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Archive for November, 2010

I always assumed that Sri Lanka was like an extra Indian state, an island country with its own charm but one that would ultimately be reminiscent of the country I now live in.

How naïve I was.

A beautiful Sri Lankan rainbow

Daniel’s parents are here visiting, and for many months now we had planned to go away for a week to Sri Lanka and Kerala. I planned the Kerala portion and they planned Sri Lanka – so I really had no idea what to expect.
Sri Lanka was such a surprise to me – it’s a country that has spent so many years at war and yet from the moment you land it looks so peaceful and tropical that you couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to upset that balance. And it is so unlike India in so many ways – the language, the Buddhist people, and (I hate the say it) the cleanliness that pervades. It reminded me more of South-East Asia than its most immediate neighbor.

 

A temple at Polonnaruwa

But the best part was that even in a few short days you can see an incredible array of varying cultures and sights and history. Sri Lanka is one of the more multi-dimensional places you can imagine.
This was certainly true even on our first day. We spent the morning at Polonnaruwa – an 11th century Buddhist capital that now lies in well-preserved ruins – and the afternoon spotting elephants at a national park. To go from roaming a lost city to riding in a jeep through the jungle was a whirlwind juxtaposition. Luckily, we had success in our elephant adventures- about an hour into the journey, we came across a whole troop of elephants standing at a watering hole. It’s amazing to watch these huge animals as they roamed free and enjoyed their afternoon as much as we did.

 

A slew of elephants

Sigiriya from afar

The next day we ‘conquered’ one of the true highlights of Sri Lanka – Sigiriya. Sigiriya is a rock that formed as the molten core of a volcano. The volcano has eroded but the core remained, and a civilization flourished in the fifth century. It’s an imposing sight – a huge rock with a plateau top – and it’s hard to imagine how anyone was able to scale it so many years ago.
But for this era, we were up to the challenge. You can walk into the fortified area that once was a royal garden and then you climb your way up and up until you reach the top. It’s a combination of original stairs and newly imposed spiral staircases – all frightening but all with an incredible view. Halfway up you can see frescoes that have remained in tact for at least 1,000 years. When we reached the top I think we were all exhausted, but it was victorious. Looking out, we could see across Sri Lanka and no amount of aches could take away from the moment.

 

Cave temples in Dambulla

There is just so much diverse history to take in when you’re visiting Sri Lanka – in Damublla we spent time in the Rock Cave Temples, a series of caves that have dozens of Buddha statues carved starting in the 3rd century BC, and then in the 18th century every inch, from the walls to the ceilings, were painted so that no matter where you look you see a Buddha. In Kandy we went to the home of Buddha’s ‘Tooth Relic,’ where Buddhists come to pray at the resting place of one of Buddha’s teeth (though it’s hidden away view).

 

The winding road up into Hill County - covered with tea

I loved getting immersed in the history – but the real highlight (among highlights!) was when we switched gears, climbed altitudes and indulged my love of tea.
I think its safe to say that I am an avid tea drinker. I can’t remember a day in which I didn’t consume and enjoy at least one cup. So I was quite excited to go to the tea plantations in the world’s second-largest tea-producing country. I just didn’t realize how beautiful the view would be alongside my cup of tea.

 

Tea pickers in the fields

As we drove around the winding roads up into the hill country of Sri Lanka I was reminded of the phrase many use when describing Kerala: “Gods country.” It seemed apt for Sri Lanka as well. Up and up we went and with each turn we saw a better view – short tea plants covering the entire sides of mountains that led down into valleys and up into the sky. We got up so high eventually that we were in the clouds – if a cloud was passing through we could barely see more than a few feet in front of us.
Of course, we had to stop at one of the plantations so I could understand how they took the lush green leaves and somehow turned them into the loose tea I am so familiar with. It’s amazing- tea pickers (mostly woeful underpaid Tamils) go through the fields each day plucking the top leaves from each branch of the tea bush. They are dried, rolled and then fermented. The tips of the leaves are made into a special tea, called ‘silver tips,’ and the size of the remaining leaves determines the lightness or strength of the ‘regular’ tea. It was thrilling for me to see my favorite beverage created from start to finish. It was even more thrilling to sit outside with a cup of the finished tea and a chocolate cake while looking out onto the mountains continuing to grow more and more tea leaves. It was certainly a moment of perfection for me.

