July 17, 2008—Mumbai
Midnight was closing in, the one-legged woman was grievously burned, and the Mumbai police were coming for Abdul and his father. In a slum hut by the international airport, Abdul’s parents came to a decision with an uncharacteristic economy of words. The father, a sick man, would wait inside the trash-strewn, tin-roofed shack where the family of eleven resided. He’d go quietly when arrested. Abdul, the household earner, was the one who had to flee.
Abdul’s opinion of this plan had not been solicited, typically. Already he was mule-brained with panic. He was sixteen years old, or maybe nineteen—his parents were hopeless with dates. Allah, in His impenetrable wisdom, had cut him small and jumpy. A coward: Abdul said it of himself. He knew nothing about eluding policemen. What he knew about, mainly, was trash. 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.
Now Abdul grasped the need to disappear, but beyond that his imagination flagged. He took off running, then came back home. The only place he could think to hide was in his garbage.
He cracked the door of the family hut and looked out. His home sat midway down a row of hand-built, spatchcock dwellings; the lopsided shed where he stowed his trash was just next door. To reach this shed unseen would deprive his neighbors of the pleasure of turning him in to the police.
He didn’t like the moon, though: full and stupid bright, illuminating a dusty open lot in front of his home. Across the lot were the shacks of two dozen other families, and Abdul feared he wasn’t the only person peering out from behind the cover of a plywood door. Some people in this slum wished his family ill because of the old Hindu–Muslim resentments. Others resented his family for the modern reason, economic envy. Doing waste work that many Indians found contemptible, Abdul had lifted his large family above subsistence.
The open lot was quiet, at least—freakishly so. A kind of beachfront for a vast pool of sewage that marked the slum’s eastern border, the place was bedlam most nights: people fighting, cooking, flirting, bathing, tending goats, playing cricket, waiting for water at a public tap, lining up outside a little brothel, or sleeping off the effects of the grave-digging liquor dispensed from a hut two doors down from Abdul’s own. The pressures that built up in crowded huts on narrow slumlanes had only this place, the maidan, to escape. But after the fight, and the burning of the woman called the One Leg, people had retreated to their huts.
Now, among the feral pigs, water buffalo, and the usual belly-down splay of alcoholics, there seemed to be just one watchful presence: a small, unspookable boy from Nepal. He was sitting, arms around knees, in a spangly blue haze by the sewage lake—the reflected neon signage of a luxury hotel across the water. Abdul didn’t mind if the Nepali boy saw him go into hiding. This kid, Adarsh, was no spy for the police. He just liked to stay out late, to avoid his mother and her nightly rages.
It was as safe a moment as Abdul was going to get. He bolted for the trash shed and closed the door behind him.
Inside was carbon-black, frantic with rats, and yet relieving. His storeroom—120 square feet, piled high to a leaky roof with the things in this world Abdul knew how to handle. Empty water and whiskey bottles, mildewed newspapers, used tampon applicators, wadded aluminum foil, umbrellas stripped to the ribs by monsoons, broken shoelaces, yellowed Q-tips, snarled cassette tape, torn plastic casings that once held imitation Barbies. Somewhere in the darkness, there was a Berbee or Barblie itself, maimed in one of the experiments to which children who had many toys seemed to subject those toys no longer favored. Abdul had become expert, over the years, at minimizing distraction. He placed all such dolls in his trash pile tits-down.
Avoid trouble. This was the operating principle of Abdul Hakim Husain, an idea so fiercely held that it seemed imprinted on his physical form. He had deep-set eyes and sunken cheeks, a body work-hunched and wiry—the type that claimed less than its fair share of space when threading through people-choked slumlanes. Almost everything about him was recessed save the pop-out ears and the hair that curled upward, girlish, whenever he wiped his forehead of sweat.
A modest, missable presence was a useful thing in Annawadi, the sumpy plug of slum in which he lived. Here, in the thriving western suburbs of the Indian financial capital, three thousand people had packed into, or on top of, 335 huts. It was a continual coming-and-going of migrants from all over India—Hindus mainly, from all manner of castes and subcastes. His neighbors represented beliefs and cultures so various that Abdul, one of the slum’s three dozen Muslims, could not begin to understand them. He simply recognized Annawadi as a place booby-trapped with contentions, new and ancient, over which he was determined not to trip. For Annawadi was also magnificently positioned for a trafficker in rich people’s garbage.
