a single hardship that these poor people didn't go through. Further, because most of them were there illegally, all the people were worried that the airport authorities would come and bulldoze the camp completely.

The entire book is Boo's story about very specific characters. One such character is named Sunil. He is an orphan boy who is small for his age and is trying to grow to be a man. To do this, Sunil thinks that he needs to learn to be a better scavenger at the camp. Fatima is another character. She has only one leg and dreams of a better life. At one point during the book, she gives a false testimony to the police, and implicates Abdul. Fatima sets herself on fire after an argument with another campmate, and eventually dies from those wounds. The third character that is important is the character of Abdul. He is a garbage-picker at the camp. He has been doing that job for two generations, and he is the breadwinner for the family. Abdul is one of the people who Fatima accuses as the reason for her injuries before she dies. 

In this educator's opinion, however, the two most important characters in the Annawadi slum are Asha and Manju. They are mother and daughter, complete opposites, and foils of each other. Asha is the ruthless female slumlord (which is rare in India). She has little compassion for the people of the slums and uses argument to control the people. Asha often begins an altercation and then requests payment from the other party in order to stop it. This dishonesty is how Asha moved her way to the top. On the other hand, Manju is full of compassion for people. Instead of aspiring to become slumlord, Manju wants to be the first of her family to graduate from a university. Manju always wishes to promote peace in the slum where her mom wishes to promote discord. As such, these two characters are perfect examples of literary foils.

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