In late July, Sunil finds a scavenger lying in the road with an open wound in his leg. Too scared to call the police because he might be blamed, Sunil walks past and hopes someone else will help. Others walk by but are too busy with their own troubles to stop. By 4 pm, the police pass by and enlist other scavengers to load the man, now dead, into a van so that they will not catch any diseases. At the hospital, the cause of death is recorded as tuberculosis and the body is given to the Medical College to be dissected.
Boo uses this example of a wounded scavenger to illustrate the many factors that keep people in Annawadi from helping each other. While the Annawadians know it is wrong to leave this man helpless, the foreboding specter of police brutality, the sheer business of survival, and the threat of disease means that assisting this man is too risky to contemplate. Donating this man’s body to science shows how little the Mumbai officials care for the slum residents – the scavenger was worth more dead than alive.
Several other bodies are found over the next days, until Annawadians become afraid that Fatima left a curse on the whole slum. Rumors that Annawadi will soon be destroyed by airport developers grow. Sunil is worried about these rumors, but more concerned with the immediate problem that his sister Sunita continues to grow while he seems to be shrinking.
Death is a constant presence in the slum, though the residents look for supernatural explanations to assure themselves that it isn’t the slum itself that is dangerous. Their entire neighborhood is at risk, but boys like Sunil can’t worry about the larger picture when they are struggling to survive and grow each day.
One afternoon, Sunil sees Sonu Gupta, another scavenger two years older than Sunil, walking down the road with a full bag of trash. Sonu has a host of health problems, and is not seen as a valuable partner in the slum, but Sunil wonders how Sonu finds so much material. He follows Sonu that night and sees that Sonu has partnerships with security guards at the airport who give Sonu trash after Sonu sweeps their walkways. Sunil wants to be disdainful of this “begging,” but he can’t help but admire Sonu’s success.
Friendships in the slum are based on mutual benefit, and a boy like Sonu cannot earn Sunil any prestige with the larger boys who would be more lucrative partners for trash picking and theft. Yet Sonu has turned his weaknesses into strengths, using his small size and pitiful aspect to earn sympathy from the guards at the airport. This exclusive access to trash is more important to Sunil than his pride.
Sunil begins to work with Sonu, helping him sweep and then searching the airport grounds for more trash. After a couple days, the pair are making a dollar each a day and have almost developed a friendship. Sonu tries to counsel Sunil on how to live a healthy and good life. Sonu avoids the thieves in Annawadi and even spends his nights studying, though he can’t go to school during the day. Sunil admires Sonu’s dedication, but isn’t sure that a public school education will really let him get ahead.
The friendship between Sunil and Sonu is only possible because they help each other make more money. Though each would like a deeper bond, it is risky to show true affection in Annawadi as the other boys would take it as weakness. Sonu still trusts in the power of education to get him out of poverty, but Sunil simply sees the shortcomings of public school. He would rather focus on making money.
Sonu and Sunil may do well outside of Annawadi, but they are still targets for the bigger boys in the slum. Sunil wishes he had lots of brothers to protect him, but all he has is Kalu, one of the thieves who has taken Sunil under his wing. Sunil smokes with Kalu, out of Sonu’s judgmental sight, while the two survey Annawadi from the height of a rubble pile. On the other side of the slum, there is a small farm where most of the boys try to steal parrots. Sunil convinces Kalu to leave the parrots alone, as he enjoys listening to the squawks each morning.
Kalu is one of the rare Annawadians who is nice to a boy like Sunil without receiving anything in return. Sunil shows that he is still young and optimistic by caring for the parrots on the farm. Where others see profit, Sunil sees beauty that should be allowed to stay free. In the same way, Sunil and Kalu still have beauty (in the form of caring for others) that has not been beaten out of them by economic concerns.
Kalu specializes in stealing from the recycling bins that the airline catering companies use, but his route has caught the attention of the local police. To get out of police custody, Kalu agrees to become an informant on the drug dealers in Annawadi. Kalu feels stuck, scared of both the police and the cocaine dealers in Annawadi. He wishes a girl would appear and save him from this situation, like the happy endings of Bollywood films, but his only option is to move back with his abusive father in a slum two hours from Annawadi. Sunil is incredibly sad that Kalu will be leaving, missing both Kalu’s company and the prestige that he receives from hanging out with a thief.
Young boys like Kalu are preyed on by almost every powerful group in Annawadi, both illegal gangs and the law itself. Though cities like Mumbai offer economic opportunity, they are also sites of conflict and danger in this swirl of potential profit. In Annawadi, Kalu’s life means less than his ability to make a profit for someone. Kalu dreams of escape, but there is not true escape for a boy with no options. While Sunil mourns his friend, he also understands that his connection to Kalu was profitable for him by raising his social status above the other trash pickers in the slum.
A few weeks later, Zehrunisa is allowed to take Abdul home from Dongri as long as Abdul checks in at the detention center every week until his trial. There is no date set for the trial yet, but Karam and Kehkashan are still being held in prison. Abdul is angry that Zehrunisa released him instead of focusing on Karam but Zehrunisa has no money for Karam’s bail now that the garbage business has collapsed under Mirchi’s direction. Abdul sighs, knowing the hard work ahead of him trying to rebuild their recycling business without falling back into buying stolen goods.
Though the Husains are glad to even be getting a trial rather than having the police declare them guilty to save time, the long, drawn-out time frame of the Indian justice system is financially ruinous for people who must work every single day to make enough money to survive. Abdul’s return will offer some relief, but there is no guarantee that the Husains can get back their previous success. One mistake, baiting Fatima, is enough to redirect their entire lives.
After his time at Dongri, Abdul is more talkative to the scavengers he trades with. He seems especially intent on spreading his lessons from The Master throughout the slum. The 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 sniffing Eraz-ex), but she worries that Kalu will return to his bad ways in the city. For now, Kalu scavenges with Sunil instead of stealing.
Abdul continues to work on the moral awakening that began in Dongri, trying desperately to fit the lessons of right and wrong he heard there into the corrupt environment of the slum. Meanwhile, Kalu also deals with the potentially harmful effects of returning to Annawadi. Life here is built on so many illegal and dangerous actions that it is almost impossible to remain virtuous.
The next evening, Kalu and Sunil are selling airport trash to Abdul when a disabled man suddenly walks up and punches Abdul in the chest. Abdul does not react at all, wary of another Fatima situation. Abdul and Sunil go home, leaving Kalu to wander back to the airport. In the morning, Kalu is found dead in the airport hedges.
Abdul has learned that defending himself leads to worse consequences, allowing others in the slum to beat him in order to stay out of trouble. Kalu’s sudden death is a reminder that no one in Annawadi is safe.