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Archive for February, 2011

I Think A Change Would Do You Good

I know it’s the most boring topic one can write about… but sometimes you just have to mention the weather.

When I started this blog it was just the beginning of the monsoon. The rains were a constant reminder that I was slogging along in this city – everything I did took longer because I was new and everything was more difficult because of unfamiliar impediments. It was beautiful but challenging.

For me the city was a place of rain. The view from my window was misty and gray.  And so I made my header for this blog a photo from our porch, my own personal view of Mumbai.

The longer I’ve lived here and the easier my day-to-day life has become, so too has the weather morphed from rains to heat to the sunny balmy winter. And the blog needed some changes to go along with it, starting with a more weather-appropriate photo. The header now at the top is a photo from today. Dry, sunny and beautiful (Of course, this winter solace is already starting to be replaced by rising temperatures and I’ll soon get to see the city through the prism of a prisoner of the heat wave).

A view of the old header

Additionally, I’ve updated the signage page with some particularly amusing signs from my trips to Tamil Nadu, Munnar and Rajasthan – so for a good laugh click on the page at the top (‘Amazing Signage’).

I’ve also added a visit-widget to the side of the blog. WordPress recently sent me an email about my 10,000th visitor, which is pretty mind-boggling for me to think about (and they don’t even count my own visits! ha).  So I’ve added the tally to the side, mostly as a reminder to myself about how lucky I’ve been to be able to write about something I find so interesting that hopefully a few others have enjoyed hearing about as well.

Anyway, I’ll have another real post soon but for now I wanted to explain the changes and mostly just extoll the virtues of this lovely, soon-to-be-fleeting weather.

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The roads in India are different...

Driving in India is like playing a large and very real game of chicken. The roads are full of every kind of transportation imaginable: men on foot pushing carts give way to carts being led by buffalo; small pedal bikes are skirted by whole families perched on one motorcycle; small yellow Tata Nano cars get passed by larger Innovas which honk as they go around a gargantuan colorful Goods Carrier. And when they all share a two lane highway the result is like an elaborate dance sequence, with everyone mostly knowing their part until you get to the number that’s a little too complicated and the group hasn’t practiced enough. Two dancers are bound to make a wrong step and crash into each other.

My parents had been shocked throughout their trip by the insanity of the roads. But in Aurangabad the roads were even more precarious.

One of the caves at Ellora

We were in Aurangabad to see the Ajanta and Ellora caves. They’re a full plane ride from any other place worth seeing in India and my dad had been wondering throughout the course of the trip why we were leaving Delhi in order to go see some caves. The answer is very simple: these rock-cut ‘caves’ are magnificant. They are a combination of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain structures (they would be amazing just for detailing the relgious tolerance that existed in this part of India during that period). They all are large rooms, temples, and art carved out of sheer rockface from the 2nd century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. Ajanta, the older group, is renowned for its carvings and well-preserved paintings.

One section of Kailash Temple in Ellora

But Ellora holds the masterpiece: Kailash Temple, built from approximately 600 A.D. to 900 A.D. The temple was created by vertical excavation, meaning 200,000 tons of rocks were slowly chiseled from above to build and form a temple larger than the Parthenon. There are many levels and areas but in the center stands a gargantuan and intricately carved singular temple, made from just the one piece of rock left in the middle.  It is the largest monolithic structure in the world. It would be unbelievable to create today, but to that the whole thing was carved out of a mountain from above with only a chisel and hammer is truly staggering.

One of the ancient paintings of Ajanta

Of course, to get to these staggering, incredible feats of human artistry you have to drive along some pretty small and terrible roads. It was nerve-wracking to say the least. Our driver on the first day was a man with places to go and things to see. He swerved around in his large white Innova, honking to alert everyone in his path that he was going around them. Hairpin turns or traffic jams didn’t stop him. He only slowed down for potholes and cows, deftly braking while moving around them.  On our way to Ajanta – which is a much longer trip from Aurangabad than Ellora – we were secretly quite happy at all the time we had saved.

