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Posts Tagged ‘chai’

It’s amazing how in Dharavi something as small as a mat can make you feel accepted.

This afternoon I went to the home of a woman who volunteers with the non-profit I am going to be making the film for. She had invited one of the field workers to come and talk to her neighbors about domestic violence.

Her home was approximately fifty square feet (or about seven feet by seven feet). She, her husband and three sons shared one twin-sized bunk bed. They had one stand-alone dresser, a television, a small fridge (that had a built in lock), a television, and a kitchen counter whose space was taken up by a small burner. Washing hung from lines above the bed. The walls were cement and the roof was made of aluminum siding that was held up by wooden beams. If you looked straight up at the ceiling you could see small slivers of light peeking through in various places.

But despite the small venue the home was filled with life. Photos of her parents stared down at us (unsmiling, as all Indian photographs are). Pictures of Hindu gods were interspersed with small posters for Bollywood movies and brightly colored calendars.  And despite the treacherous path filled with garbage and feces that existed outside her home (hard to ignore), you probably could have eaten a meal off the floor.

When I walked in she clapped her hands excitedly and stopped me as I tried to sit on the ground with the rest of the group. She pulled out a small mat and insisted that I sit on it.  I tried to tell her that she should sit on it, but she told me through my translator (who is a budding filmmaker and someone I am very excited to have on board) that she was so glad I was there and that she was very adamant that her guest should be comfortable.

As the women arrived it was explained to me that our host had encouraged her neighbors to come and listen. She had become involved in the non-profit through one of these meetings and she felt very strongly about preventing domestic violence. She shared that her sister’s husband was an alcoholic who had beaten her sister very badly. Ever since then she had wanted to try and affect even the smallest change in her community.

The meeting started when everyone was seated. It was a small group – five women, our host, the field worker, my translator and myself. We all sat on the floor and we could barely fit. It struck me how time consuming it must be to have these meetings in such small venues. But the field worker explained that most of these women wouldn’t come if they had to travel all the way to the non-profit’s office. While you could drive there in 10 minutes, they would have to walk, and it would take too much time out of their day. So having small meetings with the neighbors of volunteers is the only way to effectively spread their message across the crowded maze of Dharavi.

The meeting started with everyone introducing themselves and my translator started by explaining who we were and why we were there. She said her name and then started to say my name but I stopped her.

“Meera naam Ali hai,” I said to the whole group. My translator looked at me. “Its one of the few things I know how to say in Hindi – I wanted to say it myself!” I said, and we both laughed. She translated my second comment to the women who all laughed as well. It had broken the ice a bit and we were ready to start.

As with all these meetings they had to start with general issues. The field worker explained the work their organization did – she said they could help with rations (Indians below the poverty line are entitled to food rations, but the system is very corrupt and its often difficult for people to actually get a ration card), legal services, health services and other basic issues.   She also tried to entice them by saying at one recent event two Bollywood stars had shown up and given presents. My translator explained that sometimes this is the best way to get people involved – even more than free vaccinations or free classes for children.
The field worker asked if there were any questions.  One grey-haired woman in a bright blue sari spoke up – she said in her neighborhood there had been a problem with people stealing electricity, causing everyone’s bills to rise. The field worker then emphatically responded with a story about a similar situation where they had helped put in safeguards and reduce the bills. Apparently this has been a large problem across Dharavi.  She encouraged the woman to come into their office for further help.

She then started to ask about domestic violence. First, she asked, did everyone know what constitutes violence? She said there were four kinds of violence and she started with physical violence – everyone nodded their heads, acknowledging the concept. She then continued by explaining the three other kinds of violence – emotional, financial and sexual.

As she talked about each kind of violence the mood in the room shifted.  The topic of emotional violence was met with some skepticism. Everyone seemed to agree that fighting for financial independence was important. The most uncomfortable reaction came when the field worker explained that even if a couple is married, it doesn’t give a man the right to have sex with his wife whenever he wants.

