At the Burn Ward in Cooper Hospital, Fatima enjoys being treated like she matters. She lies in her first bed, surrounded by dirty medical equipment, and relishes the stream of visitors from Annawadi. The most important of these is Asha, who tells Fatima that it would be dangerous to lie about how she was burned considering the many witnesses. Furthermore, Asha has arranged for the Husains to pay for the hospital if Fatima drops her charges.
Fatima, who has worked her entire life to make herself important to the other slum residents, a feat which required her to sacrifice her health and her body. Yet as much as Fatima would like to erase the real narrative in favor of one that makes her a hero, Asha reminds Fatima that she has more to gain by giving in to what really happened and letting the Husains pay her to forget everything.
Fatima has already registered accusations against Karam, Abdul, and Kehkashan. This prompted Karam’s arrest and Abdul’s subsequent flight to the police office. But Fatima’s daughter Noori has refuted these claims by saying she saw her mother light herself on fire. Now Fatima has to update her story and prove that the Husains incited her to commit suicide, a serious crime in India after British colonizers tried to end the historical practice of widows burning themselves on their husband’s pyres. Fatima makes a new statement to the Special Executive Officer explaining that she lit the match, but Abdul threatened and beat her until she felt she had no other choice.
In previous times, convincing widows to burn themselves was a smart financial choice for families that could not afford to care for a woman with no husband to provide for her. The lack of economic agency among women is echoed by Fatima’s feelings of helplessness. While it is not true that Abdul convinced her to burn herself, Fatima truly did feel as if she had no other choice for expressing her frustration with her limited life and the ridicule of her neighbors.
Fatima spends three days at the public hospital, with her husband forced to buy all her food and medicine on the black market and bring it in to her. The doctor just tells Fatima’s husband to apply an expensive burn cream and bring Fatima three bottles of water a day. Fatima’s family can’t afford this.
The public hospital is barely equipped to shelter people, much less give medical care. Fatima’s family is on their own to care for her with no resources. For the poor who cannot afford private hospitals, going to the public hospital is practically a death sentence.
Over in the Sahar Police Station, Abdul is beaten with a leather strap. The officer warns Abdul that if the disabled women dies, Abdul will be charged with murder. After what feels like hours of pain, Abdul hears Zehrunisa crying to the receptionist. He tries not to scream but can’t help himself. Eventually, Zehrunisa’s crying gets quieter and Abdul hopes that she has gone home.
The police brutalize Abdul instead of giving him due process and protecting him as a citizen of Mumbai. To the officials of the city, people as poor as Abdul and Zehrunisa have no feelings and do not matter.
Abdul and Karam are kept in the police station’s “unofficial cell” where the police do not have to fill out paperwork to detain them. For three days, Abdul is kept there as the police ask over and over why he beat a crippled woman. Abdul has no answer but the truth, that he insulted Fatima but never touched her. The police move on to Karam, asking how he expects to feed his family from jail. Karam knows they just want to extort as much money as possible. The Husains will be innocent or guilty depending on how much they pay.
Karam and Abdul are held at the police station but kept off the official record, another way that public authorities in Mumbai erase the existence and pain of those who live in poverty. The police show that they care nothing for the truth of what happened, but only for how much money the Husains will pay to make the whole problem disappear. Though the bribes would be expensive, the police remind Karam that going to jail would be ultimately worse for his family financially.
Abdul and Karam debate about paying these bribes, knowing they will have to save money for a lawyer if Fatima dies. Zehrunisa appears periodically to give updates on how much Asha is asking to make this whole thing go away. After helping Zehrunisa talk to the police for free the first day, Asha now wants 50,000 rupees. Zehrunisa is hesitant because she has already paid Officer Thokale to keep the interrogation fair. The Special Executive Officer who takes the Husains’ statements also wants money to spin the official record in their favor. Zehrunisa would rather pay Fatima’s husband directly so that Fatima can go to a private hospital instead of dying in the public Cooper.
If Fatima dies, she would no longer be able to take back her charges and the Husains would be forced to go to trial. With literally everyone involved asking for money, the Husains have no idea who to pay. No one is offering to help the Husains without the promise of personal gain. Zehrunisa’s instinct is to cut out the middle men and pay Fatima’s family directly, hoping to make the conflict go away with individual action rather than depending on anyone else. However, Boo suggests that this is one thing that the Husains cannot fix by themselves.
As the days in the station stretch on, Abdul ignores all of this, thinking of an action movie called Alive where a man was imprisoned for years for a crime he didn’t commit. Abdul never had big dreams for his future— he just hoped to earn money to live comfortably. He thinks about his mother’s nostalgia for the old days when people accepted their fates and suffered together. Now, the world is so competitive that no one will help the Husains as their future crumbles.
Abdul escapes into fantasy as his life becomes unbearable, hoping that he can emerge like that hero even though he usually does not indulge in such dreams. Abdul’s hopes for his life seemed so small, but the hard conditions and precariousness of life in the slum have made even this small hope impossible. With the new focus on individual achievement in capitalist India, the Husains have no one to turn to now that they are not successful.
Abdul spends his days in a haze, unaware of much besides the periodic beatings. Eventually, he overhears a phone conversation between Officer Thokale and Asha which has the miraculous result of making the beatings stop. Abdul wonders why Asha would help him, eventually deciding that Asha has seen his hard work over the years. Karam knows that Asha is only trying to show her own power in the police station.
Abdul hopes that Asha has noticed him, displaying the shared drive of the Annawadians to be seen for their good qualities rather than disappearing in the faceless masses. Karam knows Asha’s true motive is more self-serving, as pulling strings with the Husains will convince other Annawadians to pay Asha to help them when they get in trouble.
Four days after Fatima’s burning, a Muslim fakir (monk and miracle-worker) comes to Annawadi. Kehkashan jumps at the opportunity to receive a blessing before she herself must go into custody at the police station. Next door, Fatima’s husband curses the fakir and Kehkashan feels that he has set up himself and Fatima up for bad luck. Indeed, Fatima dies that night.
Kehkashan falls back on the old ways in the midst of this trouble, trusting her faith to protect her when the “modern” public systems have not. Fatima’s death after her family refused the blessing seems to support this choice. Even in the New India, the old traditions still hold weight in times of tragedy.
Fatima’s burns are recorded as the official cause of death, but it is really an infection that kills her. Kehkashan and Zehrunisa, as the only other Muslim women in Annawadi, take over the burial rites, while Zehrunisa sobs about the new false charges of murder against her family. The Husain boys carry Fatima to the graveyard, past the luxury hotels where Americans gleefully discuss the new business opportunities in a wealthier India. Fatima’s daughters are sent to Sister Paulette’s orphanage.
The hospital erases what really killed Fatima so that their image will not be further tarnished to the city officials of Mumbai. The hospital’s self-serving action get the Husains in even worse trouble, as their crime against Fatima now seems more serious. Yet the Husains do not shirk their duty to their faith community even in this awful time. Boo admires their loyalty to the old ways, putting them in sharp contrast with the foreign investments that now govern India.