The visit was made possible because I was in Mumbai to shoot a video in another slum but had missed a plane back to Banglore where I worked a volunteer for Accion International. I was carrying the e-book version of "Beautiful Forevers" that contained four videos which I showed to an airport rickshaw driver. He'd never heard of the place; however he could see the Hyatt Hotel in one video. From there it was a short drive to Annawadi. Here are two scenes shot near the entrance, one short, one longer:
I then found a man who spoke English. He told me Katherine Boo was not there right now, meaning she was still there regularly. Did he know anyone who had made the videos I showed him or were in them, I then asked? No, but he pointed the way and I soon recognized I was at the maiden or open place where the slum lord had lived, the brothen, public toilet and temple maintains and kids played:
We then talked as if at a family reunion. What have you been doing and what are you doing now? Great, she said. First I taught school and now I'm a trainee for Cathay Pacific Airlines. And your mom (who wanted to be the slum boss and failed)? She's well too, and teaching at two schools. How about Sunil? (The book had been dedicated to this 12 year old because of his courage, and to Boo's husband, also Sunil.) Great, he's got a job. Then, knowing I should leave soon, I asked her if she knew the meaning of the word "hero," which she did and I spontaneously said "You are my hero."
Because I was talking and filming (poorly), I only caught her answer and smile at the end:
On the way out I saw other things and, from the book, knew their significance.
The horses in the footage below are still where they were in the book and I remember them because the owner, the slum boss, painted them black and white and rented them out as zebras for special occasions or used them in races. The scene ends with a glimpse of the video machines. One man who bought metal and plastic for which kids had risked their lives and freedom paid them in video games. Another dealer was the 16-year-old central figure of the book, Abdul.
We said goodbye to a man who had helped us and ended less than an hour in Annawadi. But what a time it was, thanks to writing so vivid I had to come here and then, once here, knew exactly where I was. I went back to the airport and immediately posted the story on my blog. I found myself writing then about the holiness of the experience.
"Beautiful Forevers" has since won the National Book Award as the best non-fiction of 2011. Janet Maslin of the New York Times writes, "Novelists dream of defining characters this swiftly and beautifully, but Ms. Boo is not a novelist. She is one of those rare, deep-digging journalists who can make truth surpass fiction....Comparison to Dickens is not unwarranted."
The suggestion that this is the first book to read about India or, as one reviewer put it, "the best reporting to come out of India in 50 years" is not unwarranted either.