 

Inside the drying area of the tea factory

Less thrilling for me was Daniel’s suggestion that we wake up at 4:30am the next day in order to go hiking. I am not a hiker – I am a person who describes perfection as sitting, drinking tea, eating cake and looking out at a nice view. But I wanted to be a sport and go along with the plan – so I hiked.
There was, admittedly, a good reason for the early rise- Daniel wanted to hike to a point known as ‘World’s End’ in Horton Plains national park. It gets its name from its stunning view and 800 meter drop. But starting at about 9am the clouds come in and the view is obscured. So in order to drive to the park and then get to World’s End in time, we needed a brutal start-time.
So we woke up and went on the way – my outfit consisted of skinny jeans (the only long pants I’d brought) and three sweaters to try and keep out the early morning cold. I looked ridiculous and I felt like a hiker fraud – on the rough and wet terrain I stumbled and bumbled my way up the mountain.

 

Me and Daniel at 'Worlds End'

But we got to World’s End just in time – as I stood panting and completely winded I started to understand the place’s dramatic name. Huge mountains led down to lakes and waterfalls and a valley. And just as quickly as we had arrived, so did the clouds- it was incredible, they came up from below the mountain, like a rising force and soon the entire view was completely obscured. It would have been breathtaking if I had any breath left.

 

It was a lot to take in in five days – a lot of history, a lot of culture and a lot of changing altitudes. But Sri Lanka is a place one should go if you want to find yourself marveling at the world. It’s incredible to me that cave sculptures and structures and frescos have survived for hundreds and even thousands of years here. It’s jaw-dropping to see an animal whose weight is in tonnage sauntering around and kicking up grass right in front of you. And it’s hard to tear your eyes away from stunning views, whether from the top of a molten core, out the window of a car on a winding road or on the vista of a conquered mountain.
But hopefully Kerala can give us a run for our money.

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Stop the Car

It was a very weird realization for me – I’ve been researching and working on a film about domestic violence in India for months now, and yet (understandably) I had never seen a man hit a woman in my entire life.

Until I did.

I’ve spent a lot of time talking to women in Dharavi about the disturbingly casual attitude that many have in relation to violence here. Whereas in the US it seems to happen in the shadows (which still isn’t good enough), for many women here it’s an open occurrence, something that is commonplace. A lot of men, especially in poor uneducated communities, don’t see anything wrong with hitting a woman.

I’d heard this over and over again from woman after woman. I’d watched the efforts of the women working for the NGO we’re filming as every day they painstakingly explain to women that they have rights and that they do not have to suffer in silence. But it wasn’t real to me.

The other day, Daniel and I were driving into town. As he sat typing on his blackberry I absentmindedly stared out the window. We were going slowly in traffic and suddenly the world itself seem to slow. I saw a man and an older woman having an argument. Both had the clothes and air of two people who spend their lives surviving on the street. And as they argued, the man suddenly grabbed a piece of the woman’s purple and blue flowing sari. She tried to grab it back. And then, he punched her.

I was jolted back, in shock. There was no nicety, no attempt to minimize the blow. It was a full on punch, and it kept coming. In broad daylight, as dozens of cars drove by the man kept hitting as hard as could. The woman screamed as the man hit her. And then, so did I.

“Stop! We have to stop, that man is hitting that woman.” Daniel turned around to see. But our driver kept going.

“No ma’am, we can’t stop, they are not good people. You do not want to get involved with these people.”
“Stop the car,” I said, looking at Daniel, who repeated what I had said. We pulled over to the side of the road, stopping traffic. Daniel jumped out as quick as I’d ever seen him move, and at first I lost him through the cars that were still whizzing by.

But then I saw him- he had crossed the street and reached the woman. He yelled at the man and he had stopped, sulking away. I stared, not knowing what else I could do. It was over, for now. I just watched through the traffic until Daniel crossed back over.

“What was he saying to you?” I asked.
“That the woman was drunk,” he replied tentatively. “And she was. I don’t really know what they were fighting about, but I think he’ll leave her alone now.”

I looked back as we got into the car. I couldn’t see either of them anymore.

