Archive for March, 2011

See You In the Final

On Wednesday it was one nation, under cricket.

The government declared a bank holiday and most businesses shut for the afternoon. The streets were empty except for the unlucky few. People crowded around televisions in their homes, in bars, outside of shops and anywhere they could be found. India was playing Pakistan and nothing could have been more important.

We went to a large party for the beginning of the game. Daniel rushed me over in hopes of not missing any part of the first half – India was batting first and he wanted to watch everything. I was not quite as keen to watch the game in its entirety. After all, these matches tended to go on for at least eight hours and even with the added excitement I wasn’t sure my attention span would last that long, especially on a game where the entire first half is one team batting without any knowledge of how that score will compare to the other teams’ in the second half.

I mostly listened with amusement as the commentators tried to fill the immense amount of time:

“Ah, he has a lot of energy. He must have eaten a lot of yogurt for breakfast.”

“The only way Pakistan can get out of jail is wickets.”

“I’ve gotten the feeling that Tendulkar is slowly losing interest.”

It went on and on. After four hours India finished their half with 260 runs. It was not as strong a showing as the people around us would have liked. They could win, but it would be close.

For the first two hours of the second half everyone watched lazily with one eye and chatted as Pakistan batted. There wasn’t much to do but wait and see how the numbers slowly ticked up. But once the more interesting count came up (ie: how many runs Pakistan would need versus the number of balls they had left to potentially hit) it started to get exciting. It seemed like India’s bowling and defense might have done well enough to keep India’s hopes alive.

As the time ticked on everyone started watching more and more intently. With only a few balls left it seemed inevitable – but no one was willing to say a word until the last out came and cheers could be heard from the street below. Fireworks exploded and the city came alive. As I was driving home I tried to capture some of the excitement:

It’s only one game to go and India could have the World Cup in their hands for the first time in almost thirty years. Time to get ready for Saturday

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Wicket Good

One of the ubiquitous Nike Cricket ads

I’m not really a sports fan, and Cricket has always struck me as a slightly longer and infinitely more complicated game of baseball. Daniel had started watching it soon after we moved here – he felt that he just couldn’t relate to anyone in his office unless he started understanding their game. And instead of just understanding it he took to it, like a cricket ball to the wicket (see what I did there? I made a very bad cricket joke).

People watching the cricket at the airport

But soon, it began taking over even places where I frequented. It started with advertising: Bleed Blue from Nike; Change the Game from Pepsi; End Corruption in Cricket. Then it came with fans watching matches on outdoor screens and children feverishly playing with more frequency in every available open space. Yes, no matter how long and hard I tried, like the Superbowl before it, I could not avoid Cricket World Cup fever from being everywhere around me.

Learning cricket

I started to warm to cricket in Varansi when we came across a group of kids playing who thought it would be amusing if we joined their game. They giggled as we held the bat wrong and took wild swings. But they were enthralled – they all hooped and hollared with every hit and took immense joy in teaching us. I began to feel that if I could enjoy playing, then I could enjoy watching.

So while in Khajuraho, Daniel decided it was high time for me to actually learn the rules. As the Aussies battled the Pakistanis he slowly and patiently went over the way the game is played. It really is unlike any sport I’ve watched, much further from baseball than it looks. I won’t go into the details, but its a game not only of agility and skill, but of mental planning and psychological consistency. It’s boring for the first four hours, but then really exciting for the last two.

When India played its Quarterfinal match against Australia this week, I knew it was time for me to pay attention. The entire country was going to be involved and I wanted to be as well. India hasn’t won the World Cup since 1983 and this year its being played in India – everyone feels it is their time to win.  And this match was slated to be an exciting battle between India and another cricket powerhouse, Australia.

A shot of the big screen

After idly watching the first four hours of the game at home (yes, it’s really that boring in the beggining), we went out to a restaurant with a huge projector and watched as India began to sink. With about an hour left it seemed like India’s hopes were about to be dashed. Everyone in the restaurant became antsy and the guards outside, watching the reflection of the game through the window, started to look sullen.

