July 17, 2008 – Mumbai. At midnight, the Mumbai police are looking for Abdul, a teenage recyclables sorter who lives in a Mumbai slum. Abdul’s father, Karam, has decided that he will offer himself to the police when they come to the house so that Abdul can run. The only place Abdul can think of to hide is in his shed full of garbage waiting to be sold. He tries to get there without any of his neighbors seeing, as old Hindu-Muslim resentments and economic envy for Abdul’s relatively lucrative job means that Abdul’s mostly Hindu neighbors do not like him.
The book begins with Abdul assumed guilty – a state which will follow him through most of the events. It is already clear that Abdul can depend on very few people in his life, and that the neighborhood of Annawadi is not a very supportive environment. Though the new image of India tries to pretend that cosmopolitan tolerance overcomes all, Abdul faces discrimination based on his religion (an old issue) and his money (a new issue after India’s turn to capitalism).
Abdul makes it to his trash shed and hides among the garbage. He has made a life out of sorting recyclables and staying out of trouble, teaching him to go unnoticed at all costs in the slum of Annawadi. As migrants from rural India continue to come to Mumbai, this slum has become a lucrative crossroads for trash, but is also a tricky place where old beliefs come into conflict with new ideas. As a Muslim, Abdul tries to avoid his neighbor’s arguments about castes and sub-castes that determined life in India for so long.
Abdul is somewhat of an outsider in Annawadi, though he has lived there his whole life. While Annawadi offers business opportunities in the New India, the old ways have not entirely disappeared. Though caste is not supposed to matter now that India’s economy is a free market where anyone can advance, there are still restrictions on what people can and cannot do.
Annawadi squats on land own by the Airport Authority of India and is surrounded by five huge luxury hotels that serve the rich people who fly in and out of Mumbai. India’s rapidly growing economy has led to huge construction projects in Mumbai and offered a plethora of trash for the city’s scavengers to try and recycle to eke out a living. Abdul is not a scavenger, but a step above. He acts as a trader who buys the best goods from poor scavengers then makes a profit at recycling plants. He excels at sorting various trash into the specific categories that the recycling plants accept. With only a few years of school under his belt, Abdul expects to do this for the rest of his life.
Annawadi is not technically supposed to exist, as the Airport Authority never gave permission for these people to live there. Yet the neighborhood is a microcosm for the state of India as a whole – vast increases in wealth for a small minority while the majority continue to live hard, invisible lives. Abdul’s job sorting recyclables points to the way that India’s citizens are also sorted into groups. No matter how hard Abdul works, he will likely never be welcome in the luxury hotels he sees next door.
On this night, Abdul has been accused of setting his neighbor, a crippled woman snidely called One Leg, on fire. Abdul can smell “One Leg” burning from inside the shed. He climbs up the trash pile as quietly as he can. Walls are thin in Annawadi and Abdul does not want to wake anyone with rattling trash. Abdul lays on a pile of cardboard and thinks about One Leg, Abdul’s neighbor for eight years who he does not like.
Boo emphasizes how small the neighborhood of Annawadi is, as Abdul cannot get away from his neighbors or have any privacy. Tensions are also clearly high on this night, though Boo does not yet reveal whether Abdul is responsible for his neighbor’s burns or not. Violence of this nature seems to be a common occurrence, though it seems to be a first for Abdul to be involved in it.
Abdul’s mother, Zehrunisa, also disapproves of One Leg because she wears perfume and lipstick. Abdul silently thinks that his mother does not always act properly either – Zehrunisa curses when she haggles for recyclables. Karam and Zehrunisa have nine children, but Karam is too sick to work. Thus, Zehrunisa must take on the unladylike job of providing for her family. Now that Abdul is old enough, he does much of the trading that has made the Husain family successful (by Annawadian standards). They make enough money to have a real brick wall between their home and One Leg’s shack.