The woman in the blue sari leaned over and started talking softly to the woman sitting to her right. The field worker asked her to stop talking in general, but (as my translator conveyed), she had also had to ask her to stop talking in Tamil. Apparently these women had originally come from Tamil Nadu and as such they spoke to each other in Tamil.

I tried to break the awkwardness of the moment.  “Tora, tora, Hindi boltay. Tamil, neh!” I had said that I speak only little, little Hindi but no Tamil. Everyone laughed. I can always use my terrible Hindi to amuse people.

The field worker continued. She explained that her organization helped with counseling and legal action as well as awareness. The women listened intently.

The conversation was broken up for a moment when our host’s teenage son walked in.  He stood in his crisp blue school uniform with his Liverpool football club backpack and said hi to the crowd of women taking over his small space. He put the backpack down and waved goodbye- there was nowhere for him to stay. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering what on earth it must be like to be a teenage boy and share a bunk bed and room with your parents and siblings.   Every time if I try to look at Dharavi with rose-colored glasses that notice the colorful pictures or the clean floors or the posters on the wall, I have to stop myself from the attempts to glorify. These people are doing the best they can and are trying to improve their community, but this life is incredibly hard. And just seeing the happy but resigned expression on that boy’s face reminded me that every individual in Dharavi is working with a set of cards that gives very little. The poverty here is so much more pervasive and extreme than the poverty we see in America.

I was brought back into the conversation as my translator explained that now we were talking about individual experiences. The field worker obviously had to ask, “Do you know anyone around you who has experienced violence”. By framing it this way women often feel more comfortable raising issues that are happening to them without revealing themselves. They could get questions answered about the available services without feeling embarrassed in front of their friends and neighbors.

Once all their questions had been answered and the conversation about the non-profit was finished, our host served small cups of chai and all the women turned to me. Did I have any questions for them?

I asked (through my translator of course) whether they felt the meeting was useful. The all nodded enthusiastically.

“Will you tell your neighbors about this meeting?”

All of the women started talking – they were telling me how they all gossiped and all the women would definitely share what they’d heard today. The field worker, listening, seemed relieved that they all felt this way.

“Would you feel comfortable if I came back with a camera? Would it be an invasion of the meeting?” Everyone shook their heads adamantly and started talking.

My translator laughed, “No, they say they think it is important to tell this story and speak about these issues, but they admit that they might come very dressed up if you are going to film them.”  I responded that I might have to dress up too, then.

They laughed. One of the women started talking to me and motioned towards her sari. I assumed she was asking if I had a sari.

“Sari, neh. Kurta!” I said, pointing toward the green and gold kurta I was wearing. They all laughed and started talking to each other.

“They’re saying you have to come and they’ll show you how to put on a sari. They are all inviting you to their homes.”

I felt really touched. I asked if they had any questions for me, since they had answered all of mine.

My translator asked and then said, “They say they have no questions, but they want to tell you they are really happy you came here. They are so proud that a foreign white person wants to take the time to tell their story and try to help an organization that is focused on Dharavi.”

I didn’t know what to say. I always feel a little weird that my whiteness always factors in – why should I be more welcome or more exciting just because I am white? It reeks a bit of a bizarre colonial legacy but on the other hand I think most people are just glad to see that their stories and their issues are not lost to the world at large.

Either way, I was glad that they were receptive to the work we wanted to do.  And by the time I left I was invited to four houses for a cup of chai, one Independence Day ceremony this weekend and one woman’s daughter’s wedding.  It was certainly something to feel honored by – even more than a mat to sit on.

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“Sahth, sarth and satr?” I asked. “Don’t those all sound very similar?”

“Oh yes,” Nisha replied. “Sometimes I can’t tell sahth and sarth apart. When people speak quickly you don’t know the difference.”

“But doesn’t that confuse people with numbers? You can’t make seven and sixty sound exactly the same. What if I asked how much something was and you said sixty but I thought seven – I might get really excited by how cheap it was!”

