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Archive for August, 2010

(This post is dedicated to my grandmother – who reads this blog every day and loves seeing the world.)

In India, ‘the right to education’ has become a catch phrase. In a country with startling levels of illiteracy and poverty it’s hard to think of something more imperative than giving every child some kind of education. The UN Population Fund estimates that only 77% of men and 54% of women in India are literate (let’s not get started on that gender gap…).   But youth literacy is the key to the future; and UNICEF estimates that 87% of 15-24 year olds are literate – a better start than their parents and grandparents.

So when India’s ‘Right to Education Act’ came into force this past April, requiring compulsory education for every child ages 6-14, you’d think most people would jump for joy. But like ‘No Child Left Behind’, it seems that results are more difficult than just passing a law.

If you ask most people in India about education you’ll hear the same stories – the schools are crumbling, kids in poorer areas can’t even get in to a school. But it doesn’t matter if kids get into a ‘Municipal School’ because the teachers are so poorly trained they barely learn anything (ie: becoming literate may be the only thing they achieve in many years of schooling). There are no resources.

It’s not a pretty picture I’ve been painted.

So when I was asked to help out with InspirED, the innovation in education conference, I was interested to see what all the talk was about. How can you possibly even begin to solve these problems with a conference? I didn’t know – I still don’t know. But at least now I’ve seen some positives of Indian schooling.

One thing I wanted to do before the conference was go into schools, shoot some video, talk to teachers that were attending the conference.  And in this vein, I was inspired by what I saw.

A classroom wall

I went to the class of a teacher who is doing ‘Teach for India’ (the same basic model as Teach for America). And when I walked into the school, all the negatives I’d heard rang in my ear – the building was falling apart. Paint came off the walls in chunks. Children played in a courtyard made of cement. They were sharing desks and books.

But when I went into the class (a 3rd grade equivalent), the children were listening. They were writing letters to pen pals in London (adorable) –  they were supposed to be practicing proper grammar.  There were 35 kids in the class and they all wanted desperately to get their teacher’s attention. They were raising hands, participating, writing silently when asked to and (somewhat most astonishingly) not distracted by the large camera filming them.

It was one bright glimmer in a sea of classrooms I had clearly never seen or experienced. I haven’t been to the schools where the children are supposed to learn in English from a teacher who barely speaks English themselves. I haven’t been to the classrooms with no paper or pencils to write with. I certainly have seen, from my time in Dharavi, a lot of young people (women especially) who are taken out of school early or prevented from going altogether so they can work.

A photo of me in the class - now up on the 'Wall of Professional Visitors' for the kids to see!

So maybe it was naive to think that the solution is just good teachers. But (and this is a gross generalization), from everything I’ve heard, India doesn’t have our difficulties with unruly students and no desire to learn. The kids here are starving to learn. They behave in class. They just need a teacher who engages them even if the room is crumbling and even if their books look so worn you can barely the read the covers. Perhaps the right to education act can only come true when India gets serious about having teachers that live up to the quality of the student’s desires, even if the infrastructure isn’t there yet.

And that’s why having the conference is a good start- hopefully it can inspire a few more teachers to bring about change little by little in a country that wants to badly to make education a right that people actually receive.

I’m clearly talking about an issue where I know very little and have barely even begun to skim the surface.  But I wanted to share that moment because it gave me a bit of hope after hearing all the bad. I’m hoping for India’s sake that there can be more classes like that.

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Film City

It’s not very often a person gets invited to go inside the heart of Bollywood. It’s probably even less often that the person doesn’t know where they’re getting invited to.

I, of course, am that silly person in this scenario.

To be fair, no one ever told me what Film City was. I was mostly just happy that someone was willing to lend me equipment.

You see, the biggest challenge for any person hoping to volunteer their time to Mumbai NGO’s as a journalist/documentarian (or, filmstress, as one friend recently dubbed me) is that to be productive you need the help of some very expensive equipment.

