Written May 24, 2011 – June 8, 2011
It’s been a very odd, long, delusional month. I’m now at my one-month anniversary with Dengue and I feel like a different person. My energy has returned and I’m back to the streets and the train and work – doing it all slowly and cautiously, of course. Monsoon began promptly on June 1st and so the rain drip drip drips in a small puddle from a beam extending from my living room into my bedroom. Drip drip drip – bye bye Bombay. (NOTE: There has been a slight change since writing this post just two days ago…see the last bullet – you’re in for a surprise (as was I)!
Notes on a Return to Life:
- Khar Danda: As many of you know, I live in a neighborhood of kohlis – fisher people – who are the oldest and original population in Bombay. As you’ve seen from my photos of the shore, they are still actively engaged in the fishing industry. The fish market and the smell of drying fish is a signature of the neighborhood. While I was sick, and as I drove to the hospital every other day for blood work, I got to observe the daily routine of my neighbors, sifting through their catch and setting different fish out to dry in the sun. I was struck by something that I remember feeling when traveling in Bolivia in 2007 – the closeness of the people to the earth and to the ground. Our livelihoods have moved so far from anything that keeps us close to the ground – like farming or fishing (for most of us, at least). For the past year I have lived among a community that retains this practice and this closeness to the earth, surrounded by the skyscrapers just down the road (Bandra). So it evolves.
- Exhibition in Dharavi: My good friend Meg, fellow Barnard alumna, has been on a Fulbright here in Mumbai for the past 10 months. Her work has focused on creating relationships with people in and exploring Dharavi, a neighborhood (the largest “slum area”) in Bombay. Her project has taken many forms and at the exhibition she had text and painting on the walls and played audio from the oral histories she has collected from her work with youth in Dharavi. See some photos from the day.
- Lag BaOmer – On a Boat: A comedy and a total disaster. Lag BaOmer is a Jewish holiday that is celebrated with a picnic and music. It was my first time venturing out post Dengue and the picnic was on a boat – leaving from South Bombay at the Gateway of India. The water was choppy – the food could not be placed on the tables due to the rocking – people were falling over and falling out of their chairs – Leiky (the Chabad hostess) was completely nauseous and trying not to get sick at the front of the boat – and the Jews kept eating…Then this 10-month-old baby projectile vomits across the deck. Everyone is concerned and she looks totally blissed out and continues to eat french fries. It was the perfect dramatic climax to the evening and a wonderful reentry post-Dengue.
- Mumbai Mobile Creches (MMC) April Newsletter and American Jewish World Service (AJWS) Annual Report: The MMC newsletter (written and photographed by me – an Indianized version) came out last month after the pain of harassing a graphic designer to format it properly for over a month (see Issue 8). http://mumbaimobilecreches.org/publications.htm . And, the AJWS Annual Report 2010 came out as well – as beautiful as ever (One of my photos is in it – the one of the Ugandan woman standing under tin sheets with the text on CEDOVIP…from my trip with AJWS to Uganda and Kenya in February 2010). http://ajws.org/who_we_are/publications/annual_reports/2010/
- Encounters on the Train – Lubna: After two weeks of being splayed out on my couch from Dengue, it was finally time to go back to work. My second day in the office I decided to leave early and avoid the rush hour craze at the train station. I got into the second-class all-women’s car, relieved to be in a relatively empty car and to not have to interact with anyone (I had such little energy). Then, of course, a woman sitting ahead of me turns around, sees me and starts speaking to me, asking if I work in South Bombay. At first I feel annoyed that she is speaking to me, but I quickly check myself and remind myself to be friendly. We start talking and she explains that she is coming from a job interview – I wish her luck. She proceeds to tell me that she comes from a very conservative Muslim family. I was surprised that she was wearing typical Indian garb and was not fully covered in a burka. She explains that all the men in her family are against her working and believe that she should remain at home with her 1.5-year-old son. Clearly she disagrees and is pursuing employment against their wishes. She tells me that she wants her son to see that she is an educated and hard-working woman – just like his father. Just a typical train conversation, right? I was amazed by her honesty and openness. As we approached her station, she pulls her burka off her lap and begins to button the front and wrap her head. Her headscarf blows off from the wind in the train and she gently recovers her hair. Lubna – an amazing woman looking to create change and opportunity in her community. Not to mention that her sister-in-law, inspired by Lubna, has decided to go back to practicing dentistry. This interaction was so notable in that these experiences happen to me with some frequency in my life here. Sometimes it is necessary to just put my head down and get to where I need to go – a clear survival tool for living in the intensity and craziness of this city. When, however, I have the energy to open myself to the things around me, I meet people and see things that enrich me in ways that I don’t always understand. Living in the city of ups and downs. I read an article by an expat who has lived in Mumbai for over three years and she writes of the city, “She hugs me, she punches me, and then she hugs me again.” It’s hard to understand this without experiencing the city, but she couldn’t have been more concise in her insight.
