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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

In the prologue, author Katherine Boo introduces her characters and the environment they inhabit: a “Mumbai undercity,” Annawadi, the slum filled with garbage and marsh beside the airport. Here, she describes Abdul, sixteen or nineteen years old (his parents don't remember), who provides for his family by sorting and selling recyclables:

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Like most people in the slum, and in the world, for that matter, he believed his own dreams properly aligned to his capacities.

Boo also describes Annawadi from Abdul’s perspective:

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.

Living as they do, Annawadians have to be creative simply to sustain themselves. They have to be especially enterprising to overcome their circumstances. Boo describes what it takes to get out of a place like Annawadi:

As every slumdweller knew, there were three main ways out of poverty: finding an entrepreneurial niche, as the Husains had found in garbage; politics and corruption, in which Asha placed her hopes; and education. Several dozen parents in the slum were getting by on roti and salt in order to pay private school tuition (62).

The need to be creative is well summarized on page 219:

Every country has its myths, and one that successful Indians liked to indulge was a romance of instability and adaptation—the idea that their country’s rapid rise derived in part from the chaotic unpredictability of daily life. In America and Europe, it was said, people know what is going to happen when they turn on the water tap or flick the light switch. In India, a land of few safe assumptions, chronic uncertainty was said to have helped produce a nation of quick-witted, creative problem-solvers.

The corruption is further detailed in a scene where the police interrogate Abdul and his father, beating them to extract a confession regarding the alleged attack on Fatima. The elder Husain tells his son that the police know they didn’t do it. Still, he says, they will not go free until they pay the corrupt officers a large bribe:

The Indian criminal justice system was a market like garbage, Abdul now understood. Innocence and guilt could be bought and sold like a kilo of polyurethane bags (107).

The final page recalls Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, itself a reference to a verse in the New Testament. “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” the speech says. Here, Katherine Boo asks,

If the house is crooked and crumbling, and the land on which it sits uneven, is it possible to make anything lie straight? (245).

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