The infamous goods carrier truck

But on the way back, as the late afternoon sun started to dip towards sunset, he clearly was in a race of his own making. At one juncture in the road we saw a huge Goods Carrier truck trying to make a three point turn. It was stuck: every little motorcycle, every small car was trying to go past it as it turned and in essence it couldn’t move.

“No one is going to let that guy go!” my dad said, as we started approaching. But there was a large gap between the cars that had just passed and our car – and there was clearly the first window for the truck to move back. But our driver decided to make a go for it.

Unfortunately, so did the other driver.

Our sad smushed car

Sitting on the drivers side of the car, I saw it coming like in slow motion. He thought he could make it. He thought he could slickly pass beyond the truck and keep going at the pace to which he was accustomed. But the truck had seen his moment and he wasn’t letting it pass. They both played chicken and they both failed.

The truck came at us with a crunch. I let out a little yelp but thankfully none of us were hurt. The driver jumped out and we rolled down our window to look at the damage. The side of the car was badly dented and it couldn’t even open.

Immediately the conversations started between the truck driver, our driver and a few other men who had materialized out of nowhere to discuss the action. The drivers traded information and then the truck driver left. But our guy kept scheming with the men on the side of the road. We sat there, watching women working in the fields and cars driving by, and it started to seem like something was up.

“Sir? What’s happening?” I asked, even thought I knew he wasn’t listening and didn’t really speak English.
“Ek minute, ek minute,” (one minute, one minute), he replied, ignoring the fact that the sun was going down and we needed to get back to the hotel.

It started to seem like we were part of a cover-up.

After a few more minutes I called my friend D and asked if she could speak with the man in Hindi and get a sense of what was happening. The cover-up became clearer – he was waiting for paint. It was kind of hilarious that he thought paint would cover the big dent in his car. We didn’t want him to lose his job (he worked for our hotel) but on the other hand we didn’t want to be standing on the side of the road in the dark.

All of us in one of the Ajanta caves

We finally convinced him to go and we piled back into the car (not using our smashed door, of course), and made our way back to civilization. It was a fitting end to our travels – my parents had seen some of India’s greatest sights, met a lot of great people, gotten a little bit of food poisoning, and now had gotten into a roadside altercation. It doesn’t beat spending a year in the place, but it certainly was a good overview!

 

We’re all back in Mumbai now and it’s going to be very difficult to watch them go, but it’s been so wonderful to have them experience India. And at the very least we all came out unscathed!

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We drove around slowly looking every building up and down for some clue to the past. Twenty years is a long time in any Indian city to hope that traces of a particular taxi stand would still exist.

You see, we were on a literary adventure of sorts. I mentioned in my last post that my dad had become particularly enamored with a book about Delhi called City of Djinns (I’m now mostly through it and I really can’t put it down). While the book mostly focuses on Delhi’s history during the Mughal Empire it is sprinkled with stories of the writer’s present day experience. Woven through the book are stories of the various people he encountered including Balvinder Singh, a lothario taxi driver who provides humor and perspective to the story (My dad’s favorite line: ‘May your mustache never turn gray!”). He quickly became my dad’s favorite character.

And so he decided that we must find Balvinder Singh.

The magnificant Humayun's Tomb

The book was published in 1993 but the author’s year in Delhi was 1989, so I thought this was a bit of a fools errand. Beyond that, the only locational clue we had was that the taxi stand was at the back of the International Center (which gave the taxi stand its unintentionally hilarious name, ‘International Backside Taxis’). We’d spent the majority of our day in Delhi going to the main tourist sights: the Red Fort, Jama Masjid and Humayan’s tomb. And each one was spectacular and breathtaking. But after every stop my dad would say, “Ok, but lets not forget we have to find International Backside.”

A view of the Red Fort

So finally, as the day wore down and we were headed back to the hotel, we decided to give it a shot. Maybe Balvinder Singh and his father Punjab Singh were still running their business with the rest of the Singh family?  My dad thought that since the book had given us so much depth to the historical sights we were seeing – allowing us to imagine the feel of each place during its time of Emperors and great architecture, war and prosperity – we should also want to give life to the details of the modern elements of the book.

