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Archive for September, 2010

Today I spent the entire day sitting inside, waiting. But I guess that days worth of killing time is nothing compared to the 60 years many people have waited for what transpired.

It was a big day in India, as you may or may not have heard. After decades of waiting, demolitions, murders, riots, religious furor and constant delays the Allahabad High Court declared a verdict on who controls 2.7 acres of land in Ayodhya.

You might wonder why so much drama and history was needed over a small piece of land. I would ask the same thing about certain parts of Jerusalem. But, as with many epics, it came down to religion. Is the alleged birthplace of Ram (a king who, in the legend of Ramayana, served as the human ‘avatar’ for the god Vishnu) as well as the site of a 16th century mosque that was demolished by Hindu nationalists in 1992. The demolition caused widespread riots and over 2,000 people were killed (riots 10 years later after a related train bombing saw another 1,000 people killed).

It is a long and complicated story as to how this tale that started with a mosque in 1528 and a court case beginning in 1949 ended up in a courtroom today. If you’re interested in a full timeline of events, I suggest you look at this helpful timeline, and if you want a full accounting of the ruling today read this.

For me this is not interesting just because of the outcome – the ruling stated that the land should be divided between 2 Hindu groups and one Muslim group, but all sides said they would appeal – but because it is just another fascinating display of what happens when religions collide.

How can a court even begin to decide whose religion deserves or has right to land? But they certainly tackled it head on here. To me the most befuddling part of the ruling is this: One of the justices, Dharam Veer Sharma actually wrote in his opinion, “The disputed site is the birth place of Lord Ram.”

As an American it is fascinating to see how religion can be woven into a court decision as though it is fact. And perhaps for many it is. But that’s hardly consolation to Muslims who think that their almost-500-year-old mosque was destroyed. And the land for the Muslims is no consolation to those who would swear that the mosque was built only after an original Hindu temple was destroyed.

The thing that gives me faith is this: as of now (knock on wood), there have been no major instances of violence. After a week of delays and waiting with bated breath to see what would happen, there’s a collective sigh that nothing has happened.

Has India moved beyond its religious tensions? Of course not. But in a country that is reeling from its embarrassment over the Commonwealth Games, maybe this is a moment to stand proud. It’s not over yet, but perhaps the long-running suit can now hope for closure, instead of fearing more bodies will be added to the count of this saga.

And birthplace or no birthplace, mosque or no mosque, that is something to celebrate – especially now that I feel safe enough to leave my house.

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I’d like to think that the name Pitlochry is difficult for almost anyone to say convincingly. It took me a good number of years living in Scotland before I could pronounce many of their town names.

So why is this the name of a building around the corner from me?

I know I’ve written before about the interesting trend of not having real addresses in India. It is true that I do not really have a street address- only a building name and a naive hope that friends and delivery-people alike can somehow locate my abode.

Our neighboring building

But the more hilarious (sad? preposterous?) part of this equation is that most of the building names are not easy for any Indian person to pronounce. My building is one of the more innocuous ones — La Paloma — and even that is difficult for most people.

The building next door to us is called Chez Nous. Imagine not knowing English or French and then trying to pronounce those letters together. Two of my neighbors who live in Chez Nous often describe their pronunciation to delivery-people as “Chez Noose” (with a hard C-H like chair and a full pronunciation of the Z). It’s all they can muster to get anyone to find them – otherwise their pizza will be carted around by a person looking for a building with the words ‘Shay Noo’.

C'est mo

Down the street from Chez Nous is another inexplicable french masterpiece: C’est Moi.  Do they think it adds a touch of elegance to the dilapidated exteriors to make their names unpronounceable but foreign? The funniest part of C’est Moi is that the I has fallen off the end of the sign – so if you lived in that building you’d probably have to describe your place as ‘Sest Moe’.

It would be funny if we weren’t already on the one-way street with no discernible landmark without a main road to turn off of. We live in a bizarre European hamlet that no one can find with buildings like Chez Nous, Suares and Rendezvous.

Oh well. C’est la vie.

Another aptly named building

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Rain Be Gone

My extraordinary salad

It was a very weird, unsettling milestone: we ate a salad at home.

This might seem bizarre as a momentous occasion, but as India newbies amidst a monsoon we had steered clear of the most likely route to sickness – raw vegetables. Every vegetable was meticulously cleaned and then cooked. Every fruit was peeled. Hands were washed before eating anything we were about to touch.