I’m used to working for organizations that own innumerable cameras, have all the editing space you need and technical support whenever you want. Here, I’m like a jockey without a horse.  NGO’s don’t have a budget for even the most basic resources, let alone thousands of dollars worth of camera and editing equipment.  So for the projects I’m working on, every scenario has been a bit of a scramble.

Luckily for one, we got a little bit of help.

I’m doing all the documentation for a large education conference taking place next weekend called InspirED (www.InspiredIndia.in if anyone is interested). The aim of the conference is to bring teachers and educators in from across the country to discuss ways to improve innovation in India’s classrooms.

One of the conference’s partners happened to be connected to someone at a major film school – and as such they were able to convince the film school to become a sponsor of the conference and donate equipment. It was a huge relief.

Our contact at the film school told me that I should come out to see the equipment and facilities I would be using. We set a time to meet and then he told me the school was located within Film City. The words flew over my head.

When I got in the car the next day I confused my driver: “Can we go to the film school in Film City. Do you know where Film City is?”

“You want to go to Film City?”

“Yes, it’s in Goregaon.”

“Yes, ma’am. I know where it is. Everyone knows where it is. Are you sure you have permission?”

“What do you mean?”

“You can’t go in without permission.”

“I… I have permission.” I said, still a bit confused by what he meant.

“Why would I need special permission?”

“Ma’am, Film City is where all the Bollywood movies are made.  You have to have authorization to go in.”

I assured him that we had permission, and he began to drive. But I was still quite curious- I asked him to tell me more.

Apparently, the land for Film City was given to the film industry by the Indian government and it’s been home to thousands of Bollywood movies since the first film was shot there in 1911. It’s on the edge of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (the largest urban park in the world) and it is a sprawling place- forests are next to large sets next to various sound-stages. While films are created across India, Film City is known as the hub. It’s as though half the studios in Hollywood were located in one place. And in an industry that puts out  over 900 films a year (more than Hollywood), that’s really saying something.

We drove up to the gate. A glowering guard stared at me as I rolled the window down. I gave him my name and he checked his list. Apparently, I was good to go.

An unused elaborate film set

We drove in and it was as though someone had turned the city on its head – the noise and dirt and pollution instantly disappeared. It was like we were driving down a remote dirt lane – hills stood tall in the distance as a lush forest came right up to the road.  It was hard to remember we were two minutes from the insanity of Bombay.

At every turn there was something else hidden in the space– an elaborate set, a soundstage, a group filming some movie or tv show. I know that hundreds of extras must see this every day but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d entered some secret compound. It just didn’t feel like the city anymore – and I suppose that’s what movies are supposed to do best. This was the perfect hidden space to make a film about anything.

We pulled into the film school and I was greeted at the door. I was shown the equipment and everything looked perfect- they were giving us great cameras and unlimited time in an edit room. It was fitting that they could give me everything we required for filming the conference – we were in need of a bit of magic and they, apparently, were in the right place to make it happen.

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Drawing the Line

Today in Dharavi I got the giggles. And perhaps that seems strange on a day where the heavy monsoon forced me to wade through ankle-deep puddles consisting of rainwater, dirt, garbage and inevitably sewage. I felt as wet and as dirty as the huge rats that scurried through the small moats dug in the side of the narrow residential pathways.

But I couldn’t help but get the giggles.

The staircase up to the house

It started with a meeting and a ladder. A field worker brought me and my translator to the building where we would be attending a discussion on ration cards. When we arrived the field worker pointed up at a steep metal ladder. To get into the home of the woman hosting the discussion, we would have to climb a nearly vertical incline in the pouring rain. I said a little prayer and climbed up – this was, after all, the climb that every member of this family undertook multiple times every day.

Safely inside I washed my feet off and sat on the cold stone ground. My whole body was wet and a fan was humming right above my head – it was my first time since arriving in India that I’d actually been cold. I almost relished the feeling.

I looked around at the home. It was larger than some others I had been to, but more sparsely furnished. There were no beds or refrigerators or televisions. A teenage boy slept on a mat on the ground, oblivious to the meeting going on around him. Our host explained that he was her son. I blinked back at her, unsure of how to respond. This woman looked about 30 years old.