As we drove around we finally spotted the International Center; it felt like a large victory until we realized that there didn’t appear to be a ‘backside’. We took a left and then another left to see if there was anything on the other side – in this particular area of Delhi the blocks stretched on and as we drove around I started to get the sense that maybe the whole area had been changed too much. Maybe one of the beautiful bungalows we were looking at had required razing the local taxi stand to the ground. We came back around the corner, deciding that we would stop into the International Center and show them the book to see if they knew anything. But as soon as we had made this new plan, my dad suddenly shouted out: “Stop, stop! There’s a taxi stand, look!”

I couldn’t believe it – down a very small gravelly alleyway, in the midst of a posh road in Delhi was a small line of old black and yellow Ambassador taxis with a group of Sikh men sitting around on stools drinking chai. We stopped the car and my dad jumped out.  He opened his book to a page detailing Balvinder Singh and held it up to one of the men, who had stood up and walked over in his curiosity. Our driver (who probably thought we were crazy) got out to translate. They talked animatedly until the man nodded his head and walked away.

Showing the book

He came back with another older man, who spoke a bit of English. He wore a bright orange turban and was missing most of his front teeth.

“You are looking for a Singh?” he asked. My dad explained about the book and that Balvinder and his father Punjab were characters. The man squinted and looked at the pages of the book, as though some person was going to spring to life right out of its type. He laughed.

“Very interesting this book!,” he replied, indicating that he was well aware of the Singh family. And he had an update on everyone.

Dad and his many new friends

“Punjab is died three months ago. Very sad. Balvinder moving to Canada about ten years ago. The other Singh brothers is now driving taxis in South Delhi. But they used to be working right here.”

I was astonished. We may not have been able to meet the Singhs, but we were able to extricate them from the page – we saw with our own eyes the taxi stand described so frequently in our newly beloved book and we had a twenty-year-later update on a family that until moments ago remained vaguely fictional.

My dad and the man continued to try and chat – talking about chai, their ages and Ambassador cars. Eventually we said thank you, shook every single cab driver’s hand, and got back in the car.

I don’t know why it was so thrilling – perhaps being able to bring to life a person from a book that had so effectively brought old Delhi to life made everything we had read seem so much more tangible. If Balvinder Singh could be real, couldn’t I better picture Shah Jehan listening to an audience of subjects in the Red Fort? Or perhaps even trapped in the Agra Fort by his bloodthirsty son Aurangzeb?  Could I suspend my imagination and see Chandni Chowk with elephants strolling down its length and shopkeepers selling their wares at a time when the buildings looked new and fresh?

It was just a small slice of Delhi – and yet for us, the city seemed a little bit more knowable.

 

(Addendum: A lot of people have written and asked how my mom is feeling after her sojourn with Delhi belly: She is completely fine now! Back to her old self and enjoying the rest of the trip)

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In India you always have to take the good with the bad. It’s part of the experience. So I suppose it’s only fitting for my parents that one day after seeing the Taj Mahal they’ve come down with a case of Delhi belly.
 

The 'Great Gate' at sunrise

We woke up yesterday at 5:30am to get ready to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. It’s a strange feeling anticipating seeing a monument that you can picture so well without ever having laid eyes on it. There’s only a few places in the world like that: the Eiffel Tower. The pyramids of Egypt. The Chrysler Building. And of course the Taj Mahal. Part of the joy of India is that you usually don’t even have a concept of what to expect. But this is an entirely different scenario.

 
We arrived at the ticket counter and hurriedly purchased tickets before taking a trolley-like vehicle up to the South Gate (regular cars aren’t allowed within a certain radius of the Taj because of the pollution). We waited in separate security lines for men and women and my mom and I huddled together to try and minimize the chill from the pre-dawn air. As we stood in line waiting to be searched and prodded I watched as the sun slowly began to rise. I kept expecting to see a glimpse of the Taj every time I stepped forward but it was hiding from the gazes of all the tourists waiting in line.
 