I suppose this post is ‘politically incorrect’ – it’s taking one instance and highlighting it, as though I might be implying this is an everyday occurrence. This is usually the part of my blog post where I’d backtrack and say, “Oh, but it isn’t everyone,” or “this is just one slice of India, not indicative of everything.” But I’m not going to in this instance. Because I’ve never been so appalled by the number of people who just kept going, who drove or rode a bike by as this woman faced abuse from a tormentor. I would like to believe that something like this could never happen on a busy street in any place I’ve ever lived.

I know that that sentiment is wrong – I know that people have been killed in broad daylight, and that’s why we discuss the bystander effect. But there’s something different happening here – a small, weak man with no knife or gun starts beating up a small, weak woman: why does no one else stop it? Why doesn’t anyone even yell at him from a window or call the police? Why is the sentiment that perhaps they are the type of people not worth helping?

I often get a bit uncomfortable around the ideas of caste and misogyny that exist here; I mostly like to think about the improvements that India has seen in the last decades and the improvement that it is working towards. But in this instance, I think India has a long way to go. The stories I’ve heard are not isolated and watching it with my own eyes was something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

I’m just grateful that I’m able to help in my own very very small way by making the film. And I guess now Daniel has too – because in this particular instance, I couldn’t feel luckier to have a partner who sees the world the way I do.

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I started to feel like the literal wicked witch of the west.

I wanted to interview B – one of the senior field workers at the NGO in Dharavi – outside on her stoop. Besides desiring outdoor light instead of a windowless interior, her house had the added bonus of being painted sea-foam green with a red door and she was in a yellow sari. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I should have guessed that white person in kurta + camera and tripod + Dharavi would equal difficulties. But the good light and the colorful background seduced me.

By the time we had started filming 30 people had crowded around us. B happened to live on one of the main lanes in her section of Dharavi, and so there was more open space than in most other parts of the sprawling slum. It stopped feeling that way once I had ten children breathing down my neck gawking at my view-finder. And every time one of them giggled or whispered (and I subsequently heard it coming through the audio in my headphones) I would turn around, put my finger over my mouth and make a clear ‘shush’ gesture.

It didn’t have the desired effect. Either the children would start laughing at my face (literally) or the adults around them would start to announce loudly in Hindi that everyone should be quiet (or so my translator K informed me). It went this way for most of the hour-long interview.

But after all the shushing and hand-gestures and mockery from children, we did end up with a great interview from B. She was lucky enough to have come from a supportive family – her parents had raised her in a very unorthodox home where both parents were active in community organizing and women were viewed as mostly equal to the men. For a woman in her 40’s to have grown up like this in Dharavi is pretty rare.

But it instilled in B a desire to do social work. After she was married, she originally started volunteering with a group in her husband’s neighborhood (their particular area of Dharavi is for people who specialize in pottery-making). She said that in the beginning, her neighbors ostracized her. But since she loved her work, she didn’t care.

Her volunteer group eventually started working with the domestic violence prevention NGO (the one we’re making the film for) and eventually B began to work for them. She enjoyed being the person that women in her community came to, and she didn’t see her job as work. She said most nights, women come in and out of her house at all hours seeking her advice.

When the interview ended, sure enough, a woman was there, waiting to talk. The woman explained that her son-in-law was beating her daughter and the mother was worried that she wasn’t going to get help. As they went inside to talk, I hesitated. I certainly want to intrude on the conversation. But the woman indicated that she didn’t mind.

So I stood and filmed. I asked K to wait outside so there would be as few people ‘eavesdropping’ as possible. But even without understanding the words it was clear that B was the right woman for the job. She listened, placing her hand on the woman’s hands as she spoke. When the woman began to cry B cupped her hands around her face and said nothing, but it seemed to me that the gesture was meant to convey that she had strength enough for them both. When the woman was done explaining B began to talk – quietly, but with the sheer force of a woman who believed she could solve the unsolvable. When the woman got up to leave she took B’s hand in hers and held it for a long moment.

We went back outside and I told K to tell the woman that I appreciated being able to film the conversation. I tried to joke that since I don’t speak Hindi, I didn’t know the secrets in she was sharing anyway. She smiled and put her hand on mine, which was still clutching my camera.

As she walked away, she seemed stronger – empowered with the ability to improve her daughters life, or at least knowing that there was someone strong standing behind her.

