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Posts Tagged ‘celebrations’

A few weeks  after we moved to India I was having dinner with some new friends and was excitedly telling them about the new film project I was going to be undertaking. I mentioned that I was hoping it would me about five or six months and then I could do another project. I was a bit shocked when they all laughed at me. “Just don’t be surprised or upset if it takes you the entire year,” one of them said.

The crowd

I thought about that moment a lot yesterday at the screening of the completed film. It was only one month shy of being a year away from the very first meeting we had conceptualizing the film. And I realized that while those new friends had been right about the length of time everything takes in India, it had certainly been a ride that was worth taking the scenic route for.  The film has been a labor of love, patience, and immense growth.
The screening was held in a hall in Dharavi. I walked in and it was already packed. Every seat was taken and people were filling up standing areas in the back. The few fans were no match for the excessive heat, but no one seemed to mind. I spotted a lot of the women who had participated in the film- I wondered how they were going to feel, watching themselves on a screen in front of a couple hundred people in their community talking about their personal experiences with domestic violence. I looked around for S, one of the women I’d interviewed who was always notoriously late (her lateness had given me one memorable afternoon with her adorable and hilarious children). I couldn’t spot her.

Speech before the screening

We started with a few speeches and I was asked to say a few words (that were quickly translated for the almost entirely non-English speaking crowd). Then I sat and watched – I looked out at the sea of people as they took in the film. All I could hope was that the women in the film felt I captured their viewpoint as best I could.

When it was over we had a short question and answer session and then everyone escaped the heat to get outside for a photo exhibition that was going on in tandem with the screening. A number of women came up and shook my hand, saying thank you. A few others wanted photos. N, the head of the domestic violence center, gave me a big hug and told me how excited everyone was to show it  at all the upcoming meetings, events and trainings they hold- both in Dharavi and around Mumbai. “You don’t even realize how helpful this is going to be,” she said. It was the nicest compliment I could receive, since I already felt that they’d given me so much.

It’s hard to even begin to reflect on everything this adventure has taught me. I learned about the experiences of women who fight for survival and dignity on a daily basis without ever sacrificing joy or humor. I was able to see day to day life behind the statistics and news that I’ve read so much about. I was brought in, trusted, and treated like family by a group of women who could have closed themselves off to a stranger. They shared their stories with me so openly in order to help the organization they cared for so much. And, yes, with all the lateness and delays and rescheduled meetings they taught me to embrace their way of doing things, to have another cup of tea, and to take life with a bit more grains of salt.

So mostly I’m just grateful.

As I was leaving I spotted S. “I didn’t see you before! How did you like the film?” I asked.

“I came too late! Missed it. Oh well.”

And just like that, life returned to normal.

(And for those of you who want to see the actual film I’ve talked so much about, it’s embedded here. Finally!)

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Starting the sari

“Did I do it right?”

I stood, looking at Nisha, like a child who wants to be told they’ve done their homework properly. She just laughed at me a bit and started untying my sari. “You did okay. I can’t even tie a sari on my own,” she said kindly. She called over to a few of the other women in the house. We’d gone to Nisha’s house before her son’s wedding for lunch and to say hello. A bevy of guests were streaming in and out in full wedding gear, stopping momentarily to look at the two gora who were sitting in the living room. Every one would get an introduction from Nisha: “This is cousin’s wife’s brother,” “This is niece who is coming from Hyderabad,”  “This is brother-in-law but really to me he is like actual brother.” It didn’t matter that none of these people spoke English or knew what she was saying. They would all smile and shake our hands as Nisha reminded us how excited she was to have us there. “Everyone saying to me that you would not come. No one is believing that I work for white people.” We were happy to be the living proof.

The women quickly got to work on fixing my sari. They unwrapped me down to my sari blouse and petticoat and then started twirling me back around, tucking it in tightly as they went.

