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Between Roses in Mumbai

Chiara Goia
The Annawadi slum, with the Hyatt hotel in the background, February 2009

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.

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