Nisha just laughed as she continued to sort mint leaves from their stalk. I was sitting on the counter and she on her stool – we were both drinking our usual cups of chai and she was (attempting) to teach me how to count.

We’d gotten into a good pattern with our learning. She would teach me a few Hindi words a day and I would practice reading with her. It was a good trade. We’d spent the previous part of the morning trying to go over why certain words in English needed an E on the end.

“It sounds like ‘bloo’.” I said.

“But why is there an E? Why isn’t it B L U?”

“I don’t know. It just isn’t”

“How would I know that that word doesn’t sound like bloo-ee?”

I thought about it for a moment. I really am a terrible reading teacher. I’ve gained a new-found respect for primary school educators– how can you possibly explain the English language when it doesn’t make logical sense?

I’d started with packaging. That was the easiest place to find simple words. On this particular day we were reading the label on a box of flour, and the company’s name was ‘Blue Bird’. Nisha knew all the letters from the beginning, so that had made the task easier. But now we just had to try and learn what each one sounded like in the context of a word.

I looked at ‘bird’. Nisha was sounding it out, “Buh…. Ih… rrrr… duh… Byrrduh…Beard…. Bird?”

“yes!” I said.

“yes?” She smiled at me and then looked at Phoebe. She cupped Phoebe’s face in her hands. “Phoebe, that says bird. You can’t tell because you’re a dog.”

We both laughed. Poor Phoebe was used to staring at us – she sat there hoping a morsel of food would come her way, but instead she had to watch as we repeated words over and over again.

But then it had been my turn. And just as quickly as I had been annoyed with how silly English writing was I soon turned on Hindi.

In English, our multiples of ten are simple. Twenty, thirty, fourty, fifty, sixty… It made sense. But in Hindi? Seven and sixty sounded practically the same, but six and sixty don’t even start with the same letter. Why was two ‘do’ and twenty ‘bees’? Why is eight ‘ought’ and eighty ‘asi’? My mind swam with numbers. I just tried reciting.

“Ek, do, teen, char, panch,” I said over and over, counting to five. Nisha chuckled at my pronunciation. Hindi words don’t have hard endings – so while I might say teen with an emphasis on the N, in Hindi it barely registers. At least my pronunciation gives any Hindi speaker listening a good laugh.

And slowly but surely, we’re both coming along. While I can’t pronounce the Hindi words and Nisha can’t understand why English isn’t logical (we had the most trouble with the word ‘onion’. Can anyone explain to me why it is spelled that way?) it’s the small progress that counts. And that’s all anyone can hope for. At least we both have each other to laugh a little bit along the way towards bettering ourselves one day at a time.

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Our shipment has arrived

I couldn’t believe I had to stand here and watch another heated discussion over cardboard.

Our security guard and the man from our moving company were going ten rounds over which of them got to keep the boxes after all of our belongings had been removed.  I watched, bemused, but nothing could keep me from the happiness of seeing my own items slowly emerge from their lucrative cardboard containers.

We have been in our apartment since June 30th. We had been told our shipment (clothes, kitchenware, some furniture – everything) would arrive the next day, on July 1st. Of course, as with most things here, it took quite a bit longer. Our shipment couldn’t be scheduled to come into India because the monsoon and overbooking had backed up flights. The monsoon?! As though they didn’t know a monsoon was coming and couldn’t have planned for it.  Then the airline left half our shipment behind on the layover in Qatar. Then it had to get through customs.

But here it was, 15 days late, and I still couldn’t get unpacked because somehow cardboard needs to be a recurring theme in my life. Daniel finally stepped in.

“What is the problem?”

“Sir, your security guard says he helped unload so he should get boxes in return.”

“So… again, what’s the problem?”

“Well sir, these boxes belong to our company.”

“No, they belong to me. Don’t they?”

“Well… yes sir. I guess sir.”

“Ok. So lets give him some boxes and you take the rest of the boxes.”

There he was, my mediating hero, solving the second great cardboard dilemma of 2010. Our security guard went downstairs, triumphant at his (partial) victory, while the movers continued to unpack.