“He’s your son?” my translator asked in Hindi. The woman laughed.

“I know, we don’t look too far apart in age. But he is 18 and I am 33. I got married to my husband when I was 14.”

This sparked a discussion about everyone’s children – I found out that the 26-year-old field worker had an 11-year-old son. She passed around her mobile phone to show photos of her 11, 5 and 3 year old children. I guess at 25 I’m practically a spinster in Dharavi.

After this small-talk, the meeting began.  As with most of these meetings, the topic was not domestic violence (the non-profit’s stated purpose). Instead, today it was ration cards.

ration 'card', more like a book!

It’s hard to even delve into the statistics on ration cards in India without feeling a bit overwhelmed. In India, if you are ‘BPL’ (or Below the Poverty line) you qualify for a ration card.  The ration card entitles you to subsidized wheat, rice, dal, gas, oil and sugar.

But it’s shocking to hear what BPL actually is. While the exact number depends on the state you live in, to quality for BPL you have to earn less than 30,000 rupees annually for a family (approx $640). That works out to about $50 a month for an entire family to survive – and the average family in India is 5 or 6 people, which means each person is living on less than $10 a month.  330 million people qualify as BPL and theoretically receive ration cards. (Just FYI, these stats come from Indian government websites, which may or may not be totally accurate).

If you put this in perspective, our normal ‘Western’ heuristic of extreme poverty looks at individuals living on below $1 a day. However, about 45% of Indians fit into that category. If you expand the criteria to $2 a day 80% of India is included. By contrast, to qualify as BPL you would have to live on around 30 cents a day.

You would think that existing on 30 cents a day would be enough to go through, but apparently the Public Distribution System (which runs the ration cards scheme) is infected with corruption from the top down. And as such many (if not most) families have difficulties getting their rations.

The women we were speaking with faced all kinds of problems: The proprietor of one woman’s Fair Price Shop (where rations can be purchased) insisted that each purchase came with a 50 rupee (approx $1) surcharge. Another claimed he had run out of oil and had not supplied it for months. Another claimed that if the women complained he could take away their ration cards. And almost all received much less than their allotted rations for the month. It seemed to be widely known and accepted that the shopkeepers stole the remaining rations and sold them on the black market.

So the field worker began to explain to the women their rights – they could demand to see the price list, they could demand to write in the shop’s government-issued complaints booklet, their ration cards could not be taken away by anyone.  She said she was going to take them all to their Fair Price Shops to show them where all the items were located and to make sure the owners understood that they now knew their rights.

And so off we all went, down the treacherous staircase, and further into the streets. We were the most colorful and spirited mob of women you could find – 15 Indian women and one white woman in saris and kurtas, all soaked, still trying to avoid the rain – but with spirits bolstered by the newfound knowledge.

Some of the women in front of one shop

And it was on this trip that I got the giggles – because try to imagine a large group of women approaching one man who has systematically screwed them over time and again.  And then imagine his face once he realizes what’s happening.

I watched as the field worker stood in front of him and started explaining to the women what their rights were. She demanded to see his complaint book, she demanded to see his price list – and all he could do was watch and cooperate, looking angry and sheepish all at once.

“His face is damn priceless!” my translator whispered to me as we watched. She apparently also found the situation highly amusing.

And clearly this wasn’t going to solve the problems that existed on the state and national level – politicians and government workers are still going to steal rations and the money for rations. Our one day wouldn’t solve that.

But it was hard not to feel empowered by the scenario. These shopkeepers at the ground level had been put on notice. People who deserved to get food subsidies were closer to getting what they needed.  And all it took was a little bit of education – these women just needed to know that the shopkeepers couldn’t hurt them. They needed to know what they were entitled to.

How could I not feel good watching that? The problem wasn’t fixed, but these women had certainly taken a large step.

And so I just stood back, let the rain soak me through, and laughed while watching the tiny victory taking place in front of me.

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You are Invited

As someone who aims to write a blog that someone finds mildly interesting, it is always exciting when your friends send you emails such as this:

From: B
To: Ali
Subject: hey
I have to head to town at some point this week to go to “wedding invitation street” by chowpatty. Would you be interested in seeing that?

