May 2006 Archives

Yesterdays

rewind -----> all aboard the shrimp train

i was slow catching my train, so i quickly scurried into a very small compartment - reserved, much to my surprise, for fish vendors carting their wares about the peninsula. (fantastic! perhaps I can acquire food for the evening.) the car smelled like one would imagine- pungent and brackish; raw shrimpy goodness. positive i was on my way to hurl city, i flung myself out of the train at the next stop [okay, flung is too strong... hopped daintily out of the "shrimp car"] and jumped into the next open car.

big, big mistake.

the only analogy i can think of is the floor at philips when we saw NIN... a number of sweaty folks, except this time crammed into a thin, barely lit tin can. all pushing. to make things more fun, the people waiting at the next stop fight and throw arms and generally take a running dive into the train. picture: flickering lights; a gaggle of limbs, flailing about; a small american-indian, grappling for air complete with pained look upon face; hundreds of people, rushing the car, as though the one true answer to the mystery of life, sex, wealth, happiness, and samosa resides in the cubic centimeter of space between resident indians 1 through 4 and non-resident alien me. i'm not claustrophobic, but at one point i was crammed between one dude's armpit and another's fella's back and pinned to the wall and seriously thought i was going to flip out, yo. i had to close my eyes and just sort of wish myself outta existence for a little while. Two sweaty armpits and their associated staaaank whisked me violently back into reality.

The shrimpies were a far more tempting fate.

fast forward -----> Tanneries, Textiles, & Domestic Violence

Yesterday scared me. Anil, Rajan, & I went to the slum to collect B footage and interview some children, women, and a few other folks for YUVA's documentary. The interviews were smashing; one elderly gentleman in particular, who has been making pottery for over 25+ years, remarked intelligently on the strong need for change in the community and the excellence of the gas-powered kiln. He spoke about his breathing and heart trouble, and how they seemed to be worse with the smoke; he spoke on his children, who have found other work; and he spoke on the way the gas kilns fired pots, how some of them broke but no more than when firing with the traditional kilns. He recognized the resistance in the community to change, but felt it necessary, inevitable. It was refreshing to hear an elder statesman speak positively of change, to be in favor of change. Similarly, the B-roll footage of the kids and the women's group went well. The kids adore "shooting" [as the filming is called] and stuck around until we had to chase them off.

The early chunk of the day was similar to others - fun yet not central to my work. The later part of the day involved shooting in other regions of Dharavi for the introduction to the video - this portion was insane. The areas with tanneries and other small to medium-sized enterprises were unlike the potters' colony; they were cramped, without the wide lanes to accomodate bhatti; sewage and trash were rife; naked children, beggars, flea-laden dogs. small pathways careening through makeshift housing alongside informal, open sewage ditches. overwhelming and intense.

i started looking for something less... caustic. a group of children with a litter of kittens. three men, pushing a wheel chair-bound companion through muddy, muddy alleyways, all of them laughing hysterically as they slide around. a beaming mother, looking down on her elder daughter of 5 or 6 holding her newborn brother, who is cooing and gurgling loudly. i felt and still feel remarkably out of place. i have no right to be there, invading, internalizing.

the industries themselves make the sweatshops of NBC and Baraka look tame. Groups of between five and ten workers of ages ranging from 7-80 are crammed in a reasonably large, unventilated room with one wide opening. they're all working; the eldest gent, 100000 years old, hums out a familiar hindi tune along with the radio whispering in the background; its hot, but sweating here is a way of life. Perhaps most striking are the products they are working on - one shop worked on plastic containers found around blankets and comforters; another worked on fabric, pressing it and printing it; and the tanneries worked hides. the tanneries were an environmental disaster. chromium was everywhere, green and blue, frothing, mixed with god knows what else. hide was everywhere. the place smelled of death, fixatives, and mold. across a major road, leather wholesalers abound. no regulation binds action here, and concern for the environment comes second to scraping by.

india doesn't allow visitors to focus on just the attractions or remain in fun, comfortable places. for better or worse, the beautiful stuff plays footsy with the devestating stuff on every street corner, at every tourist attraction, around every corner. difficult.

step forward -----> Thunder Lightening Strike!

"Very heavy rains expected in Mumbai in the next 48 hours. Thank you and have a safe monsoon."

The rains have begun. For those of you who've lived in Louisiana, think storm season times ten. The streets in Dharavi flooded in minutes, and the rains didn't let up for over an hour. They began anew two hours later, twice as intense.