But suddenly, they went on a roll. They started hitting 4’s and 6’s (yes, I’m using cricket terminology) and suddenly they were back in the game. As the last overs started coming into view it became apparent that India was going to win.  And when they did the whole restaurant and street outside erupted in jubilant cheers. India was moving forward.

The catch to all this is that on Wednesday India will go to the semifinals – and play against their arch-nemesis Pakistan. The city will be excited and on edge. Fears of rioting and violence certainly hang in the air simultaneously with the excitement of an epic battle to the death of two of the World’s fiercest enemies (and, as with most enemies, two very similar peoples). There is a bit of diplomatic hope that rings in all of this – The Pakistani Prime Minister has accepted an invitation from India’s Prime Minister to watch the game together. It will be the first time a match between the two teams has occurred since the attacks on Mumbai in 2008.  It’s definitely an exciting moment to be here. And as a new-found fan, I will be watching.

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Hide and Seek

There are today more tigers living in captivity than in the wild. It is common and easy to go to a zoo and gaze at one of the world’s most beguiling creatures. But the wild is a whole other game.

Not only are there few places to actually spot one of the planet’s 2,500 – 3,500 remaining wild tigers (including the 1,400 that live in India), a tiger is also a master of camouflage. So if you do go to tiger country you are often disappointed.

Sunset at Bandavgarh national park

It is with all this in mind that I became mildly obsessed with spotting a tiger in the wild. Having grown up in a room painted by my mother where a tiger peeked out at me from the bushes, I knew I could not live in India and never try to play hide and seek with its most famous animal.

Everyone I asked told me that despite the many national parks here that hold (or claim to hold) tigers, there was only one place to go: Bandavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh. The saying goes: at other parks you are lucky to see a tiger; at Bandavgarh you are unlucky if you don’t. It boasts the world’s densest population of tigers and that sounded to me like as good a shot at seeing a tiger that I would get.

A baby spotted deer in Bandavgarh

So we drove the long distance to Bandavgarh (it is truly in the middle of nowhere; as far from a major city as it could possibly be) and staked out a place at the Treehouse Hideaway, an incredible hotel that places each room up in a separate tree. We were inhabiting nature and ready to see tigers.

On our first safari – which began bright and early at 6am – we were filled with excitement and anticipation. Our hotel’s quiet but very knowledgeable naturalist, Banu, assured us we had a very good chance to see tigers over the next few days, but insisted we keep patience. I had a million questions – did the tigers ever do this or that? Did they go to this or that place? Do they come out at this or that time? Banu calmly answered almost every question with, “Sometimes,” as if trying to underscore the unpredictability of these gargantuan cats. He explained that we would know if a tiger were around by the alarm calls of the forest’s ubiquitous spotted deer and monkeys.

Adult male spotted deer and monkey in Bandavgarh

We drove along in our jeep, slowing down at watering holes and other known spots where the tigers lived. I sat with my eyes peeled at every moment despite Banu’s insistence that he would know when a tiger was near. I wasn’t taking a chance – I stared into the brush and scanned every inch I could, hoping I’d perhaps see a flash of orange. But it was to no avail. We didn’t even hear an alarm call. We came back after four and a half hours of searching feeling a little less sure of the tigers’ presence.

But by our second safari, later that afternoon, we were once again excited. Banu tried to explain to us that even though the safaris start at 3pm, we wouldn’t see a tiger until at least 4:45pm. None had been spotted sleeping in the open (and in this heat they rarely do anyway) so we’d only get lucky once they woke up later and perhaps started moving around looking for water. I still kept my eyes active looking at every potential spot below a tree or amidst the brush where a tiger could be napping.

Tiger scratches on a tree

We marveled at tiger scratches up on trees that reached twice as high as any human hand could. We passed the time by enjoying the forest’s other magnificent animals – bright birds, playful monkeys and even a rare jungle cat. But as we continued to drive in we saw a few other jeeps parked at a clearing. We all stood up, hoping this would be our glimpse of a tiger. But a forest ranger informed us that we couldn’t see them – a mother and her cubs (and by ‘cubs’ I mean two year old tigers as large as their mothers) were sleeping around the river bend. Tourists are (understandably) not allowed to ever get out of their jeep at Bandavgarh, so we would have to wait and hope they would come out. It was only 4:15pm.