Finalizing the sari

They debated for a bit over which style I should have – should my pallu (the long embellished end of the sari) wrap around my back, in the most common way? Or should I have something fancier? Should I wear it the Gujrati way, where my pallu is in the front? They tucked and pinned me in various formations until they settled on bringing the pallu to the front due to the beading of my sari. So I waited as they pleated my skirt in a very exact manner, tucked it in then pleated the pallu and pinned it to the front. It was so complicated that I was afraid to move. It wasn’t irrational – the whole thing was held together with a few tucks and drapes along with 4 strategically placed safety pins. But I certainly had to admit that it looked much better than when I had done it.

Nisha was not impressed with the simple earrings I had chosen – I thought that the sari was embellishment enough – so she gave me bangles to wear. “You looking like real Indian girl now,” she said as we walked out of her house in a long line of wedding-goers. I certainly didn’t feel like an Indian girl as I walked though her village to the car – every single person was openly staring at me and I could understand why. We were a full hour outside of Mumbai’s city limits (two hours from our house) in a small town next to the salt flats. And here was this white girl in a sari and white man in a suit walking along the road chatting with their Indian friend as though nothing was amiss. I don’t think its a stretch to assume that our presence was unusual.

Me and all of Nisha's "train friends"

We drove to the venue – we hit a huge amount of traffic, which was worrisome since we’d already left the house much later than expected. By the time we reached the venue it was 8:30pm. The invitation had said the whole thing would be from 7pm to 9pm. But of course, in Indian time this meant something entirely different – the hall was just filling up as we walked in. No one with any social graces would have actually shown up at 7pm. It made me glad we’d gone to Nisha’s first- we probably would have shown up right “on time” and found ourselves sitting there for quite some time.

The venue was an interesting place for a wedding – a whole row of empty lots amid a huge apartment complex had been converted into spaces for receptions and then were cordoned off with curtains to look like walls. You walked in through a door with a chandelier above but we quickly realized we were still outside. In a place where the months of rain are pre-determined there’s no need to protect with any kind of cover. The rocky ground was covered with carpeting and in front of us were chairs and a stage with two red thrones on top. As it was a Muslim wedding, most of the women sat on one side and the men sat on the other – although it was insisted upon that Daniel and I sit together. I looked around at the array of colors – every woman had brought out her best sari for the occasion and the beads shone across the room. Only a few women in hijabs wore black, but each wore enough gold to balance it out.

The wedding party

Soon after we arrived the bride and groom entered – they’d already done a private ceremony that morning so they were already married. Irfan, Nisha’s son looked excited and bewildered. The bride looked happy but overwhelmed and frightened. She was probably also about to pass out from a heat stroke – she was wearing an elaborate sari that must have been weighed down by the incredibly intricate and vast amount of beading that covered it. She wore multiple necklaces and earrings and a hoop in her nose that rivaled the size of her head. I could barely move in my sari – I couldn’t imagine how she felt in hers. Not to mention that she and her new husband had only met once before they were married. I couldn’t help but think of the refrain from Fiddler on the Roof where Tevye and Golde sing about first meeting each other on their wedding day – maybe we’re not so culturally different, even if in our culture the traditional arranged marriages have given way to Western ideals.

With everyone watching, the bride and groom went up on the stage and photographers and videographers started taking photos and placing them in various positions. The guests eventually started moving over to eat dinner – the bride and groom were still forced to stay up on the stage at their thrones as various well-wishers could come to greet them. As we sat to eat, multiple guests came over to take their picture with us, giggling as they touched the ends of my sari and looked us up and down. One of Nissa’s nephews, who spoke English, started telling people that Daniel was a famous cricketer for his own amusement. Another female relative took over watching us (on Nisha’s direction) and made sure to stuff us with as much food as possible.

Meeting guests while the garlanded bride watches

When we finally went to say hello, the bride was being outfitted with an entire dress of garlands. Our new caretaker explained to me that when she had been married a few months ago, the garlands were so heavy she could barely stand. As we wished Irfan and his new bride well the photographers snapped away. Nisha looked on proudly. As we left we both gave her a big hug and thanked her for inviting us. “No, no thank you for coming!” she said earnestly, “I am so happy you is here. You is my honored guest.”

