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 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.

 

All roads lead to India?

india-topographic-mapI’ve been wanting to do some foreign travel for some time, but I just could not figure out where in the world to go. Some said “Belize, you’ve got to go to Belize.” And then someone else said Scotland, and well, I do love castles. I wanted to honeymoon in a castle when I was young and dreaming about such things.

But then the other day, as I was eating Indian fast food for lunch, I was invited to a wedding—in India. And in a moment, I knew I must go. I must go to the wedding, and I must go to India. I mean for crying out loud, I love elephants. I’ve always wanted to see some elephants, up close where they live, not in a zoo.

But India, I have to admit I don’t know very much. I read George Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” in school. That was depressing. I saw the movie “Gandhi.” That was inspiring and a bit depressing too.

OK, so let’s face it. I know nothing about India. It’s this mysterious place. Columbus thought he had found India when he arrived in North America. He obviously didn’t know very much about India either.  The Taj Mahal, Bollywood, Slum Dog Millionaire, crime, lots of people, heat, poverty, nukes, Kashmir, and terrorist attacks on the hotel where I would like to stay. This is what the Western media has told me about India. A lot of my stuff is made in India.

I mean any one who reads this blog probably thought I was headed to Russia. I thought I was going to Georgia.

But India. It seems crazy and yet it seems right.

So what am I doing to prepare?

Hindi. I’m learning Hindi. I’ve decided that I will learn the syllabary, and I will learn a few niceties (please, thank you, you’re welcome, hello, good-bye, etc.), and I will learn food words and maybe some discomfort words: I’m so freakin’ hot. There are tons of free apps for learning Hindi script and vocab. Plus, there’s YouTube. I’ve got no excuse.

Google Maps. I love Google Maps. It’s so cool to have a bird’s eye view of an area, plus labels over what things are.

Applied for my passport.

Watched a video on how to tie a saree.

Still to do: figure out to blend into a crowd. This of course is a great reason to go shopping!I found some incredible clothing sites. Oh. My. Goodness. Indian clothes are beautiful! And, I want to blend in as much as possible. In Russia, that was easy. I just wore clothes bought there and kept my mouth shut. Instant Russian. This won’t be so easy in India. Not only is my skin white, it’s freckled. I’m clearly from the far north. My hair is light brown with reddish tones. The only things I’ve got going for me are my large dark eyebrows.

I’ve booked two hotels and have reserved the flight.

Started researching museums and national parks. This trek looks awesome: https://www.thrillophilia.com/tours/trek-to-the-great-himalayan-national-park-shilt-thatch

Found a list of wildlife sanctuaries: http://www.thrillophilia.com/blog/top-10-wildlife-sanctuaries-in-india/

And, researched a list of books to read:

  1. Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
  2. The Upanishads, translated by Eknath Easwaran
  3. The Dhammapada translated by Eknath Easwaran
  4. The Bhagavad Gita translated by Eknath Easwaran
  5. The Ramayana translated by Ramesh Menon
  6. The Mahabharata translated by R. K. Narayan
  7. Maximum City by Sukheth Mehta
  8. A Free Man by Aman Sethi
  9. The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger
  10. A Strange Kind of Paradise by Sam Miller
  11. The Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts
  12. Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
  13. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
  14. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
  15. A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
  16. Not Only the Things That Have Happened by Mridula Koshy
  17. The Shadow Lines by Amitov Ghosh
  18. Chronicles of a Corpse Bearer by Cyrus Mistry
  19. God’s Little Soldier by Kiran Nagarkar
  20. Serious Man by Mann Joseph
  21. The Lost Flamingos of Bombay by Siddharth Dhanrant Shanghvi
  22. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
  23. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
  24. A Matter of Rats by Amitava Kumar
  25. The Death of Vishnu by Mauil Suri
  26. Our Moon Has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita
  27. The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar
  28. Cobalt Blue by Sachin Kundalkar
  29. Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh

The God of Small Things

Cover of "The God of Small Things"
Cover of The God of Small Things

By Arundhati Roy; Random House; @ 1997; 321 pages.

Do not give books that you have not read to friends, relatives, strangers, etc.

Don’t do it.

I could almost stop my little book report here. Literature, it seems, is a beautiful way to talk about horrible things. Take if from me, if you must give a book, give a book of jokes by Reader’s Digest.

I first became aware of the book The God of Small Things during a bout of insomnia. Flipping channels at 4 a.m., I landed on PBS and saw Arundhati Roy interviewed. I was so impressed by her that I became obsessed with buying her book.

