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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Film City

It’s not very often a person gets invited to go inside the heart of Bollywood. It’s probably even less often that the person doesn’t know where they’re getting invited to.

I, of course, am that silly person in this scenario.

To be fair, no one ever told me what Film City was. I was mostly just happy that someone was willing to lend me equipment.

You see, the biggest challenge for any person hoping to volunteer their time to Mumbai NGO’s as a journalist/documentarian (or, filmstress, as one friend recently dubbed me) is that to be productive you need the help of some very expensive equipment.

I’m used to working for organizations that own innumerable cameras, have all the editing space you need and technical support whenever you want. Here, I’m like a jockey without a horse.  NGO’s don’t have a budget for even the most basic resources, let alone thousands of dollars worth of camera and editing equipment.  So for the projects I’m working on, every scenario has been a bit of a scramble.

Luckily for one, we got a little bit of help.

I’m doing all the documentation for a large education conference taking place next weekend called InspirED (www.InspiredIndia.in if anyone is interested). The aim of the conference is to bring teachers and educators in from across the country to discuss ways to improve innovation in India’s classrooms.

One of the conference’s partners happened to be connected to someone at a major film school – and as such they were able to convince the film school to become a sponsor of the conference and donate equipment. It was a huge relief.

Our contact at the film school told me that I should come out to see the equipment and facilities I would be using. We set a time to meet and then he told me the school was located within Film City. The words flew over my head.

When I got in the car the next day I confused my driver: “Can we go to the film school in Film City. Do you know where Film City is?”

“You want to go to Film City?”

“Yes, it’s in Goregaon.”

“Yes, ma’am. I know where it is. Everyone knows where it is. Are you sure you have permission?”

“What do you mean?”

“You can’t go in without permission.”

“I… I have permission.” I said, still a bit confused by what he meant.

“Why would I need special permission?”

“Ma’am, Film City is where all the Bollywood movies are made.  You have to have authorization to go in.”

I assured him that we had permission, and he began to drive. But I was still quite curious- I asked him to tell me more.

Apparently, the land for Film City was given to the film industry by the Indian government and it’s been home to thousands of Bollywood movies since the first film was shot there in 1911. It’s on the edge of Sanjay Gandhi National Park (the largest urban park in the world) and it is a sprawling place- forests are next to large sets next to various sound-stages. While films are created across India, Film City is known as the hub. It’s as though half the studios in Hollywood were located in one place. And in an industry that puts out  over 900 films a year (more than Hollywood), that’s really saying something.

We drove up to the gate. A glowering guard stared at me as I rolled the window down. I gave him my name and he checked his list. Apparently, I was good to go.

An unused elaborate film set

We drove in and it was as though someone had turned the city on its head – the noise and dirt and pollution instantly disappeared. It was like we were driving down a remote dirt lane – hills stood tall in the distance as a lush forest came right up to the road.  It was hard to remember we were two minutes from the insanity of Bombay.

At every turn there was something else hidden in the space– an elaborate set, a soundstage, a group filming some movie or tv show. I know that hundreds of extras must see this every day but I couldn’t help but feel like I’d entered some secret compound. It just didn’t feel like the city anymore – and I suppose that’s what movies are supposed to do best. This was the perfect hidden space to make a film about anything.

We pulled into the film school and I was greeted at the door. I was shown the equipment and everything looked perfect- they were giving us great cameras and unlimited time in an edit room. It was fitting that they could give me everything we required for filming the conference – we were in need of a bit of magic and they, apparently, were in the right place to make it happen.

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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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It’s funny when my old world information sources suddenly collide right into my new world.

Last night I came across an Op-Ed article in the New York Times about slum tourism. It was written by a Kenyan who has been appalled by the growth of this cottage industry that shows mostly Western tourists what life is like in the slum. Mumbai is mentioned as a ‘hot spot’ (if there is such a thing when it comes to slum tours).  The article is now sitting in the New York Times’ most emailed list.

Living in New York, I always read articles like this one with great interest – what are the many things I am not seeing from my small island’s perspective?  We often rely on journalists and writers and filmmakers to teach us about the vast portions of the world we’ll never experience or see in our lives.  And we hope their perspective would be our perspective

So it was very strange to see my go-to paper covering an issue that doesn’t appear to be high on the radar here (in my experience, at least compared to much more pressing issues)– and claiming Mumbai as part of this horrible trend. I certainly can’t claim to know the feelings of most people here about slum tours. But I do have my own perspective – one that has changed since I came here.

I heard from various people when I arrived that you could take a slum tour. My initial reaction was the same as the author of the article – it’s exploitative, it’s degrading, you’re making people’s lives into tourist attractions.

But as I spent some time in Dharavi I started to realize that it’s not so simple to just dismiss it.  The most recognizable slum tour here is run by Reality Tours – they do not allow photography (one of the main complaints in the NYT article), they focus on showcasing Dharavi’s economy (recycling factories, leather workshops etc), 80% of their profits go to Dharavi NGO’s and they fund and run a school.  They are trying to show and improve a community, not just stare at poor people. How can this side of the story be dismissed so easily?

This particular subject has been on my mind a lot lately because obviously I’ve been spending a lot of my own time in Dharavi.  I’ve really thought a lot about how to not be intrusive, how to write in a realistic but sensitive way, how to possibly keep even a basic perspective on something I can’t possibly understand. But while all of these issues should be considered, I think the most basic fact I’ve come away with is this: the people I have encountered in my short time in Dharavi all just want to improve their community. Slum tours (that are run in a thoughtful way) raise money that provides education and services. So most people that I have met seem to not be bothered by it. A few people I have asked have actually wondered why we would think it is bad.

Again (once again with the caveats!), this is only my one experience. I’m sure plenty of people in India and Dharavi (who have lived here much much longer) hate the tours. But my own experiences changed my opinion pretty quickly.

So, with all that percolating and marinating in my mind for weeks, reading this article struck me in a strangely personal way.  I’ve only been here a very short time, but I suddenly became defensive of my perspective – how could this person who has only seen Kenya’s experience lump in Mumbai, without ever having seen it?

And I guess that is the funny thing about perspective and why it’s been so important for me to travel and experience the world: you can read every article, watch every news program and study every book, but making sure you have your own opinion in the narrative is essential.

I just feel grateful that on this subject I can even begin to have a semi-informed opinion and engage in the debate.  And so, Kennedy Odede, Op-Ed contributor in the New York Times, I respectfully disagree with your assessment because I think it ignores the good some slum tours do. But thanks for raising the subject – and I welcome any others to disagree with me.

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

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

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

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

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

“It sounds like ‘bloo’.” I said.

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

“I don’t know. It just isn’t”

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

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

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

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

“yes!” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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