There was too much wanting at Annawadi lately, or so it seemed to Abdul. As India began to prosper, old ideas about accepting the life assigned by one's caste or one's divinities were yielding to a belief in earthly reinvention. Annawadians now spoke of better lives casually, as if fortune were a cousin arriving on Sunday, as if the future would look nothing like the past.
Seventeen years later, almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. Rather, the Annawadians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when, around the same moment as the small slum's founding, the central government embraced economic liberalization. The Annawadians were thus part of one of the most stirring success narratives in the modern history of global market capitalism, a narrative still unfolding.
True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85 percent of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.) True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and fried them for dinner. A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge. And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors. They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility.
Everyone, everywhere, complained about their neighbors. But in the twenty-first-century city, fewer people joined up to take their disputes to the streets. As group identities based on caste, ethnicity, and religion gradually attenuated, anger and hope were being privatized, like so much else in Mumbai. This development increased the demand for canny mediators-human shock absorbers for the colliding, narrowly construed interests of one of the world's largest cities.
In the West, and among some in the Indian elite, this word, corruption, had purely negative connotations; it was seen as blocking India's modern, global ambitions. But for the poor of a country where corruption thieved a great deal of opportunity, corruption was one of the genuine opportunities that remained.
The airport people had erected tall, gleaming aluminum fences on the side of the slum that most drivers passed before turning into the international terminal. Drivers approaching the terminal from the other direction would see only a concrete wall covered with sunshine-yellow advertisements. The ads were for Italianate floor tiles, and the corporate slogan ran the wall's length: BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER BEAUTIFUL FOREVER. Sunil regularly walked atop the Beautiful Forever wall, surveying for trash, but Airport Road was unhelpfully clean.
And while some international businessmen descending into the Mumbai airport eyed the vista of slums with disgust, and others regarded it with pity, few took the sight as evidence of a high-functioning, well-managed city.
Annawadians understood that their settlement was widely perceived as a blight, and that their homes, like their work, were provisional. Still they clung to this half-acre…
They understood Subhash Sawant to be corrupt. They assumed he'd faked his caste certificate. "But he alone comes here, shows his face," Annawadians said. Before each election, he'd used city money or tapped the largesse of a prominent American Christian charity, World Vision, to give Annawadi an amenity: a public toilet; a flag- pole; gutters; a concrete platform by the sewage lake, where he usually stood when he came.
As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha placed her hopes; and education.
In calmer moments, Manju could argue that parents were terrified of losing control of their children in a city where dangers seemed to be multiplying-a city they didn't fully understand. And as much as Manju hated violence of any stripe, the odd thrashing, like the odd axe blow, could be effective in keeping a child close to home.
Zehrunisa would go, sighing, to separate the miserable couple, just as she sighed on Eid and other Muslim holidays before inviting them to share her mutton korma. The family of the child-abusing Fatima, the family of the skeezy brothel owner: This was the Muslim fellowship she had in Annawadi.
"It's easy to break a single bamboo stick, but when you bundle the sticks, you can't even bend them," she told her children. "It's the same with family and with the people of our faith. Despite the petty differences, Muslims have to join up in big sufferings, and for Eid."
She was less and less sure she wanted to go to Vasai, less and less sure her husband would live to get there. She wanted a more hygienic home here, in the name of her children's vitality… On the floor she wanted ceramic tiles like the ones advertised on the Beautiful Forever wall - tiles that could be scrubbed clean, instead of broken concrete that harbored filth in each striation. With these small improvements, she thought her children might stay as healthy as children in Annawadi could be.
"Everyone is jealous of us, fixing our house," Kehkashan explained to an older cousin who'd just arrived from the countryside.
"So let them be jealous," Zehrunisa exclaimed. "Why shouldn’t we live in a better room now that we are doing a little better?"
The four-foot gray slab was uneven, as was the floor, so the shelf wobbled perilously on two supports he'd built to hold it up. Nothing in this idiot house was straight. The only way to stabilize the shelf, and make it level, would be to cut into the brick wall, itself uneven, and cement the slab in place…
Abdul was dismayed. The readiness of the bricks to disintegrate, long suspected, was now confirmed. They'd been made with too much sand, and the mortar between them had deteriorated. Crap bricks that weren't even glued to one another-less a wall than a tremulous stack.