Yet in the past few weeks a drastic change has settled into the Mumbai we’ve come to know and love. The rain has steadily stopped. It started with a few days of clouds peeking through the storms. Then longer periods without precipitation. Then full days of the sun declaring its presence. And now, just like that, there’s no more rain. The monsoon has taken its bow and retreated until June rolls around again.

For most who live here its a blessing and a curse. The rains are over but now they settle in for a hot month before it cools down again in November. However for us, its just unfamiliar territory. I am so used to carrying around my small umbrella and stepping out in my waterproof shoes. I am so accustomed to knowing that no matter what the sky looks like, it will absolutely rain today. I am in the habit of not solidifying plans until I can tell whether or not we’ll get a full dose of monsoon or whether there will just be a drizzle.

I had never lived in a world where it rained every single day. And now I must oddly accustom myself to a world where I will not see a drop of rain again for nine months (unless we have one or two surprise rains left to break this spell).

Which brings me back to salad: I (knock on wood) have not had any food-related illness since I have been in India. This is obviously a trend I hope to continue (although now that I’ve put it in writing I’m sure I’m doomed). I think part of it is luck, but part of it has been having a very conditioned approach to food – I avoid anything suspicious, even if I really really want to eat it.

But the rains (and the dirt and disease that comes with the rains) are over and so vegetables are less of a danger. Nisha suggested to me the other day that it was safe to eat a salad.

“I know you are missing salad, so I will clean it really well and make one.”
“Are you sure that I won’t get sick?”
“Ha,” (yes) she said, “I promise you will not get sick. Monsoon is over, lettuce is not bad anymore”

I wanted a salad, so I decided to go for it. That night, I sat down at the table and stared at the freshness in front of me. Cherry tomatoes. Lettuce. Onions. All former enemies now claiming to come in peace. I stuck my fork in. It was so delicious – it felt like the antithesis to every heavy curry spicy meal I’d eaten over the last three months. And I didn’t get sick.

It may be unsettling. But rains, I’m glad you are gone.

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So a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim stood around talking about Hindus…

That sounds like the start of a joke, but it was just a regular day in our household. On this occasion, Nisha and our driver (who are Muslim and Christian, respectively) were trying to explain to me why I should not participate in Ganesh Visarjan, the end of the Ganpati celebrations where millions of people crowd Mumbai’s beaches to immerse their statues of the god Ganesh into the water.

The Ganpati crowd at Juhu beach

“You will not want to go there ma’am,” our driver said, “It will be all crowds and drunk people.”
Nisha concurred, “People there are crazy, you don’t know what can happen.”

I didn’t want to mention to Nisha that this was what the driver had said to me about going to Muhammad Ali Rd during her holiday of Ramzan.

I spoke to my friend D (who is a Jain Indian raised in America but has a lot of family in Bombay) — she said everyone was telling her not to go as well. “They all think unless we have a rooftop to watch from we shouldn’t go – it’ll be too crazy and dirty.”

This is the funny thing about Bombay – everyone lives in harmony until you start talking about people of a different caste or religion. Then suddenly everyone of the opposing caste or religion is a drunk dirty lout.

I, however, was not going to miss Ganesh Visarjan. It’s one of the most exciting days in Mumbai and I wanted to see it for myself. Six million people take 200,000 statues of the god Ganesh to Mumbai’s various beaches and immerse him in the water – setting him on a journey and supposedly taking the misfortunes of his followers away with him. All week I’d seen the Ganesh statues, large and small, with people dancing throughout the streets. And I wanted to watch as the festival came to its glorious end.

Rolling Ganesh towards the sea

So after a bit of planning we decided to go to Juhu beach – it’s not too far from Bandra and its one of the less crowded areas. When I say less crowded this just means there were probably tens of thousands of people crowding the beach instead of potentially hundreds of thousands. There are 27 immersion spots throughout Mumbai, but the ones in South Bombay are the most crowded. We figured it would be best to stay close to home and out of the massive crowds.

A few friends and I went to a bar on the beach and grabbed a table early. The real festivities start at night so by 3pm when we arrived there were just a smattering of people with their idols. But as the sun got lower more and more and more people began to show up with increasingly large Ganesh statues.

