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Posts Tagged ‘perspective’

Wait and See

I don’t think many Indians will be offended if I say that they have a very loose relationship with time. For Westerners used to deadlines and punctuality it can be a bit frustrating to realize that if you live in India, you will never again have a meeting start on time or see almost anything completed when it originally was supposed to be.

Most people here would just say, “that’s how it is here. You decided to live here. Deal with it.” And I do. Most of the time it drives me a bit crazy. Other times it leads to incredible amusement.

I bring all this up because in the time that I have been working on my film with the domestic violence prevention center in Dharavi, nothing has happened on time. The women I am following are incredible, hard-working, defiant, and always — always — late. When they’re not late they are re-scheduling or pushing things back. It’s not laziness or avoidance or procrastination. It’s just the way things are done. But when you’re making a film it can get a little bit tiresome. For every day we’ve planned to film, at least half have been rescheduled. All have started at least half an hour or an hour late. But, as everyone reminds me, this is how it is here. You can’t change the system you chose to work in.

I bring all this up because we are finally done filming. After two months of discussions, two months of shadowing and research, one broken hard drive and three months of filming (whenever we could), we were ready to finish up with one last meeting before starting to edit. I needed video of a game the women sometimes use as a tool for discussion so we had set up a meeting to film it. And I should have known that for my last foray I would get to go out with a bang.

I arrived in Dharavi by myself because my translator couldn’t make it – after all, this was the third time this particular meeting had been rescheduled and she had another work commitment. But since it was just a meeting (ie: no interviews) I figured I could watch and film on my own, and S, the woman I was following that day, has an English-speaking husband. The meeting was supposed to start at 3:30.

When I got there I called S’s husband. He said they were running half an hour late and to just go their house. I’d been there before for the interviews so I made my way into the winding lanes of their neighborhood. Normally when I go into residential Dharavi I’m with my translator or one of the women we’re following. Going alone makes me a little bit like a circus freak. Everyone stops and stares and wonders what this odd white person is doing making her way through the narrow passages and thin sidewalks. I imagine most assume I’m lost. But eventually I make it to S’s house and climb the rickety vertical ladder that leads up to her one-room home.

My head popped up through the entry-way and I saw four little faces staring back at me. S’s children, hanging out at home alone, were suddenly very interested in the person coming through their trap-door.

“You are aware my mother is not here?” I looked over at S’s eldest daughter N. The last time we met, when I was interviewing S, she hadn’t let on that she knew English. I tilted my head and looked at this tiny ten year old with two white bows on either side of her head. She was clearly responsible for watching all her younger siblings in their small 6 foot by 8 foot house with just a small television to entertain them.

“I know she’s not here,” I finally responded. “She’s on her way and asked me to wait. I didn’t realize you spoke English so well.”
“I’m learning it in government school. I’m good at it,” she said, while looking me up and down. She didn’t say anything else, she just continued to watch me, as though she was wondering what I’d do next. I decided to start setting up my camera since she didn’t have any more questions.

After a minute, she asked, “your phone is very expensive, yes?” I looked down at the iPhone in my hand. It’s hard to explain to people here that you can get it cheaply in the US – in India it costs around $800. But then, even spending $99 on a phone would be expensive here. I didn’t know how to respond so I just handed it over to her, so she could play with it. She pushed the button and looked intently at the screen.

“Who is this?” she asked, about the picture that comes up when you first turn on my phone.
“Those are my parents. They live far away so I keep a picture of them on my phone.”
“Your mother has very yellow hair. Why don’t you have yellow hair?” I didn’t really know how to answer, but it didn’t seem to matter. N had already figured out how to slide the phone to show the main screen and she was scrolling through my apps, clicking on different games. I turned back to the camera.

I hadn’t noticed that N’s siblings were fascinated with the camera sitting on its tripod. N indicated that they wanted to take photos so I switched the camera into photo mode and showed them what button to press. I sat back and watched. N was absorbed in a card game on my phone while her siblings giggled away taking photos. Most of the time they were standing too close to the camera, but the flash and the resulting blurry picture usually made them laugh more.

After awhile I looked up at the clock. It was 4:15, already 45 minutes had gone by and no one was here.

“What is this picture?” N asked, snapping me out of my thoughts. I looked over. She had opened the folder that contained all the photos I’d taken with my camera. She was holding up a picture of Phoebe.

“That’s my dog,” I replied.
“She is cute,” she said, while laughing a little bit at the picture.

N proceeded to go through all my pictures. She wanted to know why I had taken every one. Why do I take so many photos of flowers? (I like to email them to my mom). Why does my dog look different in these pictures? (she had a haircut). Who is that person and where are you? (I’m on a beach with my brother). Is that a picture of your mother when she was younger? (No, that’s my sister). Is that what snow looks like? (Yes, it is).

She got the most amusement out of a video of my friend’s dog I had taken at Christmas. The dog is a french bulldog and N seemed to think she resembled a cat. She had all sorts of questions about the size of the dog, why its ears were like a cat, why it was jumping around so much. I tried to answer every one but I just kept thinking that this girl was really something. I’ve been in enough schools to know that she probably sits in a class with crumbling walls and 40 students packed in with one teacher. And yet she’s managed to learn almost perfect English by an age when a lot of girls have already been taken out of school. Here she was, wanting to understand every photo of this strange life of a person entirely foreign to her. I couldn’t help feeling like it all wasn’t fair – an inquisitive young girl in the US would have every chance in the world. I wondered whether she’d even be allowed to grow up and avoid getting married so young like her mother and perhaps even go to college. Maybe since her mother works with a progressive organization she’ll be able to push her daughter out of the cycle.

But of course, all the dramatic thoughts going on in my head were once again interrupted by a question.

“I like this camera on your phone. Can I take a picture of you and my sister?” I agreed and her four year old sister sidled up next to me on the table where I was perched. N snapped the photo and both she and her sister giggled with delight.

“Do you have email?” I asked. “I can send it to you?” N shook her head.
“Not yet. I do not have it yet.”

I was liking her optimism.

By now it was almost 5pm and I was about to call S again. But a few women started arriving and filling up the room. Within a few minutes the small room was holding eighteen women and seven children. When they started the meeting I knew I needed to begin filming, so I lifted a child off my lap and uncrossed my legs. Two women had been sitting next to me on top of the table and their legs were crossed and over mine, so I had to extricate myself. There was no personal space and I had to sort of smash myself up against the wall in order to try and get the camera to see the whole room. N still had my phone and when I looked over she was showing the video of my friend’s dog to one of the women.

It was 5:30pm by the time we started filming, two hours late. But at least on this occasion, I’d certainly had an interesting time waiting.

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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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