Zehrunisa judges One Leg harshly for going against the traditional rules of behavior for proper women in India, though she herself has stepped out of the passive role usually reserved for wives by taking over the family business. Both of these women show how India is changing to allow more freedom from previous restrictions, but also the backlash of anger that follows. For now, Zehrunisa seems to be rewarded for her new behavior with the brick wall that symbolizes ultimate prosperity in the otherwise temporary housing situations of Annawadi.
One Leg’s real name is Sita. She has fair skin that should have made her quite a catch but her twisted leg put off all offers of marriage but one. Her family was happy to get rid of her, even though Sita’s husband is Muslim. Her husband renames her Fatima and the two have three daughters together. Fatima does not seem to grieve when her youngest daughter drowns in a bucket, which sets off gossip about her. Fatima does not seem to care about that either.
Boo outlines the incredibly restricted state for most women in India, where they are seen as good for nothing except marriage. Fatima, as she is now called, has very little to herself – even her name is under the jurisdiction of her husband. Her physical appearance trumps any other good qualities she might have in the eyes of her neighbors, leading Fatima to lash out against others in return.
Abdul’s mind wanders to the current state of “wanting” in Annawadi now that people believe that they can better their lives immediately without waiting to be reincarnated into a better status. Abdul’s brother, Mirchi, is one of these people. Mirchi dreams of working at a luxury hotel as a waiter. Other people in Annawadi dream of medical miracles or escaping their families or getting enough to eat – even going to college. But One Leg is the craziest of these dreamers in Abdul’s mind, as she wants to be respected instead of seen as a cripple.
India’s acceptance of a capitalist economy has influenced public attitude to think that their futures are under their own control. The supposed wealth of opportunity leads the residents of Annawadi to dream big, a choice which Abdul sees as foolish and impractical. Yet in global terms, the dreams of the Annawadians are fairly normal parts of life – showing the huge handicap that the Annawadians have from birth.
The police arrive in Annawadi, striking fear into the hearts of all the residents. They are strangely polite to Abdul’s family, simply relaying that Karam, Abdul, and Abdul’s sister Kehkashan have been charged with beating One Leg and setting her on fire. Abdul overhears the charges from his hiding place, knowing that their innocence doesn’t matter because the poor are always seen as guilty in Mumbai. The police officers lead Karam away as Zehrunisa sobs.
The police are not seen as protectors, but as aggressors in Annawadi. Their normal behavior is so bad that common courtesy is seen as strange. The poor are hated in Mumbai, with no money or influence to earn them justice in a system that depends on bribes to buy innocence.
Abdul weighs his options, wondering if the police will return to look for him tonight. The other boys in the slum are more daring, raised on Bollywood movies that praise feats of bravery and strength. But Abdul prefers to be cautious, even if the other boys laugh at his fearfulness. Abdul knows how quickly fortunes change in Annawadi and thinks it pays off to be alert. Yet even Abdul had not foreseen that One Leg would burn herself.
Bollywood movies also encourage the residents of Annawadi to dream too big. Abdul prioritizes practical action, seeing that the opportunities that others expect in the new India do not come without a cost. Yet even playing it safe is not enough to truly be successful for people who are born poor, as Abdul’s accusation in One Leg’s accident attests.
Hours later, a woman named Cynthia, a friend to One Leg and rival to the Husain family in the garbage business, tries to convince people to help her look for Abdul and deliver him to the police. No one takes her up on it, and Abdul gets a few hours of sleep. He wakes again at dawn, cursing himself for not escaping Annawadi under the cover of night, and he decides to find his mother to ask her what to do. Zehrunisa tells Abdul to turn himself in at the Sahar Police Station. He runs there, hoping to save his father from a beating and proclaim his innocence. Abdul trusts that justice will prevail as he enters the station.
There are few friendships in Annawadi, such as that between Cynthia and One Leg, but Boo points out that most people are primarily concerned with looking out for themselves as no one cares enough even to look for Abdul. Abdul, fundamentally honest, decides to turn himself in because he still thinks that justice means something.