The Ganesh that we followed

Imagine looking out and seeing a sea of people going from the end of the beach all the way up to the water. Everyone is excited, many people are singing, and every so often you start to see a large portion of the crowd begin to move like one, with a big Ganesh in the middle as they all head towards the sea. You can watch the people and the Ganesh until it suddenly sinks and cheers go out. But when you look somewhere else the same thing is happening all over again.

D and I decided we wanted to follow a Ganesh from beginning to end. So we spotted a big one, left our table, and went out to join in. The crowd surrounding it was huge. The Ganesh was taller than any man and everyone was surrounding it, singing, and celebrating. They then lifted our Ganesh onto a cart (slowly but surely) and began to wheel it toward the sea with everyone still singing and celebrating. We ran with it, joining in and letting ourselves get caught up in the moment.

Our Ganesh going out to sea

I was so caught up I didn’t realize I’d gone right into the water up to my thigh. I turned around and saw D had not followed me – Mumbai’s beaches are notoriously dirty. Oil and other unpleasantries mix to create a blackened version of the sea. With the many Ganesh statues the water becomes an even more dangerous place (There are many people here who are understandably against Ganpati because of the horrible implications of thousands of plaster and chemically painted statues being left at the sea floor). I stepped back, ignored my dirty legs and watched as our Ganesh was taken out to sea. And then, in and instant, he was gone. He had gone to the bottom of the ocean and everyone was cheering. We’d been allowed to share in this one group’s moment of their Ganpati and we felt it was ours too (To watch a video of ‘our’ Ganesh and his journey, see below).

The crowd growing as night falls on Juhu beach

We went back to the bar, exhilarated and excited. We stayed awhile longer, watching the crowd swell more and more as time went on. We left after it got dark, but for most real celebrants the night was just beginning. As we drove home, one side of the road was closed as thousands of people were in their own processions with their own Ganesh, making their way towards the sea.

I asked our driver how his night was. “I hadn’t seen the Ganesh immersion since I was a boy. I always avoid it now. But you know, it was really fun to see it.” Yes it truly was.

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The Choices We Make

When I was in high school we took a class called ‘life issues’, which was essentially meant to be a sex-ed class coupled with self-esteem and health issues. Everyone joked about it and laughed off the content (what teenager isn’t uncomfortable in a glorified sexual health class?) but the school made it very clear that these were important issues that we needed to understand.

I mention this now because I was thinking about ‘life issues’ quite a lot as I sat in a small room with no windows in Dharavi, sweating through my long sleeved cotton kurta and long linen pants, watching a field worker explain sexual education and health to a group of Muslim teenagers – most of whom were married and many of whom already had children.

At this particular meeting (I’ve now been to so many I’m starting to get the hang of it), the field worker was fearless. Here was a Hindu woman in a sari trying to explain female anatomy to a group of women whose only visible anatomy was their face and hands. She had started on the topic of periods. Did anyone in the room want to open the discussion by relaying when they got their first period?

Silence.

My translator piped up, telling her story to try and break the ice. It seemed to make the girls less uncomfortable as they laughed and giggled at her trials and tribulations. They started sharing more about themselves.

But then the conversation took a more somber tone: “How many of you feel that your periods make you dirty?” they were all asked. Everyone raised their hands. I was really surprised – how can you have given birth to a child and still feel ashamed about your body’s natural reproductive cycles?

But the field worker was not at all surprised by this response. She began a very stern tirade – she explained that this was a beautiful and natural part of our humanity. She was adamant that they not let their religious views lead to unsanitary practices.

Apparently, in their religion (or their practice of their religion within their particular culture), when a woman has her period she is considered unclean. Anything that she touches becomes impure and she cannot go near her mosque. I had seen similar signs relating to Hindu temples in Indonesia, instructing menstruating women to stay away, but it was amazing to me that this practice is so widespread across varying religions.

Most of these women could not afford sanitary pads (and tampons don’t even exist here for anyone) so they used rags. And when the rags were dirty they would often clean them and then hide them away for drying. This apparently can lead to infections when the rag is used the next time, because without sufficient space to dry, the wet rag can become a hotbed for bacteria.

I’m going to pause here for a moment to acknowledge that this is a very uncomfortable and graphic blog post. But it is astounding the things we take for granted – I rarely consider my period because the modern marvel of tampons makes it as insignificant as possible. These women are getting infections in large numbers because they do not have access to something as simple and cheap as sanitary pads, and their shame about having their period stops them from drying their rags in the sun or out above a flame or even on a drying rack. It’s just astounding to me the number of hardships these women face every day.

