This section opens with a quote from Karam, explaining how the poor have wild, futile dreams of their children becoming rich. The chapter then starts, moving 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 rare peaceful moments of dawn in the Annawadi slum. He silently begins to sort trash, preferring to keep as much distance between himself and his neighbors as possible.
Karam again emphasizes the idea that everyone expects better lives now that India’s economy has improved. These dreams are lived out day by day in the slum as Abdul scrambles to provide for his family by working long hours. Though Abdul himself entertains no illusions of becoming rich, even just surviving requires Abdul to stay apart from others in the slum so he can focus on his own prosperity.
Annawadi was built in 1991 by migrants from Tamil, a state in Southern India, who came to work on the airport and never left. Now 17 years later, the slum is home to people who have been “freed” from poverty by the new economic liberalization in India. However, many of the residents still have temporary jobs. Yet they are at least proud that they do not need to catch rats and frogs to eat each day. For a garbage trader like Abdul, times are particularly good due to the high price of scrap metal while China prepares for the Beijing Olympics.
Life in India is improving from the earlier times of “rats and frogs,” but the statistics and reports given out by the Indian government do not reflect that actual conditions of the country. Annawadi might not be a neighborhood in poverty, but it is still a place where people struggle daily to survive in a precarious environment. Annawadi’s status as a slum depends on the airport’s lax control of its land and the ever changing whims of the global recyclables market.
Abdul sorts trash, looking out for stray goats who might try to steal his bottles. In the afternoon, Mirchi gets home from school and waits for his friend Rahul to tell him about his day working for the Intercontinental Hotel. Rahul appears wearing fine new cargo shorts and a black hat, crowing the details of his night rubbing elbows with the rich and famous – though Rahul had been threatened harshly never to make eye contact with the people he was serving.
Mirchi and Rahul are social climbers in Annawadi, but Boo subtly shows how restrictive Indian society still is by exploring the boys’ limited dreams. Rahul and Mirchi aspire to be near the rich and famous as servers, accepting that they shouldn’t be allowed even to look at the wealthy – much less dream of being invited themselves. There is still a deep divide between rich and poor in India even as a capitalist systems offers more social mobility.
Abdul avoids the other boys, but he too listens in to Rahul’s tales of the foreign women at the party and their wild antics. Abdul fondly remembers Rahul’s story about a New Year’s Eve Party during which a rich man had gotten drunk and stolen all the rolls from the buffet. The other boys continue to ask Rahul about this most recent party, but Rahul becomes distracted, looking for recyclables he can sell.
The rich man who steals the rolls is another reminder that India now allows for people to climb their way out of poverty. Yet a lifetime of being poor creates habits – such as food hoarding – that cannot be easily forgotten. Rahul displays his own childhood growing up poor by constantly looking for profit even when he should be relaxing with friends.
Rahul gets his entrepreneur’s spirit from his mother, Asha. Asha works for the political party Shiv Sena, a Hindu party that works to purge Mumbai of Muslims and new migrants from India’s poorer north. Even though the Husains are both northern and Muslim, Rahul and Mirchi have a fast friendship. Abdul envies this closeness, as Abdul has only one casual friend, a thief named Kalu. Abdul’s greatest bond is with his youngest brother, Lallu. Abdul cries every time he sees new rat bites on his two-year-old brother’s cheeks.
Rahul and Mirchi represent the changing face of Indian society, a world that aspires to be tolerant and inclusive rather than divided based on old hatreds. While Mirchi and Rahul are successful at overcoming their differences, Abdul still questions whether these bonds are practical in the cut-throat world of Annawadi. Despite wanting friendship, Abdul focuses on doing what little he can to protect his family. The injuries of his baby brother Lallu is a reminder that there is little Abdul can do to actually erase the harshness of their world.
Zehrunisa comes out of the hut and scolds Mirchi for talking instead of studying. Education is important to the Husains, especially because they must pay for Mirchi’s schooling now that he is past 8th grade. Abdul tries not to be jealous of his brother, whose schooling and charm might be enough to get him a job away from garbage despite the city-wide discrimination against Muslims.
Education is one of the few ways that the poor in India can truly expect to improve their lives. However, the advanced schooling necessary for high paying jobs is reserved for those who already have money, as the free public school system only goes up through middle school and any further education must be paid for out of pocket. This is another way that India’s administration continues to oppress the poor.
As dusk falls, Rahul struggles to get a kite out a tree so that he can resell it for a few rupees. The leaves of the tree are covered in soot and grit from the nearby concrete plant, a leading cause of asthma and tuberculosis in Annawadi. Abdul happily finishes sorting his trash, then loads a small jalopy with the bags and heads out to the recycling plant. Traffic is as jammed as ever, but Abdul finally makes it to the recycling plant in a slum called Saki Naka.
Health concerns also run rampant in Annawadi, as the industrialization that has created so many jobs and opportunities in India also leads to increased urban pollution. While the rich can pay to live far from the sources of pollution, the poor are left to live in the consequences of India’s rapid rise to industrial power.
Abdul thinks about the men who work at the recycling plants, remembering a young boy whose hand was cut off by a plastic shredder. The boy didn’t scream, just assured the owner of the plant that he would not report anything. Abdul thinks that India still maintains a strict class system, no matter what Mirchi thinks about progress. Abdul is just happy to keep working with garbage, as this job (though stigmatized) is helping him earn enough money for his family to put a deposit on a piece of land in Vasai, a quiet community outside the city.
Though it is workers like the young boy who have made India’s prosperity possible, Abdul’s story illustrates how the rich still hold all the power in Indian society and further suggests that Abdul sees this progress as dangerous to the poor. Mirchi’s friendship with Rahul points to a better future, but Abdul more realistically sees how far Indian culture must go before the city is truly fair. His own smaller dream involves leaving the city and returning to the traditional values that Abdul sees as safer.