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Posts Tagged ‘whiteness’

So Sari

I don’t think it will surprise anyone to find out that I know nothing about saris. While they are all around me every day, I don’t understand their intricacies. It’s kind of like certain types of fashionable clothes in New York – I see that everyone is wearing it, I’m just not so sure I can pull it off (or even get it on!).

The time had come, however, where I needed to deal with my fear of the sari. Our housekeeper’s son is getting married on Sunday, and since Daniel and I will already be sticking out quite a bit I knew I needed to make sure I was dressed properly.

My wonderful friend A agreed to lend me her sari (since they are actually quite expensive and I’m not quite sure when I would need one again…) but told me I needed to get a sari blouse (the only part that needs to be fitted). Her sari was beautiful – its bright red with lots of beading and embroidery. I figured I was lucky to have such a great sari to wear that getting the blouse would be no problem. She left me a note with instructions that ended with, “It shouldn’t be too difficult (famous last words in India).” So I set out on a mission.

I first went to Amarsons, an Indian department store which I figured would have a good selection. I walked up to the sari department and explained my conundrum. The salespeople looked at me like I was a confused child – how could I possibly not know how to purchase a sari? Not know how to wrap a sari? Not know what colors and styles went with my sari? They took pity on me and quickly got to work. I felt a bit like a drag queen – sequins, sparkles, beads and anything that shined was floated out at me. They were convinced a very intricate beaded number that matched the sari was perfect. I wasn’t so sure – it seemed a bit overboard. And then I looked at the price tag – 1,400 rupees (about $30). It seemed a bit crazy for a tiny blouse that didn’t even cover my stomach (to be fair, that’s how all the sari blouses are. But its still not a lot of fabric!). I said I’d think about it.

I walked out feeling dejected. Our driver, Malcolm, shook his head and told me that I was going about it wrong – I needed to have the top made. “It will be better ma’am. You just go to a tailor and he’ll make it up for you.” I wasn’t so sure I wanted to leave it to the last minute so I insisted on going to another store.

I went to one of the ubiquitous Fab India sotres where I was greeted by a particularly dour woman. I asked where the sari blouses were and she pointed me towards the section. “Which one do you think is best?” I asked her. She looked me up and down. “Madam, you don’t buy something to match a sari like this. It should already match. We Indians don’t do this mix and match. Besides, I do not wear saris.” The last point was clearly a jab – most modern women in Mumbai have given up wearing saris day to day and now wear either kurtas or western clothing.  Maybe she thought it was silly that I was trying to be traditional – although saris are still the outfit of choice at almost any formal occasion.

“Why don’t you just wear a dress,” she said, seemingly exasperated. I tried to explain that I wanted to wear the right thing.  She sighed and handed me a cream colored top. I tried it on but then had to ask her one more favor – “Can you help me wrap the actual sari? I don’t know whether it matches unless I try it all on.”  Bemused, she slowly started wrapping the material around me, tucking the folds into my pants and twirling me slowly.

“It doesn’t look good. You need to have one made if you insist on wearing this thing,” she said as she finished. I looked up – she was right. It didn’t really do justice to the beautiful sari to have the plain cream top underneath. I thanked her and left the store.

“Ok Malcolm… as always, you are right. Let’s go to a tailor.”

He chuckled at me and drove me right to a shop that knew what to do instantly. And the price tag: 250 rupees. It was a typical ending to my search – I’d tried to do it my way when in the end, I would always have to find the proper Indian way to go about it. I wont have it until Saturday, but here’s hoping it looks good!

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White Out

“I don’t mean to be rude… but they let a white woman come in and film people’s personal lives in Dharavi?”

I sat back in my chair and watched as the editor scrolled through my footage in disbelief. It’s something I’ve gotten used to – after all, I am the unlikeliest narrator for this particular story.  A few months ago my only exposure to Dharavi was watching it in Slumdog Millionaire.

I was doing the final edit with a professional editor – color correction, audio tuning and all the other technical niceties. And as he worked he was full of questions:

“What do you wear when you go to Dharavi? You don’t dress Western do you?”
“How do you not get stared at?”
“Don’t they not want to talk about personal issues in front of you.”
“They let you into their homes?”