“No, no,” Daniel said, “It’s really our honor to be invited.” And it truly was. I couldn’t say I was sad to take off my beautiful but incredibly heavy and cumbersome sari at the end of the night, but I was so glad we had been invited and welcomed in.

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So Sari

I don’t think it will surprise anyone to find out that I know nothing about saris. While they are all around me every day, I don’t understand their intricacies. It’s kind of like certain types of fashionable clothes in New York – I see that everyone is wearing it, I’m just not so sure I can pull it off (or even get it on!).

The time had come, however, where I needed to deal with my fear of the sari. Our housekeeper’s son is getting married on Sunday, and since Daniel and I will already be sticking out quite a bit I knew I needed to make sure I was dressed properly.

My wonderful friend A agreed to lend me her sari (since they are actually quite expensive and I’m not quite sure when I would need one again…) but told me I needed to get a sari blouse (the only part that needs to be fitted). Her sari was beautiful – its bright red with lots of beading and embroidery. I figured I was lucky to have such a great sari to wear that getting the blouse would be no problem. She left me a note with instructions that ended with, “It shouldn’t be too difficult (famous last words in India).” So I set out on a mission.

I first went to Amarsons, an Indian department store which I figured would have a good selection. I walked up to the sari department and explained my conundrum. The salespeople looked at me like I was a confused child – how could I possibly not know how to purchase a sari? Not know how to wrap a sari? Not know what colors and styles went with my sari? They took pity on me and quickly got to work. I felt a bit like a drag queen – sequins, sparkles, beads and anything that shined was floated out at me. They were convinced a very intricate beaded number that matched the sari was perfect. I wasn’t so sure – it seemed a bit overboard. And then I looked at the price tag – 1,400 rupees (about $30). It seemed a bit crazy for a tiny blouse that didn’t even cover my stomach (to be fair, that’s how all the sari blouses are. But its still not a lot of fabric!). I said I’d think about it.

I walked out feeling dejected. Our driver, Malcolm, shook his head and told me that I was going about it wrong – I needed to have the top made. “It will be better ma’am. You just go to a tailor and he’ll make it up for you.” I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave it to the last minute so I insisted on going to another store.

I went to one of the ubiquitous Fab India sotres where I was greeted by a particularly dour woman. I asked where the sari blouses were and she pointed me towards the section. “Which one do you think is best?” I asked her. She looked me up and down. “Madam, you don’t buy something to match a sari like this. It should already match. We Indians don’t do this mix and match. Besides, I do not wear saris.” The last point was clearly a jab – most modern women in Mumbai have given up wearing saris day to day and now wear either kurtas or western clothing.  Maybe she thought it was silly that I was trying to be traditional – although saris are still the outfit of choice at almost any formal occasion.

“Why don’t you just wear a dress,” she said, seemingly exasperated. I tried to explain that I wanted to wear the right thing.  She sighed and handed me a cream colored top. I tried it on but then had to ask her one more favor – “Can you help me wrap the actual sari? I don’t know whether it matches unless I try it all on.”  Bemused, she slowly started wrapping the material around me, tucking the folds into my pants and twirling me slowly.

“It doesn’t look good. You need to have one made if you insist on wearing this thing,” she said as she finished. I looked up – she was right. It didn’t really do justice to the beautiful sari to have the plain cream top underneath. I thanked her and left the store.

“Ok Malcolm… as always, you are right. Let’s go to a tailor.”

He chuckled at me and drove me right to a shop that knew what to do instantly. And the price tag: 250 rupees. It was a typical ending to my search – I’d tried to do it my way when in the end, I would always have to find the proper Indian way to go about it. I wont have it until Saturday, but here’s hoping it looks good!

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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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So a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim stood around talking about Hindus…

That sounds like the start of a joke, but it was just a regular day in our household. On this occasion, Nisha and our driver (who are Muslim and Christian, respectively) were trying to explain to me why I should not participate in Ganesh Visarjan, the end of the Ganpati celebrations where millions of people crowd Mumbai’s beaches to immerse their statues of the god Ganesh into the water.

