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Posts Tagged ‘Hindi’

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.

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Driving out of Bombay was a shock to my senses — could we really be this close to lush green mountains? Apparently it had been here all this time while I was living in my little city cocoon.

I took a bit of small break from writing for the last few days because Daniel and I took a long weekend to Pune and I wanted no computer distracting me from my first moment away from Bombay.

On the highway driving out of Mumbai

And it was those first moments that truly stuck out – the feeling of traffic fading away, of noise and honking dissipating, of seeing rolling hills and no crowds of people. This was a piece of India I hadn’t seen yet, and it struck me that while I felt at home in ‘India’, my whole notion of India was based on Bombay.

We had decided to break up the four-hour drive by stopping at the Karla Caves. The literature I’d read about these caves was oddly imbalanced – the caves are beautiful, but not a major site. It’s an important historical landmark but certainly something you could skip. The caves are hard to believe, but not if you’ve been to any of the more major caves in India. So I didn’t really know what to expect.

We drove up to the base of a hill and started hiking up. On the way Daniel and I ate some roasted corn while we looked out onto a spectacular vista. I was already convinced this was a good stop. We made our way past sellers jockeying to play their Bollywood music the loudest while women weaved garlands together. But none of the usual attempts to sell us items came our way – they were mostly baffled to see white tourists.

When we’d hiked up and paid our 100 rupee entrance ($2 compared to the 5 rupee entrance for Indians) we entered the main cave. And it was magnificent. In the 2nd century Buddhists had carved out the interior of the cave to create a hall with grand pillars lining the walls. At the entrance and above each pillar were intricate carvings.

I am the tiny person...

The Karla caves interior

I stood there and took in the site, marvelling mostly at the fact that this is a site considered “off-the-beaten-track”. In a country so large and so full of rich history it’s amazing how much goes unseen. And I’m sure that if I had gone to the Ejanta and Allora caves (something I’m hoping to do while I’m here) before coming to Karla, I would also have been fairly unimpressed. But here was a cave that more than 2,000 years ago people had dug into (with no modern tools or explosives) and created a pillared hall out of the stone. And it still stands today in pristine condition. How is that not something to shout from the rooftops about?

It mostly just gave me a big reality check that I cannot get too settled into Bombay – I have to see this incredible country.

Of course, after feeling that, the rest of Pune was ironically slightly underwhelming. It certainly is a vibrant city – it’s three or four hours south of Mumbai, a hub for colleges and universities with a thriving cultural scene. I’ve heard it described, for all these reasons, as the Boston of India.

View from a fort in Pune

But we were mostly there to see some of our friends who were in town from the US – and as such the few forts and temples we went to took a backseat to the enjoyment of seeing familiar faces (especially since these forts and temples were not as nice as other temples and forts we had already seen. I’d already forgotten my earlier reminder that we shouldn’t stop appreciating the seemingly less-impressive-by-comparison sites).

One other thing that did strike me about Pune was the presence of Marathi, Maharastra’s main language. I know a lot of people speak Marathi in Bombay (in fact, many native Bombayiites try to argue that everyone here should place more emphasis on Marathi), but Hindi and English rule outside of residential areas. But in Pune, Marathi is king.

Of our two friends (both American second-generation Indians), one spoke Marathi and the other Hindi. And our Hindi-speaking friend (and Hindi-speaking driver from Bombay!) had quite the difficult time. I had heard so much about India’s multi-lingual idiosyncracies, but since in Bombay I am always the foreign one, it amazed me that even a few hours away, Hindi speakers also were lost.

On our last day in Pune we ventured up to a temple on the top of a hill that overlooked all of Pune. It was beautiful to see the whole city laid out in front of is. It was large and sprawling and just another reminder of how small we are in this country with so many people, cities, languages and cultures.

And so we drove back to Bombay, but with a newfound determination to see the rest of India – not just the small India that I know.

