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They were four little words you definitely do not want to hear while living in India:

You. Might. Need Surgery.

It’s bad enough to be lying in a fetal position after spending your day taking tests. It’s another to contemplate having your body chopped into while living in a foreign country. I was not a happy camper.

It probably started with me boasting that I hadn’t gotten ‘India sick’ yet. I like to say this to people a lot – to be fair, it’s mostly to try and comfort people who are visiting. Such as, “Oh, you won’t get sick from the food. I’ve lived here six months and I haven’t gotten the notorious ‘Bombay Belly’ yet!’ I think I do better than my friend D who just likes to declare that she has a stomach of steel.

But I think there was a little bit of karma involved when I started to feel ill. It was as though the India gods were saying, “ok, you don’t need to get sick from food. We’ll give you a good-old-fashioned-regular-illness instead.”

I felt a bit ill on Friday but I only started to worry in the evening, when I took my temperature and it was above 100. I called my friend A.

“I have a weird question to ask you,” I began. “I have a fever. And Daniel is out of town. If this was America, I wouldn’t be nervous…”
“But it’s India.” she responded, clearly understanding where I was going.
“Right, so maybe you could spend the night over here in case something happens in the middle of the night?”

She, of course, said yes. You see, there’s an interesting thing that happens to all expats who live here: you get paranoid. And it’s justified. You hear too many tales that begin with, “Oh I thought I had a cold. But really it was dysentery” Or malaria. Or dengue. Everyone has horror stories about eating the wrong food or drinking the wrong juice. And these horror stories are much worse than your average food poisoning tales. So even the smallest hiccup or cough suddenly starts your brain ticking. What did I eat yesterday? Did I see a new mosquito bite on my ankle? Did I really wash that apple enough? You could go crazy worrying about getting sick – which is why most people stop obsessing over the small things after they’ve been here awhile. We start brushing our teeth with tap water and accepting ice from places that say they use mineral water. But it always lives in the back of your mind, the fear that India’s many health scares are coming your way.

I thought about all of this as I tossed and turned throughout the night. I couldn’t get comfortable no matter which position I picked. At 2am I looked at WebMd’s symptom checker. Bad idea. Once you say you’ve travelled to a third world country it starts giving you even more ideas. At 4am I wikipedia’ed dengue. That was comforting – apparently I would have had a rash, so it couldn’t be that. At 6am I took my temperature for the 20th time and was nervous to see it had gone up to its highest point so far. By 8am I woke up A.

“I think it’s time to call a doctor.”

My symptoms sounded bad- pain in the abdominal area on the right side of a female usually means appendix or ovaries, neither of which should be left unchecked. So we headed over to a clinic the doctor had recommended in order to get an ultrasound.

As I waited my turn in the plush waiting room I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad.” It looked nicer than any clinic I’d seen at home. I was able to stretch out on a leather chair while a flat-screen tv showed the day’s cricket match (not my cup of tea, but interesting enough). Even with the nice setting the whole ultrasound only cost 1,200 rupees, or roughly $26. That’s before I even submit it to my insurance. For all the things to complain about the on the potential-diseases-you-could-get spectrum, I also had to be impressed by the low cost of everything. It’s not a low cost relative to the average income in Mumbai (where a large percentage of people only make a few thousand rupees a month), but compared to American health care, it’s a steal.

However my initial optimism soured a bit with the results of my ultrasound. I had “edematous gall ballder walls with sludge’ and ‘enlarged lymph nodes with fatty hila’. How was I to know what that meant? Sludge certainly didn’t sound good. Most annoyingly, they unfortunately they couldn’t get a close enough shot of my appendix to tell if it was bursting. So it was off to a CT (which, just as an FYI, cost around $120).

I’ve never had a CT before, but I can assure you that it is all the more unpleasant when 5 out of 6 techs in the room do not speak your language. They didn’t really understand that I was in a lot of pain, and therefore was having difficulty lying in one position. I couldn’t explain that my elevated fever was giving me the chills, which was also making it hard for me to not shake a bit. Finally a woman came in who spoke English and put a few blankets on me. I thought she might be my savior until she informed me that I would need an IV that would pump warm contrast into my veins as well as a tube going into another area (which I won’t go into depth describing here, since this blog aims to remain family friendly!). Needless to say, by the end of the CT I was feeling worse for wear.

That didn’t compare to my doctor’s visit after it all, where the idea of surgery was finally raised. As I lay curled up, exhausted from tests and fever and an unflinching pain, I listened to what the doctor had to say. You see, my appendix was fine. But that darn gallbladder was indeed inflamed and it would either need to respond to multiple medications or it would have to come out. A surgeon was lined up and at the ready in case I needed him. I suppose that was supposed to be comforting. We would just have to wait and see whether the inflammation and infection could go down before surgery became necessary.

