There are moments of innocence, and a bit of unexpected wit amidst the descriptions of horrific suffering, abject misery and violence that are juxtaposed against each other and accepted as a normal way of life by the residents of Annawandi, an unbelievably impoverished community of the poor in India. It sits just adjacent to opulent, luxury hotels on airport property, built for the rich and famous. The squalid huts barely provide shelter or privacy for the inhabitants as they scavenge the leavings of these monuments and its dwellers. The contrast is stark and unforgiving. Envy is in no short supply there, and they each prey upon the other, the weak on the weaker, the poor on the poorer, simply to survive. Children are commodities, education is minimal, girls are not as valuable as boys, blame is always assigned someplace else rather than on one’s own shoulders and few accept responsibility for their own behavior and its consequences.
The jobs of the poor create a hierarchy in the community. Each different level earns a different small amount of respect for residents. There seemed to be little that was beyond the pale regarding what these poor souls would attempt in order to live another day. Suicides were common in the face of such hopelessness. What made it so hard to read was the realization that this story is based on real families; it is non-fiction; your hair will rise as you realize this is really happening in this day and age, in a culture still steeped in prejudice and memories of the hateful caste system. Their superstition is evidenced in statements like this: “He beats his wife but lets her live.” This is supposed to be commendable.
Abdul is a young Muslim man who makes his living as a waste collector. His family has been moving up the ladder of success, saving for the day when they can become landowners, in a community of Muslims, where they will be treated with respect and have a better life. In huts with walls, sometimes no thicker than paper separating families, the residents will do anything necessary to earn money. They turn against each other, they are superstitious, they are cruel and vengeful, looking to blame someone for their troubles, even, and often wrongfully, never turning back even after they realize they have committed a grave injustice. It is important to maintain appearances, even in the face of such squalor; lies flourish.
Separated by only a few inches from the one legged woman who filled with envy and anger, falsely accuses his family of setting her aflame, Abdul and his family must enter into a nightmare scenario simply to survive the corruption and graft necessary to earn their freedom and end the injustice. Even though Fatima’s young daughter witnessed her self-immolation, the wheels of justice are not just, but are filled with low-lifes, frauds of all stripes, corrupt police who beat innocent victims, dishonest and dishonorable advocates encouraging neighbors to lie so they may then offer bribes that they swear will guarantee their innocence, if only they will pay. Whom shall they pay? They have no money; they can’t afford to squander any of it on a chance, not a guarantee. Each player in this wicked game tells a greater lie, simply to get paid for services often worthless and never rendered. It feels very much like Kafka’s trial, a hopeless situation without solution.
The author, married to a native of India, spent several years investigating these residents, and she has written a beautifully crafted rendition of their lives, albeit steeped in corruption and disaster, as they simply try to survive in a nearly impossible situation. She has captured the texture of their lives and the tone of their conversations, clearly illustrating the struggle they endure daily. Although the hopelessness of their lives appears to be largely of their own making, they are unable to stop the pendulum from swinging back and forth, from disaster to disaster, as they victimize each other. She does not paint a pretty picture and consequently it is difficult to look at it objectively, without disliking many of the characters, even as you understand the motives for their reckless behavior. They are uneducated and backward, and they are unable to see the pain they cause or the disastrous end results approaching for their own future. There is often more concern for animals than people and investors in charitable projects, sponsored by the government, are often corrupt, stealing from the very charity they support and inhibiting even the lackluster efforts of the government.
One can only hope that, as India prospers, the wealth and benefits will trickle down beyond the borders of the airports wealthy hotels and the neighborhoods of the rich and famous; but these people seem so blind to the plight of the masses of indigent people, it is really hard to imagine.