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Through the Lens

I felt a tugging at my kurta. I looked down and saw a smiling face staring back at me. She reminded me of myself when I was ten: gawky, wearing a neon blue shirt and bright red jeans with a blunt haircut and bangs that were cut unevenly – although, I never had sported a gold and pink nose-ring. This tiny person just wasn’t the picture I’d had in mind of the person who would be meeting us to take us on this particular trip through the maze of residential Dharavi.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – R, one of the field workers at the domestic violence prevention center in Dharavi we’d been working with, had told us she was sending her daughter to get us. And while R was only 26 years old, I knew her eldest was 10. But it was still daunting to watch this little 50 lb girl confidently navigate the way from the hot sunny streets outside the hospital where met into the dark, confusing tangle of houses.

We were finally about to start filming – after months of research, waiting for equipment, delayed meetings, and permission slips signed by the husbands (yes, this was still a requirement for a women’s health organization in order for filming to be allowed), I felt like I understood what these women were doing enough to tell their story. We had decided that we would follow three of the field workers to illustrate the work being done to eradicate domestic violence in Dharavi. All of them had grown up in Dharavi and all of them could have stayed at home like so many other women here– but they had decided to wake up every morning and combat an issue that is so entrenched it’s hard to fathom attitudes changing.

So we were starting with R. We were going to go to her house, film her morning routine and then interview her in her home. I was going with K, my translator, who was going to have to conduct the interviews, since none of the women spoke English. I was nervous about not having control over the interview, even if I had written the questions. I was nervous about not being able to properly shoot a space too small to capture. I was nervous that I couldn’t ever really tell the story properly, since I was so foreign and so clearly outside. But I was certainly going to try my best.

R’s daughter brought us to their home. It was a five-foot by five-foot room, covered top to bottom in lilac tiles. The bed took up a third of the apartment – it was a steel frame cut short so it could fit exactly from end to end of the room. R, her husband, and their three children all slept in this bed, in their windowless house, with one fan every night. When I came in R was lighting incense for a statue of a Hindu god that she had to stand on her bed to reach because it was up in one of the few cupboards the room had. She and her husband had been able to afford a fridge and a television – and the two youngest children were sitting on the bed watching a dubbed Hindi version of Looney Tunes. I watched as Bugs Bunny chewed on a carrot and leaned in to say, “What’s up Doc?”, although the words came out as whatever the equivalent in Hindi was.

R stepped off the bed and greeted us. She told K that she was just going to do her morning routine and we could film whatever we liked. I felt sort of voyeuristic taking out my camera, but I kept reminding myself that she wanted us to be there, she wanted us to make a film about the subject she worked so hard for every day, and she had no qualms sharing her life.

We all danced around each other in the small space over the next two hours as R painstakingly completed all the household chores (while her husband mostly sat and played with the children). She cleaned everything top to bottom. She went out and gathered water. She gave each child a bucket shower with the water out in the alleyway because there wasn’t enough space in the house. She washed all the dishes in the alleyway, crouched down, scrubbing each meticulously. She came in cut onions and coriander to make a morning pulao for her family and offered some to K and myself. Her portable gas stove took up the entire small counter.

While we were eating, the kids came over to study my camera and play with my iphone. They giggled and pushed each other around – I couldn’t help feeling like their games and actions were so familiar even if I couldn’t understand the words. Two older girls and a toddler son – just like how my family had been. The sisters tickled each other and poked each other, giggling at the games and pushing each other around every time their parents stopped looking.

It’s a conflicting feeling, watching a woman in Dharavi’s morning routine from the lens of a white, privileged person. You don’t want to glorify it by saying, “Oh, they are so happy. They don’t seem to care that they are poor. They work hard and love each other.” But you don’t want to diminish it by saying, “How can they live like that? How can people survive without space or light or privacy? How can this powerhouse woman, who I’ve spent so much time with over the last few months, possibly find the strength to do this every single day?”. The truth seems to lie somewhere in-between that – it’s not beautiful and its not impossible. It’s not a glorified life of poverty but it’s also not a miserable existence. This is life.

