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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

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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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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Locating the Zen

I’m having a difficult time moving my body today. And no, it has nothing to do with my recent illness.

It really mostly has to do with my own sad un-athleticism and lack of doing anything remotely representing a workout for years and years of my life. That is, of course, until Daniel and I started yoga.

When you move to India, everyone seems to think that the natural thing to pick up is yoga – why not learn about America’s favorite Indian import in the land of yoga itself? But for a long time I avoided doing yoga much like I’ve avoided doing anything athletic my whole life. As a New Yorker you can convince yourself that you don’t need to work out because you walk so much. And for me this was always a bit true – I’d walk the dog every morning and night. I’d walk to and from work. I kept up a brisk pace in all this walking. It seemed to me like I was moving enough to avoid a gym.

But in Mumbai, there’s not a lot of walking. There aren’t a lot of places to take a stroll. And even when you are near a place you could stroll, the weather (monsoon or extreme heat) usually makes it seem sort of unappealing. So Daniel and I both agreed, after living here for some time, that we needed to try something in order to not resemble the elderly when walking up a flight of stairs. Yoga it is.

To avoid extreme embarrassment we agreed it would be best to have a teacher come to the house. Luckily here that ends up being cheaper than most large yoga classes you’d find in New York. On recommendation from a friend we were put in touch with Niranjan, a yogi who specializes in private instruction. We agreed he would come four times a wee, whip us into shape and perhaps give us a little enlightenment.

He showed up for the first class and we introduced ourselves. Phoebe was jumping around excitedly, as she always does when a new person arrives, and he leaned down very slowly and calmly to pat her. He quietly asked if we were ready and then led the way.   He certainly had the demeanor of a yogi – every step seemed deliberate; every move was fluid. I began to think that he was in for a big treat with us.

We began with breathing exercises that made my head feel light. Niranjan assured us this would get better with time. Then we started with some asanas, or positions. Our flexibility was certainly in question. Daniel couldn’t really cross his legs, and needed the help of a pillow to do it. I kept losing my balance when I needed to stand on my toes. But with every apparent failure Niranjan would just smile and say, “In time, you’ll be able to do.”

Phoebe found this all quite a bit more exhilarating than we did. She didn’t grasp the seriousness of what was going on, but to her it seemed like one big game. With every move or position change she’d try to lick our faces or sit on the yoga mat or run in circles expecting us to follow. She sized up Niranjan and would only sit quietly next to him, looking up and hoping he would give her another pat. She certainly didn’t understand why her parents looked so tired and strained. I’m sure Niranjan began wondering very early on whether the pathetic white people with the overly-excitable dog could ever really accomplish anything.

By the end of the first lesson I was starting to look forward to the asana where you lie flat before going into ‘cobra’ pose. My arms were like jelly and my legs were stretched to a point where it was tiring just to stand. Our ‘Yoga for beginners’ is not an easy route to greater flexibility and balance. It is an all-out full-body workout with an instructor who corrects us when we’re trying to cheat and and ensures us that we actually can go into our sixth mountain pose, even if we’d rather just lie down and take a nap. He does this all while maintaining his unbelievable air of calm and demonstrates every pose that is being done incorrectly with indescribable ease.

By the third lesson Niranjan seemed to beleive that we had already begun to improve flexibility. “Look at how much further you can go toward your toes?” he said as I leaned over, grasping more for my calves than my toes. He put his hand on my back and pushed me to try a little harder, grab a little further. Daniel was able to cross his legs without the pillow.

I know these are not drastic improvements. I was still winded by the end and my body still hurts today. But slowly, with a lot of practice and a lot of help, I think we’ll get better. I’ll still probably look forward to the breathing and meditating more than the asanas, but it all comes as a package. Four mornings a week we’ll do salutations to the sun and hope we’re improving our bodies a little bit too. India style.

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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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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.

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As I wrote about previously, my friend B is getting married in March and she is (bravely) doing her wedding invitations here in Mumbai.

This is a process that has some clear positives and negatives – the main positive is, not surprisingly, that it is much, much cheaper to do invitations here. The drawbacks are that the process takes longer and sometimes you fear that important elements will get lost in translation.

But after a lot of searching B had settled on Nikunj – the only person on ‘wedding invitation street’ who spoke English well and seemed to understand what she wanted. He seemed to find us amusing enough to put up with the multiple meetings, emails, calls and tweaks that it took to get it right. I certainly enjoyed watching the process unfold – its amazing the difference between American and Indian wedding invitations.

But eventually it came together: the design was set, the paper was picked and the colors agreed upon. It was time to print.

Early on in the process Nikunj had offhandedly mentioned that they did the printing nearby and it was all by hand. We were instantly excited at the idea of seeing invitation-making in action. So Nikunj had agreed to allow us to go to the printers with him.

We set off not really knowing what to expect. We walked up a steep ladder into a muggy room with 5 or 6 sweaty men – some were standing around, others diligently working on some letterhead. It was actually incredible – one by one they were making company letterhead with ink that they would briskly push across a silk-screen. B asked Nikunj if this was expensive letterhead – after all, getting each page done by hand must cost extra.