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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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I have to be perfectly blunt and say that I can’t possibly fathom what it is like to live in a 10-foot by 10-foot room with one window and one stove and no bathroom with my entire family.

In fact, I don’t really know how to realistically process and respond to my first foray into residential Dharavi without falling into the trap of minimizing, dramatizing or romanticizing the experience.

All I can really say is that now I have seen with my own eyes the living standards that I have heard so much about since moving to Mumbai. And there are a lot of impressions and thoughts that came with my first visit.

I went back to the hospital to meet up with the supervisor who I had been shadowing. He informed me that today, instead of a group meeting, he and his field workers were going out into the community to distribute information about hygiene. This monsoon is the worst in five years and there has been a serious outbreak of malaria and dengue.

I tried to ask in the most polite way, as I had every day, what this had to do with curtailing domestic violence (since that, ostensibly, is their main mission).

“It has nothing to do with violence. But we give information, which is good. Then some people will come to meetings about health care, which they are interested in. Then, once they are involved, we can talk about ending violence. If we start with violence, nobody cares.”

I followed him out of the hospital wondering how he and his field workers get the energy to go out every day when they can’t even raise the topic that they are interested in. It just seemed so daunting.

He informed me that we had to drive to the area we were going to (Dharavi is, after all, very large. At least a million people live here). As we drove he tried to warn me.

“Just… be aware of your feet.”

“My feet?”

“Yes, your feet. They will get dirty. I hope that’s ok.” He didn’t elaborate, but I got the general gist.

We pulled over once we’d gone as far as we could go – I very quickly realized that walking was going to be difficult, let alone driving.

The method for the day was to go “door to door” (I put that phrase in quotes because most of the homes did not have physical doors beyond a makeshift bed sheet).  We walked in from the street and it immediately felt like we’d entered a maze.

They path between houses

Walking into a residential section of Dharavi is actually kind of reminiscent of walking through the tightest alleyways some small European town – if the town were made of poorly constructed cement structures and if you’d been transported back to a time with little plumbing and amenities.

Each home is directly connected to the home next to it, and you maneuver through the area with only a small 2-foot wide pathway serving as your sidewalk. In the middle of this pathway is a hole running the entire length that serves as both a place to lay small pipes and as a moat of sewage.  This is the part that really gets to you if you’re not used to it – there’s a constant pervasive smell of garbage and sewage, which is only exacerbated by the lack of fresh air making its way in. The lanes are so narrow much of it is covered with tarp, so the smells and the heat combine together throughout.

This also creates a trap for the heat– so even though I hadn’t been too hot before we entered the slum, once I was inside the narrow pathways the stale air, confined quarters and number of people surrounding me ensured that I existed in a permanent sweaty state.  But, on the other hand, it started making me cognizant of the small victories: every time a breeze came through I felt it was the coolest moment of my life. I quickly appreciated every wisp of the wind in a way I never had before.

The scene that was laid out in front of me at each turn of the corner was similar– every home had one room, the structure was made of some combination of cement, brick and wood, the roofs appeared to be made of a kind of sheet metal.  Inside every room there was usually a stove, some mats for beds, and a few personal items. A good number of the rooms had televisions – one of the many contradictions that existed in the slum. When at one point I found myself standing at a vantage point where I could see above the structures, I noticed that every third home appeared to have a television dish.  And for every person watching television there were five more staring down at his or her mobile phone.

Color along another path between houses

There was also color everywhere – walls were painted in bright hues, varying clothes dried on the outside of every single house, and children in school uniforms were always running through, brightening the alleys. I don’t know whether it was purposeful or not, but the constant explosion of color gave the slum a vibrancy that seemed to defy the darkness that pervaded in each of the individual rooms.

I mostly just watched as the field workers approached each home and handed out pamphlets  (which had words and text depicting healthy bathing habits, proper garbage disposal and boiling water properly). Some people would only politely accept the handouts without any discussion. Others would take more time and ask questions.