I couldn’t tell whether he was fascinated more by my being there or by Dharavi itself. One of the most interesting aspects of Mumbai is how divided the city is even when everyone is living on top of each other. A professional person, like an editor, who has spent their entire life in Mumbai, may have never actually been inside one of the city’s ubiquitous slums. For him that part of his country existed solely in the films he edited and in the movies he watched.

And for me, it’s a wholly different story. Being white is not a part of the narrative I can leave out – from the moment I walked into the hospital in Dharavi and had skeptical faces look me up to this final moment where an editor seems entirely confused by my ability to function in a slum as a white person. It’s so taboo to discuss race and yet it has such a profound effect on my daily existence here. Everything from shopping to walking down the street to performing any professional role takes a new shape as a result of my being a distinctly different looking minority in a country where most everyone is racially similar.

As I’ve grown more and more comfortable here – and as such less aware of the ‘Indianness’ of my surroundings – its become more and more apparent how much I stand out and how I will always have to justify my place here.  Even if I lived in Mumbai my whole life I would never truly belong. It’s the opposite of America where we are all immigrants and as such anyone can become American.  The more I feel like I belong and truly live here, the more that questions such as the ones posed by the editor sting at my sense of belonging.

But I can wear my outsider status as a badge of pride. I’m really lucky to have been able to see the things I’ve seen and get to know the people I’ve gotten to know. As I’m wrapping up the long process of making this particular film it’s been interesting to watch the footage with new eyes each time and remind myself that I’ve had an experience few outsiders get in India.

We still have screenings ahead to show the film – and I’m certainly curious how the women I’ve filmed will react to watching themselves – but at this juncture I’m excited to finish it and share it and move onto my next Indian adventure. Even if I’ll have to keep answering questions about how I got here.

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They were four little words you definitely do not want to hear while living in India:

You. Might. Need Surgery.

It’s bad enough to be lying in a fetal position after spending your day taking tests. It’s another to contemplate having your body chopped into while living in a foreign country. I was not a happy camper.

It probably started with me boasting that I hadn’t gotten ‘India sick’ yet. I like to say this to people a lot – to be fair, it’s mostly to try and comfort people who are visiting. Such as, “Oh, you won’t get sick from the food. I’ve lived here six months and I haven’t gotten the notorious ‘Bombay Belly’ yet!’ I think I do better than my friend D who just likes to declare that she has a stomach of steel.

But I think there was a little bit of karma involved when I started to feel ill. It was as though the India gods were saying, “ok, you don’t need to get sick from food. We’ll give you a good-old-fashioned-regular-illness instead.”

I felt a bit ill on Friday but I only started to worry in the evening, when I took my temperature and it was above 100. I called my friend A.

“I have a weird question to ask you,” I began. “I have a fever. And Daniel is out of town. If this was America, I wouldn’t be nervous…”
“But it’s India.” she responded, clearly understanding where I was going.
“Right, so maybe you could spend the night over here in case something happens in the middle of the night?”

She, of course, said yes. You see, there’s an interesting thing that happens to all expats who live here: you get paranoid. And it’s justified. You hear too many tales that begin with, “Oh I thought I had a cold. But really it was dysentery” Or malaria. Or dengue. Everyone has horror stories about eating the wrong food or drinking the wrong juice. And these horror stories are much worse than your average food poisoning tales. So even the smallest hiccup or cough suddenly starts your brain ticking. What did I eat yesterday? Did I see a new mosquito bite on my ankle? Did I really wash that apple enough? You could go crazy worrying about getting sick – which is why most people stop obsessing over the small things after they’ve been here awhile. We start brushing our teeth with tap water and accepting ice from places that say they use mineral water. But it always lives in the back of your mind, the fear that India’s many health scares are coming your way.

I thought about all of this as I tossed and turned throughout the night. I couldn’t get comfortable no matter which position I picked. At 2am I looked at WebMd’s symptom checker. Bad idea. Once you say you’ve travelled to a third world country it starts giving you even more ideas. At 4am I wikipedia’ed dengue. That was comforting – apparently I would have had a rash, so it couldn’t be that. At 6am I took my temperature for the 20th time and was nervous to see it had gone up to its highest point so far. By 8am I woke up A.