As each item came out, our apartment felt more like home. But I was also struck by how many items we’d brought that we wouldn’t need. Every cotton polo shirt or light spring cardigan now appears to me as heavy as winter clothing. I’ve gotten so used to wearing light kurtas and thin cotton leggings or flimsy nylon t-shirts and linen capris.

While we packed most of our winter clothes, we were still foolish to think that we could just fully pack up our old apartment and transfer it uniformly to the opposite side of the world. A good percentage of our stuff is going to be shoved to the backs of closets, never to see the Indian light of day and only re-emerging into the New York air.

The (almost) finished apartment

But it’s ok because we’ve already been preparing ourselves for some of these replacements. Nisha has bought pans for roti’s and a pressure cooker for rice – our wok will probably just get a year off. I’ve already stocked up on free-flowing lightweight clothing and so the out-of-place elements in my closet will just seem new again in a year. Even our kettle will get a breather, since Indian chai needs a pot to boil both water and milk (used in the same proportion).

But while some items are replaced, for the most part it’s a merging of the two worlds – our kitchenware sits in a cupboard next to one of the ubiquitous gas cylinders everyone has here.  Photos of family and friends now intermingle with our new bar and rocking chair.  We can watch our DVDs while looking out the window to see huge Indian crows staring back. It’s a new kind of home — but with our belongings arriving late on Indian time, we’d at least been given a couple weeks to prepare.

Another view of the apartment

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I have finally begun what I hope will be a long-term effort during my time here in Bombay.

Everyone has been asking me since I arrived: What are you hoping to do here? And the answer to that question ranges from vague to very specific. It’s either: “I’m hoping to take a step back from my hectic life and do something valuable.” or, the more honest and blunt, “I have no actual plan.”

I knew one thing: I wanted to use the skills I’ve learned over the last few years to be truly valuable somewhere in a way others couldn’t. The only question was, what on earth would that entail?

Luckily I was put in contact with a woman who certainly understood my vantage point. She is a former journalist who tired of the profession and started her own non-profit that aims to give underprivileged women a voice through the use of media and communications.  After listening to my story and hearing what I was hoping to do, she suggested a seemingly great solution: I could go to the various NGO’s her organization partnered with and document their stories. They could use it for their websites, or presentations or fund-raising — wherever it would be helpful.

We decided to start with an organization that works with domestic violence victims in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums.

It’s hard for me to explain Dharavi in any knowledgeable context, since my first visit was very short and contained. But just the statistics alone can bring some perspective. It’s estimated that at least a million people live in Dharavi — an area that’s less than one square mile. Or, to use a National Geographic estimate, there’s 18,000 people living on every acre. Rents can be as low as $4 a month. And you won’t have trouble finding it – Dharavi is a 15-minute drive across the highway from Bandra. This prime real estate has led to some controversial re-development proposals in recent years (although none seem to be quite able to get off the ground, from what I have been told).  Most people in the West became familiar with Dharavi (even if they don’t know it) because the childhood scenes in the film Slumdog Millionaire were shot there.

With all that in mind I drove into Dharavi to discuss the work that I would be doing.

I didn’t see a lot – the organization is based in a public hospital on one of the main roads, so I have yet to experience the teeming mazelike interior of the slum. But even just driving down the road you can understand why there are two very different mindsets about this place.

The obvious negative descriptions are apparent – Most of the structures appeared to be built with sheets of materials cobbled together, often rusting and filled with holes. One building’s owners had tied ladders horizontally in-between wall materials in order to create an open window. Dirt was everywhere, casting a dark pall on the haphazard structures. The bright bursts of color that exist everywhere else in Mumbai were only visible on the saris of women walking through the street.

But it was clear from the outset why this place is also known for a sense of community. Those sari-clad women chatted animatedly as they walked together down the street.  Down the road, a man tried to lift something into a truck and another man crossed over the street and offered to help. The main road was lined with every kind of shop imaginable – grocery markets, restaurants, clothing stores. You can understand why residents have been so vocally against development — they have created a life here and their neighbors and families own businesses. It is a city unto itself.

