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Behind the Beautiful For­evers

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At the center of Boo’s story is garbage trafficker Abdul, the oldest son and prime earner of the 11-member Husain family that makes up almost one-third of Annawadi’s three-dozen Muslim population. Thoughtful, quiet Abdul, who is 16 or 19 – “his parents were hopeless with dates” – his ill father, and his older sister stand accused of beating their crippled neighbor One Leg and setting her on fire. For three years, the family is victimized by a labyrinthine legal system controlled by open palms constantly demanding payment.

Meanwhile, life in Annawadi goes on: Asha, a lowly paid kindergarten teacher, works her growing political connections toward escaping the slum, determined that her daughter Manju will become Annawadi’s first college graduate. Manju’s best friend, Meena, wants to be something more than a teenage bride trapped in an arranged marriage: “Everything on television announced a new and better India for women,” but “marrying into a village family was like time-traveling backward.”

The toilet cleaner Mr. Kamble is literally dying to raise enough money for a new heart valve so he can continue to shovel sewage and feed his family. The tiny scavenger-turned-thief Sunil (first introduced to Western readers in Boo’s February 2009 New Yorker piece) worries that he will remain forever stunted, but at least he’s not a “baldie” like his taller younger sister. Meanwhile, thieving Kalu re-creates the latest Bollywood films with his talented impersonations, entertaining slum kids who will never witness such marvels themselves.

Mumbai, for all its marvelous rebirth, remains the largest city in an India that, in spite of being “an increasingly affluent and powerful nation,” “still housed one-third of the poverty, and one-quarter of the hunger, on the planet.” With the wealth of India’s top 100-richest equaling almost a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, today’s gap between top and bottom is virtually unfathomable.

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