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Between Roses in Mumbai

Chiara Goia
The Annawadi slum near the airport in Mumbai, July 2011

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.

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