The Taj in the morning fog

When we finally got through the gate we had to go through a magnificent sandstone arch and then… there it was. It wasn’t yet its magnificent white color due to the hazy morning light. It was almost gloomy, towering over us as the sun began to peek out in the distance. And it was beautiful. It seemed almost like a postcard or a mirage – it was so new and yet so incredibly familiar. We took the many requisite photos as we walked closer and closer and as the rising sun made the marble gleam whiter and whiter.

 

All of us in front of the Taj Mahal

Close-up of calligraphy and inlaid stones

When we finally reached the steps the sun was high and we made our way up close. From every angle it was beautiful – immaculate marble everywhere you turned, Arabic carved in delicate black calligraphy four inches deep into the stone, semi-precious stones were inlaid into the marble that fanned out into flowers and vines. We looked from the front, from inside, from the back, from inside the neighboring ‘guest-house’. I just couldn’t stop looking at it. Maybe it was the actual beauty or maybe it was seeing the legend up close, but I certainly was not longer tired from my early wake-up.

Me and the Taj

One common sight driving in India

We let the memory sink in as we drove the long drive to Delhi. The highways of rural Uttar Pradesh are a stream of different Indias. Farmlands of wheat give way to dusty smoggy towns. Huge goods carriers swerve around camels pulling carts loaded with goods. I haven’t minded the drives because there’s always something to look at.

 
But after settling in to Delhi, eating dinner at our hotel, and going to bed I woke up with some bad news – my mom was sick. She hadn’t eaten anything questionable (no roadside food, no salads, no water from a tap) but she had a case of the notorious Delhi belly. One day after India gave her the gift of marveling at its beautiful architecture it had struck her down with its just as renowned stomach problems. My Dad wasn’t feeling great but he was excited to sightsee, so we let my mom sleep and we decided to venture out into Old Delhi
 
My dad has been reading a book called City of Djinns (thank you to Daniel’s parents for giving it!) which is William Dalrymple’s memoir of his year living in and exploring the history of Delhi while trying to find the  remnants of the Moghul and British culture and architecture. My dad really wanted to find some of the places mentioned in the book (not normally on the tourist trail) and we set out to see if we too could spot the old architecture and charm amidst the chaos of the old city.
 

A ride down the street

We haggled a price with a bicycle rickshaw driver and made our way up Chandni Chowk and then turned down a narrow road. It was like stepping back in time- on this road bicycle rickshaws, men pushing large hand-carts, vegetable-wallahs, cows, people carrying goods on horses and pedestrians made their way slowly along the road, past crumbling old shops with dirty retro signs. Monkeys climbed along the balconies. The electricity and telephone wires were a jumbled mess above and even motorcycles were few and far between. It was odd to watch the street-life pass by as we sat in our rickshaw, slowly meandering through the very dense traffic. And it was so different to the India I know in Mumbai.

 

A monkey making his way in Old Delhi

When we came to the end of the road we found what we’d been looking for: Turkman Gate, one of the old major gates to the city walls. It was like crashing out of an old city into a new one- once you stepped past the gate the narrow ancient lane morphed into a modern highway. Next to the gate was the Delhi Stock Exchange. You couldn’t come out of time travel faster if you tried. It was a shock.
 

Where we bought some extra medicine...

But the more difficult shock was that my dad had slowly started to feel bad as well. We headed back to the hotel, disappointed that Delhi belly had claimed another victim.

 
They’re resting now and my fingers are crossed that their illness is the food poisoning it appears to be – usually these things don’t last more than 24 hours. It would be a shame to miss seeing the highlights of Delhi, even is some would argue that the illness might also be an ‘Indian highlight’. We’ll see tomorrow!

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Dad with a turban

“Hey Al, what do you think of this?”

I looked up from the enormous pile of intricately designed camel leather shoes. My dad was sporting a large colorful turban and laughing to himself.

“Are you really buying that?” I said.

“Oh, I already did. The guy was wearing it so I know it’s really great. It makes me look like the Maharishi.”

“You mean Maharaja.”

“Yes!”