“I think it’s time to call a doctor.”

My symptoms sounded bad- pain in the abdominal area on the right side of a female usually means appendix or ovaries, neither of which should be left unchecked. So we headed over to a clinic the doctor had recommended in order to get an ultrasound.

As I waited my turn in the plush waiting room I thought to myself, “This isn’t so bad.” It looked nicer than any clinic I’d seen at home. I was able to stretch out on a leather chair while a flat-screen tv showed the day’s cricket match (not my cup of tea, but interesting enough). Even with the nice setting the whole ultrasound only cost 1,200 rupees, or roughly $26. That’s before I even submit it to my insurance. For all the things to complain about the on the potential-diseases-you-could-get spectrum, I also had to be impressed by the low cost of everything. It’s not a low cost relative to the average income in Mumbai (where a large percentage of people only make a few thousand rupees a month), but compared to American health care, it’s a steal.

However my initial optimism soured a bit with the results of my ultrasound. I had “edematous gall ballder walls with sludge’ and ‘enlarged lymph nodes with fatty hila’. How was I to know what that meant? Sludge certainly didn’t sound good. Most annoyingly, they unfortunately they couldn’t get a close enough shot of my appendix to tell if it was bursting. So it was off to a CT (which, just as an FYI, cost around $120).

I’ve never had a CT before, but I can assure you that it is all the more unpleasant when 5 out of 6 techs in the room do not speak your language. They didn’t really understand that I was in a lot of pain, and therefore was having difficulty lying in one position. I couldn’t explain that my elevated fever was giving me the chills, which was also making it hard for me to not shake a bit. Finally a woman came in who spoke English and put a few blankets on me. I thought she might be my savior until she informed me that I would need an IV that would pump warm contrast into my veins as well as a tube going into another area (which I won’t go into depth describing here, since this blog aims to remain family friendly!). Needless to say, by the end of the CT I was feeling worse for wear.

That didn’t compare to my doctor’s visit after it all, where the idea of surgery was finally raised. As I lay curled up, exhausted from tests and fever and an unflinching pain, I listened to what the doctor had to say. You see, my appendix was fine. But that darn gallbladder was indeed inflamed and it would either need to respond to multiple medications or it would have to come out. A surgeon was lined up and at the ready in case I needed him. I suppose that was supposed to be comforting. We would just have to wait and see whether the inflammation and infection could go down before surgery became necessary.

Luckily the combination of the largest antibiotics I’ve ever seen, anti-inflammatories, pain medication, and an anti-nasuea medication normally reserved for chemo patients (the antibiotics apparently can be too strong to handle without some other medication) has made me start to feel like a new person (and all the medications together cost around $5). Within a day my fever went from almost 103 to almost normal. I’m certainly not at my best (those antibiotics are really not making it too easy on me), but at least it’s looking like I can keep my gallbladder.

So what have I taken from my few days of true illness in India? Well, firstly I will never make the silly claim of not having been ‘India sick’ again (although technically, lets be honest, 6 months of no food poisoning is pretty amazing in here. Knock on wood). I’ll also appreciate the cost of medicine here; it’s really something we Americans forget when we have insurance and something we decry when we don’t. If India can do it this cheaply why on earth can’t we even lower our costs a bit? I alternately appreciate being able to see a reliable doctor here and having the means to pay for it. I couldn’t help thinking of all the women I’ve met in Dharavi who clearly can’t afford to even get the kinds of tests I was able to get. It’s scary to think of how much pain I was in and the idea that someone couldn’t get the right diagnosis to lead them to the proper medication. It’s certainly something to be reminded of.

Mostly though, I’ll just appreciate (almost) having my health back. I’ve been lying around thinking of writing and being sad that I have no stories to tell other than the woes of a nauseous person with an enlarged gallbladder. It’s time for me to get better and back to everything I enjoy about living in India. Other than, of course, its predisposition for making us foreigners ill.

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I started to feel like the literal wicked witch of the west.

