Behind the Beautiful Forevers Abdul: The Trash Seller

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Behind The Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who is Abdul in Behind the Beautiful Forevers? What kind of family did Abdul come from and what is his role in the story?

Abdul in Behind the Beautiful Forevers was a 19-year-old resident of Annawadi that helped his family earn a living by buying scrap metal from trash pickers to sell to recyclers. Abdul belonged to one of the few Muslim families in Annawadi. His family was discriminated against for being Muslim.

Read on to discover why Abdul in Behind the Beautiful Forevers is such an interesting character.

The Person Called Abdul in Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Abdul Hakim Husain was a teenager who belonged to one of the few Muslim families in Annawadi. From a young age, Abdul helped his family earn a living by buying recyclable materials and garbage from trash pickers and selling it to recyclers. Being adjacent to the airport meant trash was abundant, whether from the luxury hotels surrounding the airport or tossed along the road to the international terminal. The variety and volume of trash coming from the airport, hotels, and construction projects reflected a booming global economy. 

The Husains were looked down on for being Muslim. Most of the slum’s residents were Hindu, and tensions between Hindus and Muslims span centuries. Even the family’s modest success as garbage sellers drew suspicion from their neighbors in the slum. Muslims often had trouble getting decent jobs, such as those of hotel workers, in Mumbai. 

Zehrunisa: Abdul’s Mother

Zehrunisa is Abdul in Behind the Beautiful Forevers’ mother. She had many obligations to her family and her neighbors. Her husband, Karam, had made a payment on land where he hoped to build a home in a Muslim community just outside of Mumbai. He saw the move as a chance to give his family a comfortable living without frequent exposure to luxury goods they couldn’t afford, like the fancy cars and clothes seen near the slum. But Zehrunisa wanted to continue living in Annawadi, having found some freedoms she wouldn’t likely have in a predominantly Muslim community. For example, she could more readily confront her husband about things that upset her, something that might be frowned upon by more conservative Muslims who didn’t view it as a woman’s place to do so. She negotiated with her husband to make their hut in Annawadi livable instead of continuing to invest in the land in Mumbai.

The Helpers of Abdul in Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Sunil and Kalu

Abdul purchased garbage from garbage pickers who lived in the slum, keeping it in a storage shed near his family’s hut. Two garbage pickers he worked with, Sunil and Kalu, embodied the plight facing young boys, especially trash pickers, in the slum.


Sunil lost his mother early in his life, and his father had taken him to an orphanage. Sunil became a trash picker when he was kicked out of the orphanage at age 11 because the nuns didn’t want to care for older children. He returned to Annawadi and learned to work hard to provide for himself, selling anything he could. Trash picking was grueling work, and Sunil worried that the work had stunted his growth and he’d end up a small man like his father.

Oftentimes, work involved climbing in and out of dumpsters. Risks included getting gangrene, maggot-riddled wounds, and lice. 


Kalu was known for two things in the slum—working in a diamond factory and scavenging aluminum and other scrap metal, a lucrative prospect. Oftentimes, the industrial facilities that produced these materials had guards or tall fences with barbed wire. Despite these barriers, Kalu could make multiple trips over barbed wire fences in a single night.Sometimes, police told trash pickers where they could find trash in exchange for a cut of some of their earnings from the materials. In one instance, Kalu and Sunil worked together to take iron rods from a nearby industrial facility. It required expertly navigating the airport grounds, swimming through a polluted river, and going back the same way carr

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Abdul the Trash Seller

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Katherine Boo's "Behind The Beautiful Forevers" at Shortform .

Here's what you'll find in our full Behind The Beautiful Forevers summary :

  • A nonfiction account of the lives of residents of in one Mumbai slum
  • How the globalized world affects many people in India
  • A story of poverty, exploitation, and the struggle to survive

Joseph Adebisi

Joseph has had a lifelong obsession with reading and acquiring new knowledge. He reads and writes for a living, and reads some more when he is supposedly taking a break from work. The first literature he read as a kid were Shakespeare's plays. Not surprisingly, he barely understood any of it. His favorite fiction authors are Tom Clancy, Ted Bell, and John Grisham. His preferred non-fiction genres are history, philosophy, business & economics, and instructional guides.

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