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Archive for December, 2010

Happy Holidays

It’s very bizarre, after months of living in India, to land in the Brussels airport and see a sign that says: “Brussels: Welcoming. European. Efficient.” I walked through the bright, crisp, orderly terminal until I found a cafe and ordered a tomato, mozzarella and parma ham sandwhich. In my groggy, jet-lagged state I felt a little bit like I was in some weird dream alternate universe – I knew these things existed but they barely seem real. Can I really eat that tomato without knowing how they washed it? Is it really possible that there is good baguette and mozerrella in the world? Where is the trash? Why is no one pushing me?  But also: why does it seem so sterile and colorless?

Yes, after my hazy and jarring layover in Brussels I landed back in New York for 2 weeks to see family and friends. There’s so much to love about being back and yet so much to miss about India (let’s start with the weather…). I’m not going to blog while I’m here, so I hope everyone enjoys their holidays and I will write again once I return to India for New Years!

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In India, there are times when you can get frustrated, and others when you just have to laugh at the constant absurdity of life here.

About a month and a half ago I wrote about how a leakage from our terrace had caused our downstairs neighbors’ ceiling to collapse. One would assume by now that this entire ordeal would be over, right? Au contraire.

The first round of porch construction

The original work included ripping up the entire side of our porch to get into the piping system. What had been quoted to us as taking a week instead took three. And it wasn’t hard to see why: the workmen would show up two hours late every day; they would then take a two or three hour lunch; in the afternoon one guy would work while the others sat around. And then every night we got the icing on the cake: they would declare that they needed to stay late, because they weren’t finished. I’m sure they saw this as the perfect overtime scam. Unfortunately for them, we would always kick them out.

But after weeks of cement dust in the house and an unusable terrace and cranky workers and shouts about overtime, they were finished. They just had to replace the wooden siding.

Except that the siding they used originally was no longer available. They, of course, hadn’t checked to see whether this was the case prior to finishing. So it took another week to find a solution (they ended up painting siding to try and closely match the original).

I couldn’t have cared less about whether the wood matched the original. I was just happy to have my house back. And I was happy that my neighbors would finally get to replace their ceiling.

So you can imagine my joy when Nigel, the supervisor, knocked on my door a few weeks ago.

“Ma’am, there has been a problem with the construction,” he said, pretending to be nonchalant.
“What kind of problem?”
“Well, there is still some leakage.”

I liked the phrase ‘still some leakage’, as though it implied that something had been done and there was only a little bit left to be fixed. It turned out that they hadn’t really known anything about where the leak was coming from – they had just made a guess and hoped for the best. The guess, shockingly, was wrong.

I made them wait three weeks while Daniel’s parents were here – I wasn’t going to have them come all the way to India and then have to live with construction!

After they pulled up some of the tiles

But now the time had come again. This time, I made them bring an engineer with blueprints of the building to try and prove to me that they suddenly understood the problem. They started by pulling up a few tiles to see where the crack in the ceiling really was. Eventually it led to tearing out the whole left side of the terrace.

This time around, I wasn’t going to agree so readily. I tried to ask as many questions as I could to understand the whole process. But the response to every question always somehow included ‘but ma’am, you’re foreign, so you don’t understand the way Indians do things.’

Our newly destructed terrace and the many workers

But the joke is on them: we’ve lived here now for almost six months and at least we know how to make a few more demands, Indian-style – we called the head boss and made him come over and speak to his workers; we got a written work plan detailing what needs to be done every day; we’re having someone come from the head office to supervise every day to make sure work gets done; Daniel even got the company to give half the workers wages to him so they have an incentive to finish in time.

And most importantly: I made sure they already had purchased the tiles before they started. For me, that’s progress. A sign that maybe we’re adapting to India a little better than perhaps the construction supervisors would have liked us too.

But of course, I’ve lived here long enough to also know that all of those assurances still will probably mean it will all take much longer than they’ve quoted. Luckily, I’m taking my new Indian self back to America for the holidays – so I luckily won’t be around to see! It’s the best of both my worlds.

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Your Level Best

I saw a mouse run by and I jumped up – then almost as quickly I froze, trying to stop every instinct in me from screaming and running out of the room. I am like a child when it comes to mice; they cause me to act in a completely embarrassing irrational manner. But here, in R’s small one-room home in Dharavi, I knew I had to keep my cool. I knew how much R fretted over what we would think of her home. I knew that it was generous of her to allow me – a foreign, white person who clearly did not live in a 5 foot by 5 foot room – to watch and film her life.