I wanted to interview B – one of the senior field workers at the NGO in Dharavi – outside on her stoop. Besides desiring outdoor light instead of a windowless interior, her house had the added bonus of being painted sea-foam green with a red door and she was in a yellow sari. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I should have guessed that white person in kurta + camera and tripod + Dharavi would equal difficulties. But the good light and the colorful background seduced me.

By the time we had started filming 30 people had crowded around us. B happened to live on one of the main lanes in her section of Dharavi, and so there was more open space than in most other parts of the sprawling slum. It stopped feeling that way once I had ten children breathing down my neck gawking at my view-finder. And every time one of them giggled or whispered (and I subsequently heard it coming through the audio in my headphones) I would turn around, put my finger over my mouth and make a clear ‘shush’ gesture.

It didn’t have the desired effect. Either the children would start laughing at my face (literally) or the adults around them would start to announce loudly in Hindi that everyone should be quiet (or so my translator K informed me). It went this way for most of the hour-long interview.

But after all the shushing and hand-gestures and mockery from children, we did end up with a great interview from B. She was lucky enough to have come from a supportive family – her parents had raised her in a very unorthodox home where both parents were active in community organizing and women were viewed as mostly equal to the men. For a woman in her 40’s to have grown up like this in Dharavi is pretty rare.

But it instilled in B a desire to do social work. After she was married, she originally started volunteering with a group in her husband’s neighborhood (their particular area of Dharavi is for people who specialize in pottery-making). She said that in the beginning, her neighbors ostracized her. But since she loved her work, she didn’t care.

Her volunteer group eventually started working with the domestic violence prevention NGO (the one we’re making the film for) and eventually B began to work for them. She enjoyed being the person that women in her community came to, and she didn’t see her job as work. She said most nights, women come in and out of her house at all hours seeking her advice.

When the interview ended, sure enough, a woman was there, waiting to talk. The woman explained that her son-in-law was beating her daughter and the mother was worried that she wasn’t going to get help. As they went inside to talk, I hesitated. I certainly want to intrude on the conversation. But the woman indicated that she didn’t mind.

So I stood and filmed. I asked K to wait outside so there would be as few people ‘eavesdropping’ as possible. But even without understanding the words it was clear that B was the right woman for the job. She listened, placing her hand on the woman’s hands as she spoke. When the woman began to cry B cupped her hands around her face and said nothing, but it seemed to me that the gesture was meant to convey that she had strength enough for them both. When the woman was done explaining B began to talk – quietly, but with the sheer force of a woman who believed she could solve the unsolvable. When the woman got up to leave she took B’s hand in hers and held it for a long moment.

We went back outside and I told K to tell the woman that I appreciated being able to film the conversation. I tried to joke that since I don’t speak Hindi, I didn’t know the secrets in she was sharing anyway. She smiled and put her hand on mine, which was still clutching my camera.

As she walked away, she seemed stronger – empowered with the ability to improve her daughters life, or at least knowing that there was someone strong standing behind her.

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Through the Lens

I felt a tugging at my kurta. I looked down and saw a smiling face staring back at me. She reminded me of myself when I was ten: gawky, wearing a neon blue shirt and bright red jeans with a blunt haircut and bangs that were cut unevenly – although, I never had sported a gold and pink nose-ring. This tiny person just wasn’t the picture I’d had in mind of the person who would be meeting us to take us on this particular trip through the maze of residential Dharavi.

I shouldn’t have been surprised – R, one of the field workers at the domestic violence prevention center in Dharavi we’d been working with, had told us she was sending her daughter to get us. And while R was only 26 years old, I knew her eldest was 10. But it was still daunting to watch this little 50 lb girl confidently navigate the way from the hot sunny streets outside the hospital where met into the dark, confusing tangle of houses.

We were finally about to start filming – after months of research, waiting for equipment, delayed meetings, and permission slips signed by the husbands (yes, this was still a requirement for a women’s health organization in order for filming to be allowed), I felt like I understood what these women were doing enough to tell their story. We had decided that we would follow three of the field workers to illustrate the work being done to eradicate domestic violence in Dharavi. All of them had grown up in Dharavi and all of them could have stayed at home like so many other women here– but they had decided to wake up every morning and combat an issue that is so entrenched it’s hard to fathom attitudes changing.

