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Goodnight and Good Luck

I’ve been dreading (and avoiding) writing this final blog entry.

How can I possibly summarize and give finality to a year that has so altered my life? When Daniel and I decided to move to India it was a leap of faith – a leap to a place where I’d never been; a leap to leave my job and take an unconventional turn; a leap to live in a place where everyone I loved would be thousands and thousands of miles away.

I’ve always been a person who benefited most from taking the road less traveled. It’s been a bit of a life motto really: Go forth.  But India is different – it grabs hold of you and changes you, taking grasp of every sense and every notion you ever had and turning it upside-down.

I’m most grateful that we got to live in India at this particular moment in time.  Mumbai in the 21st century is old and new all at once. I got to spend time with women in slums whose experiences are shockingly medieval. On the other hand, I got to see some of the same women fighting for rights like women in the West did a generation ago.  I saw corruption and caste influence situations right alongside technology and entrepreneurialism and a hunger for change.  Skyscrapers and highways brush up against bungalows and rickshaws and slums. It’s a fascinating era to experience – it’s all changing so rapidly that we got to see it as it was and as it will be.  There’s no better time to be in India and I’m a bit shocked by how quickly the time went by.

It all went so fast that it’s hard now to even remember what it felt like to arrive; I’m a bit in awe over how normal it all became. The insanity of the roads, the glaring disparities, the tropical vegetation, the color, the otherness and the dirt all somehow started eventually seeming normal. That’s the joy of living somewhere new – even the strangest and most opposite place in the world can feel like home. We made incredible friends and met the most wonderful and bizarre and entertaining group of people I could have encountered in a year, both in Mumbai and out.

So there’s no point summarizing. And luckily, I have this blog and I’ll never have to.  But if the blog has to end and if I am indeed back in the US (it keeps feeling like I’m about to board a plane from this short vacation and return to my “home” in India), then I guess I can impart one piece of advice to the wonderful people who have read this blog and commented and shared in my ups and downs: take your own leap.  No one ever regrets the things they did. You might only regret the gora tax you paid on your Alphonso mangos. It’s worth it.

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A few weeks  after we moved to India I was having dinner with some new friends and was excitedly telling them about the new film project I was going to be undertaking. I mentioned that I was hoping it would me about five or six months and then I could do another project. I was a bit shocked when they all laughed at me. “Just don’t be surprised or upset if it takes you the entire year,” one of them said.

The crowd

I thought about that moment a lot yesterday at the screening of the completed film. It was only one month shy of being a year away from the very first meeting we had conceptualizing the film. And I realized that while those new friends had been right about the length of time everything takes in India, it had certainly been a ride that was worth taking the scenic route for.  The film has been a labor of love, patience, and immense growth.
The screening was held in a hall in Dharavi. I walked in and it was already packed. Every seat was taken and people were filling up standing areas in the back. The few fans were no match for the excessive heat, but no one seemed to mind. I spotted a lot of the women who had participated in the film- I wondered how they were going to feel, watching themselves on a screen in front of a couple hundred people in their community talking about their personal experiences with domestic violence. I looked around for S, one of the women I’d interviewed who was always notoriously late (her lateness had given me one memorable afternoon with her adorable and hilarious children). I couldn’t spot her.

Speech before the screening

We started with a few speeches and I was asked to say a few words (that were quickly translated for the almost entirely non-English speaking crowd). Then I sat and watched – I looked out at the sea of people as they took in the film. All I could hope was that the women in the film felt I captured their viewpoint as best I could.

When it was over we had a short question and answer session and then everyone escaped the heat to get outside for a photo exhibition that was going on in tandem with the screening. A number of women came up and shook my hand, saying thank you. A few others wanted photos. N, the head of the domestic violence center, gave me a big hug and told me how excited everyone was to show it  at all the upcoming meetings, events and trainings they hold- both in Dharavi and around Mumbai. “You don’t even realize how helpful this is going to be,” she said. It was the nicest compliment I could receive, since I already felt that they’d given me so much.

It’s hard to even begin to reflect on everything this adventure has taught me. I learned about the experiences of women who fight for survival and dignity on a daily basis without ever sacrificing joy or humor. I was able to see day to day life behind the statistics and news that I’ve read so much about. I was brought in, trusted, and treated like family by a group of women who could have closed themselves off to a stranger. They shared their stories with me so openly in order to help the organization they cared for so much. And, yes, with all the lateness and delays and rescheduled meetings they taught me to embrace their way of doing things, to have another cup of tea, and to take life with a bit more grains of salt.

So mostly I’m just grateful.

As I was leaving I spotted S. “I didn’t see you before! How did you like the film?” I asked.

“I came too late! Missed it. Oh well.”

And just like that, life returned to normal.

