Tuesday, October 23, 2012

India 22: Searching for Manju from Beyond the Beautiful Forevers

At 4:30 today I was kicking myself for sitting at gate 7 while my plane from Mumbai to Bangalore took off from gate 1.  Besides not knowing a 1 from a 7 I had sat like a ninny waiting for a gate attendant until it was too late.  I did something similar years ago in Mexico and drove Rickie and myself crazy trying to compensate for and not accept what I had done.

But somehow on this trip I can imagine this happened for a reason or I can make something out of it.  And I knew what that something was:  I wanted to find Annawadi and Manju.

Maybe you remember my writing about Manju and her slum two posts ago.  She was a young woman in Katherine Boo’s great book—“Behind the Beautiful Forevers"—about two years in the life of Annawadi, a small slum which stays alive by scavenging waste from the nearby Mumbai Airport. She is the slums sole teacher and pretty much floated the family.    A New Republic book review of the book said that Manju was "frequently the voice of self-reflective decency and goodness."

And I am at the Mumbai Airport.

For that to happen I had to fall into the arms of Menesh. 

When you miss a flight at Mumbai you have to exit the airport and start all over again.  Heading for the office of Air India I brush off a guy who is telling me the obvious to make a little money: go over there.  I’ve become brusque with cabbies in Mumbai and this man is only a rickshaw driver.

But Air India is booked for the rest of the day, which Menesh immediately observes and offers to take me to another terminal and other airlines.  A guard says to pay him only 10 rupees.  However on the way, Manesh pulls up to a tiny office on a strip of questionable shops and says I can get my ticket right here. 

This seems suspicious but I like Manesh and I’ve been in Mumbai just long enough not to be put off by the hustle; moreover, I’ve just told myself not to be so damn grumpy with cabbies.  Sure enough, the computer guy gets every flight on his screen and I choose the cheapest one.  This mean’s I’ve now got four hours on my hands.

They don't knows where Annawadi is but I’ve got my Nook e-reader with brief videos of life in the slum which I play for them.  After a while, they recognize the Hyatt Hotel in the background and deduct where Annawadi must be, so off we go.

Rickshaws feel perilous in Bangalore and even more so amidst the trucks and crush of rush hour in Mumbai.  I’ve again put myself in the hands of someone I do not know based solely to fulfill a desire.  Do I really want to do this, I ask myself, or just tell myself I tried? 

At the Hyatt guardhouse we learn how to get to Annawadi and before long we're there,  playing my e-book video again and pointing to names of people who shot them. No recognition.  Now comes up an attractive young man who speaks English and tells me Katherine Boo is not here just now but comes back regularly.  Boo has spent 20 years reporting on the lives of poor people and spent 3.5 years here. That she retains a continuing interest is stunning.  So does he know where Manju is?

Soon we’re inside and searching through tiny alleys, asking questions and I begin to know where I am: here is the maiden or open area and over there the best public toilets in the slum ,where Manju and her best friend Meena spent their time together before Manju got her four hours of sleep a night.  And here is the temple, lit up for Durga Puna, the nine day festival for the goddess honoring the triumph of good over evil.

A young man invites me to take off my shoes and come into the temple, which I do.  Doe he know Manju?   A young woman turns around.  And there she is, right out of her video. I am silly with happiness.   

I said I’d come to see her which must seem ridiculous and makes her blush, turn away and straighten her hair.  But I explain.  I show her the video.  As children jump about seeking attention, we talk.

How are you, what have you been doing since the book was published?  She taught English.  Now she’s a trainee for Cathay Airlines.

Great, that’s a really good airline.

How is her mother (who has a seventh grade education and wanted to be the slum boss)?  She is fine.  She is teaching in two schools.

And how is Sunil?

Boo dedicated the book as follows: “For two Sunils and what they’ve taught me about not giving up.”  I’m thinking about the 12 year old Sunil who risks himself to make 33 cents a day scavenging airport garbage.

“He’s fine, he’s got a job.”

We talk some more and she gives me her full name, Manjusha Waghekar,” and her mom’s phone number and there’s more fun with the kids but it’s time to go.  I say to her, “Do you know the meaning of the word ‘hero’?” and she says yes.  “You are my hero,” I want her to know. 

I walk out slowly, putting as many things in place as I can.  This is where the old slum lord must live and across the street must be his horses, which he periodically paints up as zebras.  There’s a brothel on this square somewhere. There are the video games which mean the man who purchased airport junk must be next door.  Here are piles of garbage in white bags waiting to be sold.  Those who collected them have been known to sleep on them lest they be stolen. 

My two still cameras are out of battery power and I’m down to a little movie camera with which I recorded as much as I can in failing light.  I’d love to turn this into a video for you and may do it some day. 

So what has this been about?  Surely it is the thrill of reading something in Idaho and seeing it in India.  The thrill of the chase.  But it is much more.  I come to honor in some way the journalist and her several collaborators who cared enough to tell Annawadi’s story.  She allowed readers to experience life here humanely and compassionately. Does it also make any sense that this enclave of 3,000--little different from the 6.5 million slum dwellers in Mumbai—is hallowed ground and that the public toilets , for example, should be memorialized? Maybe I’m on a guilt tour but it doesn’t feel that way.  I’m just glad to there, in fact I’m delighted. 

1 comment:

  1. Amazing! I love your account of the adventure, it's incredible that you found her. I only read Katherine's book after coming back from India in December 2012.

    Where did you see those videos of Manju that allowed you to identify her?