The Ganpati crowd at Juhu beach

“You will not want to go there ma’am,” our driver said, “It will be all crowds and drunk people.”
Nisha concurred, “People there are crazy, you don’t know what can happen.”

I didn’t want to mention to Nisha that this was what the driver had said to me about going to Muhammad Ali Rd during her holiday of Ramzan.

I spoke to my friend D (who is a Jain Indian raised in America but has a lot of family in Bombay) — she said everyone was telling her not to go as well. “They all think unless we have a rooftop to watch from we shouldn’t go – it’ll be too crazy and dirty.”

This is the funny thing about Bombay – everyone lives in harmony until you start talking about people of a different caste or religion. Then suddenly everyone of the opposing caste or religion is a drunk dirty lout.

I, however, was not going to miss Ganesh Visarjan. It’s one of the most exciting days in Mumbai and I wanted to see it for myself. Six million people take 200,000 statues of the god Ganesh to Mumbai’s various beaches and immerse him in the water – setting him on a journey and supposedly taking the misfortunes of his followers away with him. All week I’d seen the Ganesh statues, large and small, with people dancing throughout the streets. And I wanted to watch as the festival came to its glorious end.

Rolling Ganesh towards the sea

So after a bit of planning we decided to go to Juhu beach – it’s not too far from Bandra and its one of the less crowded areas. When I say less crowded this just means there were probably tens of thousands of people crowding the beach instead of potentially hundreds of thousands. There are 27 immersion spots throughout Mumbai, but the ones in South Bombay are the most crowded. We figured it would be best to stay close to home and out of the massive crowds.

A few friends and I went to a bar on the beach and grabbed a table early. The real festivities start at night so by 3pm when we arrived there were just a smattering of people with their idols. But as the sun got lower more and more and more people began to show up with increasingly large Ganesh statues.

The Ganesh that we followed

Imagine looking out and seeing a sea of people going from the end of the beach all the way up to the water. Everyone is excited, many people are singing, and every so often you start to see a large portion of the crowd begin to move like one, with a big Ganesh in the middle as they all head towards the sea. You can watch the people and the Ganesh until it suddenly sinks and cheers go out. But when you look somewhere else the same thing is happening all over again.

D and I decided we wanted to follow a Ganesh from beginning to end. So we spotted a big one, left our table, and went out to join in. The crowd surrounding it was huge. The Ganesh was taller than any man and everyone was surrounding it, singing, and celebrating. They then lifted our Ganesh onto a cart (slowly but surely) and began to wheel it toward the sea with everyone still singing and celebrating. We ran with it, joining in and letting ourselves get caught up in the moment.

Our Ganesh going out to sea

I was so caught up I didn’t realize I’d gone right into the water up to my thigh. I turned around and saw D had not followed me – Mumbai’s beaches are notoriously dirty. Oil and other unpleasantries mix to create a blackened version of the sea. With the many Ganesh statues the water becomes an even more dangerous place (There are many people here who are understandably against Ganpati because of the horrible implications of thousands of plaster and chemically painted statues being left at the sea floor). I stepped back, ignored my dirty legs and watched as our Ganesh was taken out to sea. And then, in and instant, he was gone. He had gone to the bottom of the ocean and everyone was cheering. We’d been allowed to share in this one group’s moment of their Ganpati and we felt it was ours too (To watch a video of ‘our’ Ganesh and his journey, see below).

The crowd growing as night falls on Juhu beach

We went back to the bar, exhilarated and excited. We stayed awhile longer, watching the crowd swell more and more as time went on. We left after it got dark, but for most real celebrants the night was just beginning. As we drove home, one side of the road was closed as thousands of people were in their own processions with their own Ganesh, making their way towards the sea.

I asked our driver how his night was. “I hadn’t seen the Ganesh immersion since I was a boy. I always avoid it now. But you know, it was really fun to see it.” Yes it truly was.