So we were starting with R. We were going to go to her house, film her morning routine and then interview her in her home. I was going with K, my translator, who was going to have to conduct the interviews, since none of the women spoke English. I was nervous about not having control over the interview, even if I had written the questions. I was nervous about not being able to properly shoot a space too small to capture. I was nervous that I couldn’t ever really tell the story properly, since I was so foreign and so clearly outside. But I was certainly going to try my best.

R’s daughter brought us to their home. It was a five-foot by five-foot room, covered top to bottom in lilac tiles. The bed took up a third of the apartment – it was a steel frame cut short so it could fit exactly from end to end of the room. R, her husband, and their three children all slept in this bed, in their windowless house, with one fan every night. When I came in R was lighting incense for a statue of a Hindu god that she had to stand on her bed to reach because it was up in one of the few cupboards the room had. She and her husband had been able to afford a fridge and a television – and the two youngest children were sitting on the bed watching a dubbed Hindi version of Looney Tunes. I watched as Bugs Bunny chewed on a carrot and leaned in to say, “What’s up Doc?”, although the words came out as whatever the equivalent in Hindi was.

R stepped off the bed and greeted us. She told K that she was just going to do her morning routine and we could film whatever we liked. I felt sort of voyeuristic taking out my camera, but I kept reminding myself that she wanted us to be there, she wanted us to make a film about the subject she worked so hard for every day, and she had no qualms sharing her life.

We all danced around each other in the small space over the next two hours as R painstakingly completed all the household chores (while her husband mostly sat and played with the children). She cleaned everything top to bottom. She went out and gathered water. She gave each child a bucket shower with the water out in the alleyway because there wasn’t enough space in the house. She washed all the dishes in the alleyway, crouched down, scrubbing each meticulously. She came in cut onions and coriander to make a morning pulao for her family and offered some to K and myself. Her portable gas stove took up the entire small counter.

While we were eating, the kids came over to study my camera and play with my iphone. They giggled and pushed each other around – I couldn’t help feeling like their games and actions were so familiar even if I couldn’t understand the words. Two older girls and a toddler son – just like how my family had been. The sisters tickled each other and poked each other, giggling at the games and pushing each other around every time their parents stopped looking.

It’s a conflicting feeling, watching a woman in Dharavi’s morning routine from the lens of a white, privileged person. You don’t want to glorify it by saying, “Oh, they are so happy. They don’t seem to care that they are poor. They work hard and love each other.” But you don’t want to diminish it by saying, “How can they live like that? How can people survive without space or light or privacy? How can this powerhouse woman, who I’ve spent so much time with over the last few months, possibly find the strength to do this every single day?”. The truth seems to lie somewhere in-between that – it’s not beautiful and its not impossible. It’s not a glorified life of poverty but it’s also not a miserable existence. This is life.

R’s husband left after breakfast- he works ‘cutting fabric for pants.’ R’s kids were out of school for Diwali so she instructed them to either leave or keep quiet while we set up the interview. R sat on her bed and K and I sat on the floor – although K had to kneel and try and keep herself on R’s eye level so it wouldn’t look weird on camera. It was assumed that no one around us would have a chair she could use.

And so she began talking – it was really hard for me, to sit back and hope for the best as my interview took place, essentially, without me. Because I didn’t want to interrupt the interview, K couldn’t translate for me until R finished answering each question fully, and even then she only gave me a summary, since I thought it would be awkward to have long pauses for R between questions. When I interview someone I normally can listen out to make sure the question has been answered, or whether I need to rephrase it to get a little bit more – here I’ll only find out whether it worked or not once everything is transcribed and translated.

But I was able to understand the basics of R’s story: her husband – the one who I’d marveled at moments before for his tenderness towards his wife and children – had previously had a habit of beating his young wife. R had confided to an aunt about the beatings and she directed R towards the non-profit she now works for. Initial counseling was difficult – her husband didn’t think he was doing anything socially unacceptable – but eventually he came around. She feels lucky, because so many of the women she sees now can never convince their husband that anything is wrong. R eventually began volunteering and was hired by the NGO a year ago. She doesn’t think violence will ever come close to being eradicated. But she’s hoping that they can make even a small difference.