Obviously my immediate response was yes. Who could resist such an invitation (no pun intended)?

My friend B is getting married in March back in the US but she is trying to coordinate her wedding planning from India (very brave indeed). One benefit of this is that everything here costs less. She first started finding planning a wedding in India enjoyable when she realized she could get the beading on her dress done here for thousands of dollars less. And so with invitations the idea was that the same concept might apply. She had already talked to a few vendors and was hopeful that the reduction in cost would outweigh the headache.

So with all this in mind we set off to wedding invitation street- the hopeful bride-to-be looking to get her items made properly and the amused friend tagging along always looking for a hilarious Indian experience.

A couple stores on 'wedding invitation street'

We arrived on the street and I was taken aback with how literal it was – actually every single shop on this entire lane in the middle of Bombay was devoted entirely to invitations. Professional looking shops with dozens of examples in the windows mingled with open-air rooms that barely boasted little more than a desk and some stools. Stacks of paper samples sat out in the humidity while store employees read newspapers or looked in a mirror while combing back their hair.

I loved this part of India where people still had a craft. I love that here you can find a shoemaker and a tailor and a leather-worker all on the same row. Cheaper multi-purpose all-encompassing stores haven’t yet weeded out singular skills. I was a little bit enamored with this crazy street made just for the sole purpose of the unique art of invitations.

Closeup of Indian-style invitations

It was hard to even know where to begin – there were so many stores to choose from and, after all, no store had Western examples in their windows. They were all populated with brightly colored and loudly designed rectangle shape invitations. Drawings of elephants or intricate motifs overtook even the most modest designs.

We started with one vendor who B had spoken to earlier. But when we went in his store, of course, he wasn’t actually there. His employees dialed his number and he informed B that he would be in tomorrow. It didn’t seem odd to him that we had assumed he would be in his store on a Tuesday afternoon.

Undaunted, we continued to a few other stores.

“Hi, I’m hoping to do a Western-style invitation… do you speak English?” B would ask. We’d look at the shopkeepers to see if there was understanding beyond the immediate nodding. A few tried to help – but they didn’t have the right card stock or their examples didn’t inspire confidence. Finally one vendor (in an open-air store with just one desk and a small stool) sighed and pointed us towards a more professional looking place. We thanked him and decided to take his advice.

We walked into the new store and were met with skeptical stares. After all, how many white people are looking to get invitations made here? But after it became apparent that they were familiar with Western-style invitations and that they had good card stock, we started negotiating. We would need invitations, RSVP cards, place-cards, the wedding program and a save the date. What kind of deal could he give us?

It was hundreds upon hundreds of dollars less than even the cheapest place in the US. But, of course, B’s original vendor was cheaper. We’d have to come back another day. We’d met ‘wedding invitation street’ and we liked what we saw. But as with everything in India it might just take a little bit of time.

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Grow Up

For some reason it has started to hit me more and more lately that we live here. For a long time we responded to queries about of length of time in Bombay with, “Oh we just moved here.” But it’s funny how time creeps in and you go from having been here for days to having been here for weeks to realizing it’s been more than two months since you stepped onto a plane into a new life.

You begin to notice this shift through your actions. The transition starts with allowing yourself to eat food with your hands and then eventually you let yourself brush your teeth with the tap water and then suddenly you’re responding to everything with “tikke, tikke” and doing your own version of the Indian head bob.

Phoebe before and after the haircut

This all struck me a bit today because Phoebe got her second monsoon haircut and it seemed crazy to think that enough time had passed for that to be necessary.

The first haircut came over two months ago when we had initially arrived- it was instantly apparent that she was suffering from the oppressive heat under her constant mop of long wet dirty fur.  So as one of our first activities here we took her to a groomer and afterward I posted a photo on the blog showing off our new India-ready pup.

But before we knew it, it became apparent that our India-ready monsoon-proof Phoebe had slowly been overtaken, like weeds on a vine, by the initial mop.  And if the growth of hair can be a visual representation of time passed, then she surely had become a daily reminder of the days we’d spent in India.

