In July, Asha, Mahadeo, Rahul, and Manju visit the small village where they lived before moving to Mumbai. Asha feels like a giant, coming back a rich hero to this place where she had worked herself to the bone as a child. The true purpose of this trip is to arrange a marriage proposal for Manju, though Asha pretends she is here to celebrate the wedding of one of Mahadeo’s nephews.
Though Asha and her family may live relatively poor lives in Annawadi, their situation in a Mumbai is still far better than the lives of most rural Indians. Many Indians have moved to urban centers looking for greater economic opportunity, adding to the slum problem for the cities, but improving their own conditions.
Despite the supposed wedding festivities, all the village residents are preoccupied with the drought of the past month. Most of their expensive cotton seedlings have died and there is little that this farming community can do but pray that rain comes soon to save the rest. Asha is surprised that the village looks better than it did when she was a child, as public works projects have improved the buildings. Yet the conditions of rural poverty have not actually gotten better, and thousands of farmers commit suicide every year. The government records these deaths but does little to correct the drought situation.
Unlike the city where there are several routes out of poverty, there are no options in rural India to earn more money than to hope that the crops yield well. Government aide helps somewhat, but it does not address the true problem with the farming life in India – as livelihoods are dependent on weather patterns that cannot be controlled. Instead of recognizing this short-coming and finding new ways to help rural Indians, the government mostly ignores this problem.
Real opportunities are hard to come by in India unless one is already wealthy. Public funds are often diverted to private interests and government relief programs are controlled by the highest contributors instead of working to actually help citizens. Rural farm workers remain hopeful, but even things that are supposed to help, such as the pesticides that the government provides, only make their lives harder by causing new diseases and injuries. More and more rural residents are moving to the city to find new opportunities, exacerbating the overcrowded slums in Mumbai.
Even programs that claim to help the rural poor are often siphoned through so many corrupt deals that almost none of the funds reach their intended recipients. Neither is it enough to simply give the rural farmers modern technology like pesticides without fully understanding what those chemicals are going to do to the workers or the crops. While moving to Mumbai is risky, it is better to go and have options than to stay and face certain starvation in the fields.
The night before the wedding, Manju walks through the village leading prayers for the bride and groom. The whole village comes to the temple, ostensibly honoring the betrothed couple, but really paying attention to Manju. She is an exciting prospect to almost all the village families, but Asha has high expectations for Manju’s husband. The next day at the wedding, Asha focuses on a young soldier. Manju brings the soldier tea, deciding that he is not bad looking but that she would rather run away than go obediently to a life in this rural village.
Manju represents the future of India to this rural community, as a woman who has achieved a college education and lives in the freedom of the city. Yet Manju has little control over her own life, as it is Asha who will be choosing Manju’s husband and Manju’s husband who will be commanding Manju’s future. Manju herself wants to return to the opportunities of the city, not move “backwards” into rural India.
The Waghekar family returns to Annawadi, where Asha ignores Zehrunisa’s pleas for legal help and focuses on her own education. To truly transcend her rural background, Asha decides to act like the first-class people until she is accepted as one of them. She counsels Manju to “by-heart” (meaning memorize and pretend) her way into improving their conditions by asking first class people how to act like them. Asha believes that acting like a higher social class will eventually allow them to join that group. For herself, Asha asks the politician she works with for his blunt opinion of her appearance. Manju brings back more style advice from college and considers the power of the “Marquee Effect” – a term she has heard in her Photoshop class that means making something look better than it is.
Asha reuses the phrase “by-heart” (originally used by Manju to refer to her efforts to memorize books for her literature class) to mean that she can memorize the actions of first-class people well enough to act like them. Yet the phrase also calls attention to the force of Asha’s desire. She wants to be first-class so badly that she literally wills herself to be so. Manju considers all of this to be pretty veneer over their real lives, like the marquee effect on Photoshop that displays a running tag. Asha thinks that labeling themselves first-class will be enough to make it true, while Manju knows that you can make the marquee say anything you want.
Taking advantage of her mother’s more open mindset, Manju cautiously brings up the subject of marrying a man of her own choosing. Asha still doesn’t want to get that modern, and wants to find a suitable husband for Manju who will lift the social status of the whole family. The soldier from the village is dismissed and Asha focuses widening Manju’s social circle. Asha gets Manju a job selling life insurance to rich people, promising that the insurance will undo any tragedies that happen in their life.
Asha is willing to be modern when it nets her a profit, but she is not willing to let go of the control over her daughter and the potential money to made from a traditional arranged marriage. As in Manju’s college reading The Way of the World, love is not a consideration for Manju’s life partner. Rather, she is supposed to find someone who will act as “insurance” for the Waghekar family to keep them in the first-class circles.
Manju applies herself to learning the insurance business, finding that she has to play up the profit that can come from owning insurance and never mention the possibilities of death or accidents. In Manju’s own life, she sees how everyone in Annawadi and in her college classes only focus on the potential profit of their actions. Manju herself tries to stay true to her dream of running a school for underprivileged kids but it’s difficult when no one else seems to see the long-term benefit of educating slum children. Even the Catholic charity that funds Manju’s afternoon school doesn’t seem very concerned about whether the school is successful or not.
In Manju’s eyes, Indians today do not want to think about the troubles of their lives but simply want to focus on how to make their lives better. The new emphasis on capitalist earnings in the economy have convinced Manju’s clients that better always means richer. Manju wants to define profit in something other than monetary terms, but she is seemingly alone in her desire to work for the good of anyone but herself. Without the support of a community, Manju’s school seems destined to fail.
Asha begins to think that Manju is spending too much time on her slum school project. Asha forces Manju to teach only every other day, but Manju then spends her free time volunteering for the Indian Civil Defense Corps, a middle-class service organization that trains people to save others during floods or terror attacks. With the recent bombings in Bangalore and Ahmedabad, Manju and others are increasingly worried about terror attacks in Mumbai. During crisis practice, Manju’s slender body means that she is always chosen as the victim to be rescued. She loves her role, especially when a young man named Vijay is chosen to save her. She tries to keep herself from caring for Vijay, knowing that he would never look twice at a slum girl.
Manju tries many methods of making a united India for herself, through both education and service. Yet the Indian Civil Defense Corps, which claims to work for the benefit of all Indians affected by terrorism, really focuses only on protecting middle-class neighborhoods. Manju knows that these middle-class people do not care about the residents of Annawadi, and that a relationship with a middle-class man like Vijay is highly unlikely for her no matter how much her mother wants Manju’s marriage to help them climb this social ladder.
On Asha’s 40th birthday, Manju passes around cake to the family. Asha tries to celebrate, but is distracted by the constant call of a certain policeman on her cell phone. Asha finally answers the phone, then tells her family she has to go. Manju is angry, knowing that her mother is leaving to have sex with the policeman as part of the deal that Asha has struck with many of these men.
Asha again proves that profit is more important to her than morals, giving up her body to maintain a good relationship with the police who help her make money through illegal fraud. Manju rejects this lack of virtue, as she herself would rather be less successful economically and keep her virtue.
Asha ignores her daughter’s tears, justifying her extra-marital liaisons as necessary for the money and power that has allowed Asha to send Manju to college and consider a fabulous marriage for her. Asha walks out into the night and gets into the back of a white police van.
Asha deems corrupting her own life worth it for the chance to give Manju a better life. Though Manju thinks that Asha is only focused on the short-term gain of the liaisons, Asha actually has a long-term plan for bettering their family’s economic situation.