Posts Tagged ‘frustration’

The Simple Things

It’s always the simple things in life that you take for granted. And luckily (or unluckily) for me, I get a constant reminder of that in my day-to-day life here.

A few days ago I found myself in need of labels. Nothing fancy, just a few names and addresses printed out on sticky labels to then put onto some envelopes.

In my previous life this would be a simple task – either I would print them out at my office or I could pop over to Kinkos and have it done in five minutes. This, clearly, was not in the cards for me with these labels.

I started by asking Daniel. That should have solved it – he has an assistant and everything! But, lo and behold, Daniel’s Indian assistant has actually been outsourced to Chennai and therefore couldn’t print anything personal for him. The world is indeed a strange place.

So I began calling printing companies. My conversations went mostly like this:

Me: Hello, I’m calling because I want to print out some labels. Can you do that?
Them: Hold on

(wait for ten minutes and then a new person arrives)

Them: Hello? Why you calling?
Me: I want to print labels.
Them: What?
Me: Labels
Them: What is label?
Me: A sticky thing with an address printed on it.
Them: Called a what?
Me: A label.
Them:What is a label?
Me: Like I said, it’s a sticky piece of paper with an address printed on it.
Them: Who are you?
Me: My name is Ali
Them: Where you calling from?
Me: Bandra
Them: Why you are calling?
Me: Again, I’m calling about labels. LABELS
Them: Hold on

You then wait another ten minutes, have the same conversation again with a different person (who is equally confused by the concept of labels) until finally someone says:

Them: We don’t do
Me: Is there anyone you know of who can?
Them: Yes, call this number

Of course, the cycle then continues because the next person I called did the same thing, and the subsequent ten places all were equally as non-committal on the subject of labels. Finally I was put in touch with a man named Mr. Desai who said I should just come to his office.

I went with a friend of mine who was in town and we walked around a parking lot and pile of trash with goats surrounding it until we found Mr. Desai’s office.

A still-in-use printer

It was like we were transported back in time. The roof of the office consisted of sheets of metal with patches of light streaming through the various holes and cracks. The room was dark and dingy with floors so coated in dust our shoes made small footprints when we walked. Mr. Desai sat at a desk with piles of dusty old ledgers, like an Indian Ebeneezer Scrooge staring into his calculator. And in the corner stood a printer that looked closer to Johann Gutenberg’s era than Kinkos. It was absurd.


“You have emailed to me your file?” Mr Desai said slowly, unsure of his English.
“Yes,” I replied, indicating that I’d sent it to the email address he’d given me on the phone. But, of course, there was no computer in sight, so I wasn’t quite sure how this was all going to be accomplished.
“Excellent. It will only be a minute. You sure you want it sticky?” he said, as though I might be confused by the concept of what I needed.
“Yes, it needs to be sticky,” I responded simply.
“Acha, Okay,” he said, and then went back to his ledgers.

We sat and waited. I was so grateful I had someone with me because as the minutes ticked on it seemed like we might be there for hours.

Forty-five minutes after arriving, a man walked in the store, triumphantly holding papers above his head. They weren’t quite labels, but they were addresses printed on paper that would stick, and that was all I needed.

They were labels, India-style.

Read Full Post »

Dhīrē, Dhīrē

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slowly but surely might be the proper translation.

Read Full Post »

Post It

I’m not quite sure how I had managed to avoid the Indian Postal Service until today. I didn’t realize I was missing one of India’s greatest bureaucracies in action.

Normally when I have to mail a letter, Daniel can send it from work. But I wanted to mail some presents to friends in the UK and I figured it was a little more complicated so I should do it myself. Of course, I’m really a fool for assuming that something more complicated would be a better task to take on.

The difficult to identify Bandra Post Office

I arrived with my lovingly packed presents in hand. The presents themselves represented one of my favorite things about India: they were two unique hand-made gifts and I’d wrapped them in a beautiful hand-painted yellow wrapping paper made from recycled paper. But my I-Love-One-of-A-Kind-Amazing-Things-Made-In-India joy for my presents was soon mockingly destroyed by the fact that India’s own postal service wanted to crush my spirit.


I tentatively walked into the Post Office, or, more accurately, what looked like an abandoned building. Confused by the darkened hallway, I walked up to the only window I could find. Heavy wooden shutters were open onto a window with heavy wooden bars. The only large opening in these bars was well below my height (clearly, and understandably, made for small Indian women), so I ducked my head down and said hello. The representative looked back at me, amused. He seemed delighted by the fact that a gangly white person in a kurta had to be so uncomfortable to talk to him.

