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Posts Tagged ‘great people’

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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We drove around slowly looking every building up and down for some clue to the past. Twenty years is a long time in any Indian city to hope that traces of a particular taxi stand would still exist.

You see, we were on a literary adventure of sorts. I mentioned in my last post that my dad had become particularly enamored with a book about Delhi called City of Djinns (I’m now mostly through it and I really can’t put it down). While the book mostly focuses on Delhi’s history during the Mughal Empire it is sprinkled with stories of the writer’s present day experience. Woven through the book are stories of the various people he encountered including Balvinder Singh, a lothario taxi driver who provides humor and perspective to the story (My dad’s favorite line: ‘May your mustache never turn gray!”). He quickly became my dad’s favorite character.

And so he decided that we must find Balvinder Singh.

The magnificant Humayun's Tomb

The book was published in 1993 but the author’s year in Delhi was 1989, so I thought this was a bit of a fools errand. Beyond that, the only locational clue we had was that the taxi stand was at the back of the International Center (which gave the taxi stand its unintentionally hilarious name, ‘International Backside Taxis’). We’d spent the majority of our day in Delhi going to the main tourist sights: the Red Fort, Jama Masjid and Humayan’s tomb. And each one was spectacular and breathtaking. But after every stop my dad would say, “Ok, but lets not forget we have to find International Backside.”

A view of the Red Fort

So finally, as the day wore down and we were headed back to the hotel, we decided to give it a shot. Maybe Balvinder Singh and his father Punjab Singh were still running their business with the rest of the Singh family?  My dad thought that since the book had given us so much depth to the historical sights we were seeing – allowing us to imagine the feel of each place during its time of Emperors and great architecture, war and prosperity – we should also want to give life to the details of the modern elements of the book.

As we drove around we finally spotted the International Center; it felt like a large victory until we realized that there didn’t appear to be a ‘backside’. We took a left and then another left to see if there was anything on the other side – in this particular area of Delhi the blocks stretched on and as we drove around I started to get the sense that maybe the whole area had been changed too much. Maybe one of the beautiful bungalows we were looking at had required razing the local taxi stand to the ground. We came back around the corner, deciding that we would stop into the International Center and show them the book to see if they knew anything. But as soon as we had made this new plan, my dad suddenly shouted out: “Stop, stop! There’s a taxi stand, look!”

I couldn’t believe it – down a very small gravelly alleyway, in the midst of a posh road in Delhi was a small line of old black and yellow Ambassador taxis with a group of Sikh men sitting around on stools drinking chai. We stopped the car and my dad jumped out.  He opened his book to a page detailing Balvinder Singh and held it up to one of the men, who had stood up and walked over in his curiosity. Our driver (who probably thought we were crazy) got out to translate. They talked animatedly until the man nodded his head and walked away.

Showing the book

He came back with another older man, who spoke a bit of English. He wore a bright orange turban and was missing most of his front teeth.

“You are looking for a Singh?” he asked. My dad explained about the book and that Balvinder and his father Punjab were characters. The man squinted and looked at the pages of the book, as though some person was going to spring to life right out of its type. He laughed.

“Very interesting this book!,” he replied, indicating that he was well aware of the Singh family. And he had an update on everyone.

Dad and his many new friends

“Punjab is died three months ago. Very sad. Balvinder moving to Canada about ten years ago. The other Singh brothers is now driving taxis in South Delhi. But they used to be working right here.”

I was astonished. We may not have been able to meet the Singhs, but we were able to extricate them from the page – we saw with our own eyes the taxi stand described so frequently in our newly beloved book and we had a twenty-year-later update on a family that until moments ago remained vaguely fictional.

My dad and the man continued to try and chat – talking about chai, their ages and Ambassador cars. Eventually we said thank you, shook every single cab driver’s hand, and got back in the car.

I don’t know why it was so thrilling – perhaps being able to bring to life a person from a book that had so effectively brought old Delhi to life made everything we had read seem so much more tangible. If Balvinder Singh could be real, couldn’t I better picture Shah Jehan listening to an audience of subjects in the Red Fort? Or perhaps even trapped in the Agra Fort by his bloodthirsty son Aurangzeb?  Could I suspend my imagination and see Chandni Chowk with elephants strolling down its length and shopkeepers selling their wares at a time when the buildings looked new and fresh?