Slums + Development

K-wada is a small chunk of Dharavi, Asia's largest slum that hosts 1 million people of varying religious and ethnic backgrounds. Dharavi sprawls in all directions - upwards for two or three stories, and out and out and out. K-wada's an interesting part of Dharavi. It's the region's largest pottery colony, home to some 1200 families. Around 600 of those families earn meager wages as amazing artisanal potters. The pots are stunning, but more amazing is watching the community at work - some work the clay, preparing it for the potters; other prepare the kilns; other still glaze the pots. The final products vary - some serve a strictly utilitarian purpose; some decorative; the majority find a niche between utility and decoration. The functioning, organized, delineated process of the operation is striking, contrasting sharply with larger Indian inefficiency.

Development is a tricky concept to grasp at home. It is even more convoluted in India, a country in the throes of modernization, industrialization, commercialization - all the "-tion" buzzwords affiliated with development. We went to the slum on Saturday to hold a drawing competition with around 30 of the children and to give the cooperative members their pictures, which I had taken the day before. The cooperative members were sincerely grateful and enjoyed the 7 or 8 basic portraits I had taken, which came out well. The lighting was awful, so some improvisation was required, but they were adequate. Anyway, at one point around 40 kids burst into a tiny office, surrounding a small desktop computer so they could see digital photos from a trip they had taken to the park. Technology be damned and all that, but the kids' reaction to the computer, to the images, was priceless - the excitement, energy, and enthusiasm was palpable and contagious. There's this side of modernizing - the amazing trickle of technology to societies who otherwise don't have access to it. The people in k-wada aren't marginalized by large MNCs, by the national government, or by any of the usual suspects - instead, repression comes from history; from an archaic, outdated caste system that, while buckling under pressure, manages to maintain a firm, vice-like grip on Indian society. Mobility outside of your designated lot in life isn't a reality, it's a pipe-dream. It seems impossible. Yet watching those kids - a few in particular - one gets the impression that things will change, that they have to change, that they are changing. The kids speak broken English, while their parents speak none. The kids read and write, few of their elder's do. Many of the teenagers volunteer at the school as tutors, mentors, as little leaders - of their own volition, sometimes to the chagrin of their parents. They kids seem to yearn for something else. The parents, like parents everywhere, boast and show-off scores from their chillun that ARE as good as students from more prosperous areas. The ability is there - it always is, always, in every single person - but will the society let it flourish? And then, the flipside of all this, the loss of cultural customs to developmental homogenization. To the desire to escape the current lifestyle. Lays potato chips next to homebrew masala-laden hot mix. Plastic containers in place of hand-made earthenware. High capacity housing in place of sprawling slums. I'm in no place to judge that escapist desire. But, for the first time, I'm not sure where I stand with regards to development. There is life here that doesn't exist elsewhere, energy and vitality and an approach to living that world is rapidly losing... but the need to ramp up production, the desire to create more product for as little money as possible, the pressure of modernization has lead to tremendous difficulty in continuing to actively pursue pottery in a sustainable fashion. The current kilns simply are not sustainable - from an environmental perspective, an economic perspective, and a political perspective. The sheer volume and thickness of smoke created EVERYDAY when the kilns are run is extraordinary. Sometime last week, I watched one elderly gent get caught between two kilns that were firing pottery and take a hacking deep breath - and then cough up blood and pass out. All hell broke loose, as children tried to move this fellow five times their size. Everyone mobilized to help him, and after a few minutes he regained consciousness. Then, the kids return to running around the kilns, playing cricket, chasing each other - blissfully ignorant of the poop they're breathing in. Elders look on, relatively unconcerned. This is how its been, and how it will be. This is their lot in life. Long live tradition, but foofaa that.

Traveling and Arrival, Recounted

these are ancient posts. only edits are to correct my potty-mouthed tendencies

Around 10 days ago, I threw comfort to the wind and left for Mumbai. Those last few days, I surprisingly found myself unprepared for departure. I was aware of how wonderful my friends were before leaving, but now I'm keenly, acutely aware of it. All the time. I miss you all more than I can describe.

I've never been to Mumbai, never imagined Mumbai, never conceptualized all that Mumbai is/could be/may be. On paper, I knew some facts - 16 million people, a city built by "reclaiming land from the sea", Bollywood, bhangra, clubs. Beaches.

16 million people - an unimaginable number, as though one person for every grain of sand on the beach. Then, in the larger context, 16 million is nothing... 16,000,000 out of over 1,000,000,000 in India. A glass of water against the oceans. 1+ billion people. Unfathomable.

Flights are flights, and I'll leave out most of the details of the prodigiously long flight from Atlanta to Mumbai via Amsterdam. Suffice to say, the flights were packed [though my concept of packed people moving has since changed]. I had brief conversations with a fellow from Cameroon, which was interesting; and even more interesting, I found myself sitting next to a fellow who works for the same company as Meg's dad. Small world.

