By February 2008, Abdul seems more anxious than ever after news of violence against northern migrants (like him and his family) 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, but Abdul is scared enough that he does not work for a week.
Though Shiv Sena would like the riots to look like spontaneous reactions to the presence of migrants who might threaten the security of natural-born Mumbai residents, they have actually forced the riots to happen. Almost every community activity, like a riot, is now privately controlled by one organization or another. Yet Karam and Zehrunisa still trust in the image of a unified India that will embrace diversity.
Sunil, a 12-year-old scavenger, is scared to see Abdul so changed. Sunil learned to read people while living at Sister Paulette’s orphanage and he enjoys finding the secret motives behind people’s actions. He wasn’t even angry when Sister Paulette told him to leave the orphanage because he knew that having boys older than eleven there would give the orphanage a bad image to foreign sponsors. Sunil and his younger sister Sunita now live in a cramped and filthy hut in Annawadi with their alcoholic father.
Sunil, though young, already understands how life in Mumbai operates. His desire to find people’s secret motives reflects Boo’s sense that everyone in Annawadi is always looking out for their own gain even when they seem to be helping others. With increased global attention, much of Indian life is now catered to give the best impression to wealthy foreigners, no matter how much it might hurt Indian citizens like Sunil.
When Sunil was younger, he could beg for charity meals at dinner time, but he is now too old to take advantage of this food source. Sunil would rather not beg anyway, but he hates to think that the lack of food is stunting his growth. Sunita is now taller than him, a fact which bothers him. But scavenging is hard, dirty work that comes with the constant risk of disease. It is often all Sunil can do to keep himself from being the next scavenger to die, much less get enough trash to feed himself properly. The other garbage workers, like Abdul, have a running bet on who will be the next scavenger dead.
Sunil’s desire to grow physically symbolically represents the common desire of all Annawadians to “grow” out of their conditions of poverty. While working hard in a scavenging job may give Sunil some income, it is not enough to offset the potential dangers that come from this job. Likewise, most of the sources of income in the slum come with costs far higher than their benefits, preventing most Annawadians from ever growing strong.
One day in February, Sunil walks down Airport Lane using his signature rich boy walk to avoid inviting contempt from foreigners. He passes a huge concrete wall pasted with ads for floor tiles that promise to be “beautiful forever.” This wall hides the Annawadi sprawl from the airport clientele. Sunil looks for trash on Airport Lane, trying to avoid women from the Matang caste who still believe that waste picking is their livelihood exclusively. Even worse, the airport itself now has a professional waste company that removes all the valuable recycling from the premises. Municipal garbage workers have also multiplied, now that Mumbai wants to change its reputation as a dirty city.
The appearance of wealth is important both to Indian citizens personally – as Sunil’s swagger suggests – and to India as a country. The “beautiful forever” wall projects the idea of impossible wealth while hiding the slum from the eyes of foreigners flying into Mumbai. This way, wealthy people cannot judge the continued poverty when India would like to seem prosperous in the modern age. Sunil is caught between the old ways, which say that trash picking belongs to a certain caste, and the new ways that demand that all industries be privatized for maximum profits.
Sunil decides that he should explore new territory if he wants to make more than his usual 33 cents a day. He watches people who throw away trash, realizing that the airport taxi drivers sometimes throw their trash into the Mithi river on the other side of the airport. The wind and current tends to push the trash onto a narrow ledge where Sunil can balance and collect bags of trash where others are too scared to go. Sunil knows the risks of falling into the fast-moving Mithi, but he likes the idea that people think he is daring for going here.
Sunil, making just 33 cents a day, is still considered to be one of the Indians living above the poverty line. To truly improve his lot in life, Sunil has to risk death on the small ledge above the Mithi river. Boo uses this one example to show that situations like this are common across Mumbai, with young boys desperate to be successful willing to risk everything to achieve their dreams of wealth and happiness. Sunil takes this one step farther by imagining that others may admire his daring –a sign of how much Sunil wants to be noticed in a society that would rather pretend trash pickers like him do not exist.
By March, the riots are over, but their effect scared many north Indians away from 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, and Abdul knows that new immigrants will come to take their place after this next monsoon season.
In her own way, Zehrunisa can be as ruthless as Asha. Though she herself was afraid during the riots due to her northern heritage, Zehrunisa has little trouble evicting tenants that cannot pay when doing so is better for the Husain’s finances.
The airport has been privatized in recent years, now belonging to a management conglomerate called GVK that wants to raze Annawadi and take back the airport land. GVK highlights that developing the land could be both potentially lucrative and helpful to the sense of national pride; the Indian government is trying to show that Mumbai is a high-functioning, well-managed city that does not have a slum problem.