It was just a small slice of Delhi – and yet for us, the city seemed a little bit more knowable.

 

(Addendum: A lot of people have written and asked how my mom is feeling after her sojourn with Delhi belly: She is completely fine now! Back to her old self and enjoying the rest of the trip)

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About seven months ago I agreed to direct a short film about domestic violence prevention in Dharavi. From the moment the project was conceived and I agreed to take it on, I’ve been very nervous about how I could represent a place where I couldn’t even properly communicate to people. How would I possibly be able to tell their story in an accurate way?

Because of my desire to keep the film as honest as possible, I spent a few months going to Dharavi and shadowing the women I’d be filming. I got to know them through the translations and I decided that I would center the film on the lives of three of the women who worked for the organization, and tell the story through their stories.

It’s been a really long process- everything in India takes time, but working with NGO’s is an extra layer on everything. People are late, meetings get cancelled, filming gets moved, equipment isn’t procured in time and on and on and on. It shouldn’t take seven months to make a twenty-minute film. But that’s how long it did take – months of studying and researching, deciding, making decisions, hard drives breaking, making phone calls and filming over and over again in really difficult conditions without a lot of help.

But I loved it. I loved everything about working with these women. I loved their defiance of the only system they know. I love how they don’t even realize how amazing that seems to an outsider. I love the colors they wear and their children and the hot cups of chai they’re always shoving down my throat despite never having enough for themselves. I might even love (just a little bit) their penchant for always being late and changing plans and standing me up, since that’s a slice of India.

So as I wrote out the script and edited the pieces together I started to become very nervous again. Every word of narration was scrutinized: Does this fit their voice? Does it sound like the narrator is coming from a place above these women? Does it take too many liberties? Even though the narration only counted for less than two minutes out of twenty, I was so concerned with the tone. And I spent just as much time cutting together the words the women had spoken. Did they really want to share this much? Is it exploitative to show this much about the violence that they have faced? Am I including everything that would be important to them?

I wanted it to feel accurate. I wanted the women to watch their film and feel like it came from them. Because that’s what their organization is all about: they are focused on their community, on raising each other up and from building a new set of norms from within. They don’t have trained social workers parading into Dharavi telling them what values they should have. The women from Dharavi try to coax each other into fighting for the rights they deserve.

And I didn’t want to be that outsider parading in.

Yesterday we had a small screening of the rough cut of the film. It’s not done – I still need to add in the real music and do color and audio correction. But I wanted to show it to the woman, N, who runs the domestic violence center in order to get her feedback before finalizing it. After all, if she didn’t like it I would need to make some serious changes. I’d already shown it to B, the woman who runs the organization sponsoring the film, so B invited us over to her place to watch it again and get N’s feedback.

When everyone had sat down I, of course, started babbling like an idiot.

“Just keep in mind that this is a rough cut…”
“Oh and the music is being replaced with other music that’s being written…”
“We still need to do color correction…”
“We can change or add anything…”

Finally I looked over and saw B shaking her head at me, laughing a little. She knew I was nervous. I knew I had to start. So I pushed play.

Throughout the whole movie I kept trying to look at N out of the corner of my eye. Was she smiling? Was she engaged? Was she about to check her watch out of boredom? After twenty very long-seeming minutes, the film ended.

I turned and looked at N, just waiting to hear what words would come out of her mouth. I couldn’t breathe, I just wanted to know what she thought.

“I really loved it. It was honest. It felt like the story came straight from them.”

I exhaled. Those were the magic words.

It really isn’t finished yet – I have all those polishes and tweaks to make. And I know when I’m sitting through the larger screening with all the women from Dharavi I’m still going to be just as nervous. But for the moment I feel like it’s a little bit of mission accomplished – all I wanted was for it to feel genuine and I’m really glad that’s what came across. Hopefully I’ll be able to share it here when it’s done.

