Despair. Hopelessness. Injustice.
All describe the hellhole of existence that is Annawadi, the squatter slum settlement outside the International Airport in Mumbai, India. Here 3,000 people are tightly packed into and atop 335 ramshackle huts next to a sewage lake, which gives rise to malaria and dengue fever. The walls of the huts are green and black with mold; foot fungus is rampant. Contents of the public toilet (a hole in the ground) overflows onto the main road. A 500-bed hospital lacking the most basic medical necessities — water, bandages, burn balm — cannot support the one million in the surrounding vicinity that depend upon it.
Here live (if one can call it “living”) Asha, Manju, Abdul, Sunil, Kalu who must depend on their wits and luck to survive in this abysmal place, over-ridden with pigs, rats, lice, and all other types of vermin. Abdul’s family of twelve squeeze together in one room atop each other, where at night some must doze upright against a wall.
Since the age of six he has been trafficking in rich people’s garbage which he can obtain at the dumpsters behind the wall at the airport. Plastics, in particular, can be hauled to recycling stations for small payment, so he spends all day sifting through trash. Scavenging is neither easy or safe; sometimes the meager take is 33 cents a day.
Incredibly, here and there can be found a budding scholar who studies long into the night hours in hopes of going to college or at least obtaining a job as a doorman at one of the elegant hotels, or better yet at an internet call center if one can learn English.
Corruption is widespread everywhere: in government, police, even among doctors, who don’t earn enough to support their own families. Innocent people can be unjustly accused of a crime, arrested, tortured, and beaten, but charges can be dropped for the required bribe. Such unfair experiences, in a world over which these Indians feel they have no control, leads to hopelessness and despondency, and many take their own lives. The most common method is consuming rat poison or setting oneself on fire.
The people the author interviewed are real. The reader cannot help but care about them, and grieve for them. This is a heart-rending and sobering book, certainly not for the faint-hearted; but so worth the reader’s time for its enlightening and provocative information about a forgotten portion of one of the 2lst century’s most important world cities.
This book, beautifully written by Khaled Hosseini, one of the most talented authors of our day (author of both “The Kiterunner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns”) is both touching and poignant.
Set again in an Afghan village, this story focuses on two siblings, Pari, a child of 4, and her older brother Abdullah, age l0, who has willingly adopted the role of parent since both of theirs, poverty-stricken, physically and emotionally depleted, over-burdened and exhausted, can barely eke out an existence for their family. Pari is Abdullah’s universe and she adores him. Theirs is a sweet relationship; he watches her first step; he grasps her first uttered word. Willing to sacrifice anything to please her, he trades his only pair of ragged shoes for a gorgeous iridescent green peacock feather with which to delight her. They are always together, his pride and devotion to her more like that of a parent than brother.
Without warning one day Baba (the Father) decides to take Pari across the desert by mule-drawn carriage to Kabul where his brother Nadi is employed as chauffer to a very wealthy couple. Because he can’t bear to be away from Pari, Abdullah insists on accompanying them, despite his father’s protests. There the little sister is left with the wealthy couple, the Wahdatis; and when Abdullah realizes that they are adopting her, he in unconsolable.
From that day on, Abdullah will feel broken, aching longingly for Pari all his days. He would love to feel hate for his destitute father, but he realizes that “to save the hand, a finger had to be cut,’ and he sees that his father too is forlorn and broken. The reader’s heart aches for these deeply wounded people.
A number of plots develop simultaneously from this point, one involving the Wahdati’s and Uncle Nadi who arranged for Pari to be adopted. Uncle Nadi too suffers for his part in the separation of the close siblings when he observes the toll it takes on the entire family. Another plot develops around Mrs. Wahdati who leaves her husband and takes Pari to live in Paris. A third ensues when Mr. Wahdati leaves everything to Nadi who allows the huge property to be used rent free by international aide workers who come after the war to perform surgery on children with war-related injuries. At the very end, Pari and Abdullah are reunited, but after 37 years it is nearly too late.
Not only does the author create a most intriguing, multi-layered plot but he develops it in the most lyrical prose. One example is the image of the separated individuals as two leaves blowing far apart from each other in the wind, yet bound by the deep tangled roots of the tree from which they both have fallen.” Also touching is the manner in which the adult Abdullah comforts his own little girl named Pari after his long-lost sister. After tucking her in, “he would sit by the side of her bed, plucking bad dreams from her head with his thumb and forefinger…Then he would scour the air, looking for happy dreams to replace the ones he had sequestered away.”
His father would do the same for him, and Abdullah’s favored dream was always the same: “The one of him and his little sister lying beneath a blossoming apple tree, drifting toward an afternoon nap, the sun warm against their cheeks…” And so, despite miles and years of separation, Abdullah and his beloved little sister Pari could be reunited at least in his dreams.
Donna DeLeo Bruno is a native Bristolian and a retired teacher of writing and literature. She now splits her time between Bristol and Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., where she gives book reviews at the local library as well as at book clubs and women’s clubs. Some of her most enjoyable and relaxing hours are spent reading a book beneath the shade of a tree at the foot of Walley Street with the sun sparkling its reflection on the water.