Manju struggles to understand Mrs. Dalloway, the latest novel for her college English course. She blames it on the weather, hoping she hasn’t caught malaria or dengue fever again. Her mother, Asha, is also looking stressed these days, as Corporator Subhash Sawant has been accused of electoral fraud for impersonating a low-caste person to win the latest election. He is now touring the slums of his ward, hoping that public approval will somehow erase his legal fraud. It’s Annawadi’s turn next and Asha has been ordered to assemble the residents to pray for the case to be dismissed.
Mrs. Dalloway, a novel focused on the existential crisis of high-society ladies and gentlemen in England, thematically echoes Manju’s own questions of why she is alive even if the details are completely foreign to this poor Hindu girl. For Manju, a health crisis such as malaria or dengue fever is an expected annoyance and the fraud of a respected politician is a chance for her family to get ahead. Subhash’s low-caste trick is another way that systems set up to relieve historical oppression in India rarely assist the people who are actually suffering.
Asha painstakingly cajoles the Annawadian parents to come to the meeting and leave their children, who are supposed to be studying for school exams, for the night. Subhash himself appears at sundown and approves of the food and decorations that Asha has planned for the victory rally. Subhash leaves, telling Asha that he will return after dinner to speak to the Annawadians at the small temple in Annawadi. At 8 pm, Asha rings the temple bell and a crowd of genuinely low-caste people assemble. Most of the Annawadians know that Subhash has lied about his caste, but they respect him anyway because Subhash takes the time to personally come to Annawadi and fund public improvements for the slum.
Though Subhash’s meeting disrupts the Annawadians’ already busy and difficult lives – even getting in the way of the education that might offer a way out of poverty for some – the Annawadians do not seem to resent this intrusion. The Annawadians place little importance on whether a politician is honest, knowing that lies and bribes are the way of that system, and prefer to show loyalty to the people who actually improve conditions in Annawadi. Though Subhash takes advantage of their low-caste votes, they do not mind as long as Annawadi gets something out of the deal as well.
The Annawadians wait in the temple for an hour, giving up precious time they could be using to clean or wait in line for water. At 11 pm, Subhash still hasn’t arrived. Asha tells Manju to give the people the food they had prepared. Most Annawadians eat and go home. Asha is terrified that Subhash will arrive to find an empty temple and question Asha’s influence in Annawadi.
Though Subhash claims to care for the people of Annawadi, he does not respect their time or the effort that Asha has gone to on his behalf. For the rich in India, the concerns of the poor do not matter, though the future of people like Asha is completely dependent on their approval.
While Asha stews about the lack of a crowd, a young eunuch named Suraj arrives outside the temple and starts to dance. Manju is fascinated by the sight of this sexually ambiguous person, though popular superstition says that eunuchs bring horrible luck. Usually eunuchs must be paid to leave, but this eunuch seems to dance for the sheer joy of it. A crowd forms to watch the dancing, then Suraj invites them to ask him questions so the goddess inside him can give them advice. The Annawadians ask about the future of their slum, not even caring that Suraj only answers in gibberish.
Another way that India seems to be opening up is in acceptance of sexual diversity. While eunuchs who blur the line between man and woman were previously abhorred in India, Manju now finds Suraj beautiful and Suraj is allowed to dance freely in Annawadi. The Annawadians accept Suraj because he gives them a space to believe that their fear of Annawadi’s erasure might not come true – though Suraj’s gibberish answers suggest that this is a false hope.
In the Husain house, Mirchi is annoyed at all the noise the crowd is making in the street as he tries to study for his ninth-grade exams. A 21-year-old named Prakash is also disturbed by this ruckus on the eve of his college graduation exams. But Asha is overjoyed at the noise when Subhash finally calls to say he won’t be coming and he thinks that the din is all in praise of him.
The entire slum is seemingly set up to make sure that boys like Mirchi cannot escape the poverty of their birth. Even for an intelligent, hard-working man like Prakash, the ability to get an education can be disrupted by random events. This arbitrariness hurts them, but helps Asha through sheer luck – another reminder that no one in Annawadi can control their fate.
Manju spends most of her time doing things for others, such as running a small public school in the afternoons and cooking and cleaning for her family. She specifically cultivates gentle behavior, hoping to distance herself from her mother. The afternoon after Subhash’s failed rally, she complains to Rahul about all the work she has to do, but Rahul is too distracted by his own worries about work. He is trying to cultivate the perfect demeanor for a waiter at a high-class hotel, but he embarrassed himself at the last party he worked by dancing to the music.
In a slum steeped in corruption, even an insistence on virtue can be an act of defiance for Manju. Her “perfect” behavior and desire to help others is an ironic expression of teenage rebellion in the strange moral system of Annawadi. Just as Manju hides behind a veneer of gentility, Rahul as well must erase his true personality in order to be accepted by higher Indian society.
