Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Zehrunisa Husain Character Analysis

Abdul’s mother and the true head of the Husain family. Zehrunisa wishes that she could fulfill the role of wife and mother that is expected of Muslim women, but she has been forced to work and take part in the family business due to the ill health of her husband, Karam. Yet despite Zehrunisa’s misgivings, she clearly enjoys some of the freedoms she receives living in the modern-leaning slum of Annawadi. Zehrunisa feels some kinship with the other residents of Annawadi, especially Fatima (who is the only other Muslim woman near her), but she also wants to do better than the poor families who live in the slum. Zehrunisa is shattered by the destruction of her family’s future after Karam, Kehkashan, and Abdul are accused of pushing Fatima to burn herself.

Zehrunisa Husain Quotes in Behind the Beautiful Forevers

The Behind the Beautiful Forevers quotes below are all either spoken by Zehrunisa Husain or refer to Zehrunisa Husain. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Random House edition of Behind the Beautiful Forevers published in 2014.
Chapter 5 Quotes

Zehrunisa would go, sighing, to separate the miserable couple, just as she sighed on Eid and other Muslim holidays before inviting them to share her mutton korma. The family of the child-abusing Fatima, the family of the skeezy brothel owner: This was the Muslim fellowship she had in Annawadi.

"It's easy to break a single bamboo stick, but when you bundle the sticks, you can't even bend them," she told her children. "It's the same with family and with the people of our faith. Despite the petty differences, Muslims have to join up in big sufferings, and for Eid."

Related Characters: Zehrunisa Husain
Page Number: 77
Explanation and Analysis:
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She was less and less sure she wanted to go to Vasai, less and less sure her husband would live to get there. She wanted a more hygienic home here, in the name of her children's vitality… On the floor she wanted ceramic tiles like the ones advertised on the Beautiful Forever wall - tiles that could be scrubbed clean, instead of broken concrete that harbored filth in each striation. With these small improvements, she thought her children might stay as healthy as children in Annawadi could be.

Related Characters: Zehrunisa Husain, Karam
Related Symbols: The Beautiful Forever Wall
Page Number: 83
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 6 Quotes

"Everyone is jealous of us, fixing our house," Kehkashan explained to an older cousin who'd just arrived from the countryside.
"So let them be jealous," Zehrunisa exclaimed. "Why shouldn’t we live in a better room now that we are doing a little better?"

Related Characters: Zehrunisa Husain, Kehkashan
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 7 Quotes

He didn't know if his mother was right about an earlier, peaceful age in which poor people had accepted the fates that their respective gods had written on their foreheads, and in turn treated one another more kindly. He just knew that she didn't really long for companionable misery. She'd known abjectness, loathed its recollection, and raised her son for a modern age of ruthless competition. In this age, some people rose and some people fell, and ever since he was little, she'd made him understand that he had to rise.

Related Characters: Abdul Husain, Zehrunisa Husain
Page Number: 111
Explanation and Analysis:
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Zehrunisa Husain Character Timeline in Behind the Beautiful Forevers