Following my oh-so-flawed pattern, I purchased the book right away, but did not read it until now. And, so sure was I at how great this book would be that I bought a copy and gave it to an acquaintance/friend several months ago. (Curses/embarrassment.)

Arundhati writes her story using the omniscient narrator. This way she can tell us the thoughts and motivations of all of her characters. The story’s theme focuses on the Love Laws of India: “The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.” This is all very foreign territory for me, since sadly I know next to nothing about India.

Of course, India is not the only country (or culture) that has taboos about love. We all do, and taboos are just that: taboo. It sounds like ewwww, and that’s what they are for us, big ewwwwws. Some taboos are larger than others. Some are no longer so taboo. Arundhati starts us out with taboos that are bad for Indian culture, but for Americans, eh, not so much. Her story becomes a gradient of taboos, introduced so gradually, you barely notice what’s happening, until you’re in her scene where her characters are in the theater watching The Sound of Music, and then blammo. Then it levels off for a while as you are fed information and are trying to figure out what exactly happened, for about 100 pages. The finale features a fireworks of taboos.

Arundhati is one of those authors who delivers hugely in the area of craft, and The God of Small Things could be read as much for the story as for the craft used to tell it. Information is portioned out, like strands of yarn. Strand by strand, she tells us about her characters’ problems. We’re too close to each strand to really understand what’s happening, until eventually everything is woven into place.

The story begins in Ayemenem, India, with Estha and Rahel, dizygotic (two-egg twins), who after a tragic turn of events are separated at the age of seven. Now at 30, Rahel has returned to India to find her brother Estha damaged, changed, broken. To know their story, we find out about their family members.

Their mother Ammu, for instance, made a terrible life-altering mistake and married the wrong man, thus forever ending her chances for societal-sanctioned love:

Ammu watched her husband’s mouth move as it formed words. She said nothing. He grew uncomfortable and then infuriated by her silence. Suddenly he lunged at her, grabbed her hair, punched her and then passed out from the effort. Ammu took down the heaviest book she could find in the bookshelf—The Reader’s Digest World Atlas—and hit him with it as hard as she could. On his head. His legs. His back and shoulders. When he regained consciousness, he was puzzled by his bruises. He apologized abjectly for the violence, but immediately began to badger her about helping him with his transfer. This fell into a pattern. Drunken violence followed by postdrunken badgering….”

Ammu divorces “the wrong man” and does the best she can. She loves her children terribly:

To Ammu, her twins seemed like a pair of small bewildered frogs engrossed in each other’s company, lolloping arm in arm down a highway full of hurtling traffic. Entirely oblivious of what trucks can do to frogs. Ammu watched over them fiercely. Her watchfulness stretched her, made her taut and tense. She was quick to reprimand her children, but even quicker to take offense on their behalf.”

Arundhati got off to a wonderful start. Her narrative style and the cadence of her words are poetic, but then from time to time she slaps us around with bad/vulgar words.

OK, I realize that bad words have their place. They can convey feeling, tone, loss of emotional and rational control, and social background. They are valuable. But when one is talking about something sensitive, smooth, and touching, and a four-letter word is tossed down, there’s a question. What exactly is the motivation behind this sudden jolt of cold water? Why this smack in the face? If that question can’t be answered in terms of advancing the plot (congruence with overall philosophy or tone isn’t enough), then I think the bad word needs to go. It’s too jarring.

This book, like a person who delivers sensitive information too soon, runs the risk of being cast aside. For me, the foreshadowing was so intense and offensive that I nearly closed the book forever; I nearly discarded the deftly crafted tale, the intricacies, and all the strands of information that would be eventually woven back together and understood. The story seemed like it might be too horrible to read; the characters too innocent; the demons too demonic; then Arundhati coaxes us back in. But don’t be fooled, she is determined to make her point.

Did I like the book? Yes and no. Would I read it again? Well, parts of it to help me with my own writing. (Arundhati is so tremendously talented.)

I won’t again ignorantly hand a book to someone based on the pretty flower/lily pad theme on the cover or the very charming PBS interview given by the author. Reading books with friends, like sharing art with friends, might not be my thing.

The God of Small Things was wonderful in so many ways, I hate to say anything bad about it. Still, it wasn’t the book for me. I wanted something else from this book; I wanted a closer connection to at least one of the characters, and yet, I thought it was very well done.

It was interesting in the end to know that The God of Small Things is The God of Loss.