But, as always, time marches on and Phoebe went to the groomer. When she came out we were once again presented with a lighter, more monsoon-proof version of Phoebe, happy to be free of the confines of the heat.

For a little while with this new short hair she becomes almost like a puppy, able to jump and play without tiring quickly under the temperature.  It’s like she’s excited to move to India all over again and search and seek until the weight of her own hair becomes too much once more.

I suppose it’ll be like a bi-monthly reminder of our length of time here – a cue that every time we get comfortable we have to try and recreate our initial excitement so we don’t get too lethargic.  Like the trip to Pune, we need to be reminded that our time here will go so quickly and we have to make the most of it.  We’ll need to get our own India haircut every few months to remember that we need to keep seeing this place through new eyes.

Ideally, we should never be just settling in, but always responding that “we just moved here.”

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Driving out of Bombay was a shock to my senses — could we really be this close to lush green mountains? Apparently it had been here all this time while I was living in my little city cocoon.

I took a bit of small break from writing for the last few days because Daniel and I took a long weekend to Pune and I wanted no computer distracting me from my first moment away from Bombay.

On the highway driving out of Mumbai

And it was those first moments that truly stuck out – the feeling of traffic fading away, of noise and honking dissipating, of seeing rolling hills and no crowds of people. This was a piece of India I hadn’t seen yet, and it struck me that while I felt at home in ‘India’, my whole notion of India was based on Bombay.

We had decided to break up the four-hour drive by stopping at the Karla Caves. The literature I’d read about these caves was oddly imbalanced – the caves are beautiful, but not a major site. It’s an important historical landmark but certainly something you could skip. The caves are hard to believe, but not if you’ve been to any of the more major caves in India. So I didn’t really know what to expect.

We drove up to the base of a hill and started hiking up. On the way Daniel and I ate some roasted corn while we looked out onto a spectacular vista. I was already convinced this was a good stop. We made our way past sellers jockeying to play their Bollywood music the loudest while women weaved garlands together. But none of the usual attempts to sell us items came our way – they were mostly baffled to see white tourists.

When we’d hiked up and paid our 100 rupee entrance ($2 compared to the 5 rupee entrance for Indians) we entered the main cave. And it was magnificent. In the 2nd century Buddhists had carved out the interior of the cave to create a hall with grand pillars lining the walls. At the entrance and above each pillar were intricate carvings.

I am the tiny person...

The Karla caves interior

I stood there and took in the site, marvelling mostly at the fact that this is a site considered “off-the-beaten-track”. In a country so large and so full of rich history it’s amazing how much goes unseen. And I’m sure that if I had gone to the Ejanta and Allora caves (something I’m hoping to do while I’m here) before coming to Karla, I would also have been fairly unimpressed. But here was a cave that more than 2,000 years ago people had dug into (with no modern tools or explosives) and created a pillared hall out of the stone. And it still stands today in pristine condition. How is that not something to shout from the rooftops about?

It mostly just gave me a big reality check that I cannot get too settled into Bombay – I have to see this incredible country.

Of course, after feeling that, the rest of Pune was ironically slightly underwhelming. It certainly is a vibrant city – it’s three or four hours south of Mumbai, a hub for colleges and universities with a thriving cultural scene. I’ve heard it described, for all these reasons, as the Boston of India.

View from a fort in Pune

But we were mostly there to see some of our friends who were in town from the US – and as such the few forts and temples we went to took a backseat to the enjoyment of seeing familiar faces (especially since these forts and temples were not as nice as other temples and forts we had already seen. I’d already forgotten my earlier reminder that we shouldn’t stop appreciating the seemingly less-impressive-by-comparison sites).

One other thing that did strike me about Pune was the presence of Marathi, Maharastra’s main language. I know a lot of people speak Marathi in Bombay (in fact, many native Bombayiites try to argue that everyone here should place more emphasis on Marathi), but Hindi and English rule outside of residential areas. But in Pune, Marathi is king.

