Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity;
By Katherine Boo, @ 2012;
An audiobook read by Sunil Malhotra.

Abdul, 16 or 19, no one is sure not even him, has been accused of beating and burning a one-legged woman. The police are coming to get him, and he is hiding in a small shed next to his tin-roofed shack in the slum of Annawadi in Mumbai. Abdul’s father is going to take the fall since Abdul is the bread winner of the family, having started his own rather successful reclamation business of finding trash, sorting it, and selling whatever is salvageable to recyclers. The author, Katherine Boo, lets us know that Abdul is innocent, and in fact the one-legged lady actually set fire to herself.

This is nonfiction.

So comes alive the inner workings and politics of slum life in Mumbai. In Annawadi, over 3,000 people are swatting on airport-owned land, crammed into 335 huts bordering a lake of sewage. Abdul himself comes from a family of 11, and he is one of few Muslims who live in the predominantly Hindu slum. Luxury hotels surround them.

Within the first few sentences, Katherine Boo does a masterful job of setting the scene. She gives us the date (July 17, 2008), time (around midnight), place (Mumbai slum next to the international airport), people, action in progress, contrasts, and the current plan of action. Here is writing worthy of study. And incidentally, this is Katherine Boo’s first book.

It’s easy to be critical of a well-to-do Westerner writing and maybe profiting off the stories of poor people. But I find I don’t want to be critical of Katherine. She presents the social structure as well as the hopes, dreams, and challenges of the people she writes about. She turns “slum dwellers” into human beings. She examines how the set up of their lives shapes their aspirations and possibilities. This is the story of a community, not just of poverty. The people she writes about are smart, resilient, and strong.

According to Al Jazeera, 50 years from now 1 in 3 people worldwide will live in a slum.

That’s a shocking number, isn’t it?

I could relate to how the legal system treated Abdul and his family, except for me it is our medical system. Both systems deal with decisions about lives.

I’m not sure I’m walking away from the book with any grand conclusions. I feel it is an interesting and fair study of human nature that doesn’t seek to manipulate the reader, but instead accurately shows a glimpse of a way of life we might otherwise never see—important because it is a way of life for so many.

Is there any help for slum life? Any cure, any way to solve this? Any path of escape?

That’s a mighty big question. Remember, one third of the world’s population will soon be living in a slum. We don’t come away with a strong answer, rather a call for attention and further exploration.

Education is a good place to start. Compassion and education.

The Dhammapada

Introduced and Translated by Eknath Easwaran; @2007 Nigiri Press, 275 pages.

Dhammapada means “the path of truth, righteousness.” These are the teachings of Prince Siddhartha Gautama once he became the Buddha.

If you’re like me, some if this may need a bit of explaining. And since I am new to Buddhism, I will probably get some of this wrong. Just gently correct me in the comments. If you are a Buddhist, I need not tell you to be gentle. 🙂

Basically, the message is this: Life is all about suffering. Everyone/everything alive suffers. That’s a real pain. If you’d like to stop this madness, here’s how. There’s an eightfold path and four noble truths. It’s going to take some work on your part and you can do this with or without a teacher.

The Dhammapada is a map of the journey, the journey you’ll take to escape samsara, which is this continual cycle of death and rebirth that everything alive is stuck in.

Ok, Ok, so what are the four noble truths and the eightfold path?

Four Noble Truths

  1. All desire happiness and yet all find that life brings suffering. Life is change and change can never satisfy desire.
  2. Selfish desire brings suffering. Selfish desire is a desire for permanent pleasure unmixed with suffering. Selfishness can only bring sorrow.
  3. Any ailment that can be understood can be cured. When the fires of selfishness have been extinguished what remains is wakefulness (Buddha means awakened one), joy, peace, perfect health, i.e. nirvana.
  4. Selfishness can be extinguished by following the eightfold path.

Eightfold Path

  1. Right understanding
  2. Right purpose
  3. Right speech
  4. Right conduct
  5. Right occupation
  6. Right effort
  7. Right attention
  8. Right meditation

In this book the introductions are long (and interesting) and the actual verses are short.