“No, this is normal letterhead,” he replied, waving away the question as though there wasn’t any reason to think human labor was costly.

And once again there was that reminder of the cost of doing business in India. To have two actual people sitting at a contraption manually putting out these pages was infinitely cheaper than buying and maintaining the machine that could do it without any help.

But we soon got sidetracked once we caught sight of the silk-screen for B’s invitations. We watched as the printer carefully started gluing paper down – he was creating a corner to align each invitation so that everything would be straight. This was not a high tech process.

What B really wanted was to check that the ink color matched her swatch – so we stood by and saw as the men mixed ink together, bit by bit until the colors eventually fit the swatch. You could tell this was something they could do without really thinking about it. Or as Nikunj said, “they can mix the colors with their eyes closed.”

Modern ink was being poured onto machines that clearly had been used for generations. The silk-screens were carefully cleaned by hand after each test batch of color. Fans whirred away as we stood watching. I was glad we’d been allowed into this very specific world of printing.

But I was also a little bit disappointed when, as we were walking out, Nikunj mentioned that in a few years he hoped to be able to buy machines to do the printing. His logic was that it would be faster. In the monsoon they wouldn’t have to wait for everything to dry. There would never be imperfections.

I couldn’t help but think of the men who could mix ink with their eyes closed and our wonder at watching them whisk the ink over the paper like magic. Maybe that’s glorifying a sweaty workshop a little too much. But I started to feel like we were getting to watch an art that may not be around for too much longer.

I think it might be time for me to order some new stationary.

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(This post is dedicated to my grandmother – who reads this blog every day and loves seeing the world.)

In India, ‘the right to education’ has become a catch phrase. In a country with startling levels of illiteracy and poverty it’s hard to think of something more imperative than giving every child some kind of education. The UN Population Fund estimates that only 77% of men and 54% of women in India are literate (let’s not get started on that gender gap…).   But youth literacy is the key to the future; and UNICEF estimates that 87% of 15-24 year olds are literate – a better start than their parents and grandparents.

So when India’s ‘Right to Education Act’ came into force this past April, requiring compulsory education for every child ages 6-14, you’d think most people would jump for joy. But like ‘No Child Left Behind’, it seems that results are more difficult than just passing a law.

If you ask most people in India about education you’ll hear the same stories – the schools are crumbling, kids in poorer areas can’t even get in to a school. But it doesn’t matter if kids get into a ‘Municipal School’ because the teachers are so poorly trained they barely learn anything (ie: becoming literate may be the only thing they achieve in many years of schooling). There are no resources.

It’s not a pretty picture I’ve been painted.

So when I was asked to help out with InspirED, the innovation in education conference, I was interested to see what all the talk was about. How can you possibly even begin to solve these problems with a conference? I didn’t know – I still don’t know. But at least now I’ve seen some positives of Indian schooling.

One thing I wanted to do before the conference was go into schools, shoot some video, talk to teachers that were attending the conference.  And in this vein, I was inspired by what I saw.

A classroom wall

I went to the class of a teacher who is doing ‘Teach for India’ (the same basic model as Teach for America). And when I walked into the school, all the negatives I’d heard rang in my ear – the building was falling apart. Paint came off the walls in chunks. Children played in a courtyard made of cement. They were sharing desks and books.

But when I went into the class (a 3rd grade equivalent), the children were listening. They were writing letters to pen pals in London (adorable) –  they were supposed to be practicing proper grammar.  There were 35 kids in the class and they all wanted desperately to get their teacher’s attention. They were raising hands, participating, writing silently when asked to and (somewhat most astonishingly) not distracted by the large camera filming them.

It was one bright glimmer in a sea of classrooms I had clearly never seen or experienced. I haven’t been to the schools where the children are supposed to learn in English from a teacher who barely speaks English themselves. I haven’t been to the classrooms with no paper or pencils to write with. I certainly have seen, from my time in Dharavi, a lot of young people (women especially) who are taken out of school early or prevented from going altogether so they can work.

A photo of me in the class - now up on the 'Wall of Professional Visitors' for the kids to see!

So maybe it was naive to think that the solution is just good teachers. But (and this is a gross generalization), from everything I’ve heard, India doesn’t have our difficulties with unruly students and no desire to learn. The kids here are starving to learn. They behave in class. They just need a teacher who engages them even if the room is crumbling and even if their books look so worn you can barely the read the covers. Perhaps the right to education act can only come true when India gets serious about having teachers that live up to the quality of the student’s desires, even if the infrastructure isn’t there yet.

And that’s why having the conference is a good start- hopefully it can inspire a few more teachers to bring about change little by little in a country that wants to badly to make education a right that people actually receive.

I’m clearly talking about an issue where I know very little and have barely even begun to skim the surface.  But I wanted to share that moment because it gave me a bit of hope after hearing all the bad. I’m hoping for India’s sake that there can be more classes like that.

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