So I sat down. I sat back down on the floor. The same floor and corner where I’d just seen a mouse run from. I could not embarrass this person who had been so open with me. So the interview began again, and I tried, with every fiber of my shaken being, to not look around for the mouse.

As I sat there, listening to the Hindi that I couldn’t understand (we were on our second round of the interview, since the first had been lost with the hard drive), I started to wonder: how on earth can I evaluate my standards for this film?

I’ve always tried to have every piece I’ve ever worked on look as professional as possible. I remember I one time got in a fight with an anchor who told me that for one shot in my piece my tripod wasn’t level – I’d tried to argue that I was constantly shifting to try and get a moving shot and I was standing on ground that was sloped. I was so angry that anyone would assume I hadn’t tried my best.

The thought now just makes me laugh. There will barely be one shot in this film that is level. We’re working with a camcorder because nothing bigger will fit in the room. Our tripod probably cost $20 at most and so any panning shots are usually done by hand, since the tripod is too jerky. We have only one light, and it conks out after an hour.

Not to mention that I can barely get a clear shot of anything – if we’re in a small room, even if I press my body up against the wall, I’m still not going to be able to get a full picture of the room. There’s just not enough space.

And everything is a distraction – During R’s interview we’d had to constantly stop and start over because her children would speak or laugh, or bang into something. Two of her three children were at home and they had a very difficult time keeping quiet. There wasn’t a place for them to sit, since R was being interviewed sitting on the bed. There wasn’t anything for them to do since there was no other room to go in and they obviously didn’t own anything to read or play with quietly.

I’d tried to keep R’s son quiet by playing a silent version of peek-a-boo but he kept laughing too loudly. So finally I pulled him onto my lap, where he fidgeted and tried to put chewing gum in my hair. He also kept declaring that he wanted chewing gum, which he said in such a cute way that I could barely contain my own giggle. It’s safe to say that some of that might come across in the background of these interviews. Oh well.

I’ve been really lucky to work in some great newsrooms with amazing equipment. So to say that shooting this film is a challenge is an understatement.

But somehow I am starting to get the feeling that this might be the best thing I’ve ever done. There will be children, and banging pots, and shouting neighbors and crows and shouts of ‘chewing gum’ in the background of a large portion of my interviews. A lot of the shots might be dark and grainy because we don’t have enough light. Nothing will be level (sorry to the anchor who doesn’t approve). Every time I had to walk with someone it will be shaky. Yet the content will be unique and interesting and honest.

Mouse be damned. Somehow, it’s all going to work.

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I really thought that I was being brave – darting around traffic for 2 hours in 90-degree heat in Dharavi to try and film from every angle; walking backwards to get the image of the women walking forward; holding the camera up without a tripod while my arms started to get sore. It was pretty daring for me – normally in Dharavi when I walk anywhere I spend most of my time watching my feet so that I don’t step in something unsavory or trip over a broken tile.

But I’ve got nothing on these women. They are truly something.

At the back of the rally

Today we were filming a rally – the workers and volunteers from the domestic violence prevention center were going to march through the streets in Dharavi with signs and banners while handing out leaflets and putting up signs about preventing abuse. That alone should be considered brave in the place and culture they inhabit.

But around the moment when the rally stopped right in front of a mosque, and women began talking on a bullhorn about rights while others taped signs to walls detailing how to report abuse I thought to myself: these women have chutzpah.

There’s nothing like the look on the faces of conservatively dressed Indian men watching women in saris and hijabs tell them how to act (and educating their wives on what they’re legally entitled to). It’s priceless.

I love watching the camaraderie of these women. They all come from different castes, they’re ethnically different, religiously different; many speak different native languages from each other. Two Tamil women – whom I had previously gone to a meeting with – grasped my hand when they saw me; Dharavi is practically a foreign country to where they grew up and yet here they were, marching in a rally with signs in Hindi (a language they can’t read), and welcoming a random white person who is filming them. They walked away holding hands with each other – even as they marched they still held hands, stronger together than they would be as individuals.

And for me that theme pervaded the whole march – in Dharavi, women’s rights are so tenuous; without a group behind them to remind them that they deserve better, it would be hard to go so strongly against the grain.

I don’t know if people really read or take seriously the pamphlets that they’re handing out – maybe no one does – but I think it’s worth it even if it just makes these women feel like they’re in it together. And I’m happy to be there with them – even if my arms certainly hurt the next day!

