Among the many slums in Mumbai, India, Annawadi itself is nothing special. Every house is askew, so houses that aren't too askew look straight, and sewage and disease look like a part of life.
Annawadi is located nearly 200 meters away from the Sahar Airport Road, where the old and new India collide with each other, delaying the development of the new India. Drivers in SUVs honked their horns at a line of delivery boys, each carrying 300 eggs, riding their bikes out of a chicken shop in the slum. Among Mumbai's many slums, Annawadi itself is nothing special. Every house is askew, so houses that aren't too askew look straight, and sewage and disease look like a part of life.
The slum was built in 1991 by a group of migrant workers who were brought in trucks from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to repair the international airport runway. After the work was done, they decided to stay in the tantalizing prospect of construction near the airport. In an area with few vacant lots, a small damp, snake-infested bushland across the street from the international terminal seemed like a good place to live.
Other poor people thought the land was too damp to live in, but the Tamils went to work. They cut down bushes that housed the snakes, dug out soil from drier areas, and filled in the mud. A month later, when the bamboo pole was stuck on the ground, it finally stopped falling. They hung empty cement bags on bamboo poles as cover, and a settlement was formed. Residents of the nearby slums named it Annawadi - meaning "Land of Anna", and Tamils call it "Anna". In fact, various derogatory names for Tamil immigrants are more widely circulated. Other poor people, however, watched the Tamils turn the marshes into solid soil with their blood and sweat, and such toil earned a certain respect.
Seventeen years later, in this slum, hardly anyone can be counted as poor according to official Indian benchmarks. Instead, the residents of Annawadi are among some 10 million Indians who have been lifted out of poverty since 1991. At the time, around the time this little slum was built, the central government embraced economic reforms, and the residents of Annawadi became one of the most inspiring success stories in the modern history of capitalist globalization, one that continues to evolve.
Indeed, only six of the slum's 3,000 inhabitants have regular jobs. Others, like 85% of Indian labor, belong to the informal, unorganized economy. Indeed, some residents had to trap mice and frogs and fry them for dinner; some even ate the bushes by the sewage lake. These poor people are doing an incalculable contribution to their neighbors - making the slum dwellers who don't fry rats and eat weeds feel how motivated they are.
Airport and hotel rubbish spews out in winter, a peak time for sightseeing tours, business trips and high-society weddings. The massive emissions in 2008 reflected an unprecedented surge in the stock market. Even better for Abdul, global scrap metal prices have skyrocketed. That's a happy thing for a Mumbai-based junk dealer, although that's not what passersby call Abdul. Some people called him "rubbish".
As Abdul sifted through tacks and screws from his junk heap this morning, he struggled to keep an eye on the Anawadi goats, who relish the smell of jar residue and goo under labels.
As he stood up and shook his cramping calves, he was startled to find the sky brown like a wing, and the sun shining through the polluted fog indicated the arrival of afternoon. When sorting out the trash, he always habitually forgets the time. Milky, a ninth grader who had come home from school, spread his limbs and leaned against the door of the house, without even looking at the math textbook on his lap.
Milky is waiting impatiently for his friend Rahul, a Hindu boy who lives just a few homes away and has become a man of Anavardi. This month, Rahul did what Milky could only dream of: breaking down the divide between the world of the slums and the world of the rich.
Rahul's mother, Asha, is a kindergarten teacher and has a delicate relationship with local politicians and police. She managed to get her son a temporary job at the InterContinental Hotel for a few nights. Rahul, a ninth grader with a pie face and buck teeth, has seen the wealth of the upper class.
Finally, Rahul came over, wearing a suit purchased by the bonus of this good fortune: slouchy low-rise shorts, a shiny, recycled-weight oval buckle belt, and a black fleece cap that pulled to the eyes. Rahul calls it "hip-hop." The day before was the 60th anniversary of the assassination of India's "Mahatma" Gandhi, and Indian elites used to think it was vulgar to throw a lavish party on this national holiday. However, Rahul was working on a frenzy at the InterContinental Hotel at the time, and he knew that Milky wanted to know every detail of the time.
Other boys also came to join Rahul. Annawadi residents love to talk about hotels and the extravagant activities that can happen in them. Rahul graciously admits that he is nothing compared to the full-time staff at the InterContinental. Many of the waiters are college-educated, tall, light-skinned, with shiny cellphones that even serve as mirrors when brushing their hair. Some waiters laughed at Rahul's blue-painted, long thumb nails, which in Annawadi are a sign of masculinity. After he cut his nails, they made fun of the way he spoke. Annawadi's honorific term for the rich, "Saba", is not an appropriate name in the wealthy area of the city. He reported to his friends: "The waiter there said that it makes you sound very unprofessional. 'Your Excellency' is the correct way to say it."
" Your Excellency." Afterwards, everyone began to recite the word and laughed together.
The boys stand close together, despite the large space in the plaza. Abdul rounded them and overturned a pile of broken luggage tags in his arms in the square, chasing the blown away signs all the way. The other boys ignored him. Abdul doesn't talk much, and when he does, it seems like he's been planning for weeks in private.
Once, in order to correct his shortcomings, he lied and said that he had been to the Intercontinental Hotel, where the Indian Bollywood film "Welcome" was filmed, and that he also saw British Indian actress Katrina Kaif Dressed in white. It was an untenable lie that Rahul saw through immediately. However, every time Rahul brings the latest news, it is beneficial to Abdul to enrich his future lies.
A Nepali boy asked about the woman in the hotel. Through the slats of the hotel's walls, he had seen women smoking cigarettes, waiting for their drivers to pull over to the door. "They're not smoking a single cigarette, they're a lot of cigarettes! What village are these women from?"
"Listen, stupid boy," Rahul said, "the white people are from different countries. You really don't know anything about you."
"Which countries? America?"
Rahul couldn't tell. “However, there are a lot of Indians in the hotel too, I assure you.” Those are healthy Indians, tall and fat, not skinny and short like the Nepalese boys and many of the kids here.
Rahul's first job was as a New Year's Eve party service at the InterContinental Hotel. Many of Mumbai's luxury hotels are known to have New Year's bashes, where scavengers can often bring back piles of discarded pamphlets.
Rahul is fed up with the rich people's New Year's rituals. "Idiot," he concluded, "it's not just people drinking and dancing, standing there doing stupid things, like people here do every night."
"Those people in hotels get weird when they drink," He told his friends, "At the end of the party last night, a handsome boss in an expensive striped suit was very drunk and he started stuffing bread into the pockets of his trousers and suit jacket, and then straight into his trousers. Continue stuffing rolls! The bread fell on the floor, and he went under the table to pick it up. A waiter said, this guy must have been hungry before, and it was the whiskey that reminded him of the past. One day I became rich, If I could stay in a big hotel, I wouldn't be such a jerk!"
Milky laughed, asking a question that many people in Mumbai had asked themselves in 2008: "Then what are you going to do, Your Excellency, to be able to Being entertained in a hotel like this?"
Rahul walked away without answering, turning his attention to a plastic green kite that had been hooked to a linden tree at the entrance of Annawadi.
The kite looked broken, but as long as the skeleton of the kite was straightened, he estimated that he could resell it for two rupees. He just had to get it before the other money-hungry boys had the idea.