Of our two friends (both American second-generation Indians), one spoke Marathi and the other Hindi. And our Hindi-speaking friend (and Hindi-speaking driver from Bombay!) had quite the difficult time. I had heard so much about India’s multi-lingual idiosyncracies, but since in Bombay I am always the foreign one, it amazed me that even a few hours away, Hindi speakers also were lost.

On our last day in Pune we ventured up to a temple on the top of a hill that overlooked all of Pune. It was beautiful to see the whole city laid out in front of is. It was large and sprawling and just another reminder of how small we are in this country with so many people, cities, languages and cultures.

And so we drove back to Bombay, but with a newfound determination to see the rest of India – not just the small India that I know.

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It’s amazing how in Dharavi something as small as a mat can make you feel accepted.

This afternoon I went to the home of a woman who volunteers with the non-profit I am going to be making the film for. She had invited one of the field workers to come and talk to her neighbors about domestic violence.

Her home was approximately fifty square feet (or about seven feet by seven feet). She, her husband and three sons shared one twin-sized bunk bed. They had one stand-alone dresser, a television, a small fridge (that had a built in lock), a television, and a kitchen counter whose space was taken up by a small burner. Washing hung from lines above the bed. The walls were cement and the roof was made of aluminum siding that was held up by wooden beams. If you looked straight up at the ceiling you could see small slivers of light peeking through in various places.

But despite the small venue the home was filled with life. Photos of her parents stared down at us (unsmiling, as all Indian photographs are). Pictures of Hindu gods were interspersed with small posters for Bollywood movies and brightly colored calendars.  And despite the treacherous path filled with garbage and feces that existed outside her home (hard to ignore), you probably could have eaten a meal off the floor.

When I walked in she clapped her hands excitedly and stopped me as I tried to sit on the ground with the rest of the group. She pulled out a small mat and insisted that I sit on it.  I tried to tell her that she should sit on it, but she told me through my translator (who is a budding filmmaker and someone I am very excited to have on board) that she was so glad I was there and that she was very adamant that her guest should be comfortable.

As the women arrived it was explained to me that our host had encouraged her neighbors to come and listen. She had become involved in the non-profit through one of these meetings and she felt very strongly about preventing domestic violence. She shared that her sister’s husband was an alcoholic who had beaten her sister very badly. Ever since then she had wanted to try and affect even the smallest change in her community.

The meeting started when everyone was seated. It was a small group – five women, our host, the field worker, my translator and myself. We all sat on the floor and we could barely fit. It struck me how time consuming it must be to have these meetings in such small venues. But the field worker explained that most of these women wouldn’t come if they had to travel all the way to the non-profit’s office. While you could drive there in 10 minutes, they would have to walk, and it would take too much time out of their day. So having small meetings with the neighbors of volunteers is the only way to effectively spread their message across the crowded maze of Dharavi.

The meeting started with everyone introducing themselves and my translator started by explaining who we were and why we were there. She said her name and then started to say my name but I stopped her.

“Meera naam Ali hai,” I said to the whole group. My translator looked at me. “Its one of the few things I know how to say in Hindi – I wanted to say it myself!” I said, and we both laughed. She translated my second comment to the women who all laughed as well. It had broken the ice a bit and we were ready to start.

As with all these meetings they had to start with general issues. The field worker explained the work their organization did – she said they could help with rations (Indians below the poverty line are entitled to food rations, but the system is very corrupt and its often difficult for people to actually get a ration card), legal services, health services and other basic issues.   She also tried to entice them by saying at one recent event two Bollywood stars had shown up and given presents. My translator explained that sometimes this is the best way to get people involved – even more than free vaccinations or free classes for children.
The field worker asked if there were any questions.  One grey-haired woman in a bright blue sari spoke up – she said in her neighborhood there had been a problem with people stealing electricity, causing everyone’s bills to rise. The field worker then emphatically responded with a story about a similar situation where they had helped put in safeguards and reduce the bills. Apparently this has been a large problem across Dharavi.  She encouraged the woman to come into their office for further help.

