A Year in India

Word of Mouth
May 21, 2009, 11:30 am
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I constantly find that communication methods are different in India than they are in the US. In India, information is exchanged by word of mouth much more so than in the US. This may have to do with illiteracy, a lack of technology and infrastructure, and a large percentage of the population living in isolated, rural settings.

A few examples to back up my claim:

1. My dad’s uncle lived and worked in rural Bihar on a farm with no running water or electricity. Every time he heard a piece of information – whether news, gossip, fact, or story – he confirmed its validity by checking in with four or five others. He shaped his version of the truth around strength in numbers.

2. Indians rarely find their way around a city using maps or written directions. The common practice is to leave home with a vague idea of destination (street numbers mean little in India; landmarks, instead, guide us). Along the way, Indians will ask strangers – oftentimes auto rickshaw drivers who know the city well – how to get where they’re going.

3. India is a country of languages. It has 18 official languages divided across regions. Hundreds of other local languages and dialects are also spoken. Communication, then, is often based on knowing several languages. Latha, the woman who cleans my apartment and is teaching me how to cook, does not know how to read or write, yet she speaks seven different languages. For her, speaking so many languages is more practical than literacy.

Coming from a culture largely dependent on the written word, it has been at times refreshing and at times frustrating to learn how to live in a country where word of mouth dominates communication.


Ambedkar’s Birthday
April 16, 2009, 1:15 pm
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April 14th marked the birthday of Bhimrao Ambedkar, a leader of India’s Dalit movement. Dalit, meaning “oppressed” or “broken into pieces,” is the name of India’s lowest caste. The Dalit community faces many social atrocities including segregation, violence, and inhumane occupations (for example, manual scavenging, which involves cleaning human feces from toilets and sewers by hand).

Ambedkar, a lawyer by profession, was the first recognized Dalit leader. He believed that the caste system was India’s greatest social evil. Amongst other accomplishments, he was the first of his caste to be educated abroad and he was one of the principal authors of the Indian constitution in 1950. Under his pen, the constitution gives equal rights to all individuals regardless of caste.

Many upper class Indians opposed Ambedkar’s leadership. Gandhi also took issue with some of his ideas. Most prominently, the two clashed over the role of the village in Indian society. (Ambedkar was bold in calling villages primitive, ignorant, and too closely bound to caste.) Nonetheless, Ambedkar brought a glimpse of hope to Dalits: not only did he work for their rights, but he also set a strong example for them by transcending the social caste into which he was born.

On Ambedkar’s birthday, I was working on a photo essay with students from Tank Garden, a Muslim school. Halfway through our class, we took a break to hear a few teachers speak about Ambedkar. Because the teachers’ speeches were mainly in Urdu (which I unfortunately can’t understand), I had the chance to observe. My students – who themselves fall towards the bottom of India’s social pyramid – seemed captivated. I wonder what was running through their minds as they listened.

Later, the Tank Garden teachers talked to me about how the Dalit “stigma” has changed in their lifetime. When they were in grade school, their Dalit peers were not served water during lunchtime. Often, teachers and higher-caste students did not speak to or even look at Dalits. Today, discriminatory practices as such still exist in some places. The teachers told me that what has changed for them is that they now recognize and acknowledge the negative nature of these practices. The pace may be gradual, but Ambedkar’s mindset is influencing theirs.

My friend Ekta, another AIF fellow, is working at Navsarjan, an NGO focused on Dalit human rights issues. Check out her blog to read some fascinating stories about her on-the-ground field work in Gujarat.

April 9, 2009, 5:35 pm
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Playing Holi

A few weeks ago, I celebrated Holi, India’s festival of colors.  As the tradition goes, people run around outside throwing colored water and powder at one another.  I spent the afternoon playing Holi (and eating a delicious Indian meal) at my close family friend Rashmi’s house.

When my friends and I asked Rashmi to tell us about the meaning behind Holi, she explained that she loves the holiday because it’s a great equalizer.  She described Holi as a festival that Indians of all socio-economic levels love to play.  As romantic as it sounds, I see her point. On Holi, you notice people from all walks of life out on the streets splashing color at each other.  It’s a sight to see, and a tradition I hope to bring back to the US when I return!

More photos here.

Venkata in Sankata
February 27, 2009, 5:51 pm
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Venkata in Sankata poster

Venkata in Sankata poster

During the past few months, I’ve had the chance to meet a number of foreigners living and working in Bangalore.  One of these friends, Meghana, left the US last spring and came to India to give acting a shot.  She landed a lead role in a major film here in Bangalore.  Having grown up watching Indian films, she jumped right into the language, the Indian acting style, and even the dancing.  Posters of Meg’s film, Venkata in Sankata, are all over the city now.  My friends and I went to the premiere last week (our photo made it in the newspaper, below!).  It was quite a thrill to see a friend on the red carpet & big screen.  It really made me happy to see Meghana taking such a risk with her career and lifestyle to pursue what she loves.