I asked the supervisor what sorts of questions were most common. He said that some people couldn’t read the pamphlet and so they needed to understand the content. Others wanted to know more about the organization. It was in these instances that the field workers could try to encourage the residents to come to a meeting (and they were going to hold one directly following their leaflet distribution). It was their first stage in getting people involved.

Sometimes the discussions took longer – a few people wanted to share their difficulties with the field workers and they would stop to listen and encourage. One woman got angry. She started yelling and talking very animatedly. I had to ask again what was happening.

“She thinks we are useless,” the supervisor said matter-of-factly, “She says if we really wanted to help we would bring medication and other supplies. She says no one will help her and her family.”

“How do you answer that?” I asked.

“Well, we gave her information on clinics that she could go to and places that do give out medication. I understand why she is angry though.”

I didn’t respond. It was still hard for me to shake my previous thought: how could these people be strong enough and motivated enough to do this work every day? These community workers were standing there being yelled at, and instead of being frustrated they were sympathetic of where the anger came from.  I was constantly struck by their enormous patience.

I felt pretty useless in the whole endeavor, but the women kept nudging me along and helping me find my way. They still seemed to accept me, and I felt sort of flattered that they’d actually let me come along for the task. The Dharavi residents themselves mostly just stared at me. Since the pamphlets we were handing out were from Unicef most asked if that was where I was from. It usually started with pointing towards me and then I’d heard the words “gora” and “unicef” thrown in until the field workers responded with “Ali” and “film”. I could usually tell once the conversation had ended because they’d all stop paying attention to me.
The only people who never stopped staring were the children. Every single one, from toddlers to teenagers, looked at me for however long I was standing in their doorway. At many points children would just appear, clearly after having heard that a white person was in their midst. The ones who were learning English wanted to practice. They’d ask to shake my hand and they all wanted to know my name.   When I tried to respond to them in Hindi (saying what my name was or letting them know that I spoke only a little Hindi) they laughed and tried to repeat what I had said in my clearly very foreign accent. But their laughter filled up the constricted alleyways and brought it to life.

The only difficult point for me came when I almost fell headfirst into the narrow sewage stream in the middle of the pathway. Every time I walked I had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other – the pathways were certainly not paved in any standard way and there were often steps or cracked tile or a steep inclines. One turn that looked like a path ended up being mud and I started to slip. But I quickly had at least 10 pairs of hands on me – every field worker and every woman they were talking to had reached out instantly to stop my fall. When I didn’t fall in they all smiled and patted me on the back.

I don’t want to extrapolate too much from one isolated incident, but it certainly made me feel the sense of community that existed there. Maybe that’s my outsider desire to see the good in a dire situation, but it appeared to me that everyone’s instinct was to protect even the visitors. It’s a difficult life and it seems like everyone has accepted that they all need to come together to co-exist.  And maybe it’s from there that the field workers keep the momentum to do the difficult work that they do.

I don’t know if any of these instincts are right. But I’m certainly looking forward to delving in further and trying to tell these women’s stories.   Watching the number of people who showed up for the post-distribution meeting I certainly started to feel more empowered. I sat in a schoolhouse – one room with a broken fan with one chalkboard and no chairs – as the field workers gave an in-depth discussion of disease prevention to the fifteen women who’d showed up. It’s slow work, but little by little they are enacting changes in their community.

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Try to imagine sitting in a meeting where you don’t understand the language that the meeting is being conducted in. You’ll either be really bored or you’ll start to notice the details of a conversation in a way you never could if you were just focused on the words. Perhaps it’ll be a little bit of both.

This is the scenario I found myself in on my second day of observing in Dharavi. I wanted to sit in on one of the afternoon group meetings. The supervisor who was leading the meeting spoke perfect English so he said he could translate the basic agenda throughout the afternoon. Of course I should have guessed that the person leading the group wouldn’t have a lot of time to lean over and translate.