Luckily the combination of the largest antibiotics I’ve ever seen, anti-inflammatories, pain medication, and an anti-nasuea medication normally reserved for chemo patients (the antibiotics apparently can be too strong to handle without some other medication) has made me start to feel like a new person (and all the medications together cost around $5). Within a day my fever went from almost 103 to almost normal. I’m certainly not at my best (those antibiotics are really not making it too easy on me), but at least it’s looking like I can keep my gallbladder.

So what have I taken from my few days of true illness in India? Well, firstly I will never make the silly claim of not having been ‘India sick’ again (although technically, lets be honest, 6 months of no food poisoning is pretty amazing in here. Knock on wood). I’ll also appreciate the cost of medicine here; it’s really something we Americans forget when we have insurance and something we decry when we don’t. If India can do it this cheaply why on earth can’t we even lower our costs a bit? I alternately appreciate being able to see a reliable doctor here and having the means to pay for it. I couldn’t help thinking of all the women I’ve met in Dharavi who clearly can’t afford to even get the kinds of tests I was able to get. It’s scary to think of how much pain I was in and the idea that someone couldn’t get the right diagnosis to lead them to the proper medication. It’s certainly something to be reminded of.

Mostly though, I’ll just appreciate (almost) having my health back. I’ve been lying around thinking of writing and being sad that I have no stories to tell other than the woes of a nauseous person with an enlarged gallbladder. It’s time for me to get better and back to everything I enjoy about living in India. Other than, of course, its predisposition for making us foreigners ill.

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Introduction and Re-Introduction

Landing back in Mumbai, after a blizzard took over the American Northeast, I thought I would have another round of culture shock. Surely after two weeks in the comforts of home India would seem once again like a strange foreign land.

But after hours of delays I blearily stepped out into warm weather and felt right as though I had never left. Instead of being shocked by India, I was mostly shocked at how much this place could feel like home mere hours after feeling at ease in the comforts of my real home. And I liked the feeling that both places could somehow simultaneously be normal for me.

This of course only lasted until I had visitors, who were given the ‘Indian experience’ in full force before they’d even left New York. K and M had been planning for months to join me in Bombay for New Years before a trip to South  India. I’d been jealous of their simple direct flight straight from New York into Mumbai.  I should have known that for their initiation they’d need to feel frustration, Indian style.

When they arrived at the Air India counter (a full four hours before their flight) they were told that their seats had been nonsensically given away to passengers who’d previously been stranded by the blizzard, despite having confirmed reservations. After a lot of haggling and cajoling they finally convinced the agents to put them on a flight to London, with a connection to Mumbai. But they missed the connection and instead had to re-route to Delhi. On arrival in Delhi they were told their bags were lost- and so more haggling led to missing their flight to Mumbai. They would have to pick their bags up later whenever they were found.

A full 17 hours later than they were supposed to, and 31 hours after they’d left their homes I finally was able to give them a hug at the arrivals gate in Mumbai’s domestic terminal. Welcome to India.

I often write about the frustrations that can come hand-in-hand with the joys and amazing experiences that happen when you live here. But to experience it so soon seemed a little cruel. I looked at my friends, who after showering and napping were now fully decked out in my and Daniel’s clothes, and wished that they’d been allotted an easier introduction.

It wasn’t going to get easier – every time we called Air India’s baggage center either no one would answer the phone or the line would be busy. And after a late-afternoon trip to the domestic airport terminal we learned that to go through international customs the bags would have to be transferred to the international terminal. No one was getting clothes that day. The next morning we arrived and tried to argue our way in. No one at baggage claim was answering the phone and we needed the bags. M and K both braved talking to the Air India representative who told them that all the baggage personnel were ‘too busy, and they’d have to wait 30 minutes.’ I’d lived here long enough to know that 30 minutes means never, so I began an argument Indian style – I knew I’d need to make it a personal affront to my honor. After accusing the representative of insulting my guests and having a long back and forth about Indian standards of hospitality, the man relented and got a baggage claim representative to take us to the bags. There they sat, in a pile of hundreds of lost bags. I looked over and noticed that only one woman was answering a single phone, a small help in a sea of lost personal items.

But with bags in hand and a sunny day to explore the city, India once again gave more than she took. Standing at the Gateway of India and watching women selling fans made of peacock feathers and Indian tourists snapping pictures it was easy to get caught back up in my love for this place. A woman tied a bracelet to my wrist intertwined with jasmine, and despite my protests I really admired her persistance to just tie it in a knot and then just hoped I would pay her something. Driving through South Mumbai I found myself still staring in awe at the grand colonial buildings that I’ve now seen dozens of times. And eating lunch in my favorite Parsi restaurant, chatting to the dotty 90 year old owner made me giggle while I stuffed myself with berry pulav. It’s these moments and not the moments of frustration that make me happy to be back, despite having enjoyed the brief respite of home.

Tomorrow we’re off to Tamil Nadu to explore even more – and thankfully, we won’t be flying Air India!

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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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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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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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