I went into the hospital, up to the small area cordoned off for the domestic violence center. The woman accompanying me told me that the public hospitals are often empty because the doctors who are appointed to work there just don’t show up. Since they are political appointees, no one higher up notices (or chooses to notice) the absences that take place throughout the system.

But the center itself was full of life – the women who worked there were in full motion — holding meetings, typing away at computers, and discussing work over chai.

I took a glass of chai when it was offered and began speaking with the center’s director about what might be useful. What she wanted was to be able to tell the story of their work to the outside world as well as to the organizations that give them funding.  We agreed that I should begin by spending a few days with the women before filming in order to gain a bit of trust and goodwill before jumping in. I could then start filming the women’s daily life in Dharavi as well as the work of the center.

We shook hands and agreed to touch base next week after she’d run the plan by her board. As I got up to leave she announced to the office, “This is Ali. She’s going to do some work with us.” I was immediately inundated with various women coming over to shake my hand and welcome me.

Even in that first meeting, I got the sense that this was a place where I could bring some value. And I hope in the next weeks and months I will be able to.

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“What are you doing here?” the woman asked me as she openly stared at me. She looked at me from top to bottom — from my white face, to my green and gold kurta, to the waterproof crocs on my feet.

“You mean, in this frame shop?” I responded. I had come to this store to buy frames for the Batik’s we had purchased in Indonesia.

“Nahee, nahee. Here in Bombay. What are you doing here?”

The question wasn’t meant as rude. In fact, I get it quite often because here, I am an oddity. I stand out.  Because of this, it’s perfectly acceptable for people to stare at me as long as they want and to verbalize whatever questions their inquiring minds are bursting to ask.

In India, these questions are normal: Where are you going? What are you doing? Are you here with your husband? Do you HAVE a husband? Where are you living?  Everyone wants to know. And so the solution is very simple –they just ask.

“I live here. I’m living here in Bandra.”
“Ah. Ok.” She then turned her honey colored eyes towards my paintings. “Where are those paintings from?”

Before I could answer, another younger woman decided to pipe up, “Did you paint them? What is this kind of painting? What is this material?

“No,” I responded. “I bought them in Indonesia. It’s wax on cotton and the type of painting is called Batik.”

The women wiggled their heads in affirmation that I had given them the answers they were looking for. Everything was ok now. Their curiosity was satisfied and I was deemed acceptable because I had willingly answered all of their questions, like a good foreigner living here should.

I said thank you to the man who had taken my order (who seemed very glad that I had answered all the questions he had probably been wondering) and went home.

I walked into the apartment and plopped down with a cup of tea, happy that in at least one place I wasn’t strange.  But as I sat reading the paper, the doorbell rang.

I opened the door to an elderly woman in a long colorful sari. She smiled at me.

“Namste,” she said. I replied, “Namaste.” I, of course, didn’t know what to say in Hindi past hello. I made a mental note to ask Nisha how to say, “How can I help you?”

Nisha heard that I was stuck and walked over. She started speaking to the woman in Hindi.  This wasn’t unusual — we’d had people at the door practically ever day. Do you have any papers or cardboard to pick up? Do you need bottled water? Do you want to buy vegetables? Do you need someone to help clean the house?  None of these people ever spoke English, so I was happy Nisha could always politely say “no thank you.”

I listened to the conversation in Hindi, hoping to pick up a few phrases. I, of course, could only really understand the words that were in English. To me, the Hindi conversation sounded like:

“Hindi, hindi, more hindi, lots of hindi, English, a bit more hindi, way more hindi, macaroni, hindi, hindi, concluding hindi.”

The woman said thanks and left.  I turned to Nisha.

“Did you tell her we were English and therefore only ate macaroni?” It was my only guess based on the two words I had known.