While we walked from the hospital to the field office I asked what today’s meeting was about.

“Today the meeting will be about lots of things. The women who come will get information from us and then they can spread that back among their community. So we’re talking about senior citizen benefits and rations and health care during the monsoon.”

I tried to keep up with him as we walked. I was attempting to maneuver through the streets without stepping in garbage or getting run over while still maintaining a conversation. After sidestepping a tethered sheep, I endeavored to get more clarity, “But what does that have to do with domestic violence?” I asked.

“Nothing today. But we always try to bring it up a little bit and then build trust and stay in their minds as a resource. But today is just about spreading information for daily life.”

I nodded while falling back to accommodate a bus coming by. We turned the corner into the field office and I was relieved to be off the street. I took my shoes off (today I had more wisely chosen waterproof footwear) and walked in among a much larger group than I had seen the previous day. About 30 women of all ages had come to the meeting. I sat down at the front with the supervisor while they all stared at me.

He started talking and gesturing towards me. I could make out a few words- Ali, filming, etc – so I knew he was explaining who this white person was and why she was here. As he talked everyone started nodding and smiling towards me. And with that, the meeting began.

Every once in a while I would get the basics translated (“Now we’re talking about how to set up the benefits if you are a senior citizen” or “Now we are answering questions about taxes”) but mostly I just listened as the words went in one ear and musically drifted out the other without meaning. Every minute or so I’d pick up on a phrase or a number I knew. Or I’d hear a word or phrase in English (for example, Senior Citizen Benefits is just referred to as Senior Citizen Benefits. I suppose they use terms like that when they are the official government term, since the government of India’s official language is English).

So I just watched. And even without understanding the content I got the distinct sense that this was a group of women who wanted to gain every piece of knowledge they could. They hung onto all the words that I couldn’t understand. When a question was posed calling for a show of hands, the hands shot up enthusiastically. All eyes were on the speaker as every woman sat on the ground for over two hours in a hot room with nothing but fans to keep them cool. They all had questions – and when they were called on they spoke animatedly and excitably, as though the entire world depended on the question’s answer.  They clearly were there to better their communities and to use the resource that had been placed in front of them. You don’t need to know the language to feel like you understand the sense of the urgency each person is feeling.

And it was apparently acceptable to them that I was just sitting in. Every time one of them would catch me watching, they didn’t look away – they always smiled and looked me right in the eyes. One child came over to give me a closer look (as one might imagine, the children here have no hesitation to overtly staring at a white person) and when I looked at the mother to see if it was ok, she gave me an approving nod. The child sat down in my lap and took a nap. No one seemed to notice. I guess if I wanted to come be a part of their community no one was going to give me a second thought — even if I couldn’t communicate beyond the most rudimentary basics.

At the end of the meeting a number of women stood around to continue to share their ideas and questions with the supervisor and the field workers. I walked out with the last group and everyone waved and said goodbye to me. I hadn’t understood the words, but I was glad I had come.  I think sometimes its important to see the work and see the excitement. And then perhaps, sometime soon, the translations will come a little bit more quickly.

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We marched out of the Dharavi hospital with a sense of purpose. I’d come back to begin my project here with the domestic violence prevention center. I’m going to be documenting the work they do and so I’m starting by shadowing for a few days.  I’d met up with the supervisor in the main office, but he was taking me to the field office, in the heart of the slum.

We had to go single file – there are no sidewalks in Dharavi that I’ve seen. We were walking along 60 Foot Road, which is named quite literally for the width of the street.  It’s a bustling thoroughfare with shops on either side and then trucks, cars, motorbikes, people, stray animals, and trash all crowding the road.  Because of the monsoon everything is wet and mud sticks onto my feet and legs within the first steps. At times I had to breathe through my mouth when passing a particularly garbage-filled (or excrement laden) area.