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What Doesn’t Kill You…

One time I broke my foot and I called my mother to tell her I needed to go to the hospital. She asked me how I could possibly know that it was broken without seeing an x-ray – I replied that I had heard it happen, and so I just knew.

This is how I felt when I heard my hard drive tip over and give a little whir indicating its demise. I knew there wasn’t anything I could do to save it. I watched as my Mac went from editing video files to the colorful ‘spinning ball of death,’ as it tried to recognize the disappearance of the attached drive.

I sat in shock – everything I had filmed was on the drive. But it was gone. Everyone kept telling me that there was no way something couldn’t be recovered; but like my foot, I knew that the hard drive was broken.

This happened a few weeks ago, before the trip to Sri Lanka and Kerala. It’s only now that I’ve started filming again that I’ve felt like I could write about it.

Every single appliance we’ve owned in India (other than, inexplicably, our microwave) has broken and needed to be fixed: our washing machine, our juicer, our tv satellite, our oven, our hot water heater, our router, our toaster, our toilet (appliance?), the building’s elevator. Our porch is leaking. Walls are cracked.

This has been frustrating, for sure. There are days I want to throw the proverbial toaster out the window. There are other days where Nisha implores me not to hate India based on its inability to create working appliances.

But the hard drive was really too much. I mean, really? I had to lose the work I labored over in Dharavi? It’s safe to say I was pretty upset about it for a few days. We went and filmed a few times while technicians tried to fix the drive, but I knew they weren’t going to get anything and I felt heavy with the weight of starting over. I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t even know how to articulate my frustration at all the loss of all the footage I loved so much – even if we had only shot for a few days.

But yesterday, we finally re-did one of the interviews for the first time.

We were interviewing S, one of the three women we are following for the film. S is a 25-year-old mother of three children who is a volunteer at the domestic violence center. She became active after her in-laws abused her; she and her husband had a ‘love-marriage,’ and his parents were not too happy about it. So she had found solace in counseling and decided to volunteer for the organization that helped her get through her early years in her marriage.

The first time we had filmed her, the day was hectic. S was trying to get all of her children ready, and they were still on Diwali holiday so they had all been in her hair. When we interviewed her she was nervous about the camera and unsure of her answers. I hadn’t spent as much time with S as I had with B and R (the other two women) so she wasn’t as comfortable with me.

Yesterday though, it was like a second chance. S was excited because it was her daughter’s 10th birthday. Balloons and streamers made from lined writing paper adorned her one-room home. She seemed more comfortable because she already knew what the drill was – she understood that I would be filming her housework; she knew what the questions would be. When the interview was over my translator remarked that this interview was so much better than the first.

So there it was: my silver lining. I had been dreading doing the interviews again. After all, it’s not an easy set-up. We have to turn off the fans so the noise won’t seep into the interview – in a windowless small room, you can imagine how hot it gets. I have to stand, since no one has chairs in their crowded homes. And most importantly, I don’t know really what’s happening – I don’t want my translator to interrupt the subject’s train of thought by telling me what she’s saying, so for most of the time I stand and stare, listening to a language that I can’t understand and mostly just making sure that the audio is working and that the interviewee stays in the shot. Other than that, I’m shifting my weight in a hot room listening to jibberish trying to ignore how much I’m sweating for an hour-and-a-half interview.

But despite these discomforts, doing the interview over had only been a positive. The interview was better. The film will be better. In a weird way, that makes the loss of the hard drive okay. Once again, India has pushed my buttons and led me to a breaking point only to remind me that I’m stronger than I sometimes think I am.

But for now I think I’ll be buying a new hard drive once I get back to the US. I’m still not sold on Indian appliances.

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Kerala

In Kerala you can almost feel the world creaking to a halt and demanding that you stop along with it. Whether standing to watch waves crash against a cliff or gazing into the hazy distance of the backwaters, all you can do is just stand still and watch as the beauty of the world happens right in front you, slowly but deliberately.

The view from our hotel in Varkala

After running around Sri Lanka, arriving on the beach in Varkala was a welcome change. I’m not normally a person who likes vacationing on beaches, but Varkala was a little moment of perfection.

Fishermen with their nets in Varkala

We were staying on Odayam beach, away from the tourist-hub on the cliff and a place where fisherman outnumbered tourists.  I found myself watching them, wondering what they must think of this recent foreign infiltration of their beaches. They didn’t seem fazed – some fisherman sat carefully carving and piecing together oars, while others tied up fishing line.  The small bungalows and boutique hotels that had started to pop up around them didn’t change the work they had clearly been doing for generations.