I watched as the field worker continued to encourage and explain sanitary habits. The women listened, uncomfortably but attentively. Some of the women began to open up and ask questions.

One woman, who is 15 and has been married for 6 months, had not yet gotten her period. She had not met her husband because apparently in her tradition you don’t meet for one full year. She was worried that if she didn’t get her period soon that she wouldn’t be able to continue being married.

The field worker kindly explained that if she never got her period it would not mean she couldn’t stay married, but it would unfortunately mean that she could not have children. The woman looked stricken – apparently she wasn’t confident that she could stay married without the ability to have children.

Again, as with most of the other meetings I have been to with this particular group, the discussion had nothing to do with it’s stated goal of reducing domestic violence – it was just another way to bring people into the organization. Little by little, person by person, they just try to help in the many many places where help is needed.

As the discussion came to a close and most of the women (girls? How do your characterize young teenagers with such adult responsibilities?) said goodbye, we were left with the girl who had hosted us in her home. She was 15 and her mother had ‘chaperoned’ the discussion.

She had stayed behind to ask the field worker about computer classes- she wanted learn but she only could read and write in Urdu, and all of the classes were in Hindi or English.

I asked why she had chosen to go to an Urdu-only school.

She laughed and started talking. My translator said she was explaining that it wasn’t a choice. The only school she could go to was a madrassa, and the only thing they learned was the Koran.

“You mean that’s what you learn most of the time?” I asked.
“No,” my translator translated. “It’s the only thing we ever study.”
“Can’t you go to another school?”
“There is no other school available. And the men in my family wouldn’t let me go to another school anyway.”

This is the point at which I started to get angry. She and her mother and I then began a thirty-minute discussion where I kept asking why and they kept laughing at me and answering that, “This is just the way it is.”

She couldn’t go to a different school because there wasn’t one that would take her.
She couldn’t take lessons in English because she wouldn’t have time for that and the men in the family wouldn’t allow it.
She couldn’t wait to get married because that would bring shame to her family.
Her school couldn’t teach anything other than Urdu because they could only spend time reading the Koran.
She couldn’t get a job because the men wouldn’t allow it.

I just kept sitting there stunned, trying to find some alternative. Could these women really just allow themselves to be subjugated in this way when they understood what was happening? I asked what kept them from just leaving.

“This is our home. This is our life. Would you want to start completely over and never be allowed to see your family or anyone in your community again?”

I answered that no, I would not want that. That seemed to settle it for them. I was starting to wonder if I had overstepped, so I apologized for asking so many questions. They, again, just laughed at me.

“It’s ok. We understand that you live your life differently.”

I nodded, thinking we were having a moment. But then the mother started saying something that my translator wasn’t translating. I asked her what they were saying.

“You don’t want me to tell you – now they’re asking if you can help them in any way. They want you to maybe help the men in their family find better jobs or for you to give them some money.”

I guess our moment was over. I tried to respond that I was going to be helping by making the film about the organization. They didn’t seem moved.

I walked out still feeling angry. It’s one thing to not understand that there was another world out there. It was another to know that other people are free and to just calculate that it’s not worth it for you.

The meeting and my conversation swam in my mind as I walked out. These women can’t even stand up for themselves by demanding that their rags dry out in the open, let alone demand for education or the ability to work. It was the first time I had left a meeting where I didn’t feel inspired or empowered. So now they knew about their reproductive systems and proper menstrual hygiene – so what? Would they even use the information they would be given? Or would they just continue to be under-educated child brides with no ability to break their own cycle?

I said this to the field worker. I asked her how she keeps going every single day when there are so many battles to fight and change comes in such small incremental steps?

“Because it needs to be done,” she replied. Yes it most certainly does.

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My motto in Mumbai is to say yes to anything I’m invited to because you just never know what to expect in this city – and it’s almost always a good story.

So in that vein, last night and today I found myself in two scenarios that anyone who knows me would have thought were highly unlikely: at a packed club dancing to a trance techno DJ (I really don’t know the difference between ‘trance’ and ‘techno’, let’s be honest) and at Mumbai’s Fashion Week.

