The section begins with a quote from one of the mothers in Annawadi, wondering why poor people can’t make stupid mistakes the way rich people do. The chapter then starts focusing on Fatima, who comforts herself in her boring arranged marriage by having multiple affairs. For any other woman, this would be scandalous, but Fatima’s disability makes her ridiculous. She lets out her anger freely and often, finally taking back her self-worth after a lifetime of being told she was worthless. She uses the men who visit her in the afternoon to remind herself that her body is more than the parts she doesn’t have.
The quote at the beginning sets the stage for someone in Annawadi to make a mistake that could ruin entire lives – as being poor in India means that any mistakes have exponential effects on one’s livelihood. Fatima’s affairs may seem like a mistake, but no one respects her enough to even care that she is flouting the traditional roles of women in society. A lifetime of oppression has made Fatima into a woman who takes what she wants no matter the consequences.
June marks the beginning of monsoon season, which can be brutal in the slum. In 2008, the rains start early and pour down for a full week. But then they stop – giving children a welcome respite from staying inside. Zehrunisa watches Mirchi play, trying not to think about how Mirchi has failed 9th grade, Karam is in the hospital for his lungs, and Kehkashan has run away from her husband. While the younger Husains are happy that Kehkashan is home, Kehkashan is heartbroken that her arranged marriage has ended in a husband who cheats on her.
For the Husains, things that looked like opportunities to get out of Annawadi have proved disappointing. Mirchi’s education is not going as planned, and Kehkashan’s marriage has failed. But where Mirchi has some fault in his failure, Kehkashan has no control over whether her husband cheats. The “mistakes” of both Mirchi and Kehkashan could ruin their lives and keep them in the slum for the rest of their lives.
Zehrunisa angrily thinks that Fatima’s extramarital affairs have brought improper men to their neighborhood who now leer at Kehkashan. Zehrunisa is also skeptical of how Fatima treats her children. Fatima’s 2-year-old daughter recently drowned in a bucket, and Fatima says she was at the toilets when it happened, but Zehrunisa knows she was at home. The police don’t care, as kids—especially girls—die often in the slums where they are a huge financial liability.
Zehrunisa judges Fatima despite knowing just how hard Fatima’s life is. Instead of bonding over their shared struggles, Zehrunisa looks down on Fatima for not accepting her hard lot in life with the quiet dignity that Zehrunisa expects. As women in Annawadi, there are few choices open to both of them – a situation made worse by the lack of female support and community.
Fatima becomes even more flamboyant after her daughter dies, wearing makeup and rubbing her lovers in her husband’s face. The Husains commiserate with Fatima’s husband, but Fatima overhears and gets angry. Still, the Husains must invite Fatima’s family over for the important Muslim holidays.
Though the Husains dislike Fatima enough to talk about her behind her back, they are still bound by the old traditions of their faith community. Though they may not help each other in everyday circumstances, the Muslims of Annawadi still bond on important days.
Karam returns from two weeks in the hospital, much improved from breathing the clean air. Zehrunisa is happy, though grumbles about the cost when the Husains have so many marriages to arrange. Next up is Abdul’s, and Zehrunisa has talked to the family of a scrap dealer in Saki Naka. Mirchi is eager for marriage, but Abdul is more cautious. Zehrunisa thinks that marriage will finally make her strange, silent son happy.
Getting out of Annawadi seems to be the best way for the Husains to live healthy lives, as evidenced by Karam’s improvements. Yet the proposed arranged marriage Zehrunisa has planned for Abdul would keep him stuck in the same type of slum environment, just on the other side of town.
Karam thinks that Abdul will only be happy when they move to Vasai, away from the poisonous atmosphere of the slum. Karam himself fell in love with the mostly Muslim community in Vasai when he saw a group of men drinking tea and talking about the Muslim running for election in America. Karam thinks that Vasai is the perfect mix of village and city where he can raise his kids to be obedient and give them opportunities.
Vasai, as a suburb, seems to hold the best of the two Indias in Karam’s mind. From the rural communities, the suburb keeps the old traditions of honoring family. From the city, the suburb has economic opportunity and the chance to live a better life than one’s ancestors. For Karam, the suburb is the true vision of the New India.
Now that Kehkashan has returned to care for the younger kids, Zehrunisa can go with Karam to visit Vasai. Zehrunisa had expected to spend her entire life in purdah, the Muslim tradition of women staying in the home out of view from men outside their family. Yet Karam’s tuberculosis has forced Zehrunisa to work in public. Zehrunisa looks forward to the day when her sons can take over the recycling business, but she no longer knows if she wants to go back to purdah. Living in Mumbai has given her freedoms that she would not have surrounded by other Muslim families in Vasai.
Though Zehrunisa did not originally want to move out of the traditional role of women in the Muslim community, she has now had a taste of the freedoms available to her in a rapidly changing India. Living in Annawadi, Zehrunisa can go where she wants and she can speak in public. These freedoms may not be much, but they would be gone if Zehrunisa were to move her family back to a more traditional community.
Zehrunisa senses that Karam’s return from the hospital is a good moment to approach him about improving their house in Annawadi instead of putting all their money into the dream of living in Vasai. Zehrunisa convinces Karam to pay for a real shelf for their wall to keep the cooking away from rats, a small window, and real tile flooring that can be swept clean. Zehrunisa hopes these changes will keep her children healthy. She doesn’t know that trying to improve the house will change her life forever.
Zehrunisa hopes to blend the benefits of the suburb with her freedom in Annawadi, making her home more hygienic with small improvements that make their hut more like a permanent house. Zehrunisa sees Vasai as unattainable, while digging in their heels in Annawadi is practical. Calling back to the quote at the beginning of the section, Zehrunisa has no way of knowing that simple construction will be the biggest mistake of her life.