Written as though it were a novel, this book is actually a true story of several ordinary people in the Annawadi slum of Mumbai, whom the author observed in 2007-2011. The slum was built in 1991 on airport-owned land by migrant Tamil workers, and grew over the years to house several thousand people. The conditions are generally deplorable, with an open sewage lake that people dump garbage, and many make their living by scavenging for recyclable metals and plastics for a few dollars a day.
The story revolves around a central incident. The Hussein family is one of the better-off ones in the slum, having made some money by trading recyclables, and makes some upgrades to their hut. But when building the wall, it partially collapses into their neighbor Fatima’s house. The two families have an intense argument in public, shouting insults at each other, until Fatima sets herself on fire out of anger and jealousy. She dies a few days later in the hospital. Now the police, knowing that the Husseins have a bit of money, try to profit from the event. They falsify witness testimonies and write fake reports saying the Husseins incited Fatima to kill herself, so that they can blackmail some money. The Husseins end up spending the next few years in jail and navigating the corrupt and bureaucratic justice system.
Corruption is a big theme throughout the book. Those in positions of power are always trying to manipulate others for their own profit, with little regard for telling the truth or fairness. There is extortion by the police and by the justice system, fake charities, fraudulent legal paperwork throughout. Manju is a girl studying English Literature at a “college”, but one where the professor gives the questions and answers ahead of time and she just has to memorize whole paragraphs to regurgitate on the exam. When a man gets hit by a car on a busy street, he is left to die as people are afraid of getting “trapped” if they try to help (ie: the police fabricating charges blaming them for the accident). They record his death officially as tuberculosis. We get the sense that the system tries to extract as much as it can from the poor, then make them disappear.
Many of the slum’s residents come from rural farming regions, which are seen as places with no hope at all. After droughts and failed harvests and no way to repay their debts, farmers kill themselves by drinking rat poison. The Mumbai slums are also poor, but at least they offer some hope: some wealth trickles down from the wealthy travelers and luxury hotels in the form of recyclables in garbage, and there are opportunities to get involved in the corruption yourself. But the wider city views the slum dwellers as an eyesore to get rid of, or at least hide them behind billboards so you don’t see them when driving to the airport.
The book is a depressing read, and unlike the movie “Slumdog Millionaire”, there is no happy ending. Even when they’re extremely hardworking or creative in finding ways to manipulate others, much is left to fate. None of the characters succeed in reaching a middle-class life, and when the global recession hits, many are reduced to eating sewer toads. There is a lot of diversity within the slums, not everyone is a criminal, most are trying to make an honest living, but they are all trapped in a hellish system with no escape.