Abdul and his neighbors were squatting on land that belonged to the Airports Authority of India. Only a coconut-tree-lined thoroughfare separated the slum from the entrance to the international terminal. Serving the airport clientele, and encircling Annawadi, were five extravagant hotels: four ornate, marbly megaliths and one sleek blue-glass Hyatt, from the top-floor windows of which Annawadi and several adjacent squatter settlements looked like villages that had been airdropped into gaps between elegant modernities.
“Everything around us is roses” is how Abdul’s younger brother, Mirchi, put it. “And we’re the shit in between.”
In the new century, as India’s economy grew faster than any other but China’s, pink condominiums and glass office towers had shot up near the international airport. One corporate office was named, simply, “More.” More cranes for making more buildings, the tallest of which interfered with the landing of more and more planes: it was a smogged-out, prosperity-driven obstacle course up there in the over-city, from which wads of possibility had tumbled down to the slums.
Every morning, thousands of waste-pickers fanned out across the airport area in search of vendible excess—a few pounds of the eight thousand tons of garbage that Mumbai was extruding daily. These scavengers darted after crumpled cigarette packs tossed from cars with tinted windows. They dredged sewers and raided dumpsters for empty bottles of water and beer. Each evening, they returned down the slum road with gunny sacks of garbage on their backs, like a procession of broken-toothed, profit-minded Santas.
Abdul would be waiting at his rusty scale. In the hierarchy of the undercity’s waste business, the teenager was a notch above the scavengers: a trader who appraised and bought what they found. His profit came from selling the refuse in bulk to small recycling plants a few miles away.
Abdul’s mother was the haggler in the family, raining vibrant abuse upon scavengers who asked too much for their trash. For Abdul, words came stiff and slow. Where he excelled was in the sorting—the crucial, exacting process of categorizing the purchased waste into one of sixty kinds of paper, plastic, metal, and the like, in order to sell it.
Of course he would be fast. He’d been sorting since he was about six years old, because tuberculosis and garbage work had wrecked his father’s lungs. Abdul’s motor skills had developed around his labor.
“You didn’t have the mind for school, anyway,” his father had recently observed. Abdul wasn’t sure he’d had enough schooling to make a judgment either way. In the early years, he’d sat in a classroom where nothing much happened. Then there had been only work. Work that churned so much filth into the air it turned his snot black. Work more boring than dirty. Work he expected to be doing for the rest of his life. Most days, that prospect weighed on him like a sentence. Tonight, hiding from the police, it felt like a hope.
The smell of the One Leg’s burning was fainter in the shed, given the competing stink of trash and the fear-sweat that befouled Abdul’s clothing. He stripped, hiding his pants and shirt behind a brittle stack of newspapers near the door.
His best idea was to climb to the top of his eight-foot tangle of garbage, then burrow in against the back wall, as far as possible from the door. He was agile, and in daylight could scale this keenly balanced mound in fifteen seconds. But a misstep in the dark would cause a landslide of bottles and cans, which would broadcast his whereabouts widely, since the walls between huts were thin and shared.
To Abdul’s right, disconcertingly, came quiet snores: a laconic cousin newly arrived from a rural village, who probably assumed that women burned in the city every day. Moving left, Abdul felt around the blackness for a mass of blue polyurethane bags. Dirt magnets, those bags. He hated sorting them. But he recalled tossing the bundled bags onto a pile of soggy cardboard—the stuff of a silent climb.
He found the bags and flattened boxes by the side wall, the one that divided his shed from his home. Hoisting himself up, he waited. The cardboard compressed, the rats made rearrangements, but nothing metal clattered to the floor. Now he could use the side wall for balance as he considered his next step.
Someone was shuffling on the other side of the wall. His father, most likely. He’d be out of his nightclothes now, wearing the polyester shirt that hung loose on his shoulders, probably studying a palmful of tobacco. The man had been playing with his tobacco all evening, fingering it into circles, triangles, circles again. It was what he did when he didn’t know what he was doing.
A few more steps, some unhelpful clanking, and Abdul had gained the back wall. He lay down. Now he regretted not having his pants. Mosquitoes. The edges of torn clamshell packaging, slicing into the backs of his thighs.