Looking for tigers that never came

All the waiting jeeps

We waited as more and more jeeps stopped and waited with us – there are no radios in Bandavgarh so if one jeep sees a tiger its only luck of the drive as to whether others see it. But usually once one car is stopped a whole gaggle will stop as well. And by 4:45 about a dozen cars were waiting – we felt lucky we had arrived early and had a prime spot. But it wasn’t meant to be, once again. The tigers did not emerge and we had to get out of the park by 6:15 – a time that greatly frustrated Banu because he believed the tigers would emerge around sundown. We were a full day in and had seen no tigers.

A beautiful flying Indian Roller

On our second morning we groggily met our tranquil leader Banu who, though still subdued, seemed more excited than usual.

A fresh tiger pawprint

Tiger tracks had been spotted earlier that morning in the Zone we were assigned to (each jeep is randomly assigned a route to take so that the cars are distributed evenly). Banu informed us that the tracks were from earlier in the morning and would help us know exactly where the tigers were. We drove in and quickly spotted the tracks – we drove along the tracks to the spot where they led into the forest. We heard alarm calls – this seemed to be the moment. We waited, but nothing stirred. As the day wore on we moved around, tracking more alarm calls, but it appeared we were waiting in vain – the forest hid the tigers and they were not coming out.

A peacock in Bandavgarh

By that afternoon, for our fourth safari I had begun to feel nervous. We only could do one more safari after this one and it was starting to seem like after hours upon hours in a jeep we were not going to find any of the tigers. It felt like a mirage – were these tigers even here? My optimism was clouded. We started driving and once again, Banu said there wasn’t a chance until later – and that we should keep our hopes tempered because our Zone held very shy tigers who did not come out regularly. So we slowly drove around, Banu searching half-heartedly, as we killed time. We saw new species – Sambar deer and a jackal – and I was beginning to accept that maybe this wasn’t my time to see a tiger in the wild.

Tiger sitting up

But as the sun set and we started to drive back towards a watering hole, we saw a crowd of jeeps in the distance – Banu stepped on the gas and we stood up in anticipation. We parked as everyone took pictures, but I couldn’t see it. I suddenly realized that all my scanning had been absurd. A tiger was sitting at the watering hole, but it took quite a bit of energy to see him even in the open – his orange striped coat was an impeccable camouflage. I couldn’t have seen him quickly driving past. But there he was now – a two-year-old male cub, enjoying the late-afternoon sun and undisturbed by all the faces watching him. He was as magnificent as I had imagined and seeing him after all that time searching truly put into perspective the amount of territory tigers cover and their unpredictable wildness. As he stood up to walk away it was incredible just to see him move.

Tiger standing up

We thought that was it, but a few moments later we heard more alarm calls and sure enough, a different tiger came up to perch.

Tiger lying down

This one was from the same batch of cubs, but a female. Banu mentioned how lucky we were – in a few months, when these cubs at two-and-a-half, they will fight over territory and then most will leave the area to begin their adult lives. We were catching them in their last season. We sat and watched as she lay down, yawned and relished in the day. When she got up to move on I felt incredibly lucky that we’d had such a clear and varied sighting. Many people are lucky just to see a tiger through the trees, when they see them at all. Here we’d had two fully open tigers moving around and standing in plain view.

It was the perfect ending to our safaris – we’d played hide and go seek but the tigers had always remained in control. We’d only found them when they let themselves be found, a testament to their control over the land they have inhabited for innumerable generations before jeeps started searching for them. We’d come to Bandavgarh and avoided being among the unlucky.

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Our crew with our jeep

“We need to be taking this smaller car because it has more swang swang,” Dharmin said after rolling up in an open-air jeep instead of an enclosed van.

I didn’t really know what swang swang was (swing swing?) but I was certainly excited about the possibility of celebrating from the back of a jeep. We’d met Dharmin the day before when his taxi picked us up at the airport. When we told him we wanted to find a place to celebrate Holi with the locals the next day, he came prepared.

