Monday, October 18, 2010

Week 8: Am I from here?

Namaste! It’s only been about a week since my last post, but since that time things have really changed here. Just over a week ago, I went to the F.R.R.O to register as a foreigner. After the office put on a beautiful display of bureaucracy, I got in a cab to enjoy the sea breeze on my way back to the office. I climbed in and told the driver where to go, using my not-so-improved Hindi, and he asked me if I was from India. I told him I wasn’t, but it was a pretty awesome feeling. I have been told several times that I look Punjabi, since apparently they are pretty light skinned, have light eyes and also wear makeup, so maybe if that happens again I’ll be like yeah, I’m from Chandigarh. But really, this past week I’ve started feeling as if I could actually live here, and that the rest of this year will be a year of loving living in India, rather than a time I struggled to deal with the day-to-day blasts of cultural, social, and physical challenges. I think it’s helped that I’ve been focusing a lot more on my neighborhood, instead of doing all of the touristy things in Mumbai right off the bat. There is an incredible amount I have yet to see, but I know where my grocery stores are, who has the best samosas, which man on the street sells hard-boiled eggs, and the quickest paths to the ocean. I don’t have any problems on the train, and have mastered the system that works in place of the system that should be. I jump on, immediately push through the crowd of people waiting to get off at the next stop, and then start tapping on shoulders to see if people are getting off at Mahim, my stop. If they’re not, I cut in front of them and hopefully take my spot next to the pole by the door so I get the good breeze (if you haven’t noticed, it’s all about catching the breeze in Mumbai). I know that right after we pass the Bandra-Kurla complex, I have to take a deep breath and then stop breathing until 5 seconds after we pass over the river. When I’m at work, I can’t wait until after 12 to refill my water bottle, because the water is too hot, and we certainly don’t have a cold water tap. On the way home, I have to walk back down the track just before the second sign that tells us which train is coming, because that’s where the first-class ladies’ compartment is. On the weekends I try to take one day to walk around the suburbs, and another to do something new and exciting, although there’s still a mix of both. Mochamojo’s has BAGELS and soy milk (sometimes), and we discovered this weekend that next to the Matunga station, on the side with the South Indian market, which is basically filled with bananas, there’s a great chaat stand.

Bananas! And Ava and Niket.

My friend Rachel and her bagel! Less than an hour later she was fined 296 rupees for having a second class ticket in a first class compartment. We played the "but we didn't know!" act, but I had a first class pass, with my photo stamped, so clearly we did. Oops.

Yesterday Ava and I explored town with someone she knows through someone from home (that’s how we meet a lot of people here), and he kept acting so surprised that we seemed to live in Bombay more than people who are from here. The rich people here don’t take public transportation, and they’re all really impressed that we get around by train or by foot, for the most part. I’m even surprised at myself, since I am perpetually lazy and always opt for the cab option, but one long cab ride costs a tenth of my 3 month train pass, so it just seems absurd now. We drove through Dharavi to get from Matunga (a little more central) back to the more western part of the city, and he told us that he hadn’t really been in Dharavi. I understand that most people wouldn’t have a reason to go, but it just demonstrates the huge divide in the way rich and poor people experience Mumbai. I’m not making any kind of value judgment, especially because, having lived like a poor person (at least by day), I too crave air conditioned cars and international cuisine. I think I’m just realizing how much I appreciate this whole idea of modest living, because if our stipend was larger I’m not entirely sure that I would be as likely to do the things I do. That being said, I did just join a luxury gym that costs about half of my monthly rent, but I feel like it’s a worthwhile investment to supplement the weight-loss tool that is Indian heat. I swear I’m sweating out chicken tikka and not just water, although I definitely don’t smell like masala (yet).
On another note, a lot of people have been asking what I actually do at work, so I thought I should probably explain that, since after two weeks of being there I kind of have an idea. My NGO works in the public health field and deals with child and maternal health, girls’ education, and violence against women and children. I work at the center for vulnerable women and children, which is basically a crisis counseling center. Women, and sometimes children and men, come in to discuss a range of issues, from cases of domestic violence to fights with their husbands over mothers-in-law. My long term project is advocacy, and I am trying to make domestic violence more of a public health concern. The Protection of Women Against Domestic Violence Act was just passed in 2005, and India’s patriarchal culture means that men think they have the right to beat their wives, and to a large extent, the women think the men can beat them if they disobey them or don’t fulfill their household or sexual duties. So I have a bit of a challenge ahead of me, but I’ve spent the past 2 two weeks identifying the main issues we’re facing in various components and feel like I’m starting to have a grasp on what I should do from here on out. I am also helping to build a legal resource center so women who come in wanting a divorce, maintenance, help filing a domestic violence complaint or other issues have somewhere to go and a lawyer that won’t charge them. I also helped a bit with a research project on violence against lesbians, and later this week I’m attending a lecture in another city on queer issues and mental health advocacy. Learning about gay rights here is fascinating, because even our language doesn’t fit the context. A lot of people argue that homosexuality is a western invention, and in a sense they’re right, because we in the west created an identity based on sexual practices in opposition to heteronormativity. But that doesn’t mean that same-sex practices didn’t exist in India, they were just called different names, and they even have intersex people, called hijras, who have no place on our western register. Anyways, perhaps one day I’ll devote a whole post to sex and India, but um…maybe my family wouldn’t want to read that, but it’s not like I’ll be involved in what I’m discussing, purely academic.
The work environment definitely takes getting used to. It’s pretty slow, and things that should take a week might take three, and since I’m just a little intense in my work habits, it’s hard for me to not always have something to do. I take the breaks to get to know my coworkers a bit or catch up on the news, or, if I have a lot of time, translate a Hindi article from the BBC. It’s also emotionally draining, because some women come in with bandages, and others come in with their husbands and I can just hear them screaming at each other. The office has two counseling rooms, but they’re basically glass enclosures. I personally prefer the soothing music-comfy couch- here’s a box of tissues kind of atmosphere, but that’s not really the case here. One day a man was forcefully leading his wife out of a counseling session because he didn’t want to deal with it anymore, and I just didn’t want to imagine what he was going to do to her once they got home. I should add now that divorce is pretty taboo in South Asian culture, partly because women are seen as spoiled if they have been divorced, but mostly because family is considered sacrosanct. A woman doesn’t marry her husband, she marries a family, and that family can pretty much treat her as they wish. Part of what I’m trying to do is break the stereotype that a woman only exists for her womb, but clearly that requires some cultural evolution, or maybe revolution, that will surely outlast my stay. A lot of the women who come in don’t seem so visibly upset, which seems amazing to me, since I then read their files and see that they’ve been punched and slapped and had kerosene poured on them or they were raped or in one instance hit with an axe. It makes me want to keep doing what I’m doing, but also makes very clear that there is a long way to go.