The timeline below shows where the character Zehrunisa Husain appears in Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue: Between Roses
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
Abdul’s mother, Zehrunisa, also disapproves of One Leg because she wears perfume and lipstick. Abdul silently thinks that... (full context)
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
...poor are always seen as guilty in Mumbai. The police officers lead Karam away as Zehrunisa sobs. (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
...of night, and he decides to find his mother to ask her what to do. Zehrunisa tells Abdul to turn himself in at the Sahar Police Station. He runs there, hoping... (full context)
Chapter 1: Annawadi
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
...back in time to January 2008, before Fatima burned herself and Abdul turned himself in. Zehrunisa wakes Abdul, telling him to get to work. Obediently, Abdul gets up and enjoys the... (full context)
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Zehrunisa comes out of the hut and scolds Mirchi for talking instead of studying. Education is... (full context)
Chapter 3: Sunil
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
...increases. These riots are specifically orchestrated by politicians from parties like Shiv Sena. Karam and Zehrunisa tell their children that this will all pass and India will be stronger than ever,... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
...Mumbai. Others were not able to work during the riots, like the Husain family’s tenants. Zehrunisa has no sympathy for this family, exaggerating her own family’s poverty. The migrant family leaves,... (full context)
Chapter 5: Ghost House
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
...full week. But then they stop – giving children a welcome respite from staying inside. Zehrunisa watches Mirchi play, trying not to think about how Mirchi has failed 9th grade, Karam... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Life and Death Theme Icon
Zehrunisa angrily thinks that Fatima’s extramarital affairs have brought improper men to their neighborhood who now... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Karam returns from two weeks in the hospital, much improved from breathing the clean air. Zehrunisa is happy, though grumbles about the cost when the Husains have so many marriages to... (full context)
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Now that Kehkashan has returned to care for the younger kids, Zehrunisa can go with Karam to visit Vasai. Zehrunisa had expected to spend her entire life... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Zehrunisa senses that Karam’s return from the hospital is a good moment to approach him about... (full context)
Chapter 6: The Hole She Called a Window
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
...school to help. They cart all the family’s possessions to the street where Karam and Zehrunisa guard them so nothing will be stolen. Other Annawadians pass by, curious to see what... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
Kehkashan grumbles at the obvious jealousy of their neighbors, but Zehrunisa is proud to show off their good standing. Improving the house has obvious health benefits,... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
...even louder as the wall that her hut shares with the Husains begins to shake. Zehrunisa half-heartedly placates her while Abdul continues to ignore her. Fatima gets louder, until Zehrunisa gets... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
Zehrunisa and Fatima each go outside, yelling and shoving each other about the wall. A crowd... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Fifteen minutes later, a neighbor tells Zehrunisa that Fatima has gone to the Sahar Police Station to accuse Zehrunisa of assault. Kehkashan... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Asha, at the police station helping police offers fix a government loan, sees Zehrunisa and jumps on the chance to increase her goodwill and influence in Annawadi by solving... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
...to pay for an auto rickshaw, but refuses to go herself. Secretly, Asha thinks that Zehrunisa should have let her help before Fatima became this hysterical. She laughs that the Husains... (full context)
Chapter 7: The Come-Apart
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
...Abdul will be charged with murder. After what feels like hours of pain, Abdul hears Zehrunisa crying to the receptionist. He tries not to scream but can’t help himself. Eventually, Zehrunisa’s... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
...these bribes, knowing they will have to save money for a lawyer if Fatima dies. Zehrunisa appears periodically to give updates on how much Asha is asking to make this whole... (full context)
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
The Local vs. The Global Theme Icon
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
...official cause of death, but it is really an infection that kills her. Kehkashan and Zehrunisa, as the only other Muslim women in Annawadi, take over the burial rites, while Zehrunisa... (full context)
Chapter 8: The Master
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Life and Death Theme Icon
...take Abdul’s role but is not as adept at judging the worth of the trash. Zehrunisa is too busy begging her family for Abdul’s bail money to help. She can get... (full context)
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Karam is desperate and angry every time Zehrunisa visits him because his health is failing in the crowded cell. To make matters worse,... (full context)
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
The only choice Zehrunisa felt good about was paying the officers to try Abdul as a child. She thinks... (full context)
Chapter 9: Marquee Effect
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
The Waghekar family returns to Annawadi, where Asha ignores Zehrunisa’s pleas for legal help and focuses on her own education. To truly transcend her rural... (full context)
Chapter 10: Parrots, Caught and Sold
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
A few weeks later, Zehrunisa is allowed to take Abdul home from Dongri as long as Abdul checks in at... (full context)
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
...only person who will listen is Kalu, freshly returned from working construction with his father. Zehrunisa compliments Kalu on how healthy he looks now (after weeks spent in the country without... (full context)
Chapter 11: Proper Sleep
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Life and Death Theme Icon
Zehrunisa is terrified that the police are coming to her house to arrest Abdul for the... (full context)
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
Life and Death Theme Icon
Sanjay, one of the Annawadians arrested after Kalu’s death, comes sobbing to Zehrunisa with the real story of how Kalu died. Kalu had been attacked by a prominent... (full context)
Chapter 12: Nine Nights of Dance
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Life and Death Theme Icon
The section opens with advice from Zehrunisa not to think about terrible lives. The chapter then skips ahead to late September 2008.... (full context)
Chapter 13: Something Shining
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
Life and Death Theme Icon
...a life. When Abdul voiced that thought to his mother, while she was beating him, Zehrunisa told him not to think about terrible lives. Sunil thinks about this later, deciding that... (full context)
Chapter 15: Ice
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
One afternoon after the trial, Abdul, Mirchi, Zehrunisa and Karam consider the trash left in the storeroom. They have to sell it now,... (full context)
Chapter 16: Black and White
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Permanence, Legacy, and Erasure Theme Icon
Voting rights are scattered and often withheld from the poorest minorities in India, such as Zehrunisa and Karam who have tried to register for seven years and been denied. Slum dwellers... (full context)
Chapter 17: A School, a Hospital, a Cricket Field
Society, Competition, and Social Division Theme Icon
Opportunity, Corruption, and Inequality Theme Icon
Zehrunisa pays a Sufi mystic to see if Fatima’s ghost is responsible for dragging out Abdul’s... (full context)