(And for those of you who want to see the actual film I’ve talked so much about, it’s embedded here. Finally!)

A Nice Day for a Wedding

Starting the sari

“Did I do it right?”

I stood, looking at Nisha, like a child who wants to be told they’ve done their homework properly. She just laughed at me a bit and started untying my sari. “You did okay. I can’t even tie a sari on my own,” she said kindly. She called over to a few of the other women in the house. We’d gone to Nisha’s house before her son’s wedding for lunch and to say hello. A bevy of guests were streaming in and out in full wedding gear, stopping momentarily to look at the two gora who were sitting in the living room. Every one would get an introduction from Nisha: “This is cousin’s wife’s brother,” “This is niece who is coming from Hyderabad,”  “This is brother-in-law but really to me he is like actual brother.” It didn’t matter that none of these people spoke English or knew what she was saying. They would all smile and shake our hands as Nisha reminded us how excited she was to have us there. “Everyone saying to me that you would not come. No one is believing that I work for white people.” We were happy to be the living proof.

The women quickly got to work on fixing my sari. They unwrapped me down to my sari blouse and petticoat and then started twirling me back around, tucking it in tightly as they went.

Finalizing the sari

They debated for a bit over which style I should have – should my pallu (the long embellished end of the sari) wrap around my back, in the most common way? Or should I have something fancier? Should I wear it the Gujrati way, where my pallu is in the front? They tucked and pinned me in various formations until they settled on bringing the pallu to the front due to the beading of my sari. So I waited as they pleated my skirt in a very exact manner, tucked it in then pleated the pallu and pinned it to the front. It was so complicated that I was afraid to move. It wasn’t irrational – the whole thing was held together with a few tucks and drapes along with 4 strategically placed safety pins. But I certainly had to admit that it looked much better than when I had done it.

Nisha was not impressed with the simple earrings I had chosen – I thought that the sari was embellishment enough – so she gave me bangles to wear. “You looking like real Indian girl now,” she said as we walked out of her house in a long line of wedding-goers. I certainly didn’t feel like an Indian girl as I walked though her village to the car – every single person was openly staring at me and I could understand why. We were a full hour outside of Mumbai’s city limits (two hours from our house) in a small town next to the salt flats. And here was this white girl in a sari and white man in a suit walking along the road chatting with their Indian friend as though nothing was amiss. I don’t think its a stretch to assume that our presence was unusual.

Me and all of Nisha's "train friends"

We drove to the venue – we hit a huge amount of traffic, which was worrisome since we’d already left the house much later than expected. By the time we reached the venue it was 8:30pm. The invitation had said the whole thing would be from 7pm to 9pm. But of course, in Indian time this meant something entirely different – the hall was just filling up as we walked in. No one with any social graces would have actually shown up at 7pm. It made me glad we’d gone to Nisha’s first- we probably would have shown up right “on time” and found ourselves sitting there for quite some time.

The venue was an interesting place for a wedding – a whole row of empty lots amid a huge apartment complex had been converted into spaces for receptions and then were cordoned off with curtains to look like walls. You walked in through a door with a chandelier above but we quickly realized we were still outside. In a place where the months of rain are pre-determined there’s no need to protect with any kind of cover. The rocky ground was covered with carpeting and in front of us were chairs and a stage with two red thrones on top. As it was a Muslim wedding, most of the women sat on one side and the men sat on the other – although it was insisted upon that Daniel and I sit together. I looked around at the array of colors – every woman had brought out her best sari for the occasion and the beads shone across the room. Only a few women in hijabs wore black, but each wore enough gold to balance it out.

The wedding party

Soon after we arrived the bride and groom entered – they’d already done a private ceremony that morning so they were already married. Irfan, Nisha’s son looked excited and bewildered. The bride looked happy but overwhelmed and frightened. She was probably also about to pass out from a heat stroke – she was wearing an elaborate sari that must have been weighed down by the incredibly intricate and vast amount of beading that covered it. She wore multiple necklaces and earrings and a hoop in her nose that rivaled the size of her head. I could barely move in my sari – I couldn’t imagine how she felt in hers. Not to mention that she and her new husband had only met once before they were married. I couldn’t help but think of the refrain from Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye and Golde sing about first meeting each other on their wedding day – maybe we’re not so culturally different, even if in our culture the traditional arranged marriages have given way to Western ideals.

With everyone watching, the bride and groom went up on the stage and photographers and videographers started taking photos and placing them in various positions. The guests eventually started moving over to eat dinner – the bride and groom were still forced to stay up on the stage at their thrones as various well-wishers could come to greet them. As we sat to eat, multiple guests came over to take their picture with us, giggling as they touched the ends of my sari and looked us up and down. One of Nissa’s nephews, who spoke English, started telling people that Daniel was a famous cricketer for his own amusement. Another female relative took over watching us (on Nisha’s direction) and made sure to stuff us with as much food as possible.