I liked the message of this book and the philosophy, but it didn’t grab me like the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita did. Those really “spoke” to me. The core messages are very similar. There is a heavy emphasis on meditation and on right action and on respecting all life, not just human life. The more attached you are to things and even people, the greater are your chances of a return trip into another incarnation, and hence more suffering.

If you follow my blog, you already know that I have an interest in anger management and also in the psyche. This has grown over the years as I have become a caregiver for my husband and his advocate in our medical (cough, choke) system. This has given me my own strong dose of suffering and sorrow, and it has definitely been trying for my husband.

We are like two trees that have grown up together. During our lives we have wrapped around each other as we have reached toward the sky. Now one of us has fallen terminally ill and as this illness takes the unhealthy tree it leans more and more on the tree that is still vital. As time goes by they both begin to lean. The sickness for one is a sickness for the other. I don’t have the brain injury. I am not losing my mind, but to watch and bear the weight is bad in its own way. What I’m saying is that I am not unaffected.

The verses about anger resonated with me and will give you an idea of what the Dhammapada is like:

Anger

Give up anger, give up pride, and free yourself
from worldly bondage. No sorrow can befall
those who never try to possess people and things as their own.

Those who hold back rising anger like a rolling
chariot are real charioteers. Others merely hold the reins.

Conquer anger through gentleness, unkindness
through unkindness, greed through generosity, and
falsehood by truth. Be truthful; do not yield to
anger. Give freely, even if you have but little. the gods
will bless you.

Injuring no one, self-controlled, the wise enter the
state of peace beyond all sorrow. Those who are
vigilant, who train their minds day and night and
strive continually for nirvana, enter the state of peace
beyond all selfish passions.

There is an old saying: “People will blame you
if you say too much; they will blame you if you
say too little; they will blame you if you say just
enough.” No one in this world escapes blame.

There never was and never will be anyone who
receives all the praise or all the blame. But who
can blame those who are pure, wise, good, and
meditative? They shine like a coin of pure gold. Even
the gods praise them, even Brahma the Creator.

Use your body for doing good, not for harm. Train
it to follow the dharma. Use your tongue for doing
good, not harm Train it to speak kindly. Use
your mind for doing good, not for harm. Train your
mind in love. The wise are disciplined in body,
speech, and mind. They are well controlled indeed.

 

I have to admit that I don’t completely “get” all of the Dhammapada. I like the idea of meditating, but my Western perspective looks down on those who renounce everything and expect others to feed them. And I have a little bit of a problem with the idea that it’s ok to eat meat as long as you don’t kill it personally. There’s an inconsistency there that bothers me. Monks are supposed to take whatever is offered them and yet shun hurting other lifeforms.

I have to admit, I don’t truly understand everything here, and the Buddha would tell me to go and meditate—and I will understand more in that way.

So, I think I will. I like that idea.

The Bhagavad Gita

Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran,
@ 2007, Nilgiri Press,
295 pages.

How has it taken me so long to find and read this book? It is difficult to form words around this, but that’s the whole point of posting, so I’ll try.

“Gita” means “song,” and “Bhagavad” means “Lord” or “God.” This is the Song of God.

It’s a dialog between a warrior in a desperate circumstance and the Lord, here called Krishna.

The Bhagavad Gita is a “song” and is thought to be an Upanishad that was inserted into the classic Indian epic, the Mahabharata, which I have yet to read. I gather that the Mahabharata is a big big deal Indian literature, so, of course, it’s on the list.

In Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert refers to the Bhagavad Gita several times as she describes her time in India. Apparently, her task in the ashram was to recite the “Gita” in Sanskrit daily for hours on end. This was understandably quite a chore. And, raises a hell of a lot of questions for me. Is Elizabeth Gilbert’s Sanskrit that good? Did she understand it as she was reciting it? Had she ever read it in English?

I had a different reaction to it. It blew my mind. It filled in a lot of spiritual gaps, as did the other Upanishads. I found it intense and fascinating. The idea is that God Himself is speaking. He is explaining life, death, human nature, and how to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth so a person can be with Him eternally. Fascinating. Simply fascinating.

At the heart of the Gita’s message is to see the Lord in every creature and to act accordingly. It urges self mastery. It makes the distinction between the Body and Mind, and what is the true core Self. It discusses the process of dying and what happens to us after we die. And it gives the purpose of life: to realize God.

Meditation is key. There are also other key ways to realize the purpose of life as well.

This was Gandhi’s favorite scripture.

There’s a lot here. It’s worth a second and third read. I can’t possibly cover all the high points; there are so many.

The introduction says the Gita is a “handbook for self realization.” I couldn’t put it any better.

The Upanishads

Introduced and translated by Eknath Easwaran,
Nilgiri Press,
@2007 by the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation,
381 pages.

upanishadsJust as my two great desires come head to head—that of seeing the world and that of staying safe and hidden at home, just as these competing needs threaten to derail me, I grasp this book in my hands. This book that, for me, illuminates so many of my own spiritual questions. This book that I had never heard of before and never would have picked up had I not been researching India. This great book with its incomprehensible name and seemingly impenetrable content. This book of that.

So, what is it? What are the Upanishads?

  • Utterances of mystical truth
  • Spiritual instructions
  • Commentaries on the Vedas, the ancient and sacred hymn collections (Samhitas) of the Indo-Aryans
  • Four thousand-year old texts
  • Distillations of spiritual wisdom
  • “Sitting down near” as at the feet of an illumined teacher
  • Inspirational writings
  • The teacher’s textbook
  • Descriptions of a reality that cannot be described, but only experienced
  • Teachings that all life is one
  • Numbering 108, although we don’t know how many originally existed; collections, such as this, usually contain ten “principle” Upanishads and sometimes a few”lesser” (as in shorter) ones are included
  • “Snapshots from the towering peaks of consciousness”

So, as you can see, there’s a lot there. And yet, these “lessons” are written in parable form and as thought experiments, and because they address the reader directly, they are easy to read. The message may be big, but they in and of themselves are not intimidating.

Please forgive me, because I may not get this entirely right. My impressions were as follows. The main idea is that all life is one. My life and your life and the dog’s life and the bird’s life, this thing that we call life is a unified thing. To us it appears separate and distinct. Most of us perceive life only through our senses of the physical world, and because of this, we think each thing has its own individual life. We don’t see life as a single entity, which according to the Upanishads, it is.

But, say the teachings, don’t take it from us. You must go and find this out yourself, and this is how you can do it.

You can experience firsthand what life truly is by exploring the four states of consciousness: waking, dreaming, dreamless sleep, and a higher state of consciousness that is indescribable—you can only know it by experiencing it through meditation.

In the climax of meditation, says Easwaran, “the barrier of individuality disappears, dissolving in a sea of pure, undifferentiated awareness.”

The Upanishads teach that the “Self” is not the body, but instead the “Self” is “Life” and “Life” is eternal.

I got the feeling that when talking about God and gods, we are in the difficult area of semantics. Since I’m coming to this work from the Christian tradition, I started noticing similarities between this text and what I’ve been taught about God in the Western world. The two traditions do not necessarily negate each other, but instead work to reinforce an idea or description of the Divine. And finally, the “Self” is divine. Divinity runs through everything alive.

Most of the text is more straightforward than this, but I liked the poetry of this passage:

Two birds of beautiful plumage, comrades
Inseparable, live on the selfsame tree.
One bird eats the fruit of pleasure and pain;
The other looks on without eating.

Forgetting our divine origin,
We become ensnared in the world of change
And bewail our helplessness.

I think overall this is a call to adventure, a call to experience, and an idea of what you might find if you look inward. Ultimately, it tells us that we do not need to fear for we are all divine. But, we will remain blind to our own divinity if we don’t seek to experience the oneness of life through meditation, self-sacrifice, living righteously, controlling the senses, and stilling the mind.

Oh, and this is a dangerous journey and you’ll need a teacher who has done this before.

 

Eat, Pray, Love

One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India, and Indonesia
By Elizabeth Gilbert
@2006, 12 hours, 49 minutes.
Audible version read by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Back in 2008 a coworker said, “You really gotta read this book!” She described it to me fairly accurately, and I didn’t think it would be for me. I didn’t want to read about some blond lady’s spiritual journey. I didn’t want to read about her travels across Italy, India, and Indonesia. Eating? I was on a diet!

So it’s fair to say it took me a little time to get around to this book, but it kept showing up here and there. People kept trying to give it to me. And I don’t really know what my problem was. It seemed, well, so “girly.”