We spent the day in the most relaxing of fashions – staring at the sea, swimming in the sea, and eating.

Incredible huge prawns

The fisherman certainly weren’t for show – at night when you stroll along Kerala’s cliff-front hub (if you walk a little bit off course you’ll find yourself in a straight long drop down into the sea), you can survey the wares at each restaurant because they keep the seafood right out front. You can make a decision based on what you see – does that marlin look fresh to you? How about this barracuda at the restaurant over here? Or how about the huge tiger prawns that look more like lobsters? You pick your food after looking at it up close and then the price haggling begins. It’s quite a way to start a dining experience before you’ve even sat down.

It was a much-needed respite from reality. Swimming in the waves and having a cup of tea looking out at the horizon it felt a little bit like we had found our own secret place in the world. I would have been sorry to go except that I was even more intrigued by Kerala’s more famous attraction: the backwaters.

View of the backwaters from the tip of our boat

Having read Arundhati Roy’s the God of Small things many years ago, I’ve always been intrigued by the depth and beauty of her descriptions of the Keralan backwaters. I had always wanted to languidly cruise through the canals and jungles I’d pictured in my mind. I worried that the proliferation of backwater tours and houseboats might ruin the experience – but I was ready to take the chance.

We boarded our very own houseboat early in the day and began slowly making our way along the backwaters. The beauty of this experience is that there is literally nothing to do but sit and gawk at the beauty of it all. As the boat cruised along we attempted to read or have conversations, but they continually got interrupted by someone saying, “Oh wait, but look at THAT”. And the ‘that’ they were usually pointing at was a far-reaching landscape.

A view of the backwaters as the sun goes down

The backwaters look like something you’d only see in a movie that has an other-worldly setting. Small plants grow up in the middle of each canal or lake, as though they are rooted only in water. We found ourselves first in an expansive lake with palm trees and bird-filled paddies in the distances and then later in smaller canals, bordered on either side by a jungle of trees growing straight from the water.

A woman doing laundry in her backwater-adjacent home

In many of these canals entire villages flourished, their pace of life dictated by the narrow strips of land they lived on and the water-buses that ferried them and their neighbors around. Like the Varkala fishermen, I wondered how odd it must be for these people living this rural, water-logged existence to see the ever-growing stream of boats with white people staring back at the beauty of their lives. But our captain seemed to think (however biased he must have been) that the growth in the industry was positive, since many of these people now were able to get higher-paying jobs in tourism.

A typical houseboat on the water

It was a bizarre experience, sleeping on a boat while mostly trying to avoid the onslaught of mosquitos that had come as night fell. But enjoying breakfast and a cup of tea in the morning light was really priceless. I could understand why the place had inspired such vivid prose from Roy.

We left the boat and headed for our last stop – Kochi, an old Portuguese colony at Kerala’s northern end. It was a sudden change from the rural waters, but it was made all the more easy after being welcomed at Sui House, a 3-room bed-and-breakfast run by a wonderful family who also specializes in selling antiques (so you can imagine how beautiful the furniture was). After an explanation of the sights to see we went exploring.

The beautiful Sui House

The main attraction, for us at least, in Kochi was the city’s 16th century Paradesi synagogue (The oldest in the ‘Commonwealth,’).

Inside the synagogue, courtesy of Creative Commons since no photos were allowed

It was a strange sight seeing a colonial-era Jewish house of worship in the middle of an Indian town, but it was beautiful. It was made funny by the fact that everyone calls the area where the synagogue is located, “Jew Town.” I guess that would explain why the owner of the hotel had no problem asking, “Are you Jew?” The population has dwindled (it’s estimated less than 20 Jews still live in Kochi) but enough people have stayed along to make sure the synagogue remains – and it was really beautiful. Kochi is the kind of city you imagine colonial India to be – still as crazy as ever, but with the architectural and culinary flourishes left over from a past era. It was a fitting way to end our trip.

As we left Kerala behind to go back to Mumbai I couldn’t help but try to spend my last moments soaking it all in, because that to me was the best of Kerala: taking the beauty from the beaches to the city and enjoying it at the pace Keralans seem to demand from its visitors. I hope I can someday make my way back to stand still and enjoy once again.

(Also – there are a few new signs added from this trip to the Amazing Signage tab at the top, if anyone was hoping for more!)

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