Saturday, December 8, 2012

India # 43 Finding Manju from "Beautiful Forevers, "The Video

The highlight of three months in India was a spontaneous visit I made to a slum called Annawadi near the Mumbai Airport.  I knew something of life there because of a book, "Beyond the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo, which had affected me deeply as I prepared for my journey.
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: 

I then wandered north and got invited in for a drink, I think...
And turned into an alley where I was told I might find Manju.  Manju was  the subject of one of the videos.  I kept coming back to that video whenever I got the Nook in my hands.  She was an angelic and occasionally salty figure, living a life of significant virtue in a tough environment.  But what were the chances she would be there, two years after the book was completed?  These 20 seconds give us a tiny glimpse of life in Annawadi.

 I then turned back into the maiden and came to the public toilets, a late-night meeting place for Manju and her friend Meena, their one time to themselves during the day. 
To the right was the Hindu temple, brightly decorated in honor of the godess Durga who was being celebrated that week.  "Take off your shoes and come in," a young man said.  I asked him where I might find Manju.  Just then the woman next to me in the pink saree turned around.  It was Manju!  As you can hear, I was amazed.

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. 

 Boo wrote that, at the height of the scavanging (prices of recycled plastic and metal have since shrunk), a bag of aluminum or plastic bottles was so important for survival that scavengers often slept on their bags.  Here are unguarded bags at the slum's entrance.

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. 


  1. All right, here they are.
    Great stuff, thanks a lot for uploading these.

  2. Thanks for posting this, I just read the book and it was very nice to see this videos and also Manju. Unfortunately, Brazil seems to be the same or worst that these images (I`m Brazilian). I imagined the Annawaddi a lot much dirtier and messy...I hope things are better now there!!! It seems a lot as a Brazilian slum and so many streets in Brazil!!!

  3. I'm so glad to see you review this! I've heard tons about this book, but I was a tiny bit wary because sometimes reporters visiting other countries can end up using an off-putting the-glorious-West-versus-the-rest-of-the-world tone in their writing. But it really doesn't sound like that was the case here. Definitely picking this one up.

    Charmaine Smith (More about MD Locksmith)