Happy and Holi-fied

Holi is a holiday that reminds me a bit of Halloween in that it has its roots in many religious and spiritual elements, but it has morphed into a day primarily to have fun and be a bit silly. It is alternately described as an agricultural festival to celebrate the arrival of spring and a commemoration of various events in Hindu mythology. Mostly though, it’s a day to celebrate life by throwing color on one other.

It sounds a bit crazy but it truly is primarily an excuse for people of all ages, castes and creeds to throw neon-bright powder or water onto their brethrens. And we were determined to celebrate even though we were outside the familiar confines of Bombay. We’d played a little bit early with some children in Varanasi. Now after spending a day in Khajuraho looking at temples we were ready to truly play Holi.

After our first round of Holi in Varanasi

Dharmin assured us he would bring us along while the local people played – after all, in a town of only 11,000 people he was a guide who knew any and everyone and could find us the right spot. We drove through small stone villages, divided up by caste, with water pumps determining the town center and houses painted bright colors. It was a distinct change from our usual lives in Mumbai and certainly from the crowded dirty streets of Varanasi. We started mostly by squirting colorful water from our jeep at people and exclaiming ‘Holi hey!’ as they smiled and waved back, but then some children finally caught up to us.

The Holi madness

In a flurry of water and color we exchanged multihued fire, patting powder on children’s faces as they squirted us with makeshift water guns fashioned from plastic bottles with holes cut into the tops. More children ran towards the action. They tried to involve puppies and baby goats as water buffalo slowly sauntered past the revelry. They’d trick us by asking for a little bit of our color and then laugh as they smashed it back onto our clothes and faces. I certainly got enough in my eyes and mouth to need a few moments of wiping.

Children coloring me as a water buffalo walks by

But the joy was palpable. The children’s laughter rang out at the hilarity of being allowed to not only throw something onto an adult, but being able to joke and play with some of their town’s ubiquitous gora tourists. You couldn’t help but laugh and laugh at the absurdity of seeing everyone colored head to toe with abandon.

A splash of color

As we drove back to our hotel, jeep swang swanging around the corners and with every crack and crevice now dyed a variety of colorful tints, we all felt exhilarated.We thanked Dharmin and his various friends who had joined us for allowing us to be a part of their Holi. Even after showering off, with bits of dye still clinging to our inner ears and elbows, it was hard not to giggle at the memory of our faces covered with colors of every shade.

Our Holi crew at the end of the day

There’s no holiday greater than those that extract pure delight from us all. Happy Holi. I hope to play again soon.

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There’s certainly nothing that makes you consider your own mortality more than viewing the body of a person who has died. But watching the continuous and never-ending Hindu process of dipping bodies into the sacred water of the Ganges and then burning them in order to further their soul in the rebirth cycle makes you reconsider your entire thought process surrounding mortality.

The Ganges at sunset

Being in Varanasi is like getting a crash course in one incredibly important cultural difference. There is no ritual more essential to human life than the way we bury our dead. And in the West we see death and burial and the afterlife in a wholeheartedly different way than people in the East do. One of the friends that I’m traveling with pointed out that its one of the biggest differentiators between East and West – we see life in a linear fashion. We are born, we live, we die, and we go to the afterlife, whatever that may be in our belief system. Time is moving forward. Hindus (and other Asian religions) believe in a cycle of rebirth in a more fluid version of time. This life is just one step in our long and winding journey to an eventual nirvana. And as such the burial process is incredibly different.

The crowded streets of Varanasi

Varanasi is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the World and it is the most auspicious and holy site for Hindus to purify themselves and, more significantly, to die. It is India at its most chaotic – its is crowded, dusty and filled with animals, shops, sellers, street children and pilgrims bathing in the holy (but undeniably filthy) water of the Ganges. It is at once overwhelming and awe-inspiring. You can stare at the sun rising over the water and feel intense calm and then moments later walk through a dense, dirty crowd packed in like sardines and feel as though the world is crashing in on you.

A man bathing on the Ganges at sunrise

We spent a lot of our time walking through the crowds and watching the bathers and pilgrims on the banks of the Ganges. But nothing hits you harder than witnessing the city’s famed burning ghats.