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Of all the many things I love about Indians, one thing I particularly adore is their love of celebration. There are so many holidays, so many festivals, so many excuses to dance and party and sing. And with numerous religions and cultures and languages smashed into a city like Mumbai, we certainly see all of them in full swing.

We are now in full force of one of my new favorite festivals- Ganesha Cahturthi, or known more commonly as Ganpati (Don’t know how it’s spelled, but that’s what everyone calls it!).

It’s an 11 day Hindu festival to celebrate the birthday of the Elephant God Ganesh, who is the god of wisdom and prosperity.  It’s sort of reminiscent for me of Christmas in some ways – it’s a birthday celebration where people put up lights EVERYWHERE and everyone is constantly singing. Like Christmas you could not escape the joy of Ganpati – people are swept up in the spirit everywhere.

And that spirit has come out every night since Ganpati started last weekend – people come out into the streets, sing, play instruments, and push statues of Ganesh around on a cart. This will all culminate next Wednesday (the 11th and final day) when people will push their Ganesh statues into the sea for reasons on which I am still unclear. I am determined to find out though, and certainly I will blog about it.

But just to give you a sense: Below is a compilation of celebrations on my 15 minute drive home tonight. There was not a moment where you couldn’t see a crowd gathered around their community’s Ganesh statue. You couldn’t help but be happy. You couldn’t help but want to join in and thank Ganesh for bringing everyone a bit of joy and laughter.

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If you’re ever hoping to sound stupid in front of an Indian person, try explaining Halloween.

It’s easy to forget that some of the most ingrained elements of American or Western life have no corollary here.  Most basics like food and clothing can be compared to Indian food or clothing. But some concepts just don’t translate.

On this occasion, it all started with my pirate peeler.

My pirate peeler with its 'pumpkin' peels

My pirate peeler is one of  my favorite possessions – it’s a basic peeler painted to look like a pirate. Nisha used it to peel pumpkin (or what she called pumpkin – it looked to me like a long green squash, but who am I to argue) and thought it was very funny.

“What is this supposed to be?” she asked.
“It’s a pirate!” I replied, not realizing how dumb I probably sounded.
“What?”
“You know? Pirates? Did you ever see Pirates of the Caribbean?” I lamely exclaimed, hoping that those movies had perhaps made their way here.

“Yeah, I know,” she nodded.

“Well, at University my roommates and I liked pirates and we dressed up like pirates for Halloween and so for Christmas one year one of them got me the pirate peeler.”

Nisha stared at me like I was speaking gibberish. And to her, I was. Here I was telling her that I dressed like a pirate while supposedly studying at University.

“I assume there’s no Halloween here?” I said.  Nisha looked at me blankly. Then I started digging the hole:

“Well, it’s this holiday. I think it originally came from a holiday called All Hallows Eve where spirits and ghosts could come out. Then somehow… it became a holiday where children dress up in costumes and go door to door asking for candy.”

“Why candy?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is it religious?”
“No.”
“What kind of costumes?”

I was starting to feel like the whole thing sounded ridiculous to someone who had never seen it. And it is a little ridiculous. But it’s an accepted part of our lives so I’ve never questioned it.

Culture is a funny thing – to most of the world, unique traditions probably can look incredibly stupid.  Many evolve over time to the point where they’re impossible to rationally explain. Why DO we give candy and dress up on Halloween? Why is the birth of Jesus celebrated most often with presents and Santa?  Why do most Americans (of Irish-descent or not) take St Patricks day as an excuse to wear green and drink?

I’m sure there are reasons – but the average person couldn’t explain why. We just go along with it because its something we’ve always done and its fun.

But, right as I was feeling like I could never explain Halloween, I was reminded that ridiculous cultural traditions may each be unique- but everyone has them.

“My favorite festival in Mumbai is Ganesh Chaturthi,” Nisha said. “All the Hindus take statues of Ganesh and bring them into the sea. That probably is as crazy as Halloween.”

And just like that, I didn’t need to explain myself.

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