The flight arrived on time, miraculously. The terminal at the international airport in Mumbai smelled ancient, like my old high school - lingering odors of mold, flopsweat, dust, saltwater. It felt creaky, rickety. I rushed myself through the airport to baggage claim, attempting to reassure myself that collecting my baggage and making it through customs would be a cinch.

Alas, non.

But, before I get ahead of myself, let me describe Indian baggage claim. The carousel snakes around a large, rectangular room, curving and swirling about senselessly, as though to maximize inefficiency. Indians coming home from abroad tend to return with copious excess baggage, often beyond the designated limit of 2 pieces per person - for example, the family of four that was standing to my right had 8 checked bags, probably each in excess of the weight limit, and 8 carry-on pieces. Never mind the fact that one family member is probably 4 and another is still in swaddling clothes. Seriously, no big deal.

I digress. The horn sounds, and the baggage starts coming through the very small entry point. Not single file, not piece by piece, but instead bags stacked haphazardly atop bags - a house of cards, a pyramid shaped flea market of oddly colored, oddly named suitcases, boxes, duffle bags, strollers, televisions, rice cookers, air quality monitors - you name, veeee have it. Every fifth piece gets caught in the entry door. Ever other piece has some strap that gets caught in the conveyor belt, resulting in literally dozens of large pieces of luggage crashing to the floor. This being India... the luggage just sits there, as though eventually - at some point - it will gain sentience, realize its mistake, and hop back onto the belt. Or, more likely, someone else will come by and take care of it. Small children sit on the fallen luggage, play amongst it, and then try to move it. Occasionally, they succeed. More often, they become trapped by it, and start screaming. Loudly.

My bags were two of the last ones off the plane, but they arrived intact, a blessing. Blessing be cursed; customs was a nightmare. After reclaiming bags in India, one is presented with two options - the "Green Channel" and the "Red Channel" for customs. The green channel facilitates rapid movement for residents and non-residents who have nothing of consequence they are importing; the red channel is for folks who need to make some sort of declaration. I hustled over to the queue for the green channel, but was instantly spotted. A large customs official - dressed from head to toe in spotless, pressed, pristine white - heralded me with great fanfare to the red channel, where not one, not two, but three magical customs officials awaited me. At this point, my pulse quickened to a breakneck pace, my pores began springing sweat like a geyser, and my brain turned into a smoldering lump of coal.

My bags contain around 10,000 USD worth of equipment, three-quarters of which belongs to Harvard and the remainder of which belongs to Emory. Every piece is essential to the study. And so the conversation begins...

Hello, bya, bags ma kya ha?(Hello, brother - what's in the bags?)

Well, in this one, camping gear. I'm going to Ladakh in August. Clothing, personal medicine - normal travel stuff.

And in this one?

More camping gear, some electronics.

Electronics? Quickly, bring them here (points to X-ray machine, bags go on x-ray machine. Man makes rapid clicking sound with mouth, Indian for, nonononono.)

What is all of this?

Long, drawn out explanation. Volunteer in slums, air quality monitoring, student, equipment all goes back to US.

... ... ... ... ... ... How much USD do you have?

350.

Duties for this equipment are $400

(oh, of course they are, since I only have 350. Foofaa, to be honest, I don't really have 350. I bought coffee and a sandwich at the airport. What if he takes all my money? Then what? Bribery! Must... bribe...customs fellow. What if he's honest? Jackass, slap yourself later, he's not honest. Figure out a way to bribe him. 100 bucks is like 4600 rupees. One month's pay. Foofaaing piece of poo assholes. Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa Foofaa.)

I don't have 400, and all of the equipment is coming back with me - it is NOT staying in India.

Give me 50 USD.

Wha...Excuse me? (I mean, yeah, I had contemplated 100, but the reality is so much more severe and... poop.)

He now calls two guys with big guns, who usher me to a back room. They speak to each other in Tamil or Maruthi, which I cannot understand; we go over to a wall with a one-way viewing mirror. Extending from the wall is around 2 feet of table, like a bar; they make me exchange the money literally under the table. I find this final flourish both inexorably cruel and hideously, ridiculously amusing. Finally, after between two and three hours, I'm outside of the airport, passport and equipment in hand. It's a bit after 1 am.

Harpreet & Niladri (Batman & Robin, The Justice League, Fantastic Two, Turner & Hooch, JD & Turk) come to my rescue. I get a prepaid cab, we stop at a restaurant, and we head into Mumbai. Despite it being 1 am, its still extremely hot out - the sort of heat that sticks to you like flypaper. 1000% humidity. Supersaturated air. You exhale here, it rains somewhere.

Finally, we're at the apartment; its beautiful. Running water, two beds, plenty of space. Constant electricity. A foofaaing television! Pots pans silverware cleaning supplies. Unbelievable. I owe these two chaps my life.

Sleep that night consisted of lying awake, wide-eyed, wishing for a beer and friends.

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