R’s husband left after breakfast- he works ‘cutting fabric for pants.’ R’s kids were out of school for Diwali so she instructed them to either leave or keep quiet while we set up the interview. R sat on her bed and K and I sat on the floor – although K had to kneel and try and keep herself on R’s eye level so it wouldn’t look weird on camera. It was assumed that no one around us would have a chair she could use.

And so she began talking – it was really hard for me, to sit back and hope for the best as my interview took place, essentially, without me. Because I didn’t want to interrupt the interview, K couldn’t translate for me until R finished answering each question fully, and even then she only gave me a summary, since I thought it would be awkward to have long pauses for R between questions. When I interview someone I normally can listen out to make sure the question has been answered, or whether I need to rephrase it to get a little bit more – here I’ll only find out whether it worked or not once everything is transcribed and translated.

But I was able to understand the basics of R’s story: her husband – the one who I’d marveled at moments before for his tenderness towards his wife and children – had previously had a habit of beating his young wife. R had confided to an aunt about the beatings and she directed R towards the non-profit she now works for. Initial counseling was difficult – her husband didn’t think he was doing anything socially unacceptable – but eventually he came around. She feels lucky, because so many of the women she sees now can never convince their husband that anything is wrong. R eventually began volunteering and was hired by the NGO a year ago. She doesn’t think violence will ever come close to being eradicated. But she’s hoping that they can make even a small difference.

When the interview ended we thanked R for letting us in and sharing her story. She smiled, we said goodbye, and made our way back into the alley.

As we put our shoes back on, K looked up.

“Can you imagine stepping outside your house and not knowing whether it was night or day?” she said. It was true – the layers of sheet-metal and drying clothing and extra stories and tarp all made it very dark and difficult to see the sky, even though we were outside of the house.

“I can’t,” I said honestly. But the thought was interrupted as R came out too, purse in hand, ready to walk us back out to the street. She led the way.

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I’m probably a bad patriot for deliberately wanting to leave my new city because my President was coming for a visit. But amidst road closures, traffic and increased security – along with a 2 day vacation for Daniel because of Diwali – we decided to high-tail it out of Mumbai for a relaxing weekend in Goa.

I had heard a lot of different things about Goa, all seemingly contradictory: Some derided it as a crowded over-hyped place for hippies and backpackers; others gleefully declared it Mumbai’s Hamptons. I was pleasantly surprised to find that if you stayed in the right places, Goa could be neither. Instead for me it was a relaxing blend of tropical paradise and historical oddity.

One of the Siolim House rooms

On the advice of numerous friends we stayed at Siolim House – a 17th century Portuguese mansion that had been restored as a labor of love by an Indian private equity manager. Siolim House is off the beaten track – it’s situated on a small lane in a tiny village that’s a ways away from the beach, but it means no other tourists are around. You sort of feel like you’re staying at a friend’s very nice country house (shouldn’t we all have friends like that?).

I’m ususally a sucker for historical houses anyway, but this one really was something to see. Our room made me feel like we could really get a sense of what it must have been like to live in colonial India – except we still were able to have running water and the use of a fan.

Siolim House lounge

We spent the next few days driving between the various beaches and the sights of Goa. It’s a funny place to tourist-watch – I’ve never seen so many people trying to embody the Goa fantasy life. White people with dreadlocks and kurtas made their way around on scooters along treacherous windy paths while getting honked at for going too slowly. European tourists happily paid 50 rupees for a fresh coconut without negotiating and apparently without considering that the coconuts grew on trees right in front of them and therefore shouldn’t be that expensive. A lot of the people we spoke with were spending up to two weeks in Goa – deciding that the rest of India would have to wait, since they were only in the mood for their tropical plans. I kept wondering what the local people must think of this specific type of tourist that wants to live the ‘chill’ life in India. Then again, what must they have thought of us? I think sometimes we’re naive to assume that we embarrass ourselves less just because we happen to have lived in Mumbai for a few months.

But Goa does live up to its hype. We went to one of the quieter beaches, in Mandrem, and it really was a new view of India I hadn’t been privy to in all my time on Mumbai’s sullied and crowded beaches. Hills gave way to white sandy beaches and palm trees. Locals made use of the tourists by selling us fresh-caught fish and prawns. It was hard to think of a better place to spend a day.