Meeting guests while the garlanded bride watches

When we finally went to say hello, the bride was being outfitted with an entire dress of garlands. Our new caretaker explained to me that when she had been married a few months ago, the garlands were so heavy she could barely stand. As we wished Irfan and his new bride well the photographers snapped away. Nisha looked on proudly. As we left we both gave her a big hug and thanked her for inviting us. “No, no thank you for coming!” she said earnestly, “I am so happy you is here. You is my honored guest.”

“No, no,” Daniel said, “It’s really our honor to be invited.” And it truly was. I couldn’t say I was sad to take off my beautiful but incredibly heavy and cumbersome sari at the end of the night, but I was so glad we had been invited and welcomed in.

So Sari

I don’t think it will surprise anyone to find out that I know nothing about saris. While they are all around me every day, I don’t understand their intricacies. It’s kind of like certain types of fashionable clothes in New York – I see that everyone is wearing it, I’m just not so sure I can pull it off (or even get it on!).

The time had come, however, where I needed to deal with my fear of the sari. Our housekeeper’s son is getting married on Sunday, and since Daniel and I will already be sticking out quite a bit I knew I needed to make sure I was dressed properly.

My wonderful friend A agreed to lend me her sari (since they are actually quite expensive and I’m not quite sure when I would need one again…) but told me I needed to get a sari blouse (the only part that needs to be fitted). Her sari was beautiful – its bright red with lots of beading and embroidery. I figured I was lucky to have such a great sari to wear that getting the blouse would be no problem. She left me a note with instructions that ended with, “It shouldn’t be too difficult (famous last words in India).” So I set out on a mission.

I first went to Amarsons, an Indian department store which I figured would have a good selection. I walked up to the sari department and explained my conundrum. The salespeople looked at me like I was a confused child – how could I possibly not know how to purchase a sari? Not know how to wrap a sari? Not know what colors and styles went with my sari? They took pity on me and quickly got to work. I felt a bit like a drag queen – sequins, sparkles, beads and anything that shined was floated out at me. They were convinced a very intricate beaded number that matched the sari was perfect. I wasn’t so sure – it seemed a bit overboard. And then I looked at the price tag – 1,400 rupees (about $30). It seemed a bit crazy for a tiny blouse that didn’t even cover my stomach (to be fair, that’s how all the sari blouses are. But its still not a lot of fabric!). I said I’d think about it.

I walked out feeling dejected. Our driver, Malcolm, shook his head and told me that I was going about it wrong – I needed to have the top made. “It will be better ma’am. You just go to a tailor and he’ll make it up for you.” I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave it to the last minute so I insisted on going to another store.

I went to one of the ubiquitous Fab India sotres where I was greeted by a particularly dour woman. I asked where the sari blouses were and she pointed me towards the section. “Which one do you think is best?” I asked her. She looked me up and down. “Madam, you don’t buy something to match a sari like this. It should already match. We Indians don’t do this mix and match. Besides, I do not wear saris.” The last point was clearly a jab – most modern women in Mumbai have given up wearing saris day to day and now wear either kurtas or western clothing.  Maybe she thought it was silly that I was trying to be traditional – although saris are still the outfit of choice at almost any formal occasion.

“Why don’t you just wear a dress,” she said, seemingly exasperated. I tried to explain that I wanted to wear the right thing.  She sighed and handed me a cream colored top. I tried it on but then had to ask her one more favor – “Can you help me wrap the actual sari? I don’t know whether it matches unless I try it all on.”  Bemused, she slowly started wrapping the material around me, tucking the folds into my pants and twirling me slowly.

“It doesn’t look good. You need to have one made if you insist on wearing this thing,” she said as she finished. I looked up – she was right. It didn’t really do justice to the beautiful sari to have the plain cream top underneath. I thanked her and left the store.

“Ok Malcolm… as always, you are right. Let’s go to a tailor.”

He chuckled at me and drove me right to a shop that knew what to do instantly. And the price tag: 250 rupees. It was a typical ending to my search – I’d tried to do it my way when in the end, I would always have to find the proper Indian way to go about it. I wont have it until Saturday, but here’s hoping it looks good!

Mango Fever

For those who need to constantly justify, there’s a common refrain in Bombay: “Well, the weather in the summer is terrible. But the mangoes make it worth it.”

We’re now in the throes of the true ‘Indian summer.’ April and May bring on the heat until the June monsoons roll in.  Going outside is an exercise in moving quickly enough to get from one place to the next while moving slowly enough to not sweat through everything you’re wearing. There is no hiding the difficulties of this weather.

But the mangoes.