She then started to ask about domestic violence. First, she asked, did everyone know what constitutes violence? She said there were four kinds of violence and she started with physical violence – everyone nodded their heads, acknowledging the concept. She then continued by explaining the three other kinds of violence – emotional, financial and sexual.

As she talked about each kind of violence the mood in the room shifted.  The topic of emotional violence was met with some skepticism. Everyone seemed to agree that fighting for financial independence was important. The most uncomfortable reaction came when the field worker explained that even if a couple is married, it doesn’t give a man the right to have sex with his wife whenever he wants.

The woman in the blue sari leaned over and started talking softly to the woman sitting to her right. The field worker asked her to stop talking in general, but (as my translator conveyed), she had also had to ask her to stop talking in Tamil. Apparently these women had originally come from Tamil Nadu and as such they spoke to each other in Tamil.

I tried to break the awkwardness of the moment.  “Tora, tora, Hindi boltay. Tamil, neh!” I had said that I speak only little, little Hindi but no Tamil. Everyone laughed. I can always use my terrible Hindi to amuse people.

The field worker continued. She explained that her organization helped with counseling and legal action as well as awareness. The women listened intently.

The conversation was broken up for a moment when our host’s teenage son walked in.  He stood in his crisp blue school uniform with his Liverpool football club backpack and said hi to the crowd of women taking over his small space. He put the backpack down and waved goodbye- there was nowhere for him to stay. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what on earth it must be like to be a teenage boy and share a bunk bed and room with your parents and siblings.   Every time if I try to look at Dharavi with rose-colored glasses that notice the colorful pictures or the clean floors or the posters on the wall, I have to stop myself from the attempts to glorify. These people are doing the best they can and are trying to improve their community, but this life is incredibly hard. And just seeing the happy but resigned expression on that boy’s face reminded me that every individual in Dharavi is working with a set of cards that gives very little. The poverty here is so much more pervasive and extreme than the poverty we see in America.

I was brought back into the conversation as my translator explained that now we were talking about individual experiences. The field worker obviously had to ask, “Do you know anyone around you who has experienced violence”. By framing it this way women often feel more comfortable raising issues that are happening to them without revealing themselves. They could get questions answered about the available services without feeling embarrassed in front of their friends and neighbors.

Once all their questions had been answered and the conversation about the non-profit was finished, our host served small cups of chai and all the women turned to me. Did I have any questions for them?

I asked (through my translator of course) whether they felt the meeting was useful. The all nodded enthusiastically.

“Will you tell your neighbors about this meeting?”

All of the women started talking – they were telling me how they all gossiped and all the women would definitely share what they’d heard today. The field worker, listening, seemed relieved that they all felt this way.

“Would you feel comfortable if I came back with a camera? Would it be an invasion of the meeting?” Everyone shook their heads adamantly and started talking.

My translator laughed, “No, they say they think it is important to tell this story and speak about these issues, but they admit that they might come very dressed up if you are going to film them.”  I responded that I might have to dress up too, then.

They laughed. One of the women started talking to me and motioned towards her sari. I assumed she was asking if I had a sari.

“Sari, neh. Kurta!” I said, pointing toward the green and gold kurta I was wearing. They all laughed and started talking to each other.

“They’re saying you have to come and they’ll show you how to put on a sari. They are all inviting you to their homes.”

I felt really touched. I asked if they had any questions for me, since they had answered all of mine.

My translator asked and then said, “They say they have no questions, but they want to tell you they are really happy you came here. They are so proud that a foreign white person wants to take the time to tell their story and try to help an organization that is focused on Dharavi.”

I didn’t know what to say. I always feel a little weird that my whiteness always factors in – why should I be more welcome or more exciting just because I am white? It reeks a bit of a bizarre colonial legacy but on the other hand I think most people are just glad to see that their stories and their issues are not lost to the world at large.

Either way, I was glad that they were receptive to the work we wanted to do.  And by the time I left I was invited to four houses for a cup of chai, one Independence Day ceremony this weekend and one woman’s daughter’s wedding.  It was certainly something to feel honored by – even more than a mat to sit on.

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