Asha Waghekar, Rahul’s mother, is very happy this winter because the current slumlord of Annawadi (the man who rigs political elections in the slum and is paid by Shiv Sena to push their agenda) seems to have turned away from corruption now that he has found religion. As Robert Pires loses power, Asha thinks she can fill that void. She knows that it is rare for a woman to hold this position, especially as Asha’s husband is a nothing-special drunkard, but Asha thinks she is strong enough to do it.
Asha is perhaps the most ambitious woman in the Annawadi slum, and fully embraces the corrupt ways of the Mumbai political system in order to achieve her goals. Asha recognizes that women in India usually receive power when they are attached to powerful husbands, but she is determined to make her own way in the world.
Robert, the current slumlord, is famous mostly for bringing Maharashtrians (those from the Indian state of which Mumbai is the capital) to Annawadi. Yet now, northern immigrants outnumber the Maharashtrians, and the Shiv Sena Corporator, Subhash Sawant, is angry enough with Robert’s apathy about this that he is looking for a new slumlord. Asha has been working hard for years attracting women to the Shiv Sena cause and her loyalty is starting to catch Subhash’s attention.
With the increasing immigrant populations in Mumbai, looking for new jobs away from rural poverty, Shiv Sena taps into the fear of the Maharashtrians that the immigrant communities will take over their homes and jobs. Asha does not care if the immigrants suffer as long as championing Shiv Sena gives her an edge in the competitive world of Mumbai slums.
Asha is used to fending off unwanted male attention, having honed a sharp tongue in her childhood village, but she now also has the skills of discretion and subtlety. Asha is a keen observer of people. She has seen how Mumbai now buzzes with hope, but also envy. Without the old communities of caste, ethnicity, and religion, people need someone to mediate disputes and help them solve their problems. Asha feels no guilt in charging people for this service and using the corruption of the city to her advantage.
Like Abdul, Asha sees that reticence can be useful in this tricky urban environment, but she also sees the places where speaking out can be advantageous. By tapping into the new struggles of all Indians to be more successful than their neighbors, Asha hopes to replace the old communities of support with a privatized business for dealing with the conflict inherent to the close proximity of so many different people.
By day, Asha teaches kindergarten. When she arrives home on this day in January, she sees the usual line of people waiting to tell her their problems. She makes them wait while she changes into an old housedress, giving a potent message that she doesn’t care about impressing these people. Asha’s daughter Manju brings tea and the supplicants come in. Women weep about lost jobs or being forced into sex work. Asha herself has little qualms about using whatever one can to get ahead, with few concerns beyond what will make her the most money.
Asha has no problem manipulating people to get what she wants, as seen in the way she curates her image before her supplicants. Asha’s moral compass has little room for right and wrong, as Boo uses this character to display how completely the pursuit of money and status has taken over the lives of some Indian citizens who chase “modern” lives. Boo subtly suggests that Asha also sells her body, with none of the worries about impropriety that follow the more traditional Indian women.
The next visitor for Asha is Mr. Raja Kamble, an old friend of Asha’s who is now very ill due to his weak heart. His health has gotten so bad that he was laid off from his job with the sanitation department, a harsh blow because Mr. Kamble was one of the few Annawadians with a permanent position. Mr. Kamble now hopes to raise money for the surgery he needs to fix his heart valve. Asha could help him get a loan for a “small business” from the government, falsifying the records necessary to prove that this small business is employing slum residents. Yet Asha is offended by the small cut of the loan that Mr. Kamble offers her and she tells him to go and pray at the temple.
Permanent jobs, with a steady income, are such a rarity in Annawadi that even Kamble’s deplorable job cleaning toilets was a source of envy. While Kamble might have been resigned to die of his illness in an earlier India, he now pins his hopes on the marvels of modern Indian medicine to change his fate. Yet with the leaps in technology made possible by India’s rapidly developing economy also come the rise of capitalist thought. Asha will only help her so-called “friend” if she can see the profit for herself.
Manju, silently kneading bread in the corner of the hut, angrily sighs. She knows that her mother’s advice to go to the temple really means that Asha won’t help unless she is given more money. Asha knows her daughter disapproves of her money gouging system, but she doesn’t much care what Manju thinks as long as Manju stays hard-working at home and studies well at school. Manju is one of the only Annawadians who is going to college. Asha is proud of her daughter, but she resents the opportunities her daughter has that she herself was never given.
Manju remains true to the old ideas of virtue, though she is of the younger “modern” generation. Boo suggests that Manju’s focus on honest living is partly a testament to Manju’s moral character, but also a sign that Manju has not had to endure the hardship that Asha lived through. Asha’s painful childhood has made her ruthless, something that the more privileged Manju cannot understand.
Asha looks down on others in the slum, such as the Husain family, who work in garbage to get rich. She prefers to use the government programs, pretending to start women-run businesses and a female self-help group to get government stipends without doing any of the work. Asha knows that she is a pawn in the government scheme to convince the world that poverty in India is ending, and Asha doesn’t mind as long as she gets her check.
Asha again shows that she would rather engage in a corrupt system than work hard at an honest job such as the Husains (mostly legal) trash business. This type of competition runs rampant in Annawadi, as everyone tries to use others for their own gain. Asha recognizes that she herself is used by those higher in the Indian government, but allows this to happen so that her own image is boosted.
After the supplicants leave, Asha turns on the TV – a huge luxury in Annawadi. The news tells of a child who experienced a medical miracle that fixed her birth defect. Asha disdains the other slum residents like Mr. Kamble for believing in life-changing miracles that happen overnight. Asha’s own miracle goals are long term. She wants to become the new Corporator of Annawadi’s ward, a goal made possible by the new laws mandating female candidates for certain elections.
Though Asha may not respect Abdul, she is actually more similar to him than she realizes. Both characters see themselves as more realistic about the true opportunities of modern India than those who believe that the advances India has recently made now mean that anything is possible. Asha may be ambitious, but she also sets practical boundaries for her dreams.
Manju finishes cooking and Rahul comes home from chatting in the street. Asha scolds Rahul for wearing his pants low in the American style, then laughs at the tasteless meal Manju has made. Manju seems to be protesting Asha’s harsh treatment of Mr. Kamble, but she hopes her daughter will realize the importance of this penny pinching when Asha pays for Manju’s college classes.
Rahul, a modern Indian boy, shows the influence of Western ways of thought in developing India. Meanwhile, Manju, the dutiful daughter of a Hindu family, has very little way of expressing herself other than refusing to spice her family’s food. Still, the college education Asha is paying for gives Manju more freedom than most Indian girls of her economic status.