He didn't know if his mother was right about an earlier, peaceful age in which poor people had accepted the fates that their respective gods had written on their foreheads, and in turn treated one another more kindly. He just knew that she didn't really long for companionable misery. She'd known abjectness, loathed its recollection, and raised her son for a modern age of ruthless competition. In this age, some people rose and some people fell, and ever since he was little, she'd made him understand that he had to rise.
Only in detention had it occurred to him that drudge labor in an urban armpit like Annawadi might be considered freedom. He was gratified that boys from other urban armpits agreed.
To his family, Abdul's physical capability had been the mattering thing. He was the workhorse, his moral judgments irrelevant. He wasn't even sure that he had any moral judgments. But when The Master spoke of taufeez and izzat, respectability and honor, Abdul thought the man's stare had blazed across the rows of heads and come to rest on him alone. It was not too late, at seventeen or whatever age he was, to resist the corrupting influences of his world and his nature.
Now the man's leg was mashed and bloody, and he was calling out to passersby for help. Sunil figured he'd been hit by a car. Some drivers weren't overly concerned about avoiding the trash-pickers who scoured the roadsides.
Sunil was too scared to go to the police station and ask for an ambulance, especially after what was rumored to have happened to Abdul. Instead he ran toward the battleground of the Cargo Road dumpsters, hoping an adult would brave the police station.
"All murders we detect, 100 percent success," was how Senior Inspector Patil, who ran the Sahar station, liked to put it. But perhaps there was a trick to this success rate: not detecting the murders of inconsequential people.
Succumbed to an "irrecoverable illness" was the swift conclusion of Maruti Jadhav, the inspector in charge of Kalu's case. At the morgue of Cooper Hospital, the nature of the "irrecoverable illness" was decided. Fifteen-year-old Deepak Rai, known as Kalu, had died of his tuberculosis - the same cause of death tagged to the bleeding scavenger who had slowly expired on the road.
Trying to make sense of the deaths of Kalu and Sanjay, Sunil and Abdul grew closer. Not quite friends-rather, an unnameable, not-entirely-willing category of relationship in which two boys felt themselves bound to two boys who were dead. Sunil and Abdul sat together more often than before, but when they spoke, it was with the curious formality of people who shared the understanding that much of what was said did not matter, and that much of what mattered could not be said.
…she kept thinking she saw smoke coming out of Meena's mouth and nose-as if the girl had set herself on fire from the inside. No, that was impossible. Rat poison only. Her mind was looping. If she screamed for help, the whole slum would know that Meena had attempted suicide, which would ruin her reputation.
"The banks in America went in a loss, then the big people went in a loss, then the scrap market in the slum areas came down, too": This was how he explained the global economic crisis. A kilo of empty water bottles once worth twenty-five rupees was now worth ten, and a kilo of newspaper once worth five rupees was now worth two: This was how the global crisis was understood.
Once my mother was beating me, and that thought came to me. I said, “lf what is happening now, you beating me, is to keep happening for the rest of my life, it would be a bad life, but it would be a life, too.' And my mother was so shocked when I said that. She said, 'Don't confuse yourself by thinking about such terrible lives.' "
Sunil thought that he, too, had a life. A bad life, certainly—the kind that could be ended as Kalu's had been and then forgotten, because it made no difference to the people who lived in the overcity. But something he'd come to realize on the roof, leaning out, thinking about what would happen if he leaned too far, was that a boy’s life could still matter to himself.
Impatient at the translation delays, the judge began telling the stenographer what to write. And so a slumdweller's nuanced replies to the prosecutor's questions became monosyllabic ones - the better to keep the case moving along.
Asha had always prized her competitiveness, a quality that she'd failed to pass on to her children. Perhaps because they lacked it, she had valued it more in herself. But over time, the compulsion to win could become self-deceiving. Instead of admitting that she was making little progress, she had invented new definitions of success. She had felt herself moving ahead, just a little, every time other people failed.
But the slumdwellers rarely got mad together-not even about the airport authority.
Instead, powerless individuals blamed other powerless individuals for what they lacked….
What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn't unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world's great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.
A man, if sensible, didn't make bright distinctions between good and bad, truth and falsehood, justice and that other thing.
"For some time I tried to keep the ice inside me from melting," was how he put it. "But now I'm just becoming dirty water, like everyone else. I tell Allah I love Him immensely, immensely. But I tell Him I cannot be better, because of how the world is."