I tried mostly to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other and following my leader. I kept one eye on his black shirt in front of me and one eye on the ground so I didn’t fall or step on anything that could hinder me. We maneuvered through large good carrier vehicles parked on one side of the road while cars and motorbikes went around us on the other side. It’s like an elaborate game of Frogger getting through the Dharavi streets, and you can’t stop paying attention for more than a moment.

But when I could steal away moments of attention, I tried to take in the energy of the place. It’s like it’s own small city in the middle of a metropolis. The commotion has a pattern and every shop and stand is bustling with the breath of the community. It’s colorful and chaotic and exciting – even while you’re trying not to get run over.

By the time we got to the office my sandals were soaked through and the bottom of my blue kurta was splattered with mud and dust and who knows what else. The office is mostly just an empty room with no windows and no formal door – paint cracked on walls that were entirely empty except one team photo. Everyone sat on the floor, paying no attention to the one piece of furniture in the room, a desk with an unused old computer. But the circle of women that occupied the space filled the room with their vibrancy.

I took my shoes off and sat with the women, who were diligently writing in notebooks on wooden trays perched on their laps. One volunteer, who had been brought along to translate for me, alerted the group to my presence. In Hindi she explained who I was and why I was there. Everyone looked up and smiled at me – without words I knew I was welcome.

Through slow translations I began asking questions. The most vocal of the group, a woman of approximately 30 in a blue kurta with her hair pulled into a tight bun, started by explaining their day to day activities. In the morning they document the previous day’s work (hence the writing when I walked in) and do office activities. In the afternoon they hold sessions.  The sessions consist of groups of women from the community who want to talk about any issue that’s bothering them, whether it be sanitation concerns, food rationing, or safety. The field workers try to use these sessions to solve community issues as well as raise the problems of domestic violence.  Even though all of this was being said to me in Hindi, the woman speaking looked straight at me as she talked, as though she wanted to make sure the message was coming through.

I asked why the subject of domestic violence had to be addressed in such a roundabout way. A quiet woman in an orange sari with a slew of bangles and earrings responded animatedly once my question was raised. She said it’s an impossible topic in Dharavi. No one would come to their group sessions if they were just speaking primarily about domestic violence. Most of the time, if a woman raises the issue, she begins by saying she has a cousin or a neighbor who is experiencing violence in the home. Then the workers have to approach her later to find out if it is really she who is in need of help or counseling.

We talked for over an hour through translations about the various work they do beyond the group sessions – outreach campaigns and talks and films, youth groups and now even a men’s group. They have an upcoming campaign August 15th for Indian Independence day where they will try to recruit new members. They’re also now training more active members in how to deal with domestic violence throughout the community beyond the group sessions.

The women truly lit up when I asked why each of them had decided to make a career out of community work. All the field workers are originally from Dharavi and all the ones I spoke to had originally gotten involved through the groups they now lead. Most of them originally didn’t even know you could have a job where your duties were just helping others. But as every one went around the circle and told their individual stories it was clear that each had been inspired by the small changes they could create and now all were devoting their life to it.

We took a break for lunch before they went out into the community for their afternoon work. I sat, hesitant. I certainly didn’t want to get sick from eating street food in Dharavi. But even before the Hindi was translated I could see that they all wanted to share their food with me. They all now had questions for me and it was my time to share. As they pulled out their rotis and various vegetables they started quickly asking questions to my translator while motioning for me to eat.

I didn’t want to be rude. I couldn’t be rude – they had answered every question I had and had welcomed me in without hesitation.  And now they wanted to share with me.  So I took a roti, said a little internal prayer hoping to not get sick, and ate. As I ate I answered all their questions – why was I here in India? What country did I come from? Did I like being in Mumbai? Did I miss home? Did I like Indian food? Through the translation they all laughed and smiled and kept asking more and more questions.