Manju leaves her brother to watch TV and turns to her English literature reading. The book is The Way of the World, but Manju is not expected to read the original text—she is only supposed to memorize the approved summary and rewrite that summary on the test. Usually Manju is good at “by-hearting” these books, but The Way of the World is proving tricky. She can’t make sense of what the phrase “Love is subordinated” is supposed to mean.
Manju’s “education” is the envy of every one in Annawadi, but it is not actually set up to help Manju think for herself or make her own choices. Her only option for success is to learn “by heart” the answers that other people want her to give. Though Manju has trouble with the English vocabulary, she would certainly recognize the sentiment that passions and love must be ignored for personal gain expressed in the idea that love is subordinated.
Manju wishes she had an English-Marathi dictionary. She doesn’t harbor the same resentment of this colonial language that her mother does. To Manju, learning English is just another sign that India is becoming more global. Her skills in this language are rather poor, but in Annawadi they are second only to the top student Prakash. Manju thinks about asking Prakash what “subordinated” means, but she knows that she cannot be seen talking to a young man unchaperoned.
Manju welcomes the opportunities that learning English gives her, choosing to see the positives of this language rather than dwell on the harm that the colonial years did to India. Still, a past full of restrictions and the “subordinated” place of women in Indian society keep Manju from achieving her full potential at school and in life.
Manju whispers the plot summary of The Way of the World while she cleans the family hut. She can’t identify with the heroine of this novel, who complains about having to arrange her own marriage. Manju lives in fear of being married to a village boy who will not let her leave the house. Manju thinks about one of the themes of The Way of the World: money is more important than love. That is obviously her mother’s opinion, but Manju herself believes that virtue is the most important. This desire to be good comes partly from fear—Manju’s mother hit her with an axe the one and only time Manju stole—and partly from rebellion against her mother’s corruption.
For Manju, simple choices like the ability to choose one’s own life partner are seen as huge luxuries. Manju’s entire life is controlled by her mother, a fact which Manju submits to in order to be a good daughter, but which Manju also resents when she has a rare free moment to think about it. Ironically, being a good person by conventional western standards is the best way for Manju to get back at her mother and Asha’s focus on success in a corrupt world.
Years ago, Asha got a government grant to open a school in Annawadi and she uses this endeavor to prove that she is a good person. But Manju actually runs the school while her mother focuses on Shiv Sena political commitments. Asha wishes Manju would only run school when the supervisors came to check, but Manju wants to give the other slum children a real education and a fighting chance of getting out of poverty. Her school is much better than the public schools, which let the children play all day.
Manju truly cares about the other children in Annawadi, hoping to give them the same educational opportunities that she has had. Education in India is improving with the help of government grants, but this system is still far from perfect. Manju, at 17, runs a better school than the public schools who are nothing more than glorified baby-sitting. To truly learn anything, Boo points out that Indian students must take matters into their own hands.
The students come rushing into Manju’s hut in a frenzy because one of the young boys has been hit by a taxi. Manju dumps turmeric on the open wound on the boy’s head. The boy’s mother comes in and begins to beat the boy for going into the street and putting himself in danger. Manju desperately tries to get the woman to stop, or at least avoid the boy’s already injured head. She knows that the violence comes from the parents’ fear that their children are slipping away in the new Mumbai.
Manju’s quick reaction to this crisis are another sign that injuries and violence are a common occurrence in Annawadi. Manju rationalizes the mother’s horrific behavior by recognizing that many parents in India are simply afraid of losing traditional family values in the modern, capitalist India, but Boo maintains the horror of this awful beating throughout the scene. Boo sees this violence as another way that Indians in poverty are sabotaging their own futures.
Manju finally patches up the injured boy and enjoys a few minutes of gossip while she rounds up her students. On the way to the classroom, Manju surveys her group of young girls; most are painfully thin and unlikely to get any other education but Manju’s school. One of Manju’s secret students is her friend Meena, a teenager whose family believes that education ruins a girl’s marriage prospects. On this particular day, Meena has to stay home because she spoke back to her parents.
Despite efforts at gender equality in the higher social classes of India, girls are still oppressed among the poor of Annawadi. Especially among strict Hindu families like that of Meena, a girl’s worth is still tied directly and solely to her marriageability. Boo sees Meena’s restrictive life as another way that Indian society is not as progressive as some Indians would like to pretend.
Manju gets the students to the classroom and starts a round of “Head-Shoulders-Knees-and-Toe” to get out the children’s energy before an English vocabulary lesson. Sunil, the scavenger, no longer comes because he considers Manju’s class meaningless when he could be working. Abdul listens from the street, wondering how anyone could pretend to be superior to Manju, the “most-everything” girl in Annawadi. Even Abdul can’t guess what future waits for Sunil.
Sunil has given up on education as a way out of poverty, a smart choice in terms of immediate profit, but a difficult prospect in terms of Sunil’s ultimate future. Abdul, who clearly yearns to have the luxury of Manju’s goodness, both resents Sunil for giving up the education that Abdul wants and hopes for the best for his young friend.