Deccan Herald photo of my friends & me at Meg's premiere!

Deccan Herald photo of my friends & me at Meg's premiere!

The Other Indian Winner
February 23, 2009, 6:16 pm
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Despite feeling that Slumdog Millionaire shouldn’t be viewed as a defining film about Indian poverty, it’s been exciting to see India in the limelight after the movie’s 8 Oscar wins.  I’m tempted to write more, but I’ll give into the celebratory moment and avoid going into any further detail about my issues with the film.

What I do want to highlight, though, is another India-focused movie that won this year’s Oscar for best short documentary.  Smile Pinki tells the story of a 5-year-old impoverished Indian girl with a cleft lip.  Because of her deformity, she isn’t allowed to attend school and is looked down upon by her community.  The film follows Pinki as she manages to get an unintrusive, inexpensive surgery to fix her condition.


Understanding India’s Poverty
January 28, 2009, 5:15 pm
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Esha, one of the teachers I work with, recently made a film about migrant construction workers’ lives in Bangalore.  These workers are making extremely low wages, living in temporary slums, and moving from place to place based on where they can find work.  After watching the film, I had a few questions: Are the workers angry about their situation?  Do they feel they’re facing injustices or being deprived of basic human rights?

Esha’s answer was a simple “no.”  But he went on to explain that this “no” was meant to satisfy my American perspective, one that clearly attaches poverty to sadness.  In India, things aren’t so clear-cut.

Here are some thoughts Esha had in response to my questions:

  • India’s caste system makes it so difficult for impoverished people to move “up” that they feel there’s no point in trying
  • A majority of India’s population lives on very little, so people have adjusted to a non-money-centric lifestyle
  • Indians have a different “mental makeup” than Americans
  • These migrant workers separate their frustrations at “the system” from their day-to-day, personal mindsets
  • Many poor people don’t know what it means to be wealthy; money is a dream so far away that it’s intangible (think Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, pictured below)
  • If people are sad about their situation, they might cover it up; Indians tend to place more value on the community’s well-being than individuals’ emotions
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

It’s frustrating to know that, as an outsider, I may never be able to fully wrap my head around the Indian context that defines the attitudes of these workers.  The best I can do is listen to people like Esha, observe my surroundings, and read as much as I can about India.

Esha and I are brainstorming ways to make a film addressing this gap between the American perspective and the realities of Indian poverty.  We’ll begin tomorrow by meeting with a friend of Esha’s who heads up Action Aid India in Karnataka …

Slumdog Millionaire Thoughts
January 26, 2009, 4:16 pm
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“In the end, what gives me reluctant pause about this bright,
cheery, hard-to-resist movie is that its joyfulness feels more
like a filmmaker’s calculation than an honest cry from the
heart about the human spirit (or, better yet, a moral tale).”
-New York Times movie reviewer Manohla Dargis

Mumbai slum residents protesting against "Slumdog Millionaire"

Mumbai slum residents protesting against "Slumdog Millionaire"

Slumdog Millionaire buzz has been in the air for the past few weeks, both in the US and here in India.  I found the film’s storyline entertaining (if a bit cheesy), its cinematography energetic, its actors solid, and its soundtrack innovative.

Overall, though, I didn’t think the film was as phenomenal as its hype promised.  Does the movie represent a surface-level American fascination with Indian poverty?  Will Americans now take its neat packaging as their central window into a far more complex country?  What is the point of glamorizing slum life to this extent?  Does the film misrepresent slum dwellers’ lives in other ways?  Would it have been a very different movie had it been made by an Indian?  (It says something that director Danny Boyle had never been to India prior to shooting the film.)

These nagging questions caution me against calling Slumdog Millionaire a defining film about Indian slum culture.  Mumbai slum dwellers themselves have taken issue with the film, protesting its derogatory title: “I am poor, but don’t call me a slumdog,” said one such slum resident.  A couple social activists are even going so far as to file a lawsuit against the film, citing its overly negative depiction of slum life.

I actually find these protestors’ concerns refreshing.  Far too often, I notice Indian film audiences brushing off offensive film content.  (Not once have I heard debate over the portrayal of women in Bollywood films, for example.)  This kind of healthy critique of popular culture will help us understand our relationship to the media and its representations of us.