The burn-smell lingering in the air was bitter, more kerosene and melted sandal than flesh. Had Abdul happened across it in one of the slumlanes, he wouldn’t have doubled over. It was orange blossoms compared with the rotting hotel food dumped nightly at Annawadi, which sustained three hundred shit-caked pigs. The problem in his stomach came from knowing what, and who, the smell was.
Abdul had known the One Leg since the day, eight years back, that his family had arrived in Annawadi. He’d had no choice but to know her, since only a sheet had divided her shack from his own. Even then, her smell had troubled him. Despite her poverty, she perfumed herself somehow. Abdul’s mother, who smelled of breast milk and fried onions, disapproved.
In the sheet days, as now, Abdul believed his mother, Zehrunisa, to be right about most things. She was tender and playful with her children, and her only great flaw, in the opinion of Abdul, her eldest son, was the language she used when haggling. Although profane bargaining was the norm in the waste business, he felt his mother acceded to that norm with too much relish.
“Stupid pimp with the brain of a lemon!” she’d say in mock outrage. “You think my babies will go hungry without your cans? I ought to take down your pants and slice off what little is inside!”
This, from a woman who’d been raised in some nowhere of a village to be burqa-clad, devout.
Abdul considered himself “old-fashioned, 90 percent,” and censured his mother freely. “And what would your father say, to hear you cursing in the street?”
“He would say the worst,” Zehrunisa replied one day, “but he was the one who sent me off to marry a sick man. Had I sat quietly in the house, the way my mother did, all these children would have starved.”
Abdul didn’t dare voice the great flaw of his father, Karam Husain: too sick to sort much garbage, not sick enough to stay off his wife. The Wahhabi sect in which he’d been raised opposed birth control, and of Zehrunisa’s ten births, nine children had survived.
Zehrunisa consoled herself, each pregnancy, that she was producing a workforce for the future. Abdul was the workforce of the present, though, and new brothers and sisters increased his anxiety. He made errors, paid scavengers dearly for sacks of worthless things.
“Slow down,” his father had told him gently. “Use your nose, mouth, and ears, not just your scales.” Tap the metal scrap with a nail. Its ring will tell you what it’s made of. Chew the plastic to identify its grade. If it’s hard plastic, snap it in half and inhale. A fresh smell indicates good-quality polyurethane.
Abdul had learned. One year, there was enough to eat. Another year, there was more of a home to live in. The sheet was replaced by a divider made of scraps of aluminum and, later, a wall of reject bricks, which established his home as the sturdiest dwelling in the row. The feelings that washed over him when he considered the brick divider were several: pride; fear that the quality of the bricks was so poor the wall would crumble; sensory relief. There was now a three-inch barrier between him and the One Leg, who took lovers while her husband was sorting garbage elsewhere.
In recent months, Abdul had had occasion to register her only when she clinked past on her metal crutches, heading for the market or the public toilet. The One Leg’s crutches seemed to be too short, because when she walked, her butt stuck out—did some switchy thing that made people laugh. The lipstick provided further hilarity. She draws on that face just to squat at the shit-hole? Some days the lips were orange, other days purple-red, as if she’d climbed the jamun-fruit tree by the Hotel Leela and mouthed it clean.
The One Leg’s given name was Sita. She had fair skin, usually an asset, but the runt leg had smacked down her bride price. Her Hindu parents had taken the single offer they got: poor, unattractive, hardworking, Muslim, old—“half-dead, but who else wanted her,” as her mother had once said with a frown. The unlikely husband renamed her Fatima, and from their mismating had come three scrawny girls. The sickliest daughter had drowned in a bucket, at home. Fatima did not seem to grieve, which got people talking. After a few days she reemerged from her hut, still switchy-hipped and staring at men with her gold-flecked, unlowering eyes.
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.
Abdul’s brother Mirchi did not intend to sort garbage. He envisioned wearing a starched uniform and reporting to work at a luxury hotel. He’d heard of waiters who spent all day putting toothpicks into pieces of cheese, or aligning knives and forks on tables. He wanted a clean job like that. “Watch me!” he’d once snapped at their mother. “I’ll have a bathroom as big as this hut!”