Every day hundreds of people from across India bring their dead, as quickly as possible, to the holiest place where their soul can re-enter the life cycle. While all Hindus are cremated, to be cremated in Varanasi after a final soak in the Ganges is the most preferable way to allow your soul to move on.

Our boat with the burning ghat in the background (as close as you can appropriately take a photo..)

We took a boat along the river in order to witness this holiest of rituals. In the main burning ghat family members wait as workers from an untouchable caste shroud and carry their deceased loved ones on a wooden platform down to the river. The bodies are then dipped in the river, covered in colorful cloth and adornments. After an hour to dry, the bodies are then placed in a pile of wood. The burning is an art – too much or too little wood can cause a body to burn improperly. Wealthy families can spend a small fortune purchasing the more expensive sandalwood and poor families can purchase a portion of the huge stacks cheaper wood. After being surrounded by wood the body is then burned over the course of two or three hours.

The scene is not overtly depressing – as a general rule only men come to watch the ritual because there is a fear that women would cry, thus disturbing the soul as it moves on. So men stand stoically for hours, watching as their wives or parents or friends are moved on to their next life. The eyes of tourists from the water or from buildings above do not seem to be intrusive – on the contrary, while tourists are not allowed to take photos (understandably) the waiting families often amuse themselves by taking photos of the watching white visitors. A dozen piles burn at once, each representing the entirety of one human’s life – but a life that their family believes will continue on into another.

As we slowly rode in our boat away from the burning ghat it was hard not to widen our view of humanity and the rituals that make each segment of humanity unique. To be so open with such an intimate portrait of a people is a unique experience for a visitor. It raises large questions and sears images into ones mind. It is like Varanasi itself – overwhelming and peaceful all together at once.

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White Out

“I don’t mean to be rude… but they let a white woman come in and film people’s personal lives in Dharavi?”

I sat back in my chair and watched as the editor scrolled through my footage in disbelief. It’s something I’ve gotten used to – after all, I am the unlikeliest narrator for this particular story.  A few months ago my only exposure to Dharavi was watching it in Slumdog Millionaire.

I was doing the final edit with a professional editor – color correction, audio tuning and all the other technical niceties. And as he worked he was full of questions:

“What do you wear when you go to Dharavi? You don’t dress Western do you?”
“How do you not get stared at?”
“Don’t they not want to talk about personal issues in front of you.”
“They let you into their homes?”

I couldn’t tell whether he was fascinated more by my being there or by Dharavi itself. One of the most interesting aspects of Mumbai is how divided the city is even when everyone is living on top of each other. A professional person, like an editor, who has spent their entire life in Mumbai, may have never actually been inside one of the city’s ubiquitous slums. For him that part of his country existed solely in the films he edited and in the movies he watched.

And for me, it’s a wholly different story. Being white is not a part of the narrative I can leave out – from the moment I walked into the hospital in Dharavi and had skeptical faces look me up to this final moment where an editor seems entirely confused by my ability to function in a slum as a white person. It’s so taboo to discuss race and yet it has such a profound effect on my daily existence here. Everything from shopping to walking down the street to performing any professional role takes a new shape as a result of my being a distinctly different looking minority in a country where most everyone is racially similar.

As I’ve grown more and more comfortable here – and as such less aware of the ‘Indianness’ of my surroundings – its become more and more apparent how much I stand out and how I will always have to justify my place here.  Even if I lived in Mumbai my whole life I would never truly belong. It’s the opposite of America where we are all immigrants and as such anyone can become American.  The more I feel like I belong and truly live here, the more that questions such as the ones posed by the editor sting at my sense of belonging.

But I can wear my outsider status as a badge of pride. I’m really lucky to have been able to see the things I’ve seen and get to know the people I’ve gotten to know. As I’m wrapping up the long process of making this particular film it’s been interesting to watch the footage with new eyes each time and remind myself that I’ve had an experience few outsiders get in India.

We still have screenings ahead to show the film – and I’m certainly curious how the women I’ve filmed will react to watching themselves – but at this juncture I’m excited to finish it and share it and move onto my next Indian adventure. Even if I’ll have to keep answering questions about how I got here.