Traveling in India with parents is one part hilarious adventure and one part I-am-an-adult-so-I-must-not-get-frustrated-or-embarrassed-by-my-relations.

They arrived on a Thursday night after I had stood nervously at the outdoor arrivals area waiting for them. I knew I couldn’t miss them in the sea of Indian faces – especially my mom’s shock of blond hair. I waited and waited, nervous that they would get lost or go the wrong way. Daniel kept laughing at me and reminding me that they had survived their entire lives; they could make their way out of an airport. But this was India and this was foreign to them and I wanted more than anything for them to love it here as much as I do.

When I saw them I ran out, excitedly. They were fine – and as ready to embrace India as I was.

All of us at VT in Mumbai

Their first days in Mumbai I tried to warn them about everything- don’t brush your teeth with tap water; don’t eat that tomato until it’s been cooked; no ice; wash your hands; look the other way when you’re crossing. Every time they would just remind me that they were only eating things I gave them and that they were following me, so I shouldn’t worry.

The funniest thing is that once again their biggest problem was with me: while buying my mom a kurta in Bandra’s winding stalls on Linking Road my dad stopped me mid-haggle.

“You’re arguing over $2! You’re being rude to a grown man!”

“It’s not being rude- it’s just how business is done here! He offers me a price, I counter with something much, much lower, then we argue, we both say we’re insulted, I begin to walk away, he offers me a new price, I counter. Trust me, Indians haggle much more than I’m haggling now.”

But everywhere we went it disturbed them that their little girl was always wary, always ready to argue over a price or a bill. I’m so used to it now that I don’t even notice. But they certainly did.

Mumbai's dhobi ghat

They were, however, much happier with Mumbai than they were with my haggling.  They loved the gothic architecture of South Mumbai. They were amused by the plethora of Indian tourists wanting pictures with them at the Gateway of India – villagers who wanted to show they’d seen a real-live white person. They marveled at the fishermen as they cut off fish heads and re-tied their bright blue nets. They listened intently as our guide explained the dobi ghats, the vast outdoor laundry business.  My mom chatted up our tour guide at every stop trying to understand each complexity of this new place she was in.

All my fears about India overwhelming them were unfounded. They took in every sight, asked every question and continuously seemed amazed by the beauty amidst the chaos. I was really proud that they were enjoying ‘my’ city so much.

Mehrangarh fort

But the trip must continue and so off we went to Rajasthan – the capital of tourist India but the place that inspires so many dreams of Maharaja’s forts and palaces towering over cities and colorful saris against a desert backdrop.

We started in Jodhpur and the Mehrangarh fort there took my breath away – I’ve purposely stayed away from every place I was visiting with my parents so I could be as surprised as they were. And this truly was stunning- 400 feet up a steep hill and very well preserved. It was built in the 16th century and when you walked up the ramparts into the fortressed walls, you felt like you were stepping into another time.  We wandered around, listening to a particularly engrossing audio guide, and enjoyed the scene. I also enjoyed watching as my dad sat down to ‘learn’ sitar with a musician, decided to take pictures in a funny maharaja photo booth and put on the aforementioned turban.  For all my attempts to be a non-tourist, it was hard to resist watching.

A view of Jodhpur, the 'blue city', from above

 

Mom with one of the cows she loves so much

Dad's new best friend selling him a painting while on an elephant

The hijinks continued as we made our way to Jaipur. We stood in line for an elephant ride up to the Amber Fort and I was finally vindicated – after warning everyone, once again, that being polite would only make all the sellers think you were willing to buy something, my dad politely declined a painting a man was trying to sell him.  For the next 20 minutes the man whispered in his ears, tapped on his shoulders,  lowered his price and generally berated my dad. When he asked for help I just reminded him that my brand of helping would be construed by him as ‘rude’. When the guy followed him up the ramparts even as they were on the elephant I couldn’t stop laughing – the polite tourists finally gave way to realistic understanding of the new culture (although, just to make it stop, my dad did buy the painting).