Inside of Bom Jesus church

As a history buff I also enjoyed Old Goa – which apparently a lot of beach travelers give a miss. It was striking to see 17th century grand churches in India. I watched an Indian Christian wedding- white dress and all – and I was struck by how odd it seemed in a country that seemed to promote every color but white in their average wedding. I certainly felt like I was in some remote part of forgotten Europe. The whole setting reminded me of some of the churches I’d gone to in Amalfi – a bit forgotten with the paint peeling off, but still glorious in their size and decorations.

I was also amused to see the ‘remains’ of St Francis Xavier. It was a bit of an inside joke for me – I was born in a hospital called St Francis Xavier hospital, and oddly enough I am the only person in my family who was born there. So I thought it was sort of fitting that I got to witness his bizarre mummified self (I would say I got to see him in the flesh, but that might be too terrible a pun).

At any rate, when it was time to board our plane Sunday night, I couldn’t help but wish I was able to spend more time in the slow-moving Indian state that seemed to belong to many cultures at once. And for a moment, the wish was granted: our flight out was delayed – a result of President Obama’s closure of the Mumbai airport for a full forty-five minutes. I guess we couldn’t avoid America even in Goa. But it certainly had been nice to try for a little while.

(I also found some great signs in Goa, so I’ve added a few to the slide show on the signs tab)

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Sign Me Up

I’ve been wanting for awhile to add an extra page to my blog extolling the virtues of India’s signs. And I finally have.

You see, a lot of the things I see here deserve one simple posting. But the signs are one of my favorite parts of India. They run the gamut- they’re politically incorrect. They’re gramatically incorrect. They remind you of crazy scenarios that don’t exist in other countries. And sometimes they just have their own charm about them that makes you shake your head and say, ‘this is India.’

So I’ve made a page (click here to go) and I’ll keep adding more photos as I see them. But for today: thank you advertisers of India, you keep me constantly amused.

A few of my favorites:

There’s a whole slew of signs like this one. In America you’d have luxury brands with taglines like “Now everyone can have this item.” Here it’s always “You can have this if you’re incredibly elite. Nothing reminds you of the caste system like a sign that extols the extremely un-American value of all men NOT being born equal (and then making sure that the point has been made by adding “So True”).

Why would God not approve? Why must we invoke God into our littering campaigns?

I love the mangled English and the implication that a ‘fresh’ graduate is akin to a lemon or lime. The real question is: when do we go rotten?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just here?

 

 

 

 

This is one that’s funny because its so Mumbai and  so unintentional. The Mumbai bus service is called ‘BEST’ (whatever that stands for. Like MTA in New York). But, of course, anyone without that know-how would assume this sign just means that you’re about to get on the very best bus in a very special lane. It made me laugh when I first saw it and even after it was explained to me, I still like the idea that no one seems to have caught on to the joke.

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A Different November 2nd

It’s jarring to me when I talk to people at home in the US and they mention how cold it is. Living here it’s hard to remember that November in my world has always meant I’m about to start dreading going outside.

But after living through months of monsoon I’m in some sort of seasonal time warp. Hearing the word November doesn’t compute with the hot weather I’m experiencing.  But with this not-rainy and not-cold November, I’m getting to enjoy something I normally don’t really pay attention to: the birds.

I know the only time I’ve written about birds here before was to describe the crazy crows on my terrace- and they’re still there. But I’ve also really enjoyed sitting out with a cup of tea watching what the world has to offer. Yellow birds mix with green ones, hawks searching for prey soar over crows lazying on a telephone wire. I might be in the middle of a city but we’re still in a very, very different climate.  In my past life I’ve always been happy just to see an oddly colored pigeon.

It’s nice sometimes to get lost in that. We’re lucky enough that the view from our terrace looks out onto trees- we’re one of the few blocks where some bungalows haven’t been replaced by high rises. I know it’s probably a bit ironic to think that while sitting in a high rise, but it’s true.

So for today, I’m not going to write very much. I’m just going to share a few pictures of the view: the birds and the sunset. In a city of chaos, and especially on November 2nd when my mind is inevitably brought home thinking about elections (and my old jobs where I’d be obsessed with them), I can’t help but enjoy a November 2nd where I was able to sit outside, look at some birds and marvel at a sunset.

Welcome to November, Mumbai style. I’m glad this year I get to enjoy it.

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