I’m not sure I agree with the sentiment that the mangoes are worth the heat (I’d certainly trade them just to feel cool again) – but they are something to behold. Imagine the ripest, juciest mango you’ve ever tasted in the Western world. Then stretch your imagination to think of what would happen if you multiplied the taste of that mango by a hundred. That’s Indian Alphonso mangoes.

Alphonso Mangoes at Crawford Market

You can’t live in India in May and not know about these mangoes. You start hearing about them everywhere in April: “I’m just waiting for the Alphonsos.” “I saw someone selling mangoes claiming they were Alphonsos, but everyone knows they’re not ripe yet.” “They’re just starting to come, really expensive, but they’re coming.”

Then suddenly, they are everywhere you turn – you start seeing the boxes at every fruit-stand on every corner; sellers start coming by your car as you’re parked at the stoplight; signs heralding their arrival at shops display their joy from windows; shops and restaurants start offering mango lassis, mango tarts and mango ice cream; there’s a constant stream of newspaper articles about the state of mango season (My favorite line from a Times of India article: “The king of fruits has made its maiden entry to the Belgaum fruit markets, but the prices are out of the reach of common man.” Or, more recently, “The king of summers, mango, has already arrived in the city and is spreading its sweet smell in the markets.” In the last 3 months the Times of India has produced 179 articles mentioning mangoes…)

Mango sellers

Mumbai has mango fever and it has it bad.

It’s perfectly understandable – I would venture to say its certainly one of the best fruits I’ve ever eaten. But the mania has just begun and I can only watch, amused, at the state of love people have for their mangoes. My only option? I guess I’m going to have to keep eating mangoes.

Keep the Good Signs Coming

As evidenced by the extra tab on top, I love the signs in India. On my recent travels I’ve picked up a few more and they are all posted on the ‘Amazing Signage’ page.

But I’m posting my two favorites here:

Who wants to go swimming at a beach with crocodiles?

Are we feeling better now that we know someone Dutch is supervising?

Something Golden

I have to confess that I’ve never really known a lot about Sikhs. I hadn’t really taken the time to understand what made a Sikh different from other Indians. I knew that their men wore turbans to keep up the hair they never cut; I knew they had wanted an independent state; I knew that separatists took over the Golden Temple and were killed in a violent military campaign in the 1980s. In response, two Sikh bodyguards had killed Indira Ghandi for revenge and then subsequently thousands upon thousands of Sikhs were murdered in Delhi and across India.

But with all this I didn’t know anything about the religion. So before we went to the Golden Temple, the most holy Sikh shrine, and the site of that terrible siege, I decided to read up. Sikhism is actually a combination of Hinduism and Islam that began in the 15th century as a rejection of caste and idolatry. Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma, like Hindus, but they worship only one god, like Muslims. I liked the concept already.

Golden Temple at night

But by going to the Golden Temple I really felt like I got a sense of what Sikhism was about, and I have to say it impressed me.

Obviously the most inspiring and attention-grabbing element of going to the Golden Temple is the structure itself – inside a large rectangular wall-like building sits a lake, and in the lake is a temple made of marble and gold (750kg of gold in total). We went both at night and during sunrise and at both times the temple itself shone like the sun. Especially at sunrise, when the rising sun hit it directly, you almost couldn’t even look straight at it. It was incredible. As you go closer you notice the detail – the marble base and interiors were inlaid with stones set in beautiful and intricate patterns. A door leading into the temple is made entirely of silver. Painted frescos cover every inch inside. The mastery of skill that it must have taken to build the structure is staggering.

But once beyond the physical structure, I noticed that there were many elements that were different in visiting a Sikh temple than other temples or mosques across India. First, we were completely welcome everywhere. We paid nothing to get in, we were not barred from any place and we could go and do as we pleased. Most historical and religious sites have fees to enter and require that foreigners not pass through certain areas. The Sikhs didn’t seem to mind if we went in as far as we wanted – we could even watch as men prayed from their holy book. It was an incredibly spiritual place, alive with singing over loudspeakers and hundreds of worshipers praying day in and day out; and we were invited to take it all in.

Cooking food for everyone at the Golden Temple

Secondly, this kindness and acceptance of strangers extended to their own people – every Sikh temple is encouraged to serve food to the poor, and the communal kitchen at the Golden Temple is a sight unto itself. Huge vats full of dal and chai are stirred over large fires. Large buckets full of utensils sit next to steel boxes loaded with plates or bowls. And inside a large hall dozens of people sat eating meals at any given time of day. Even we were encouraged heartily to eat or drink chai if we desired. There was a donation box but no one asked us for money or indicated we were required to give a contribution. It was not something you see everyday.

I still wouldn’t claim to know much about Sikhism – but having seen the beauty of their holiest site and the acceptance of others within its walls I’m certainly glad I came to know a bit more.