When the interview ended we thanked R for letting us in and sharing her story. She smiled, we said goodbye, and made our way back into the alley.

As we put our shoes back on, K looked up.

“Can you imagine stepping outside your house and not knowing whether it was night or day?” she said. It was true – the layers of sheet-metal and drying clothing and extra stories and tarp all made it very dark and difficult to see the sky, even though we were outside of the house.

“I can’t,” I said honestly. But the thought was interrupted as R came out too, purse in hand, ready to walk us back out to the street. She led the way.

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I’m probably a bad patriot for deliberately wanting to leave my new city because my President was coming for a visit. But amidst road closures, traffic and increased security – along with a 2 day vacation for Daniel because of Diwali – we decided to high-tail it out of Mumbai for a relaxing weekend in Goa.

I had heard a lot of different things about Goa, all seemingly contradictory: Some derided it as a crowded over-hyped place for hippies and backpackers; others gleefully declared it Mumbai’s Hamptons. I was pleasantly surprised to find that if you stayed in the right places, Goa could be neither. Instead for me it was a relaxing blend of tropical paradise and historical oddity.

One of the Siolim House rooms

On the advice of numerous friends we stayed at Siolim House – a 17th century Portuguese mansion that had been restored as a labor of love by an Indian private equity manager. Siolim House is off the beaten track – it’s situated on a small lane in a tiny village that’s a ways away from the beach, but it means no other tourists are around. You sort of feel like you’re staying at a friend’s very nice country house (shouldn’t we all have friends like that?).

I’m ususally a sucker for historical houses anyway, but this one really was something to see. Our room made me feel like we could really get a sense of what it must have been like to live in colonial India – except we still were able to have running water and the use of a fan.

Siolim House lounge

We spent the next few days driving between the various beaches and the sights of Goa. It’s a funny place to tourist-watch – I’ve never seen so many people trying to embody the Goa fantasy life. White people with dreadlocks and kurtas made their way around on scooters along treacherous windy paths while getting honked at for going too slowly. European tourists happily paid 50 rupees for a fresh coconut without negotiating and apparently without considering that the coconuts grew on trees right in front of them and therefore shouldn’t be that expensive. A lot of the people we spoke with were spending up to two weeks in Goa – deciding that the rest of India would have to wait, since they were only in the mood for their tropical plans. I kept wondering what the local people must think of this specific type of tourist that wants to live the ‘chill’ life in India. Then again, what must they have thought of us? I think sometimes we’re naive to assume that we embarrass ourselves less just because we happen to have lived in Mumbai for a few months.

But Goa does live up to its hype. We went to one of the quieter beaches, in Mandrem, and it really was a new view of India I hadn’t been privy to in all my time on Mumbai’s sullied and crowded beaches. Hills gave way to white sandy beaches and palm trees. Locals made use of the tourists by selling us fresh-caught fish and prawns. It was hard to think of a better place to spend a day.

Inside of Bom Jesus church

As a history buff I also enjoyed Old Goa – which apparently a lot of beach travelers give a miss. It was striking to see 17th century grand churches in India. I watched an Indian Christian wedding- white dress and all – and I was struck by how odd it seemed in a country that seemed to promote every color but white in their average wedding. I certainly felt like I was in some remote part of forgotten Europe. The whole setting reminded me of some of the churches I’d gone to in Amalfi – a bit forgotten with the paint peeling off, but still glorious in their size and decorations.

I was also amused to see the ‘remains’ of St Francis Xavier. It was a bit of an inside joke for me – I was born in a hospital called St Francis Xavier hospital, and oddly enough I am the only person in my family who was born there. So I thought it was sort of fitting that I got to witness his bizarre mummified self (I would say I got to see him in the flesh, but that might be too terrible a pun).

At any rate, when it was time to board our plane Sunday night, I couldn’t help but wish I was able to spend more time in the slow-moving Indian state that seemed to belong to many cultures at once. And for a moment, the wish was granted: our flight out was delayed – a result of President Obama’s closure of the Mumbai airport for a full forty-five minutes. I guess we couldn’t avoid America even in Goa. But it certainly had been nice to try for a little while.

(I also found some great signs in Goa, so I’ve added a few to the slide show on the signs tab)

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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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