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When I have tried to explain to people at home why I’ve been so pasionate about making a film about domestic violence prevention it’s been hard to articulate why the issue has struck such a chord with me. Domestic violence certainly exists in every part of the world. But after spending with the women working towards change in Dharavi, it was hard to not feel like I was seeing a challenge that was almost impossible for me to comprehend. I listened over and over again as women told stories not just of violence, but of the complacency of those around them who refused to see the violence as anything out of the ordinary. The taboos that exist in other parts of the world in relation to violence do not exist as strongly here.

I’m mentioning all this because Daniel brought my attention to an article that came out yesterday in the Times of India (and is the most commented on post of the day) that puts a sickening fact to these experiences – nearly one in four Indian men has committed sexual violence at some point in his life life and one in five has admitted forcing his wife or partner to have sex. Those are the worst statistics of any of the countries surveyed.  And you can imagine what the real number is beyond those who will actually admit to it.

Daniel mentioned it to me because the statistic shocked him. I was really sad that, after speaking to so many women about domestic violence, those numbers no longer surprised me.

This is especially important to think about today because it is International Women’s Day, and in the US that often takes on little meaning. As a woman growing up in the US I never felt anything but equal to the men around me. The thought would never have occurred to me. I’m so lucky that I never really felt the need to pay attention to a day for women because I never saw myself as having any difficulties due to gender.

But there are so many women who do not live in that world and I think women who are removed from that fact often fail to appreciate it. India has a long way to go in its fight for gender equity and I believe the only way it will change is if the women here keep fighting back. I’m encouraged by the work I’ve seen. I feel lucky that I’ve been able to listen to their stories and be a part of their efforts to change the status quo.

So, to every woman out there (and every man who respects the women around them) Happy International Women’s Day. Without trying to sound cheesy, I hope you all take a moment to appreciate where we’ve come but also how far there is to go.

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A lot of the bad stories get told over and over again about Hindu-Muslim relations. There are a lot of truths in tales of rioting and murders. No one who has lived in Mumbai – or New York – could possibly try to minimize the devastation that can occur when religions collide.

But oftentimes these stories overshadow the day to day relations that are happening around us.

So one of the things I’ve really enjoyed about living here is watching people co-exist in a country that has seen so much turmoil over religion. From partition through the assassination of Indira Ghandi to the Bombay riots of 1992 up to the attacks here two years ago, it hasn’t been an easy ride. Yet I watch day in and day out as everyone seems to somehow make it work in a population where the majority (Hindus) are only 67% of the populace.

This has been most apparent to me in Dharavi, where everyone is literally living on top of each other and where there is incredible religious and cultural diversity. Dharavi was the horrifying epicenter of the Bombay riots 20 years ago but today it seems like there must be some improvement. I go into meetings and see Hindu women teaching Muslim women about their sexuality without any judgment. I see women wearing hijabs lay their heads on the shoulders of women in saris. I can’t explain it and I certainly would never profess to have a deep understanding of this community’s feelings about religion (that would be a bit naive) but I can only report what I see and it’s oddly comforting.

But the best thing to watch is what happens on 90 feet road on a Friday afternoon. In the middle of a crowded, dirty, hot and chaotic slum that is populated by a majority Hindu population, one side of the artery road is cleared for prayers. It causes traffic and confusion and adds time to everyone’s travels. But for just a few minutes hundreds of Muslim observers are given time to pray together in a place where there certainly isn’t space for a mosque large enough – or even homes large enough – to accommodate worshipers. It’s a small thing. But it’s not something I can imagine being allowed even in New York, the supposed home of liberalism and tolerance, where an out-of-the-way mosque’s construction was recently protested.

It’s a Pollyanna view. I’ve certainly also been privy to conversations detailing why our Pakistani neighbors on the 5th floor must be horrible or how Muslims don’t shower (no, really) and I’ve had to stand back and wonder whether I’ve been reverted to some bizarre version of the 1950’s in a racist but Indian state. It’s a reality. And there’s certainly a lot of religious turmoil happening outside of India (understatement of the century). But I’m going to keep believing that things are a little bit better than some might make it out to be

And its certainly a view that is reinforced by seeing it. So for now I’ll let some video do the talking for me. It really is a spectacular sight.


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