And when lunch was over and they were off for their afternoon work I said goodbye and made my way back through the crazy streets of Dharavi. I’d be back the next day to see the group sessions and I already felt truly lucky to be able to watch them work in this place they loved so much.

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I am starting to feel some pressure to beef up my Hindi.  After all, if a person tells you that your language skills give them a sense of national pride, you need to try as hard as possible.

This all started with a trip to purchase a phone – Nisha’s phone broke so we went on an expedition for a new one.

While we’re out, Nisha and I have gotten into the habit of prodding each other – I’ll make her read signs and she’ll make me repeat numbers back to her in Hindi.  I’ve needed the extra help with the numbers, because learning them in practice is tricky – even if you can say them all fast in a row, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can remember a specific number off the bat (I.e. you might count to ten in succession, but do you remember which one means eight?).

This has proven even harder for large numbers. If something cost 1,260 rupees, you have to remember how to say one, a thousand, two, a hundred AND sixty. It looks like one number on the page when in reality you’re remembering five numbers and putting them together.

The reason I used this number as an example is because when we got to the phone store, we were told that the basic phone cost 1,260 rupees. And as the store clerk announced this, I chirped back at him “Ek hazaar doe saw sarth” (or 1,260 in Hindi). I looked to Nisha, as I always do, to make sure this was right. But once I saw her nod I turned around and noticed that every one of the seven people helping us was staring at me in amusement.

“You know Hindi?” one of them said.
“Tora, tora Hindi boltay,” I said, (roughly translates to “I speak little, little Hindi”). They clapped their hands with delight.

“Where did you learn Hindi?”  I nodded towards Nisha but their curiosity wasn’t satisfied, “Why you learn Hindi? Where are you from?”

“Well,” I started, “I’m from America. And I only know very very little Hindi. But I’m learning it because I think it’s important to know the basics while I’m living in India.”

They all looked at each other and nodded. One man who had been silent up until that point suddenly came to the front of the counter and looked me dead in the eyes.

“You have no idea what this is to us,” he said. “If people like you want to come here and speak in our language it means something great for India.”

“We are very happy to hear you speaking Hindi,” another man said. “Yes,” another concurred, “It gives national pride.”

I didn’t really know how to respond to this. My basic Hindi gives these people national pride? That I can recite numbers (extremely slowly) in Hindi? How could I possibly believe that?

The many helping hands in the phone store- new phones and new sims

Here I was, surrounded by more than half a dozen young Indian men who spoke perfect English and yet they wanted to praise me for the rudimentary Hindi words I had picked up.

I tried to explain that I hadn’t learned very much yet, but they would hear none of it. They spoke in quick Hindi to Nisha trying to find out more information about me.

I wasn’t going to protest. After all, this was why I’d wanted to learn Hindi, right? I wanted to be politically correct and culturally sensitive and all of that. But it’s one thing to think that you should try hard to respect the culture you’ve moved into; It’s quite another to have someone tell you that it’s meaningful to them that you’re trying.  It made me feel like I should be trying harder.

And this certainly wasn’t the first time my terrible Hindi has received a shocked reception. Everywhere I go – at bars, in rickshaws, at markets and now at the phone store – most Indians seem bemused that I’m at least trying to speak their language.  No one expects white people to try at all (since English is the co-national language here), so even the basics in Hindi are congratulated.

And I’m sure that for most people, half the fun is in watching this foreign person struggle with a bad accent at their language. But every time my bad Hindi makes someone laugh, or whenever they ask me to repeat my words again for their friends, I’m getting the sense that it’s the most crucial way for me to adapt. It’s an immediate signal that I’m trying, ever so slowly, to fit into Indian culture instead of trying to make it adapt to me. And that seems to be appreciated.

As we left the store I waved and said, “Muje apsay milnee acha laga”.
“It’s nice to meet you too, ma’am!” they replied, before talking animatedly amongst themselves while continuously looking back at Nisha and me as we walked away

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