Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sami Wears a Sari

Namaste! While you have all been stuck in the snow, I have been stuck sweating in Mumbai. It’s still technically winter, but we basically had two weeks of guaranteed walking around without sweating. We are now back to potential sweat if there is constant motion, so walking is perilous. However, it cools down a lot when the sun goes down and the nights are great, so I won’t really complain, because March will bring tears and high AC bills. The past two weeks have been really great, and really busy. Last weekend, Katie, a fellow from Bhuj, and her sister were passing through Mumbai, so I got to play tour guide, which I love.

Us in town. The sign says Mumbai.

We spent most of our time in town (South Mumbai) so we could hit the major tourist spots, but I got to add a lot of fun new things to the list. After some shopping, and heavy bargaining on Colaba Causeway, a major shopping strip with stores and street stalls, we went to dinner at a restaurant called Delhi Darbar. If anyone is going to be here, I recommend the chicken tikka biryani. Sunday we went to two art galleries. One of them was free and had some local, contemporary artists that seemed semi-professional. It was nice, but nothing extraordinary. I have also been spoiled with free access to all of New York’s museums (except the Frick, $5) for the past few years, so there is a lot of comparison being done. However, the second museum, the National Gallery of Modern Art, is a wonderful, peaceful space with works going back to the colonial era. It wasn’t that long ago (only 63 years since Independence), but a lot of the art revolved around the village life in India, which is changing quite rapidly. It’s estimated that soon 50% of Indians will live in cities, and with Mumbai already at 18 million plus, I’m not totally sure where everyone will go. The paintings of the fishermen and the women carrying pots on their heads evokes a lot of conflicting emotions. People are fleeing the villages because of a lack of job opportunities and a startling poverty, as well as the rigidity of the caste system, which is a bit more flexible in the cities. While people in rural India obviously deserve as much opportunity for growth as people who live in Mumbai, and outside India, there is a very strong desire to maintain tradition. There is something so beautiful in the simplicity, the Marxian genuineness involved in village activities, but maintaining those practices, like catching fish from rowboats or picking cotton by hand, comes at the cost of human rights. Then, in order to maintain some semblance of tradition, people uphold practices like dowry (the bride’s family giving gifts to the groom’s family, essentially to cover the cost of having another person to take care of) and fasting. My apologies for that digression. It’s just very hard to ignore the fact that India is dealing with its rapid growth and modernity by holding tightly onto remnants of what used to be.

This is the famous Taj hotel, site of the 2008 terror attack.

A woman selling balloons by the gateway.

Shopping on the street.

A man selling street snacks, with the Taj and Gateway of India in the background.

The gateway and the docks.

This past week at work has been incredibly busy. We seem to have a million projects going on, and I have taken on a few extra in order to help out. Recent additions include a report on family planning and abortions in the slum and creating posters to advertise our recent expansion of services to provide counseling for lesbian, bisexual, and transgender women. It has been fascinating discussing these topics with women who are not even allowed to talk about, and to a certain extent acknowledge, their own sexualities, and then contemplate how to deal with being a lesbian, for example, in a conservative place like India. Some of my coworkers are more Western-oriented than others and are completely comfortable talking about these issues, even if they have a lot to learn about them, while others, not so much. One of my coworkers asked permission the other day to ask if I have a boyfriend. I will discuss more of these topics in the next post, though, since it’s Mumbai Pride week!!! I am very excited. I’ve never even done a pride march at home, but people from work are going and I’m about to get my rainbow on.

On Friday evening, we had a community event in Dharavi.

Adorable Dharavi children.

A group of kids from the youth group recently completed a theatre workshop to learn about Theatre of the Oppressed, which was developed in Brazil in the 1970s to engage people from disadvantaged communities in discussions about issues like communal tensions, drug use, domestic violence, etc. They did two plays. The first was about a man who got drunk and went home and beat his family members. The second was about how people treat Mumbai, with all the garbage, pollution, spitting, and shitting that are quite visible on the streets. I accidentally stepped in poop the other day, so I can tell you firsthand that it’s everywhere. I always look down when I walk, but it’s hard, because I also want to look everywhere around me. So I guess that’s the risk I take. Anyways, the spectators then chose the first play to explore more deeply, and when the actors performed it again, anyone from the audience was allowed to yell, “Stop!” and take the place of an actor to resolve the situation in a different manner. They are called “spect-actors” in Theatre of the Oppressed language. It was amazing to see people participating, although it took awhile. There were older women, some community workers from my NGO, and this really precocious 12 year old girl who got up twice and locked the drunk husband out of the house.

This is a woman from the community who took the place of the wife.

Scenes from around. Those steep stairs lead up to the second floor of the chawls. And that's Gandhiji.