Now I get to transfer my nervous and excited energy into something else: my parents’ arrival in India. I’m sitting here writing while they are in the air. I’m counting down the minutes (a lot more than twenty!). So next time I post you’ll get tales of parents and a trip to Rajasthan (where I will finally see the crown jewel of this country I’ve spent so much time in, the Taj Mahal). A lot of excitement for one week. Until next time…

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“Can we possibly order three cups of chai, one order of onion pakoras and some firewood?”

That was certainly a phrase I didn’t know I would ever utter.

The road driving up to Munnar

Everything changed after we drove off the red dusty roads of Tamil Nadu and up into the lush mountains of Munnar in Kerala. As we drove, it seemed like the world we had just been in was slowly disappearing – the air started to clear; the language subtly changed from Tamil to Malayalam; the cows and dogs and goats that populated the streets started to look healthier; tropical plants were replaced with tea plantations and rugged trees; and of course, we lost all cell phone service.

The altitude, the dramatic scenery and the windy roads felt like a new world.  Munnar was like no place I’d seen in India – it is truly off the grid in every sense imaginable. In a weird way, the trees and mountains and lakes kind of reminded me of a bizarre version New Hampshire – except it wasn’t snowing in January and everyone was Indian. Except us, of course.

Our hotel

We arrived after a long drive up into the mountains, and then onto a rocky dirt road that we could only get up with the help of an ancient 4-wheel-drive Jeep. Our hotel was in the middle of nowhere- a few houses and farms spotted the area, but otherwise it was just the hotel. Breathing in the clean, crisp air it was hard to remember we were in the same country we’d just come from.

After a night’s rest and the inevitable ordering of firewood (yes, our cabin got quite cold at night!), K and I decided that the only activity for the day could be a hike. So we set off with a guide from the hotel, who instilled a bit of initial fear when he told us to watch out for leeches.

taking a picture half-way up

We climbed and of course I lagged behind – I always love a good reminder of how completely out of shape I am. I was a little bit embarrassed when I saw a chatty group of older women sauntering up the mountain as though it was nothing at all. We had stopped halfway up and I was watching them as they climbed. When they saw us, they giggled and took a moment to gawk at the funny white girls trying to climb up their mountain. One of them offered us a piece of fruit – it was yellow on the outside and looked like a passion-fruit. Our guide said it was okay to eat and I thanked the woman. I stood, catching my breath and eating a piece of delicious fruit- that certainly wasn’t a bad way to spend a day.

As we continued to climb we eventually saw the same group of women heading down – but this time, they weren’t quite as chatty. As they came towards us I noticed they were all carrying huge, long stacks of wood on their heads. Their arms balanced the wood while their bare feet balanced their bodies down the narrowly demarcated path. They were hardly breaking a sweat. I caught the eye of the woman who had given us the fruit, and nodded. She smiled back, completely unfazed by the poundage bearing down on her head.

A view of Munnar

Since moving to India I’ve been endlessly enjoying watching the ways in which people go about their days.  And as I continued to pathetically huff and wheeze my way up the mountain, I couldn’t help but hope that this would be what I’d remember when I’m back in New York and totally caught up in the day-to-day pressures and expectations of my life. It’s amazing how much it feels like none of that matters when you’re so far away from it.

View from the top

But these thoughts dissipated as soon as we reached the top because all I could think of was sky and mountains and clouds. It was really something to see.

I hate to invoke the old cliche that a picture is worth a thousand words, but in this instance I don’t even think a thousand words could do justice to the breathtaking views. So I’ll end this post with some photos – and a true appreciation for the little slice of India called Munnar.

The mountain we climbed (in the background)

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I sometimes forget that only a few months ago India was a complete unknown to me – I think and behave now as though I belong or that I have a deeper understanding of my adopted country. I haggle and head-bobble to the point of surprising (and maybe even disturbing) friends who aren’t accustomed to my adopted Indian ways.

But of course, every time I think I’ve got it all figured out, India reminds me that I know nothing.