The dream of Raja Kamble, a sickly toilet-cleaner who lived on the lane behind Abdul’s, was of medical rebirth. A new valve to fix his heart and he’d survive to finish raising his children. Fifteen-year-old Meena, whose hut was around the corner, craved a taste of the freedom and adventure she’d seen on TV serials, instead of an arranged marriage and domestic submission. Sunil, an undersized twelve-year-old scavenger, wanted to eat enough to start growing. Asha, a fightercock of a woman who lived by the public toilet, was differently ambitious. She longed to be Annawadi’s first female slumlord, then ride the city’s inexorable corruption into the middle class. Her teenaged daughter, Manju, considered her own aim more noble: to become Annawadi’s first female college graduate.
The most preposterous of these dreamers was the One Leg. Everyone thought so. Her abiding interest was in extramarital sex, though not for pocket change alone. That, her neighbors would have understood. But the One Leg also wanted to transcend the affliction by which others had named her. She wanted to be respected and reckoned attractive. Annawadians considered such desires inappropriate for a cripple.
What Abdul wanted was this: a wife, innocent of words like pimp and sisterfucker, who didn’t much mind how he smelled; and eventually a home somewhere, anywhere, that was not Annawadi. Like most people in the slum, and in the world, for that matter, he believed his own dreams properly aligned to his capacities.
The police were in Annawadi, coming across the maidan toward his home. It had to be the police. No slumdweller spoke as confidently as this.
Abdul’s family knew many of the officers at the local station, just enough to fear them all. When they learned that a family in the slum was making money, they visited every other day to extort some. The worst of the lot had been Constable Pawar, who had brutalized little Deepa, a homeless girl who sold flowers by the Hyatt. But most of them would gladly blow their noses in your last piece of bread.
Abdul had been bracing for this moment when the officers crossed his family’s threshold—for the sounds of small children screaming, of steel vessels violently upended. But the two officers were perfectly calm, even friendly, as they relayed the salient facts. The One Leg had survived and had made an accusation from her hospital bed: that Abdul, his older sister, and their father had beaten her and set her on fire.
Later, Abdul would recall the officers’ words penetrating the storeroom wall with a fever-dream slowness. So his sister Kehkashan was being accused, too. For this, he wished the One Leg dead. Then he wished he hadn’t wished it. If the One Leg died, his family would be even more screwed.
To be poor in Annawadi, or in any Mumbai slum, was to be guilty of one thing or another. Abdul sometimes bought pieces of metal that scavengers had stolen. He ran a business, such as it was, without a license. Simply living in Annawadi was illegal, since the airport authority wanted squatters like himself off its land. But he and his family had not burned the One Leg. She had set herself on fire.
Abdul’s father was professing the family’s innocence in his breathy, weak-lunged voice as the officers led him out of the house. “So where is your son?” one of them demanded loudly as they stood outside the storeroom door. The officer’s volume was not in this instance a show of power. He was trying to be heard over Abdul’s mother, wailing.
Zehrunisa Husain was a tear-factory even on good days; it was one of her chief ways of starting conversations. But now her children’s sobbing intensified her own. The little Husains’ love for their father was simpler than Abdul’s love for him, and they would remember the night the police came to take him away.
Time passed. Wails subsided. “He’ll be back in half an hour,” his mother was telling the children in a high-pitched singsong, one of her lying tones. Abdul took heart in the words be back. After arresting his father, the police had apparently left Annawadi.
Abdul couldn’t rule out the possibility that the officers would return to search for him. But from what he knew of the energy levels of Mumbai policemen, it was more likely that they would call it a night. That gave him three or four more hours of darkness in which to plan an escape more sensible than a skulk to the hut next door.
He didn’t feel incapable of daring. One of his private vanities was that all the garbage sorting had endowed his hands with killing strength—that he could chop a brick in half like Bruce Lee. “So let’s get a brick,” replied a girl with whom he had once, injudiciously, shared this conviction. Abdul had bumbled away. The brick belief was something he wanted to harbor, not to test.
His brother Mirchi, two years younger, was braver by a stretch, and wouldn’t have hidden in the storeroom. Mirchi liked the Bollywood movies in which bare-chested outlaws jumped out of high windows and ran across the roofs of moving trains, while the policemen in pursuit fired and failed to hit their marks. Abdul took all dangers, in all films, overseriously. He was still living down the night he’d accompanied another boy to a shed a mile away, where pirated videos played. The movie had been about a mansion with a monster in its basement—an orange-furred creature that fed on human flesh. When it ended, he’d had to pay the proprietor twenty rupees to let him sleep on the floor, because his legs were too stiff with fear to walk home.
As ashamed as he felt when other boys witnessed his fearfulness, Abdul thought it irrational to be anything else. While sorting newspapers or cans, tasks that were a matter more of touch than of sight, he studied his neighbors instead. The habit killed time and gave him theories, one of which came to prevail over the others. It seemed to him that in Annawadi, fortunes derived not just from what people did, or how well they did it, but from the accidents and catastrophes they dodged. A decent life was the train that hadn’t hit you, the slumlord you hadn’t offended, the malaria you hadn’t caught. And while he regretted not being smarter, he believed he had a quality nearly as valuable for the circumstances in which he lived. He was chaukanna, alert.
“My eyes can see in all directions” was another way he put it. He believed he could anticipate calamity while there was still time to get out of the way. The One Leg’s burning was the first time he’d been blindsided.
What time was it? A neighbor named Cynthia was in the maidan, shouting, “Why haven’t the police arrested the rest of this family?” Cynthia was close to Fatima the One Leg, and had despised Abdul’s family ever since her own family garbage business failed. “Let’s march on the police station, make the officers come and take them,” she called out to the other residents. From inside Abdul’s home came only silence.
After a while, mercifully, Cynthia shut up. There didn’t seem to be a groundswell of public support for the protest march, just irritation at Cynthia for waking everyone up. Abdul felt the night’s tension finally thinning, until steel pots began banging all around him. Startling up, he was confused.
Golden light was seeping through the cracks in a door. Not the door of his storeroom. A door it took a minute to place. Pants back on, he seemed to be on the floor of the hut of a young Muslim cook who lived across the maidan. It was morning. The clangor around him was Annawadians in adjacent huts, making breakfast.
When and why had he crossed the maidan to this hut? Panic had ripped a hole in his memory, and Abdul would never be certain of the final hours of this night. The only clear thing was that in the gravest situation of his life, a moment demanding courage and enterprise, he had stayed in Annawadi and fallen asleep.
At once, he knew his course of action: to find his mother. Having proved himself useless as a fugitive, he needed her to tell him what to do.
“Go fast,” said Zehrunisa Husain, upon issuing her instructions. “Fast as you can!”
Abdul grabbed a fresh shirt and flew. Across the clearing, down a zigzag lane of huts, out onto a rubbled road. Garbage and water buffalo, slum-side. Glimmerglass Hyatt on the other. Fumbling with shirt buttons as he ran. After two hundred yards he gained the wide thoroughfare that led to the airport, which was bordered by blooming gardens, pretties of a city he barely knew.
Butterflies, even: he blew past them and hooked into the airport. Arrivals down. Departures up. He went a third way, running beside a long stretch of blue-and-white aluminum fencing, behind which jackhammers blasted, excavating the foundations of a glamorous new terminal. Abdul had occasionally tried to monetize the terminal’s security perimeter. Two aluminum panels, swiped and sold, and a garbage boy could rest for a year.
He kept moving, made a hard right at a field of black and yellow taxis gleaming in a violent morning sun. Another right, into a shady curve of driveway, a leafy bough hanging low across it. One more right and he was inside the Sahar Police Station.
Zehrunisa had read her son’s face: this boy was too anxious to hide from the police. Her own fear, upon waking, was that the officers would beat her husband as punishment for Abdul’s escape. It was the eldest son’s duty to protect a sick father from that.
Abdul would do his duty, and almost, almost gladly. Hiding was what guilty people did; being innocent, he wanted the fact stamped on his forehead. So what else to do but submit himself to the stamping authorities—to the law, to justice, concepts in which his limited history had given him no cause to believe? He would try to believe in them now.
A police officer in epauletted khaki was splodged behind a gray metal desk. Seeing Abdul, he rose up, surprised. His lips, under his mustache, were fat and fishlike, and Abdul would remember them later—the way they parted a little before he smiled.