I’ve probably made you all depressed. I’m sorry. Here are some happy pictures from the past week or so, and I will start off with my favorite.

So Rachel and I went to see the Gateway of India. Built to welcome the British back in the day, it's at the port and really touristy, including Indian tourists. Everyone wanted to take pictures with us, and this is my favorite.

And this is the gateway.

This is the Ganesh shrine in the sea off Carter Road. It's next to that flags, and this path is only there during low tide. At high tide, all the offerings people leave are carried out to sea.

So turns out I kind of like pomegranates. Next stop: pomegranate juice! It was pretty good. And David has pomegranate guava.

And this is at the party for the last night of Navratri, a festival that consists of 9 nights of dancing. We danced for hours, and I was sweating a whole lot, as you can see in this picture. This is the kind of dancing I did at school, so everyone thought it was pretty cool that I could garba and wanted to dance with me, and then take pictures of said dancing. But it was fun!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Week 7: The Balancing Act

I had just sat in traffic for an hour after accepting a ride home, rather than dealing with the superdensecrushload on the train. The ride was from one of the directors at work, who sat in the back with us as her driver guided us through the traffic jam that is Bombay at rush hour. So I sat in the air conditioning, leaving the slum, well more like inching out of the slum, momentarily forgetting about how frustrating my day was as I got out of the heat for a while. Then I got dropped off in Khar and had to watch multiple rickshaw drivers shake their heads no and drive off, because they didn’t feel like driving the 7 minutes to my flat. It was about 94 degrees. I ran up to the flat, grabbed my book, and ran over to Gloria Jean’s, yes, the coffee shop, to get lost in serious air conditioning, a blended beverage, and the awe-inspiring creativity of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s woven masterpieces. A few days before, I left my days in Dharavi behind and spent my Saturday in Bandra, ending up getting a chauffeured ride to the Hyatt where I sipped my (terrible) dirty martini next to Mumbai’s elite and the tourists and businessmen who would understand India only through their lenses. When I was in Ahmedabad, a sitar player expressed his dislike for Bombay as a city of disparities. He had trouble with the concept of a city that relies on the poor but only serves the rich (although really, isn’t that most of India?). Such disparities are impossible to miss in Mumbai, where high-rise apartment complexes, with gated entrances, security guards, and garages for imported luxury cars are flanked by slums; where the poor sip chai for 4 rupees from street stands, while the rich, I guess myself included, drink our imported beverages that cost a week’s worth of lunch. I understand his reasoning, but I feel that my experience, the daily disparities that arise from being entirely unfamiliar with my surroundings, from naturally, though regrettably, comparing everything here to the way things are back home, and the daily struggles of trying to live modestly while being fully aware that I can afford almost anything I want here, except for a night at the Taj or diamond and ruby encrusted earrings, is perfectly reflected in Mumbai. Or is it that Mumbai is perfectly reflected in my experience?
The dualities that I’m facing on this adventure are countless, but I will try to explicate some here, maybe more for my own well being than for your entertainment. The first is trying to deal with my actual presence here, reflected in how stimulated I feel when I walk through Dharavi, the slum that is home to my NGO. I travel because, well let’s be honest, I like eating food all around the world, but mostly because I like to experience things that are different. I haven’t yet figured out why I enjoy such a sense of otherness, but I have two theories: the first is that in defining that which is different, or “the other,” I feel a greater sense of that which is me, and at a certain level I travel to other places to find myself. In another, I travel expecting to find differences, but realize that wherever I go, that sense of otherness is, like so many things, a social, cultural, and historical construct that had done nothing but subjugate, and so in traveling and recognizing, and then deconstructing otherness, I am a small, individual force of anticolonialism. Regardless of whichever asinine theory I may or may not choose to agree with, I cannot help but recognize that for a brief period of time, I am happy because Dharavi is different, and Dharavi is different because it is poor. So while my professional self is here to advocate for gender equality and sexual health and to make people understand that abuse, though culturally sanctioned, is morally wrong, my wanderlusting self is benefiting from the poor economic conditions that engender the social problems my professional self is alleviating.