Both were cases of just saying yes: our broker, with whom we’ve kept in touch, mentioned to me that one of her favorite DJs was going to be in town Saturday night. She said it was going to be a really fun night and we should come. So I said yes. Why not? Separately, I was at a drinks event and I met a guy who runs a non-profit that tries to bring the arts into impoverished schools. His organization was partnering with one of the designers at Fashion Week and he had extra tickets – so he invited me to go. Who knew what on earth this event would be? But I said yes.

So last night I found myself in a room full of elegant high-heeled Mumbaikers sipping their overpriced drinks waiting in breathless anticipation for ‘Dash Berlin’, a Dutch DJ who everyone kept reminding me was “rated as the 14th best DJ in the world.” I kept wondering what a DJ would have to do to make it to 13.

When he came out the crowd went absolutely wild. And this guy was working for it- he jumped around, smiled widely while waving his hands in the air, played ‘air drums’, and intermittently held up an iPad with scrolling words saying things such as “Hello Mumbai” or “Make Some Noise”. One time he just held it up with hearts going by. Each time the crowd roared. (See video below – it’s not something I shot, but it gives you the idea!)


I didn’t know whether to enjoy it or laugh at it. My boring old self had the instant reaction of: why is everyone in this room staring at a guy fiddling with a Mac and some turntables? He’s not playing anything. The guy must be on some kind of drug to have that much energy and some members of the crowd were also channeling the same energy source that allowed them to dance with complete abandon.

Models strutting their stuff at Lakme Fashion Week

I had a similar reaction to the Fashion Week show. Was it really fun? Or taking itself too seriously for my taste?

We walked in and it was certainly larger than I had expected. Mumbai Fashion Week (also known as Lakme Fashion Week) had been advertised around town but I didn’t know how big it was. When we walked in it certainly looked like a fashion show (or at least the photos of fashion shows I had seen). It looked professional and I was standing in line to get in behind Fern Mallis, the head of New York Fashion Week, so I supposed this must have some credibility.

But it was just so funny to me – everyone scrambling and haggling to get the best seat they could (a very Indian spin on the concept of a Fashion Week). A hundred photographers stood at the end waiting. But when the lights went down and the music came on, models strutted out it was certainly a bit thrilling – who doesn’t enjoying getting a glimpse of the fashionable life that seems to exist outside of my world? It looked like a New York fashion show but with slightly less impressive models and some very fancy saris mixed into the more traditional fashion. And there I sat, in my Old Navy skinny jeans and H&M top thinking I was an imposter.

In both the club and the fashion show I had the reaction of: this is fun, but is it me?

But that’s a stupid question here – the whole point of coming to Mumbai was to test those boundaries. It’s to walk through the streets of Dharavi one day and then watch an absurd fashion show the next. It’s to breathe in all the wonders and incongruities Mumbai has to offer.

So at the fashion show I just took it all in. And at the club I just let myself dance. I cheered for Dash Berlin, I closed my eyes and let the strobe lighting and bass music carry me for just a little bit. I’m ok with getting swept up in Mumbai. I’m going to keep saying yes.

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Of all the many things I love about Indians, one thing I particularly adore is their love of celebration. There are so many holidays, so many festivals, so many excuses to dance and party and sing. And with numerous religions and cultures and languages smashed into a city like Mumbai, we certainly see all of them in full swing.

We are now in full force of one of my new favorite festivals- Ganesha Cahturthi, or known more commonly as Ganpati (Don’t know how it’s spelled, but that’s what everyone calls it!).

It’s an 11 day Hindu festival to celebrate the birthday of the Elephant God Ganesh, who is the god of wisdom and prosperity.  It’s sort of reminiscent for me of Christmas in some ways – it’s a birthday celebration where people put up lights EVERYWHERE and everyone is constantly singing. Like Christmas you could not escape the joy of Ganpati – people are swept up in the spirit everywhere.

And that spirit has come out every night since Ganpati started last weekend – people come out into the streets, sing, play instruments, and push statues of Ganesh around on a cart. This will all culminate next Wednesday (the 11th and final day) when people will push their Ganesh statues into the sea for reasons on which I am still unclear. I am determined to find out though, and certainly I will blog about it.

But just to give you a sense: Below is a compilation of celebrations on my 15 minute drive home tonight. There was not a moment where you couldn’t see a crowd gathered around their community’s Ganesh statue. You couldn’t help but be happy. You couldn’t help but want to join in and thank Ganesh for bringing everyone a bit of joy and laughter.

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