My new friend and his wooden bars

“I’m trying to mail two packages to the UK. I want to use the regular Indian Postal Service.”
“No Indian Postal Service now ma’am.”
“Why not?” I replied
“Ma’am, Postal Service only until 2pm”
“Oh, you mean it won’t go out until 2pm tomorrow?”
“No, we do not process after 2pm. You can only do Speed Mail now, but its ok because then you can track it. Look at the sign.”

The very useful sign

I looked over to my right at a large red sign that indeed had a whole listing of times for different services. Of course, you wouldn’t know these times unless you were standing in this particular post office. And, of course, it also made no sense. Why couldn’t they process their own mail system after 2pm? I decided to not ask these kinds of questions to a man sitting with a ledger instead of a computer. In fact, when I looked behind him stack upon stack of dusty old ledgers sat haphazardly as if they’d been there a lifetime.

“Hand me the packages, I’ll weigh them to determine the cost.”

I did this and he started opening and looking through them- and not in a gentle way that indicated his love for artisanal wrapping paper (I know, I’m lame), but in a way that one would normally handle trash.

He actually opened them...

“Oh… sir… I… those are wrapped. They’re presents!”
“So…. You’re ripping the paper.”
“I just want to see what they are.”
“For customs?”
“No, I’m just interested. What ”

I stood there, dumbfounded. He looked up and me and saw that I wasn’t amused so, as a gesture, he started to tape it all back together. With packing tape. I gave up trying to salvage my paper.

“Ok,” I responded, “So how much is it to send two packages to the UK?”
“Well if you send separate it is 900 rupees for each. If you send together it is 1,000 rupees. It is based on weight, you see.”

I didn’t really see. It made no sense. But I made the executive decision to send them together (the packages are going to two friends anyway, so I figured they’d see each other). My new friend told me to go outside and deal with a guy who would help me with my customs form.

What could he possibly be making?

Baffled as to why this would take place outside, a new man gestured for me to come towards him on the sidewalk, so I just went with it. I tried to explain that I’d need bubble wrap or paper or something to keep everything from breaking. But he wasn’t’ really listening.

I started to stare intently at what he was doing – what was he doing? He had taken what looked like a piece of burlap and was sewing it with a large needle and a piece of string. I couldn’t make out what he was creating. So I just stood there, in the street, where homeless people were sleeping and one child was urinating while a man from the post office sewed something together that apparently was needed for international packages. No one else seemed to think this was weird. To them, I was what was weird.

Finally it came together – he was sewing a sack to put everything in. Was this intended as my bubble wrap or buffer?

Yes, my presents are inside

No, no it was not. This was my package. There’s no “International Mail Box” I was being given or even a padded envelope. I was required to send my packages via burlap-sack. Then handed me a customs form to fill out and I wrote in all the details and gave it back to him. He started sewing the customs form onto the parcel. I had to stifle a laugh. It was just too absurd. Really? Really? I’m standing on the street while a man sews a customs form onto my burlap parcel?

He handed it back to me and told me to go inside to pay. I went back to my original friend and gave him the package.

“It’ll be ok, right?” I said, hoping he might tell me about the greatness of ‘Speed Mail’.
“Ma’am, only God will tell.”

I guess in three to five business days I’ll know how the sack held up.

My customs form being sewn on

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

I know I’ve been having some technical difficulties here of late, but I didn’t expect for the actual sky to fall down.

Early Sunday morning, as I was just starting to wake up with my first cup of tea in my pajamas, I got a knock on my door from one of our downstairs neighbors.

“Do you mind coming to look at something? I’m really sorry to bother you,” she said, tentatively. I didn’t know what could be so important that early, but I said yes and started walking down the stairs with her.

“I just thought you should see this,” she said. I was now really curious. We walked into the apartment and I gasped- all of the plaster from the ceiling in their bedroom had fallen down. The light fixture was hanging by a cord, dangling precariously. I could see every beam and it was clear that the damage had come from some water damage above. Her boyfriend was talking angrily in Hindi to a construction worker who was assessing the damage. I realized we were standing right below our terrace.

“When did this happen?” I asked. I didn’t want to ask how it happened, since I was pretty sure it was coming from somewhere in our apartment.

She explained that the night before she and her boyfriend had heard a crash while they had guests over- luckily they had been in the living room. They came into the room and saw the damage. They had called their landlord who obviously had contacted the builder of the building.

We decided to go up to the terrace and try to figure out where it was all coming from. It became pretty obvious once we saw that the space where rain water was supposed to drain was directly above the area where the ceiling had collapsed.

The builder’s ‘man’ arrived and tried to smooth-talk us all. Oh, it will only take a few days to fix. Oh, it’s not a big deal. Oh, this is pretty standard.

