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.

India Trip: The Overview

What would travel be if it didn’t have constraints? I’m constrained by where I have to be and when. I’m constrained because I don’t speak Hindi or Marathi. I also can’t read the script of either of these languages. I’m constrained by my poor mathematical abilities. It frightens me to divide anything by 67.  I’m not that great at walking around in sandals. It feels a little weird to be traveling alone without a friend or my husband. And finally, I’ll also be constrained by traffic; the sheer numbers of people trying to get around.

My 17-day trip to India has three main parts.

Part I: Landing in India, Recovering From Jet Lag 

Day 1 (Monday): Leave my house at 3:30 a.m. to drive to the airport. Park my car there. (Need to research this.) Fly, fly, and fly. It will take a full day to travel from where I live to Mumbai.

Day 2 (Tuesday): Land; my hotel sends a car to get me at the airport. (I still need to arrange that with them.) I check in and then what? Either I’m wide awake or exhausted. (There is a 12-hour time difference.) I’ll probably grab something to eat in the hotel and spend the rest of the evening in my room. If I have time and energy, I’ll exchange money.

Day 3 (Wednesday): Two days have been crushed and I’m ready to go!!! I probably wimped out yesterday, so I’ll exchange money today. Now I’m off to Elephanta Island to see the caves and everything else.

Day 4 (Thursday): Did I get enough of the island? Do I want to do it again? Or, do I want to see some art museums that are nearby? The Prince of Wales Museum is supposed to be amazing! I could also see what the fuss is about with Leopold’s Cafe.

Part II: The Wedding in Aurangabad!

Day 5 (Friday): TBD

Day 6 (Saturday): I am on my own. The wedding is in two days, and today I’m a free agent. Gotta get to those caves! Ellora, Ajanta, Aurangabad? One of those.

Day 7 (Sunday): More caves!!

Day 8 (Monday): Today is the big day. My friend is getting married! She thinks she’ll be wearing a pink sari, but she hasn’t seen it yet because her parents are picking it out in India and none of the shops will let them send her pictures (all the way to the U.S. via internet) of their choices. When I complained that my sari fashioning didn’t go so well, she divulged that she will be having someone help her put hers on. That made me feel a little better. Still, I need to try again. It’s like deftly tying a parachute into a nicely shaped, elegant dress, that drapes well. (I’m going to sneak this in here. I just found a great post describing Hindu weddings.)

Day 9 (Tuesday):  I am probably a bit exhausted as I crawl out of bed and head for an espresso and a dip in the pool. Not sure what I’m doing today, but likely it will be low key. TBD.

Day 10 (Wednesday): TBD.

Day 11 (Thursday): TBD. Go to bed early and set several alarms. I need to board a train at 6 a.m. tomorrow to get back to Mumbai. (So I get up when? 4:30 a.m.?) If I miss the train, a 6.5-hour journey could turn into a 20-hour journey, because all the other “express” trains are that pokey! Since I’ll be traveling with all of my belongings, I’ve decided to initially only carry one bag on this trip, which I’ll check when flying. In my purse, I’ll carry essentials. I’ll have to pack better than I’ve ever packed before!

Part III: Journey Back From Aurangabad to Mumbai or Navi Mumbai?

Day 12 (Friday): This was a very tricky part as far as planning was concerned. My friend thinks that train travel may be difficult for me because I don’t understand Hindi and may not hear the stops. She thinks I should take a luxury bus instead. I’m not too keen on busses and think a train ride sounds more fun. I figure that I’ll know when I reach Mumbai. How can I miss it?

There are two places I could stop. I could stop in Thane (east of Mumbai) and take an Uber or Ola to Navi Mumbai where the wedding reception will be, or I could go all the way to the beautiful but infamous Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. I say infamous because of the 2006 terrorist attacks, which were filmed in their entirety and available to watch on YouTube. I’d rather disembark at a station that doesn’t have such a high profile, but I also crave convenience.

Given that the reception isn’t until Sunday, and this is Friday, do I really want to spend that tourist time on my own in Navi Mumbai? After all, there are several amazing temples to see in Mumbai. I struggled with this and finally decided to stay in Mumbai for the remainder of the trip. So today, I will ride the train from 6 a.m. to about 12:30 p.m. and then either have an Uber or Ola to take me to the hotel, which I think has a check-in time of 2:00 p.m., but I need to check on that. Tonight, I am probably feeling a bit tired, so I’ll settle in at the hotel, send off some pictures to my husband and some friends, and then go up to the rooftop and watch the sunset.

Day 13 (Saturday): I’m on my own today. Mumbai is my oyster and I’m off to see some temples. TBD.

Day 14 (Sunday): My friend’s wedding reception is today in Navi Mumbai. I know where it is, but I don’t know when it is. She told me that it will only last a few hours, so it won’t be an all-day affair. So today, I think I’ll start the day early by visiting the Afghan Church, which opens at 7 a.m. It is only open on Sundays, and this is my only Sunday in Mumbai. Afterwards, I think I’ll walk to breakfast somewhere. (Need to figure that out.) The rest is TBD. Then an Uber or Ola to Navi Mumbai. Since I have no idea what traffic is like between Mumbai and Navi Mumbai and I don’t know how late the reception ends or how safe I’ll feel traveling back by myself, I’ve decided to get a room at the hotel where the reception is being held in Navi Mumbai. It doesn’t cost a lot, and the peace of mind will make it worth it. I’ll leave all my bags and stuff in Mumbai and travel light to Navi Mumbai for the evening.

Day 15 (Monday): If there was dancing and eating and merriment at the reception, I’m probably having a hard time getting up. I check out of the room in Navi Mumbai and head back to my hotel in Mumbai. I have found that typically, there are a lot of things that are closed on Mondays in India, so I’ll have to do some research to figure out what I’m doing today. Generally speaking, temples or maybe Nehru’s Museum or Observatory? This evening, I’ll be watching the sunset from the roof of my hotel in Mumbai.

Day 16 (Tuesday): This is my last full day in Mumbai. I’m sad even though I haven’t left home yet. This is TBD. Tonight I will spend the evening in the roof of the hotel watching the sun set and listening to music.

Day 17 (Wednesday): This is another tricky part. I have to check out of my hotel at 12 noon, but my flight doesn’t leave Mumbai until 10 p.m. tonight. Just me and my bag for 10 hours! This is a problem.

Day 18: (Thursday): Arrive at 9:48 a.m. back home. Get car, and drive, drive, drive.

 

To Dos:

  • Still need to get my vaccinations. Will be doing this on Wednesday of this week.
  • Still need to get my visa for India. Can’t do that yet. Too soon.
  • Still need to learn basic Hindi and ideally recognize basic signage. Need to learn phrases like: “Your mother is watching you.” (LOL!)
  • Still need to get a decent suitcase and decide what I’m going to take. Perhaps need to get a larger and more casual looking purse since I’m not taking a carry on.
  • Need to dig out my “walking sandals.”
  • Still need to figure out how much money to take.
  • Need to make sure our bills are all paid up.
  • Still need to figure out what food will cost and where I might go, so I’m not eating something questionable at the last minute.
  • Still need to talk to friends about checking in on my husband. He’s doing better, but I want to make sure he’s ok.
  • Still need to put signs and money around the house, so that he’s remembering to lock the doors at night, bring in the dog, and make sure the chickens have water. For the most part he has this, but I worry.
  • Need to make sure my phone has enough data allotted to it.
  • Need to find out how much parking my car at the airport will cost. (After all that traveling, am I going to want to drive two hours to get home?)
  • Need to research those temples, get their times and locations.
  • Need to read up on the places I’ve decided to visit, so I know what I’m looking at.
  • Need to breathe! 🙂

Mumbai Tour 1 — Slashing the Itinerary

I want to see it all, but I can’t. In planning this trip, I feel tinier than an ant. And, I realize that I’m not going to be happy if I’m in a cab the whole time. So the things that I’ll see, I’ll have to see in area chunks. Also, I may get tired, hot, hungry, and thirsty, and then cranky. I will have some time to myself in Mumbai and then I’m off to Aurangabad. The following is what I’ve got planned thus far.

I love archaeology and the moment I learned about the Elephanta Caves (a World Heritage Site), I knew they were first on my list. The Elephanta Caves on are Elephanta Island, which is east of (old) Mumbai and west of (new) Navi Mumbai. The journey to the island by ferry will take about an hour.

Elephanta Cave Day(s):

depart-to-elephanta-caves

Place/Activity Times Cost   When Closed Interesting Details
Elephanta Ferry 9 a.m. — First boat leaves Apollo Bandar.

2 p.m. — Last boat leaves Apollar Bandar.

12 Noon — First boat departs island.

5:30 p.m. — Last boat departs island.

â‚ą150 Mondays It takes one hour to get to the caves.

Boats leave every 30 minutes.

Elephanta Island and Caves

elephanta-island-small-view

 

  • Historical Shiv Mandir (Northeast on Island)
  • Historical Shivja Temple (Northwest on Island)
  • Elephanta Caves (Central)
  • Elephanta Lake Garden (South Central)
  • Cannon Point (West)
  • Shree Datta Mandir, Gharapuri (South)
  • Gaondevi Temple (South)
  • Someshwar Mandir (South)

 

Mumbai Art Day (Day 1 of More Such Days Hopefully, But No Promises)

art-day-mumbai

Place Admission Times Price When Closed Address/Photo OK?/Interesting Details
Jehangir Art Gallery 11 a.m to 7 p.m.  ?  ? 161 KALAGHODA
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu
Sangrahalaya (Prince of Wales Museum)
10:15 a.m. to 6 p.m.  Museum Entry for Foreign Adult: ₹500 (? $)

Mumbai Experience Documentary Foreign Adult: ₹50

Mobile Phone Photography Pass: ₹100

Audio Guide: Complimentary

 Only Closed on Certain Holidays  159-161 Mahatma Gandhi Road, Fort, Mumbai
National Gallery of Modern Art 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.  Foreign Visitor: ₹500 (? $)  Mondays Sir Cowasji Jahangir Public HallM G Road, Fort Mumba
Leopold Cafe  7:30 a.m. to Midnight  Menu  S.B. Singh Road,
Colaba Causeway

*Current exchange rate: $1 = â‚ą67.8209 (Rupees)

 

Afghan Church: open Sunday 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

 

All this other stuff will have to wait:

There is way too much to do in India!

The more I learn about India, the more I want to see and the more I cannot see because I don’t have time.

Two months already I’ve known about this trip, and I still can’t get my head around it. I’m going to have to cut my travel aspirations to the bone, and just today I looked up World Heritage Sites in India, and I nearly fell out of my chair. Oh, I want to visit the Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh oh so terribly badly, and I just won’t have time.

For Mumbai, I have a list that’s a mile long:

Oh, and then there are also the sites in Aurangabad:

And let’s not forget the interesting things I saw on the web for Navi Mumbai (New Mumbai):

 

How long am I staying? Oh, about 15 days.

P.S. Places unsafe for women at night. (Some due to wild animals and ghosts.)

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.