I have obviously made this more complicated than it really is, but I figured I’d give that a go. Secondly, I’m having a bit of a hard time being present here and maintaining ties home. I have a feeling that I’m a lot more connected to home than a lot of people here, but I’m also sure that the Ritter girls only function fully as a unit, and I can’t really let that rust up for a whole year. But in another sense, as well, my method for dealing with India has been to a certain extent to escape home. When I got way too hot in my un-air conditioned office, I spent the next few hours as a Western coffee chain. The day before, when I had an incredibly frustrating day at work that involved my inability to get anything done because I was dependent on other people who didn’t seem to weigh my desires as strongly (I am referring to still not having an Indian phone, for one thing), and I had spent my day listening to men screaming at their wives in counseling sessions behind my desk, I came home, spent about 5 minutes crying in the shower, and then went online and watched Glee (Britney episode was awesome, by the way). I know that everyone has his or her own attachment to home and that mine isn’t extraordinary or anything, but what does it say about me that I’m in the most cosmopolitan city in India and still need to keep traveling West? Maybe I’ll try to get really into yoga and next time instead of watching Glee, I’ll just get in downward dog. At the same time, I think it’s okay that I use things from home to comfort me since I’m clearly totally fine living here, seeing as how there is a giant beetle crawling across my floor, a moth flapping around every light in the apartment, it’s about 87 degrees outside and it’s after midnight, my bathroom at work doesn’t have toilet paper, and I’m still happy as a clam.

Anyways, enough of my philosophizing. I know you all really just want some pictures.

This is Ava drinking coconut water from the dude down our street. I attempted a sip, not my thing.

Me in front of Crawford Market. It was basically closed, but it's filled with stalls selling all sorts of things, from pets to pasta sauce.

We were looking for the way to Crawford Market and stumbled upon this 200 year old Hindu cremation ground. The wonderful manager gave us a tour, who said that they get around 15 bodies a day. There was a group coming in to cremate an older woman, but it wasn't the somber ceremony we expected. Not so much grief at all, actually. I obviously can't just from this one instance, but perhaps the end of the life cycle is a greater part of life, here.

This mural was painted after the 26/11 terrorist attack.

CRICKET!!! Along Marine Drive, there are "gymkhanas," organized, of course, by religion, so right next to each other are the Parsi, Muslim, Hindu, and Catholic athletic clubs.

The only time the train is empty like this might be on Sundays. We appreciated the space.

Me on Chowpatty Beach, where instead of bathing suits and tanning there are snack stands and kites. And thousands of people.

Cute men going on a sunset walk.

Ava, perfecting the Indian style of drinking.

The lovely Marine Drive along the Arabian Sea.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Weeks 4 and 5: Migration to the South

Namaste! Sorry for the delay, but it took a decent amount of time to get settled in Mumbai. I just got internet tonight, so I'm taking the opportunity to update my blog from our glorious flat in Khar Danda, which is just north of Bandra, which is/was the wealthy Catholic suburb of Mumbai. Mumbai is divided mainly into the North and South, the north being the "suburbs" and the south referred to as "town." Unfortunately I have not yet made it into town, although I expect to venture there this weekend. The suburbs don't really look like the burbs in the states, but India's not really the place for picket fences and SUVs...can't really imagine one of those weaving around cows and rickshaws. I am living in a flat with Ava, and David lives just down the street. Though poorly ventilated, I don't think I'll have any problem calling this place home, once I head to the markets and pick up some items for decoration. All I've obtained so far is a nice blanket to cover the tiger-striped futon that is currently serving as our couch. I also just noticed that all the fan blades have a tiger and paisley pattern on them. If that doesn't scream India, I'm not sure what does. Anyways, I will attempt to describe the surroundings of my new area without the aid of pictures, since I haven't really broken out the camera yet.

