Let it keep, the moment when Officer Fish Lips met Abdul in the police station. Rewind, see Abdul running backward, away from the station and the airport, shirt buttons opening as he flies back toward his home. See the flames engulfing a disabled woman in a pink- flowered tunic shrink to nothing but a matchbook on the floor. See Fatima minutes earlier, dancing on crutches to a raucous love song, her delicate features unscathed. Keep rewinding, back seven more months, and stop at an ordinary day in January 2008. It was about as hopeful a season as there had ever been in the years since a bitty slum popped up in the biggest city of a country that holds one-third of the planet's poor. A country dizzy now with development and circulating money.
Dawn came gusty, as it often did in January, the month of treed kites and head colds. Because his family lacked the floor space for all of its members to lie down, Abdul was asleep on the gritty maidan, which for years had passed as his bed. His mother stepped carefully over one of his younger brothers, and then another, bending low to Abdul's ear. "Wake up, fool!" she said exuberantly. "You think your work is dreaming?"
Superstitious, Zehrunisa had noticed that some of the family's most profitable days occurred after she had showered abuses on her eldest son. January's income being pivotal to the family's latest plan of escape from Annawadi, she had decided to make the curses routine.
Abdul rose with minimal whining, since the only whining his mother tolerated was her own. Besides, this was the gentle-going hour in which he hated Annawadi least. The pale sun lent the sewage lake a sparkling silver cast, and the parrots nesting at the far side of the lake could still be heard over the jets. Outside his neighbors' huts, some held together by duct tape and rope, damp rags were discreetly freshening bodies. Children in school-uniform neckties were hauling pots of water from the public taps. A languid line extended from an orange concrete block of public toilets. Even goats' eyes were heavy with sleep. It was the moment of the intimate and the familial, before the great pursuit of the small market niche got under way.
One by one, construction workers departed for a crowded intersection where site supervisors chose day laborers. Young girls began threading marigolds into garlands, to be hawked in Airport Road traffic. Older women sewed patches onto pink-and-blue cotton quilts for a company that paid by the piece. In a tiny, sweltering plastic- molding factory, bare-chested men cranked gears that would turn colored beads into ornaments to be hung from rearview mirrors-smiling ducks and pink cats with jewels around their necks that they couldn't imagine anyone, anywhere, buying. And Abdul crouched on the maidan, beginning to sort two weeks' worth of purchased trash, a stained shirt hitching up his knobby spine.
His general approach toward his neighbors was this: "The better I know you, the more I will dislike you, and the more you will dislike me. So let us keep to ourselves." But deep in his own work, as he would be this morning, he could imagine his fellow Annawadians laboring companionably alongside him.
Annawadi sat two hundred yards off the Sahar Airport Road, a stretch where new India collided with old India and made new India late. Chauffeurs in SUVs honked furiously at the bicycle delivery boys peeling off from a slum chicken shop, each carrying a rack of three hundred eggs. Annawadi itself was nothing special, in the context of the slums of Mumbai. Every house was off-kilter, so less off-kilter looked like straight. Sewage and sickness looked like life.
The slum had been settled in 1991 by a band of laborers trucked in from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu to repair a runway at the international airport. When the runway work was complete, they decided to stay near the airport and its tantalizing construction possibilities. In an area with little unclaimed space, a sodden, snake-filled bit of brushland across the street from the international terminal seemed the least-bad place to live.
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