The rains come again as July turns into August and sewage floods Annawadi. Sunil once heard that the rains wash the mean out of people, but he only sees the rain washing his profitable garbage away. The Husain family also suffers, as Mirchi tries to take Abdul’s role but is not as adept at judging the worth of the trash. Zehrunisa is too busy begging her family for Abdul’s bail money to help. She can get nothing because she has no collateral to offer for the bail bonds. All the Husain’s possessions are in Karam’s name alone.
Sunil’s future, as hard as he works, is totally dependent on arbitrary things such as the weather remaining still enough for garbage to collect in the street. Meanwhile, the Husains have also felt the harsh effects of having such a tentative business plan.. Zehrunisa’s family abandons her, another example of the selfish focus on personal success in India, while the old tradition of keeping women at home means that she has no economic agency while her husband and sons are incarcerated. The legacy of past oppression in India continues to hurt the Husains even as the future vision for India excludes them.
Karam is desperate and angry every time Zehrunisa visits him because his health is failing in the crowded cell. To make matters worse, Officer Thokale is furious that Zehrunisa told people in Annawadi that he took a bribe to protect Abdul and Karam. Zehrunisa babbles that she never told a soul, unsure what she has said in her grief. She second guesses everything she did, wondering if she should have paid Asha in the first place now that the Husains are facing a very expensive trial.
All the police officers take bribes, but they want to preserve the illusion of honest service. Though Officer Thokale is at fault for accepting the corrupt offer, he prefers to blame Zehrunisa for ruining his reputation. Zehrunisa is unfairly held responsible for all the mistakes that have led the Husain family to this awful place.
The only choice Zehrunisa felt good about was paying the officers to try Abdul as a child. She thinks Abdul is 17, but she truly has no idea exactly how old he is; her only clue is that Saddam Hussein was killing people while Zehrunisa was pregnant. Thanks to a false school record claiming Abdul is 16, Abdul is sent to a juvenile detention center in Dongri.
Abdul has no formal record of his birth, another way that being born into poverty makes him less than an official person in the eyes of the state. But Zehrunisa uses this fact to her advantage, getting an easier sentence for Abdul by potentially lying about his age.
Dongri is in a thriving middle-class Muslim neighborhood. On his way there, Abdul notes the people in the street living happy, peaceful lives. The detention center itself is a pleasant, moss-covered stone building built by the British in the early 1800s. Abdul is given a uniform and sent to a large room full of other new arrivals. The wardens are almost kind, as they have been frightened by a recent newspaper article that had caught the attention of human rights activists who declared conditions in Dongri cruel and unusual.
Outside of Annawadi, Abdul sees a vision of how easy his life could have been were he to live in such an environment – ironically as he is going to be imprisoned. Yet in one of the few examples of foreign involvement improving conditions for Indian citizens, the efforts of human rights activists make the Detention Center an oasis for Abdul in the midst of his turmoil and uncertainty.
While Abdul waits to be called by a warden for inspection, he looks at the portraits of famous Indians on the wall. After Abdul is registered, a muezzin calls for evening prayer, calming Abdul though he is rarely clean enough to go through this ritual at home. Abdul’s faith in Allah is purely economic: if rich people spend money to worship Allah, he must be real. At first, Abdul resists the daily baths at Dongri, clinging to his dirt as a reminder of his old life in Annawadi. But after three days of getting no breakfast without washing, Abdul gives in.
The portraits of the famous Indians on the wall remind Abdul that he is part of a united India, even if the legal system has thrown him away so that he will never leave a legacy like these famous men. The attitude of the New India affects Abdul’s faith by considering Allah in terms of profit. Abdul also compromises his principles for personal gain, letting go of the dirt that connects him to his past to get food. Boo presents this as the correct choice, a way to move forward rather than a betrayal of his past.
Abdul’s days at Dongri follow a regular pattern. He and the other boys (who are mostly Muslim, a group overrepresented in Indian prisons) have mandatory exercise in the morning then spend their days doing nothing. The boys tell stories and complain about their charges. Most have been detained for breaking child labor laws, which Abdul thinks is an unfair punishment for people who are already so poor that their children have to work. He finds himself forming the odd opinion that the young boys should be “free” to work. As Abdul has time in Dongri to rest and think about things other than work, he becomes much more sympathetic to the troubles of other boys.
Though India would like to appear fully multicultural, Muslim citizens are still discriminated against in legal and criminal matters. Abdul also sees injustice in the arrests of child laborers. Depriving families of able-bodied workers is not going to improve conditions for these children, especially if the families were already so poor that they needed their children to seek employment. Abdul’s sense of freedom involves work because that is all he has ever known, though his time away from the competition of Annawadi does allow him to develop his moral conscience.
One morning, Abdul has a hospital inspection to see if he is really a minor. The doctor examines him, then tells Abdul that he will be 17 if he pays 2,000 rupees and 20 if he does not. Abdul is furious, prompting the doctor to explain that he has to take bribes in order to make enough to feed his family. Eventually, the doctor relents and declares Abdul 17 without pay. Abdul is surprised to find he feels bad for the doctor, who also has a hard life.
In the current economic climate of India, Boo explains that even otherwise honest men like the doctor feel compelled to take bribes simply to survive. Corruption pervades every aspect of the society, as Abdul’s actual age never enters into the equation. Yet Abdul is surprised to find a human connection with the doctor, when he is used to relating to others in Annawadi only in terms of profit or loss.
Another afternoon, the Dongri boys are sent to listen to a man called The Master. The Master, a pudgy Hindu man, tells the boys a sob story about what happens to disobedient people who end up in jail. The master cries as he describes the reform and redemption that await the boys who abandon their criminal ways. Almost despite himself, Abdul cries with The Master and exalts in his newfound inspiration to become a refined and honest man.
The Master presents a way for Abdul to erase his past and his birth in order to become an upstanding member of Indian society. He desperately wants to be seen as a virtuous man, despite the fact that everyone considers him a criminal.
Abdul assesses his life so far and decides that he has been mostly virtuous already, but he could be better. He decides he will never again buy stolen goods. He intends to remember these moral judgements even when he is released back into the corruption of his world.
Away from Annawadi, Abdul can focus on moral judgements because he is not constantly working toward his survival. At home in the slum, choices have to take into account their value in keeping his family alive, not just their moral value.