It’s wonderful seeing India through fresh eyes and it’s really a treat to see the majesty that Rajasthan has to offer. Tonight we drive to Agra and tomorrow morning at sunrise we’ll be greeted by India’s greatest treasure- the Taj Mahal.

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About seven months ago I agreed to direct a short film about domestic violence prevention in Dharavi. From the moment the project was conceived and I agreed to take it on, I’ve been very nervous about how I could represent a place where I couldn’t even properly communicate to people. How would I possibly be able to tell their story in an accurate way?

Because of my desire to keep the film as honest as possible, I spent a few months going to Dharavi and shadowing the women I’d be filming. I got to know them through the translations and I decided that I would center the film on the lives of three of the women who worked for the organization, and tell the story through their stories.

It’s been a really long process- everything in India takes time, but working with NGO’s is an extra layer on everything. People are late, meetings get cancelled, filming gets moved, equipment isn’t procured in time and on and on and on. It shouldn’t take seven months to make a twenty-minute film. But that’s how long it did take – months of studying and researching, deciding, making decisions, hard drives breaking, making phone calls and filming over and over again in really difficult conditions without a lot of help.

But I loved it. I loved everything about working with these women. I loved their defiance of the only system they know. I love how they don’t even realize how amazing that seems to an outsider. I love the colors they wear and their children and the hot cups of chai they’re always shoving down my throat despite never having enough for themselves. I might even love (just a little bit) their penchant for always being late and changing plans and standing me up, since that’s a slice of India.

So as I wrote out the script and edited the pieces together I started to become very nervous again. Every word of narration was scrutinized: Does this fit their voice? Does it sound like the narrator is coming from a place above these women? Does it take too many liberties? Even though the narration only counted for less than two minutes out of twenty, I was so concerned with the tone. And I spent just as much time cutting together the words the women had spoken. Did they really want to share this much? Is it exploitative to show this much about the violence that they have faced? Am I including everything that would be important to them?

I wanted it to feel accurate. I wanted the women to watch their film and feel like it came from them. Because that’s what their organization is all about: they are focused on their community, on raising each other up and from building a new set of norms from within. They don’t have trained social workers parading into Dharavi telling them what values they should have. The women from Dharavi try to coax each other into fighting for the rights they deserve.

And I didn’t want to be that outsider parading in.

Yesterday we had a small screening of the rough cut of the film. It’s not done – I still need to add in the real music and do color and audio correction. But I wanted to show it to the woman, N, who runs the domestic violence center in order to get her feedback before finalizing it. After all, if she didn’t like it I would need to make some serious changes. I’d already shown it to B, the woman who runs the organization sponsoring the film, so B invited us over to her place to watch it again and get N’s feedback.

When everyone had sat down I, of course, started babbling like an idiot.

“Just keep in mind that this is a rough cut…”
“Oh and the music is being replaced with other music that’s being written…”
“We still need to do color correction…”
“We can change or add anything…”

Finally I looked over and saw B shaking her head at me, laughing a little. She knew I was nervous. I knew I had to start. So I pushed play.

Throughout the whole movie I kept trying to look at N out of the corner of my eye. Was she smiling? Was she engaged? Was she about to check her watch out of boredom? After twenty very long-seeming minutes, the film ended.

I turned and looked at N, just waiting to hear what words would come out of her mouth. I couldn’t breathe, I just wanted to know what she thought.

“I really loved it. It was honest. It felt like the story came straight from them.”

I exhaled. Those were the magic words.

It really isn’t finished yet – I have all those polishes and tweaks to make. And I know when I’m sitting through the larger screening with all the women from Dharavi I’m still going to be just as nervous. But for the moment I feel like it’s a little bit of mission accomplished – all I wanted was for it to feel genuine and I’m really glad that’s what came across. Hopefully I’ll be able to share it here when it’s done.

Now I get to transfer my nervous and excited energy into something else: my parents’ arrival in India. I’m sitting here writing while they are in the air. I’m counting down the minutes (a lot more than twenty!). So next time I post you’ll get tales of parents and a trip to Rajasthan (where I will finally see the crown jewel of this country I’ve spent so much time in, the Taj Mahal). A lot of excitement for one week. Until next time…

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Dhīrē, Dhīrē

When I was at university I had two friends who were doing degrees in languages. They would always get stressed out when they had something due for a translation class. I never really understood what the big deal was. After all, if you speak two languages, shouldn’t translating be pretty easy?