My favorite moments, though, were when young men got up and tried to make a change. Working in a crisis counseling centre has been eye-opening, but I’m starting to hate men and expect the worst from men in India. It’s sometimes hard to remember that not every Indian man abuses his wife or forces his pregnant wife to have an abortion if she’s carrying a girl (“Missing girls” are a huge phenomenon here. Largely because of dowry and the man’s position of the wage-earner, girls are considered a burden. It is technically illegal to determine the sex of the fetus, but it still happens). So watching these teenagers get involved was a treat and a reminder that the situation might not be great, but some people are doing things to change it. There were also some entertaining moments, like when they first started trying to perform the play, and 30 seconds later, the call to prayer started and we they had to start again. Then a rooster got loose on the stage. After work, I went to my boss’s house to hang out and eat delicious food. It was fun and relaxing, and I always enjoy the times when I can get to know my coworkers better. They love knowing how I feel about India and what I think of the office, and there’s generally a lot of laughing when I attempt to explain how confused I am about going-on at work. She basically force fed me three courses, and I had to cancel my plans to go out and digest palak paneer, chappatis, keema, fish curry, and rice. Ridiculous. She wanted me to eat dessert, but I was already at the point of unbuttoning my pants. I should have worn leggings.

Saturday afternoon, Rachel and I went to Paramparik Karigar, an artisan exhibition in an area called Juhu. Textile workers representing different areas of India come to show their work and sell their goods. In an earlier blog post (Intestines and Indigo), I had written about our adventure to find the beautiful block printing shop, and the artists there told us about this exhibition. Everything was beautiful, and I liked seeing what kind of designs there were from different parts of India. I obviously did a little shopping and purchased my first real pashmina! I could live in it. Unfortunately it’s a little warm here, but it’ll be great for New York winters. Then I had a coworker’s wedding, so I headed over to my boss’s house again so she could put on my sari. That’s right, I did it right this time. So here it is:

I am posing for Ava.

It was just the wedding reception, so no ceremonies or dancing, just eating and gift-giving. My coworker looked beautiful and happy, and it was fun hanging out with the ladies from work. The wedding was in a suburb of Mumbai about an hour away, so while my boss and I were on time to meet everyone else to head over by train, everyone else was super late. My boss almost never takes the train, so it was funny when I had to calm her down and tell her where we had to go and what we had to do. I felt like a local. However, it was really not fun squeezing four people on a train seat while trying not to wrinkle my sari.
Boss and coworkers on the train.

Seriously, just being aware of where all the fabric is totally exhausted me. The seamstress also made the blouse a bit tight, so I was terrified that the top part would come off my shoulder and reveal cleavage. I know, God forbid India sees a boob, but it would be entirely inappropriate, and I’m doing a pretty good job of fitting in here. The woman next to me on the train asked if I was Indian. Well, she didn’t ask me, she asked my boss. Then in English she asked me my “good name,” and whether or not I was married. Two most important, fundamental questions of any Indian conversation. Then she asked my boss if I planned on marrying an Indian person. I believe it would take an incredibly modern Indian family to accept a bride like me, which makes answering that question a bit easier. I have a feeling that I would make a terrible Indian housewife. Actually, I’d probably make a terrible housewife in general. The wedding was fun, but not entirely eventful. I had a lot of good food, good music (and Justin Bieber), and got invited to vacation with the Free Legal Aid lawyer’s family in Kerala in May. Sadly, I had to turn that down.

My coworkers and I. The adorable little child is Abdullah, Nikhat's son.

This is the wedding party!

My boss and I.

Then there was another hour-long train ride home, and then I went out to the bars/clubs. The bars close here before 1:30, and there was a policemen who was trying to strictly enforce that rule and was chasing us down the street, away from the bar with his lathi:

courtesy of google images.

And now, I’m going to introduce the new section of my blog, Things I Learned This Week.
1) Patience is a virtue. Especially here. People really seem to accept the way things work. They mostly hate it and complain, but then just say, “Now you know how we Indians are.” It’s incredibly frustrating, but alas, I must chill in order to survive, and so I have.
2) Saris are incredibly impractical. They’re absolutely beautiful, but I felt like a geisha shuffling along in those insanely high flip-flops. There was so much fabric that I didn’t drink any water so I didn’t have to go to the bathroom. Apparently some Indians don’t wear underwear, so they really just pop a squat. I found this out after I asked one of my coworkers how you could pull down your underwear, since you need both hands to hold the fabric. I hadn’t planned ahead that much.
3) Hindus have moments like Evangelicals. We passed a temple in the slum and there was a man going a little crazy, dancing and yelling, and someone was putting a garland over his head. Apparently God had entered him. I didn’t realize that kind of spirituality existed here.

Until the next edition, Om Shanti Shanti.


  1. Namaste Samosa
    Oṃ śānti śānti śānti.

    A world where this is a mantra and yet the same culture sees so little value in half the civilization? Cows and insects but not women or untouchables. Maybe the shit in the streets comes up from the ground.
    But from you Samosa, some sensibility.Keep trying. Be patient. Ommmmmmmmmmmmm
    Love D

  2. Samala - you look so beautiful in your sari!! I love the fabric you chose, and it will be so nice to have that as a keepsake. The Theatre work you wrote about was really interesting, I am surprised that there were so many observers and participants, but it shows signs of positive change. Keep on keeping on. T-minus 7 weeks until I smother you with kisses whether you like it or not! XOXO - Erie