Coming to Tamil Nadu was like a kick in the gut – my Hindi means nothing here in a Tamil-speaking stronghold. After being assured by everyone up and down that there was no possible chance of rain post-monsoon, we encountered an afternoon storm. Familiar food staples have been upended by a world of thalis and dhosas. Despite having spent time in South India in Kerala, Tamil Nadu seems like an entire world away from safe familiar Bandra – and every Tamil I meet is happy and eager to explain to me how different they are from ‘northerners’. I have to say, it feels amazing to be reminded that whatever Indians might call me-  white person, foreigner, gora or ‘Canadian,’ (what one Tamil person seemed to think the Tamil word was for Caucasian) – as a perpetual outsider I will always have quite a lot to learn and be surprised by.

Sri Rangan temple

Our time in Tamil Nadu has centered around seeing temples- another thing I thought I could no longer be surprised by. After Angkor Wat and Borobudur and Prambhanan and Ranakpur I sort of thought I’d run the gamut. But because I’m traveling with two friends who hadn’t been to India before I thought that temples were a pretty important stop – and I’m lucky they let me come along with them, because South Indian temples are unique and powerful unto themselves. Over the last four days we explored temples in Trichy, Tanjore and, today, the epic Meenakshi temple of Madurai.

All of us on a roof facing one of the Vimana's of Sri Rangan

In Trichy we saw the Sri Ranganthaswamy Temple (Or Sri Rangan for short, thankfully). Dedicated to the god Vishnu, it’s a massive temple within walls within other walls over 156 acres that has been continuously built over the last 1,000 years. The most recent tower was only completed in 1987, but others date back to what is believed to be the 11th century. We got all of this information from a guide named ‘Bruce Lee,’ who insisted on telling us serious stories about Hinduism interspersed with showing us his favorite Karma Sutra carvings.  He also showed us how to be blessed by an elephant representing the god Ganesh – I told M and K they’re probably going to have to fib on their customs forms when asked whether they’ve been near livestock (see video below to watch the elephant in action!).

Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjore

Our next temple was the Brihadeeswara Temple in Thanjur, dedicated to Shiva. Built in 1010 during the Chola Empire, this UNESCO World Heritage site boasts India’s tallest Vimana, or temple tower. Standing under the sandy-colored intricately carved granite stone, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the structure – how could anyone reach those heights and carve stones so finely without scaffolding or machinery? These thoughts kept getting distracted by the dozens of tourists hounding us to take our picture – I was once again reminded of how bizarre we must seem. Two white women and a white man wandering around their temple, snapping photos and laughing amongst ourselves. One man wanted to try on M’s sunglasses while children crowded to look at the magical photos popping up on the back of K’s camera. It was a funny sensation to be among the familiar- two of my oldest friends – while being treated like the most interesting oddities around.

Exterior of Meenakshi Temple

But we certainly saved the best for last.

Interior of Meenakshi Temple

In Madurai we got to see Tamil Nadu’s most renowned and beloved place of worship – the Meenakshi Temple. We were delighted to learn this was the only Indian Hindu temple devoted to a woman, Meenakshi (or Parvati), the wife of Shiva. It is one of the largest Hindu temples in the world and certainly one of the most elaborate. While the structure was built in the 17th century, it is believed a temple has stood in this spot since at least the 7th century – and today it represents the center of the sprawling, dusty, decidedly non-colonial city of Madurai.

Getting a bracelet knotted

It was hard for me to ever imagine a city crazier than Bombay, but I think Madurai is it. It is loud and bumpy and often incredibly over-run with advertising and run-down buildings – but it has also proven to be a place where M, K and myself have all relished in meeting and interacting with a population that wants to display their (self-described) southern hospitality.  Everyone we meet – even the people blatantly trying to sell us something – has wanted to convey to us that their portion of India has as much to offer as the more heavily-trafficked north. And our guide, Natarajan, at the Meenakshi Temple, made it a point of pride to try and make sure no one took advantage of us or sold us anything too expensive. It was wonderful to take in the beauty of the temple, but I think the highlight by the end was the jokes we could share with the tailors we were haggling with or the bracelet tied on our hands (for no money! no money!) by a shop-keeper.

Tomorrow we are leaving Tamil Nadu to go into the mountains of Kerala. It will be a sharp departure from the crazy city into the lush plantations, but I feel glad just to have gotten this taste of the south. And if I forget, I’ll be able to look down at the bracelet securely knotted on my arm and remember the place that helped jolt me out of my own India bubble.

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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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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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