I now would like to apologize for ever having such a thought. Because it is hard. Translating and finding the right words – without being overly literal and while capturing the essence of what someone is trying to say – is really hard. It’s even harder when you can’t do it yourself.

I have spent the last week finally starting the edit for my film about the women I’ve met and followed in Dharavi. It was already going to be a challenge for me – I only have access to a computer with Final Cut and I really am most comfortable on an Avid (I know this means nothing to those of you who who don’t edit, but I explained to it Daniel as such: imagine using excel, or some other program, on a PC for years. Then imagine getting a Mac and having to learn all new keystrokes and shortcuts. You know how the program is supposed to work, but you can’t make it work. VERY frustrating). But this challenge paled in comparison to the translating.

The words had already been ‘translated’. I had written a script based on this translation. I’d had all the interviews transcribed fully in Hindi and then translated so that I could write this script. But even while writing the script and putting it together I was keenly aware that this ‘translation’ was a guideline at best. If you read it out loud it sounded like a person whose grasp of English wasn’t very good. It was often overly specific, which meant the translator was probably being too literal. But alternately it was frequently vague, as though the meaning had been lost. I just couldn’t sure how bad the translation was until I got a Hindi speaker to listen and compare.

I also had a second challenge facing me: my translator had quit. It’s not an interesting story (well, it kind of is… but its not really my business to write about it!) – she quit because she was unhappy with her job in general and another opportunity came up (Ie: it had nothing to do with me or this project!), but it was definitely a blow. She had been there every step of the way. She had conducted the interviews. She would know what the intentions of the subjects were because she had sat there in person and listened as they spoke.  But she wasn’t coming back.

So instead, the organization sponsoring the film had another person, K, come to help me.  I had spent a lot of time with K initially because in her role she actually does a lot of work with the domestic violence prevention center that the film is about. So at least she’s very familiar with the subject and all the people we are following. I figured it would be alright.

But right from the beginning it was clear that this was not going to be an easy ride. I’ll give you some examples:

Translation: “And then I got an explanation that will you work over here”
Actual translation: “And then I was offered a job”

Translation: “It was there in some place on my inside to do work in social sector but I did not know how to do.”
Actual translation: “It was always in me to do social work, but I didn’t know how to go about it.”

Translation: “Sometimes when we talk in groups if we say even one word then that can break the group.”
Actual translation: ” When we speak with the different community groups, if we say something that can be construed as offensive, that can cause people to leave the group.”

You get the picture. So every single sentence had to be re-thought and re-worked. We had to really consider what it was that the person was trying to say. A word’s literal meaning might not translate properly to English. So for each sentence – or even half of a sentence – we had to sit, think about it, debate over every word and then write it in and put the subtitle on the video. For a film that is 20 minutes long every 5 second chunk took two to five minutes of discussion, deliberation and editing.

We sat like this for two full days. K would always ask me, “What do you think she meant?” and I would have to laughingly remind her that I don’t speak Hindi and couldn’t give insight into the meaning. I could only help through suggesting words once she had already told me what the gist of the sentence was. At times it was incredibly frustrating: how can we put that sentiment into one sentence? How can this translate properly?

My favorite Hindi phrase is “dhīrē, dhīrē” (roll your r’s when making the sound) which literally means “slowly, slowly.” I use it a lot in rickshaws when I’m near the place I’m going but not quite sure exactly where it is. But it also has a certain calming effect- maybe I just like the way the words sound. For me, it gives the phrase a double meaning. Everything in India happens slowly, slowly. You have to say it twice to emphasize that its not merely slow, it just might take a little bit of time to get it right. So, dhīrē, dhīrē, we got it done. We slogged our way through but in the end, we had the makings of a movie.

Slowly but surely might be the proper translation.

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