As more industries in India become privatized, Boo suggests that common citizens have less control over their lives as these companies look only at profit. Though thousands of people make their livelihood in these slums, conglomerates like GVK see only the money that this land represents. Meanwhile the Indian government continues to look at global reputation rather than acting in the interest of those who live in the slums.
Annawadians know that the city hates their slum, but they are fiercely loyal to it. To the residents, Annawadi has three distinct sections: the Tamil Sai Nagar which is richer and has the public toilet, the poorer section built by Dalits (the “untouchable” lowest class of the old caste system), and the poorest section in which the scavengers do not even have huts so they sleep on their trash heaps. In this poorest section, thieves abound. They prey on the rich clientele of the airport and often get high on Eraz-ex, a type of white-out, to distract from their hunger.
Though the slum may seem like one poor mess to the wealthier citizens of Mumbai, the residents understand the complex hierarchy that governs this competitive world. Officially, caste no longer matters, but it still plays a role in who lives in which section of Annawadi and who can enjoy the small health benefits of public toilets instead of finding places to relieve themselves on the street. Meanwhile, even a hut can be a symbol of luxury to the lowliest who have only trash. This hierarchy allows slum residents who have nothing by global standards to feel that they are doing well simply because they have a roof.
Abdul warns Sunil not to get involved with Eraz-ex, feeling somewhat protective of the younger scavenger, but Sunil thinks the guys who get high are more fun than boring Abdul. The thieves even play video games at Annawadi’s first entertainment center. One of these thieves is a boy named Kalu, who uses Eraz-ex to give him the strength to scale barbed wire fences and steal aluminum sheets from the airport recycling bins. Sunil loves watching Kalu reenact Bollywood movies or imitate other people from Annawadi.
Abdul shows care by looking out for Sunil, but Sunil does not seem to return this favor. To Sunil, friendships should be reserved for people like Kalu who can earn Sunil more prestige among the other boys of Annawadi. Kalu’s terrible life as a thief is hidden with his escape through Eraz-ex and Bollywood. Though Kalu faces injury every day, he is able to smile and laugh due to these escapes that erase his daily pain.
One night, Sunil overhears Kalu tell Abdul about a thieving operation that went wrong. Kalu found some iron bars at an industrial estate by the airport but was chased off by a security guard. Sunil offers to wake Kalu at 3 am so Kalu can go back and get the iron bars. Sunil tracks time by the moon, then wakes Kalu. Kalu explains that his usual partner is now too stoned and asks Sunil to come with him.
Though getting high helps make a harsh life in Annawadi bearable, it can also prevent the users from opportunities to make their way above this slum life. With Eraz-ex stealing their motivation, the thieves have little chance of ever being more than thieves. Yet for Sunil thievery is an envious step up from trash picking. Despite the dangers of getting caught, being involved in this theft is a huge stroke of luck for Sunil.
Kalu tells Sunil to bring his bedsheets and the two boys sprint down Airport Lane. Kalu leads Sunil past the reek of the Mithi river, then the two boys wade across. At the industrial estate, Sunil is spooked by the shadows of security guards, but Kalu assures Sunil that he has hidden the iron bars where no one will see them. Kalu is right, and the boys fill the bed sheets with three irons each. Fifteen minutes and one difficult swim later, they make it back to Annawadi. Abdul buys the irons and Sunil gets a third of the profit from Kalu.
In Annawadi, high risk can mean high reward. Though Sunil sees how reckless Kalu is being, they are not immediately punished for their illegal actions. In the corruption of Indian government, crime does pay at times. Abdul may have little respect for thieves, but even he still buys stolen goods that will make his family a profit.
With the first disposable income of his life, Sunil goes to see a movie. It’s an American film about a man who survives a plague in New York City. Sunil is traumatized when the man kills the dog that has been his only friend throughout the movie—he is unable to figure out why the man would do that. A few weeks later, Kalu asks Sunil to help him with another theft. Sunil refuses, unable to explain even to himself why he is turning down this lucrative offer. He knows it has something to do with the dog’s death and his fear of the police, but also his lack of respect for thieves.
Sunil sees himself as the dog, a companion easily disposed of when it is no longer useful. Though Sunil appreciates the money, he ultimately wants to have respect for himself. Clinging to morality instead of profit, Sunil decides to remain a poor scavenger rather than sell his sense of right and wrong to be a rich thief. Though Boo admires this action, it is unclear whether it was the right choice for Sunil, as he will certainly have to work harder just to eat by committing to this moral choice.