We insisted on getting their time-line in writing. Suddenly they weren’t such smooth talkers. Eventually we got them to agree to a timetable in writing and we concluded that they would start working on Tuesday.

It’s sometimes a scary thing in India when you consider the lax building codes and standards. Another friend of ours also had her ceiling collapse a few weeks ago – and hers included beams and everything, so I guess we got lucky. In the US we take for granted the stringent standards and building codes – it would make news if a part of a building collapsed. But here, it’s not really something anyone would bat an eye at. Now I know this post has probably scared my mother so I’m going to say this: the areas of the ceiling that collpased were cosmetic and fell because they were damaged by water. All the structure and beams were thankfully intact and show no signs of wear! But its still a bit jarring to see everyone so blase about something that could have potentially been dangerous.

And I felt really bad for our neighbors – they were getting the ceiling of their other room checked out a well, which would mean a hole carved in their second bedroom’s ceiling. They had no full roof to sleep under! After everyone left, Daniel offered our neighbors some beer – I thought we might as well enjoy the terrace if it was wreaking so much havoc. They agreed and we ended up spending the rest of the afternoon enjoying some beer, then lunch, then a cup of tea all a few feet from the drainage that had made their sky fall in. It was a lemonade from lemons moment – we all might have to deal with a lot of builders over the next few weeks, but at least we got to know the people who live in such close proximity.

We’ll see whether the builders show up tomorrow.

Read Full Post »

One of my favorite – and simultaneously least favorite – elements of living in India is that I’m constantly being forced out of my comfort zone. And after living here a while my comfort zone now includes dirt and poverty and sweat and chaos. But yes, even after getting used to the glaring differences between the US and Mumbai there’s still a plethora of minor divergences that challenge me to let them get in the way – or conquer them and feel victorious.

I mention this because, as I wrote about previously, I agreed to do some video work for a group of non-profits and educators who were holding a conference on innovation, called InspirED. Unlike some of the other projects I’ve agreed to, this one seemed easy: I had a budget, they were overseen by great organizations, we eventually had top-notch equipment donated and, frankly, they were inside a real building (not something I ever would have considered a factor before moving here).

Of course the ‘what could go wrong’ attitude probably doomed me from the start.

After months of planning for and shooting in schools, my emergency trip home was needed right as the conference was happening. I missed the whole thing.

I tried to mitigate the circumstances by writing a long email to the people who were going to take over filming that detailed what every camera should be doing at every moment.

But when I got back, the challenges stood in front of me like a solid brick wall: the film school that had donated the equipment couldn’t figure out how to get the tapes onto a hard drive into a format that was readable. After a month of back and forth, once I got the material I realized that 90% of what I had asked to be filmed wasn’t. I had wanted to do multiple videos, one especially that followed some of the teachers I had interviewed before the conference. But they hadn’t been interviewed. The only interviews anyone had done were a series of two minute “how did you like the conference” interviews.

Let’s just say it wasn’t what I had in mind.

To make matters more complex, practically everyone in India uses Final Cut Pro (the Mac editing software). I was only used to Avid – but there wasn’t one to be found here (it’s MUCH more expensive than Final Cut). This was the ultimate wrenching from my comfort zone. On an Avid I could edit the video together in a second. In Final Cut, I’d barely know where to find my video. However, for this project and almost all future ones I’ll have to use Final Cut, so I knew I’d have to suck it up and learn it.

But this was the hand I had been dealt. It was such an India-type problem: you don’t have exactly what you want, everything’s a little broken, but we’re going to pull it all together anyway.

I wrote a script around the interviews that we had. When I got to Film City to edit, I had a 10-minute crash tutorial in the differences between Final Cut and Avid. I got to work.

It was slow goings at first. The computer shortcuts I knew in my sleep were no longer guiding me. Every few minutes I’d come on a problem that my short tutorial hadn’t covered and I’d have to test out a few theories or go to the help manual.

But eventually, I got the hang of it. It wasn’t so different to Avid once you learned the keyboard differences. And even though it took six hours to make a three-minute video (very slow for me), I did it. I did it.

I felt like jumping for joy when my draft was finished. It looked good. I had done it in Final Cut. I had a legitimate draft that I could send out.

I’ll have to get comments and go back and finish up the editing. But it was a moment of victory in a world where nothing is ever as easy as you expect. I’m used to working in a realm of professional equipment, with people to guide me and someone there to fix any malfunction or difficulty. But here, when you do figure it out on your own, you get the feeling you can do anything. This was not my comfort zone. But man, am I glad I was pushed out of it.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »