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!


  1. The work you're doing sounds amazing. I'm looking for a public health related practicum in India for this summer -- need some help?

    p.s. love the suit :)

  2. The sharing certainly informs but also helps shorten the vast distance you are from us. You can write about any subject. You need not fear upsetting us. We helped to foster these interests and they have blossomed into a remarkable wonderful insightful Sami.
    Love D

  3. Another amazing week...So happy to hear you are settling into your neighborhood, and you found BAGELS! The work you are doing is tough, and it is both fortunate and unfortunate that you probably will never become accustomed to the things you see in the center. It is just something too difficult to witness... desensitization may take place in a small way, but probably not much, and that is okay. Your advocacy will have an impact, no matter how many years down the road.

    Love and miss you every day.
    XOXO, Er

    P.S. - I am going out to lunch next week with a group from work for Indian food. I thought I owed it to you to go :)

  4. I was really happy to read this post, gave me a good idea of your life there. Stay idealistic, but you're getting a firsthand taste of what Indian culture is like - beautiful colors but violent gender relations. Then there's the inefficiency. Soak it all in baby. It's all a work in progress. Love your outfits and can't wait to have pomegranate martinis when you get back.
    Love you and miss you more,

  5. Sami you have become a fabulous story teller. We love your blogs....and don't worry about sparing us some of the crude details. Remember we live in Soprano land Jersey. And now a word from your Gma.

    dear Sami, As always, fascinating and informative! They are so lucky to have you.
    We will look forward to the next installment.

    We love you, Grandma and Granpa

  6. Sami,
    You inspire me every week! I can see your surroundings so vividly through your detail. I am unbelievably proud of you for the support that you are providing these women - EVERY little bit counts. If you change even one woman's life, that's a lot to be proud of. So happy to hear you are feeling settled and comfortable (well as comfortable as the heat allows). Missing you like crazy over here.

    LOVE YOU like scooby loves snacks.