The section opens with advice from Zehrunisa not to think about terrible lives. The chapter then skips ahead to late September 2008. Asha has become slumlord of Annawadi, promoted by Corporator Subhash Sawant for helping delay the trial for his faked caste documents. However, this success has come at the cost of alienating her family. Manju is disgusted with the way that Asha uses extra-marital affairs to gain control.
Zehrunisa’s advice can in some ways apply to any of the lives Boo has described so far in the book, opening this section to explore just how the Annawadians distract themselves from their terrible lives. Asha distracts herself through her ambitions, accepting the hatred of her family for the sake of gaining political power.
Fatima’s death still haunts the women of Annawadi as the deaths of Kalu and Sanjay haunt the boys. Fatima has become a symbol of everything the Annawadians dislike about their lives, especially oppressive marriages. Two women follow Fatima’s example by setting themselves on fire. Meena and Manju even discuss suicide methods one night. Manju is ashamed of her mother’s dishonorable behavior, while Meena just wants an escape from her abusive family. Meena hopes to cope with their problems by talking them out, but Manju prefers to keep her troubles compartmentalized so she can focus on studying for her college graduation.
Death hangs over the Annawadians, even as they try to ignore it in order to continue with the business of surviving. Fatima, who tried so hard in life to matter, is now a hero in death to other women who would like to escape their terrible lives. With no options to improve their circumstances, these women turn to suicide as a last resort. Even Manju and Meena, with their whole lives ahead of them, feel stifled enough to consider suicide as a viable option out.
Manju lives and breathes her college studying, which helps to block out the painful experience of being rejected by Vijay. Yet it is hard to forget romantic issues, as late September is the season of the flirtatious Navrati festival where female divinity is celebrated and girls are allowed to dance freely. Asha pours her energy into planning this year’s festival, knowing how much it means to the girls and seeing that the Annawadians need a release after the tension of the recent global recession.
Manju, despite her mother’s grand schemes, now sees that marrying up and out of poverty will be hard as long as India’s class system still discriminates against the poor. As a distraction from this disappointment, Manju, Asha, and the other women focus on the grand festival of Navrati. Dancing will not actually make their lives better, but it will at least allow them to forget their troubles for a few days.
The political response to hardship in India usually involves throwing a grand party on festival days. This year’s Navrati festival will have extra DJs and lights, a fact welcomed by Meena who is dreading her imminent move to a rural village where she has been promised as a bride. Meena dreams of being one of the modern, powerful women she sees on television, but her life is completely controlled by her family. Even worse, moving to a village will be like moving back in time, to an India that still believes in the caste system. As a Dalit, the lowest caste, Meena will be seen as contaminated.
The festivals in India offer respite and release from the everyday pain and drudgery of living poor in this country. Meena sees this festival as a last time of happiness before the life-sentence of marriage in a rural village. The uncontrollable fact of being born a low-caste woman means that Meena will be completely controlled by her husband with no options to improve her situation. The endless opportunities of the New India do not apply to her.
A week before Navrati, Meena and Manju meet at the public toilet to discuss Fatima’s “way out” of their worries about arranged marriages. They don’t want their beautiful skin to be spoiled by burning, so they agree that poison is a better option. Meena becomes superstitious that Fatima’s ghost is listening and the two girls go home after their few moments of freedom.
The girls’ nonchalant discussion of suicide seemingly shows that they do not care about their lives. Yet Meena and Manju are only considering this in response to arranged marriages, revealing that they care so much about living freely that death is preferable to a life with no chance of improving.
The women furiously clean the streets of Annawadi the day before Navrati. Manju rushes about trying to finish her housework so that she will have time to study and work on festival preparations. She ignores Meena waving from her house. When Manju finally finishes all her work, she goes to visit Meena. Meena looks pale and sick and refuses to talk to Manju. Meena opens her hand to show an empty tube of rat poison. Manju realizes that Meena has swallowed the whole thing and she runs to get Meena’s mother.
The festival does not mean a break from work for the women, as even these days claiming to celebrate women simply create more tasks for the already over-loaded women of Annawadi. Even Meena and Manju’s strong friendship must come second to their obligations, though Meena disrupts this life of work by eating poison.
Meena’s mother is inside making dinner when Manju tells her about Meena eating rat poison. Meena’s mother insists that Meena is faking it, throwing a tantrum because she was beaten three times today for various small offenses, such as sitting outside the house. Manju goes back outside, afraid to alert anyone else for fear of ruining Meena’s reputation. Desperate, Manju calls Asha from a pay phone and tells her what Meena has done. Asha tells Manju to force Meena to swallow tobacco so that she will vomit, but Manju cannot buy tobacco without tarnishing her own reputation.
Meena’s family does not take her death seriously, preferring to think that Meena just wants attention so they will not have to deal with the situation that has made Meena unhappy enough to take her own life. Even stakes of life and death are not enough for Manju to risk Meena’s reputation – as a bad reputation could interfere with Meena’s marriage prospects. Manju knows that marriage is not a good deal for the girls of Annawadi, but it is better than the life of a spinster.
Manju sees some women pass by Meena’s house. She quietly tells them that Meena has poisoned herself. The women ask Meena what happened and Meena explains that she had to do this because it is the one choice about her life that she gets to make. The women force Meena to swallow a bar of laundry soap and Meena throws up violently. Meena says she feels better and goes inside to sleep. Manju goes home to wash and prepare for Navrati. That night, the first night of Navrati, Meena’s brothers beat her for eating rat poison.
The women come together for Meena in a rare show of community support in Annawadi. Yet this support is for something that benefits the community, and not Meena herself. Meena wants to have this one choice about her life, but the community of Annawadi will prosper more if Meena does not commit suicide. Rather than understanding Meena’s choice, everyone around Meena punishes her for this small attempt to take control.
Meena is admitted to Cooper Hospital and dies on the sixth day of Navrati. The women of Annawadi cluck that she was simply bored of her world, while Meena’s family blames Manju’s influence. Manju mourns her friend staring at the letters “Meena” that someone had carved in the cement outside the toilet and wishing that her friend had left more of a mark in the world.
Everyone finds a different explanation for Meena’s death that supports their view of the world. For the women, boredom is better than admitting that Meena was miserable at the prospect of living a life like theirs. For Meena’s family, blaming Manju is a way of staying true to their traditional values rather than admitting that India is changing. For Manju, Meena’s death is a reminder that girls in Annawadi are invisible until they are disobedient. It inspires Manju to make sure that she does leave a mark.