“Life, death and hope in a Mumbai undercity,” the book’s subtitle, is exactly what author Katherine Boo reveals as she introduces readers to life in the Annawadi slum in this work of narrative nonfiction.
Boo spent three and a half years in the slum shadowing residents (in addition to a lot of research)—and we learn about their lives through their eyes. The book is shocking and sickening in parts, but it will touch you deeply.
Abdul Husain is a skilled garbage sorter. “For nearly all the waking hours of nearly all the years he could remember, he’d been buying and selling to recyclers the things that richer people threw away.”
Abdul hopes for a wife who won’t mind too much that he smells and a life outside the slum.
Asha hopes to advance by becoming the slumlord—an unofficial yet powerful position. With little to no attempt at hiding it from her family or neighbors, she slowly buys her access to that power by giving herself to the small-time politicians and corrupt police officers who wield influence over such things.
“Let others sort the trash. For the overcity people who wished to exploit Annawadi, and the undercity people who wished to survive it, [Asha] wanted to be the woman-to-see.”
Her daughter Manju, on the other hand, hopes to do better by getting an education.
Fatima, “the One Leg,” is the next-door neighbor of Abdul’s family. Her dream is to be considered beautiful, and her envy of the Husains’ success sets off a chain of events that damages everyone involved.
The fact that everyone still has dreams is impressive, because of course almost everything seems to work against them. Unimaginable, pervasive corruption; a constant search for (often toxic) food; a global economic crisis; terrorism … you name it, it makes their lives more difficult.
One short passage touches on this: “Instead, 2009 arrived in the slum under a blanket of poverty, the global recession overlaid by a crisis of fear. More Annawadians had to relearn how to digest rats. Sonu deputized Sunil to catch frogs at Naupada slum, since Naupada frogs tasted better than sewage-lake ones.”
And another—this one describing a night-time excursion Abdul takes with Sunil: “Now they were standing at the edge of a wide gully that took runoff from the Mithi River. Sunil came here from time to time to catch mangoor fish to sell back at the slum. When he was young, the water had been blue—‘like swimming pool water,’ he said. It had since turned black and reeking, but the fish still tasted sweet.”
One incident Boo describes toward the end—and the residents’ reaction to it—has stuck with me: The death of two horses from Annawadi catches the eye of an animal rights group, which undertakes a campaign to penalize the horses’ owner.
“The forces of justice had finally come to Annawadi,” she writes. “That the beneficiaries were horses was a source of bemusement to Sunil and the road boys.
“They weren’t thinking about the uninvestigated deaths of Kalu and Sanjay. Annawadi boys broadly accepted the basic truths: that in a modernizing, increasingly prosperous city, their lives were embarrassments best confined to small spaces, and their deaths would matter not at all. The boys were simply puzzled by the fuss, since they considered Robert’s horses the luckiest and most lovingly tended creatures in the slum.”