The first book by Elizabeth Gilbert I “read” was her Audible version of Big Magic, and I probably would not have listened to that if it hadn’t been for her 2009 TED Talk on Creativity (which hit me like a ton of bricks) and yet another coworker sending me her podcast on Magic Lessons.

OK already, I’ll read your damn book!

Which wasn’t too bad. You know, I liked it. I like Liz’s openness to well, everything. Liz is engaging and interesting and sweet and supportive. You get the feeling that she’s the kind of person people seek out—all the time. Like she never has a free Saturday night. And this puts me off a little. It’s my issue, not hers.

She begins her book talking about how many people she’s going to offend by discussing her search for spirituality and healing, and I get that. I can easily think of people in my own life who would be terribly offended by this book. Liz looks for God on her own terms. She isn’t too sure about marriage or having children. She wants to claim space for her creativity, her own writing. She puts the breaks on her life and focuses completely on herself.

My mother-in-law would hate this book. In fact, she hates all books except for the Bible. If you’re reading a book that isn’t the Bible, there’s something wrong with you. If you can relate to my mother-in-law on the topic of books, Eat, Pray, Love may not be for you—-and, of course, you should definitely read it.

I’m not so easily offended. People can believe things radically different from what I believe, and it doesn’t upset me at all. I just think, hmm, that’s interesting. Wonder how they came to that conclusion? Liz does talk about one thing that I think, gee, why Liz? Why did you want to talk about that. TMI. TMI!

That said, Liz has a great reading voice. I think this book was probably better listened to than read.

So, yes. This was an interesting book. Liz’s problems are not my problems, though, so I wasn’t saying, oh yes, I really get you. Rather I marvel at this woman’s life. I marvel at her success and her freedom. I marvel at her ability to travel and her ability to pursue her dream because my dream has always seemed so hard to pursue. The small issue of money has always presented a barrier to me. I am only just conquering it, and even as I say this I’m not terribly sure that’s true. I mean “future me” probably is going to hate “past” and “present” me.

But Eat, Pray, Love. Should you read it? Yes, I think so. I think it is an important book of our time. I think it taps into women’s issues and gives a picture of the female condition that is very accurate for a large number of people. I think it’s historically and culturally significant.

Plus, Liz’s contemplation of meditation and yoga is very interesting. Yoga and meditation are becoming more important to me lately. My husband got some really bad news back from a test the other day. His ability to concentrate was judged to be under the 20th percentile with his working verbal memory measured just above the 1 percentile. So yes, I’m talking a range from 1 to 100. Does this mean dementia? We still do not know. But it does confirm brain damage. Well, duh. The 40 plus lesions on his MRI told us that. I mean really, what do we pay these doctors for?

But—I digress.

The point is this. Meditation could help my husband improve his cognitive function as long as he doesn’t have dementia. It can help with focus and concentration. Meditation is simple the practice of focusing your attention, of paying attention to what’s happening, right now. The act of bringing your mind back once it starts wandering is like lifting a weight and your ability to control your mind becomes stronger just as weight training makes your muscles stronger.

And as Liz discusses, there are all kinds of ways to do it because meditation has been explored by ancient cultures like India for a very long time. And by a long time, I mean for more than five thousand years. These cultures have the information, in other words.

Liz’s accounts of her heartaches rang true, but her account of her love story in Bali, while I get her excitement, seemed like she was holding back. So I think Liz nailed the “Eat” part of her story as well as the “Pray” part. But the “Love” part, I think she didn’t quite do it. I felt empathy. I felt relaxation. I felt her peacefulness. But I didn’t feel love. Love being a very complicated topic indeed.

Liz laments constantly: was Eat, Pray, Love her greatest work? Is her best work behind her?

Here’s my advice to her. Explore the concept of “love” and I mean this exploration to go beyond the Western one-word “love.” Explore love in Greek terms. Explore love in Middle Eastern terms.

As if I should be giving advice to Liz Gilbert! I should be giving advice to myself! Where’s my advice? Where’s my journey?

But alas, I have a gift for seeing what others must do, and Liz, your best work is not behind you. Best work does not equal most recognized work. Is your most recognized work behind you? Well, that’s anyone’s guess.