She laughed.  “Yes, she was coming here trying to sell vegetable. She wouldn’t hear no, so I told her that you didn’t like Indian food and only ate macaroni every day.”

I couldn’t stop laughing. Here I was, once again, the crazy foreigner.  it’s so funny that to people here, the idea that white people could eat only macaroni all the time seems plausible.

Why wouldn’t we eat macaroni all the time? We look different. We dress different. We speak English in a way that’s hard for people to understand even if they DO speak English.  Why wouldn’t it seem completely normal that we might eat only strange food all the time?  It was a very good excuse that Nisha had created, because now that woman wouldn’t bother us again. So what’s the harm in saying I eat only macaroni?

I am an oddity. And for now, that’s ok.

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Today I felt my first hard dose of disappointment and frustration, Indian-style.

We had settled on the apartment I loved. Daniel was convinced and I was starting to feel like moving forward in India would be easier than anticipated. But when the broker called just to see if we could look at it one more time, we found out someone had put in an offer this morning. Just like that and my dreams of sitting on the balcony watching the monsoon hit the sea while drinking a cup of masala chai were dashed.

Instead I sat drinking my masala in a coffee shop while our broker tried to persuade the owner into considering our counter-offer. No luck. I stared into my milky tea trying to not let that overwhelmed feeling creep back in. I didn’t want to get frustrated with India, with all my warnings about everything moving slowly and inefficiently.

We decided to put an offer on our second choice right away so that we wouldn’t face the same problem again. It had been Daniel’s favorite to begin with and I had liked it before I became so singularly focused on the beach.

We drove into La Paloma, the second choice building, and walked in. I knew what I had loved about it at first, so I went straight to it – the terrace. While we might have lost out on a view of the beach we were gaining an outdoor space that is legitimately larger than our old apartment in New York. And in a city like Mumbai where the average family home often consists of a shack in the slums, I decided to stop being a brat and let go of the old apartment.

With a verbal offer in place I took Phoebe for a walk in the neighborhood we’re staying. We had to maneuver around Monsoon puddles on the way out, but once past those we encountered an obstruction of a different kind.

As we walked I heard a shout from behind – a young Indian girl in a red plaid Catholic school uniform and red barrettes was looking at me. “Can I touch?” she asked, motioning towards Phoebe. I nodded, and then remembered that in India, indicating yes actually entails tilting your head from side to side, akin to the Western standard for no.* “Of course,” I said, since I wasn’t sure that my head tilt was going properly yet. She touched Phoebe’s tail and then ran ahead to catch up with her mother.

When we turned the corner I saw what was happening: school was out and all the sudden the street was filled with a color explosion. Mothers in saris of all different hues escorted more girls in red with red barrettes or red bows. Tiny red patent something shoes (could they be made of cow leather for Hindis?) walked next to sandals. Snow White and Hannah Montana backpacks hung over the shoulders of children climbing into three wheeled open-air rickshaws. One of the Muslim mothers, wearing a hijab, held the hand of her child in school regalia, who carried a backpack emblazoned with a photo of Barbie wearing a hijab just like the mother’s. The whole picture was the weirdest intersection of East and West I had yet to see.

(There’s no picture here for this, sadly, because my desire to capture the imagery is often at odds with my desire to be respectful in residential neighborhoods. Respectful won this particular round. But here is a photo of Phoebe in a quieter area – just to show she’s looking happy!)

The reaction to a small furry ball wandering down the street in a red harness and leash was certainly varied. The children parted either to stare at her or shriek in fear or reach out to touch her. She looks like none of the short-haired large street dogs that roam the streets of Mumbai so she must have looked like a zoo animal. In either case, when the tide of little red dresses receded I think both Phoebe and I were relieved.

At the end of the day we settled in to watch some World Cup action- a perfect bookend to a day of cultural learnings. If Cote D’Ivoire can tie Portugal then maybe I too can conquer Mumbai and get past any new hurdles I might face tomorrow.

*(For those wondering about the Indian head bob thing, I found a Youtube video that hilariously encapsulates the issue)

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