In the mornings, I head out of the flat somewhere between 9:05 and 9:17. We are one the 2nd floor, which in America would be the 3rd floor, but Indians refer to the first floor as "zero." On the first floor I always namaste the old lady who sits in the chair near the doorway. I have only passed it once when she has not occupied it. Then I go through our little alley onto Maruai Mandir Marg. I just discovered that was the name of our street about 10 minutes ago as I was placing an order for delivery. I take the left down 21st street, and as I turn the corner I stopped breathing for about 15 seconds. There are dumpsters down the street, but there is a second "dump" on this corner. It somehow smells worse than the open sewers in the slum, and I have to stop breathing completely because otherwise I can almost taste the rotten tomatoes. At the end of the block I hail down a rickshaw to get to the train station. The commuter rails in Mumbai are infamous. They carry 6.9 million people a day, and during rush hour, trains that have a carrying capacity of 1700 are packed with over 4500 passengers. They had to develop a new term, super dense crush load, to describe it. Fortunately, this is when I get to ride the trains. I have a first class pass, and I get to ride the women's car, so if it's crowded I only have to worry about my wallet, rather than my body parts. It's not always terribly crowded, but it still takes a decent amount of maneuvering. I have to get off the train on the opposite side I got on, so as soon as I'm on, I try to find my way across. I tap on the shoulders of the people in front of me and ask them "Mahim?" (my station), and if they say no, I push my way in front of them. I'm only 2 stops away, so I have to do this quickly. The train doors don't close, because it would be too hard for people to jump on and off as quickly as we have to. You might think this is incredibly dangerous, and it's true that about 8 people die every day, usually when they're hanging off the outside and fall off or hit a pole. But I would imagine that it would be much more dangerous to have a crush of people against close doors that suddenly open, resulting in a certain trampling situation. Plus, it's really peaceful to feel the breeze go by, except when we cross over the river. It's not even a river, it's a pitch-black cesspool that looks like fast-moving tar, but smells as though every toilet in India drains right into this river. I know that some do, because I have seen more a number of men squatting on the far side of the tracks. Still, one woman made a prayer gesture as we rode past it; I admire her faith. As soon as the train pulls into Mahim station, I get ready to jump off, but wait until it comes almost to a complete stop. Then I make my way over to the street where I cross over the bridge that enters Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, and the home of my office. I will dedicate an entire post to Dharavi, because I have to make you think that it is more than the slum from which Jamal Malik of Slumdog Millionaire grew up. As I have only been there for a week, I do not yet feel qualified to write about it, although I can say that it is far more than a tent city, and my office is in a hospital, so I do not work under a tarped roof. At the end of the day, I repeat the commute and walk down the street to get vegetables for dinner. An old lady sits at her little vegetable stand, and we pick what we want and she weights it. Sometimes the weight comes to an awkward price, so she will either add or remove a vegetable until it works out in her favor. It doesn't matter whether or not you don't need that extra carrot, because you're getting it, and paying for it. If you keeping walking down, you'll come to a little temple. Next to it is a tiny grocery store/snack shop/sweet shop. They have awesome samosas for 6 rupees that they can pack to go, and a decent assortment of sweets. Sometimes the laddoo is lacking, but when it's good it's gooooood. That's basically it and my food is lost somewhere in Khar because these streets don't have signs and I described it as "down a street past the Hanuman temple, make a right, make another right and go near the jewelry store." Actually I just got off the phone with them. The driver was confused and went back to the restaurant twice. Not entirely sure if I feel like eating my chicken tandoori now, but it's almost 11 and the vegetable lady probably went to bed. Here are the few pictures I have taken from our explorations of Bandra, the nice neighborhood just down the street with the CUPCAKE place on it.

This is bombil, the fish used to make Bombay duck. It's currently drying just next to the ocean.

David and Ava walking down Carter Road promenade.

The opposite side of the street.

Pretty beach. Clearly not going swimming, but the sea breeze is awesome.

Ava and I on the promenade.

One of the streets in Bandra. A dog ON A LEASH. Painted walls...paved roads...where am I??? Wonderful.

And lastly, the awesome chaat place we found down the street.