- If You Can’t Hire a Horse – Hire a Wallah: Just an observation. There is a man for everything here – a wallah. One day, I’m walking out of my alley into the street and I see a man high above a surrounding crowd of wedding attendees – clearly the groom. I assume he is on a white horse, as is the tradition for certain communities here, only to find out that he is not riding a horse…he is riding a man. Another type of wallah. What kind of wallah would you be? It’s the question of the year.
- A Gujurati Wedding: Kamini weds Jayesh! And then Kamini moves to New York. My coworker, Kamini, is New York bound after a beautiful Gujarati wedding (Gujarat is a state north of Maharashtra, which is where Mumbai is located). Sadly, I missed yet another ceremony, but made it to the reception. Kamini was dressed very simply, by Indian standards, and looked stunning in a blue and gold sari. Anita and I went together and congratulated the new couple. We also ate am ras – basically fresh mango pulp (eaten every night by Gujarati families…mmmm) – and other delicious and sumptuous foods. There are no photos of the food – I was too busy consuming. I apologize.
- Banganga Tank – Where the Ganges Flows In: As I somehow keep repeating, Mumbai is not a monumental city…and then I go on to write about some monument that I went to see. Here I go again! Arielle (AJWS fellow), her two friends visiting from the U.S. (Jen and Aliza), David and I decided to venture to the Banganga Tank one late Sunday afternoon. The tank is the oldest Hindu site in Mumbai – from the 9th – 13th century – and it is a stepwell surrounded by houses and temples. In the water you find…people, ducks, coconut shells, flowers and other unmentionables. The tank is considered a holy site, as the source of the water is supposedly the Ganges River. We got there at that perfect hour where the sun glistens and does not scold and where you feel the power of a place and the happiness of the people to be there in that moment.
- Palm Reading in the Office: So, my first palm reading in India revealed that I would have a long life, two major loves and that I would come into a large inheritance. Any ideas on the latter? That reading was easy enough to accept – quite painlessly, actually. Now, the other day, I’m sitting at lunch with my coworkers (our daily return – they believe in lunch breaks in India, it’s amazing) and I find out that our community outreach coordinator reads palms. After finishing my masala dosa (another semi – daily routine – oh no, where do I find a dosa in New York for less than $10…sorry Hampton Chutney Co.), Rajesh took my hands. He studied the left and then the right. The reading wasn’t particularly exciting, though every person who has read my palms (three people) has correctly guessed that I had a childhood illness – strange, no? So, when looking at my left hand, Rajesh tells me – “Oh, you have a very strong business line. You will run a strong and well-run business.” I felt very good about myself at that moment – unforeseen, yes, but I accept! He tells me a few more things from observing my left hand – pinching my palm and looking at the lines the pinches create. Rajesh then takes my right hand and says, “Oh, oh wait…Your husband will have a very strong and well-run business…you will support it very well.” The man – always the man. Just no. Thanks, Rajesh…I’ll go out with that one. Palm readings? No mas.
- A Second Viewing of Sharukh Khan: You’ll remember that after the 15,000-person rage on Carter Road following the Cricket World Cup (and Indian victory), I saw the famous actor, Sharukh Khan. The other night after dinner at my friend’s apartment in Bandra, I was in a rickshaw going down Carter Road and I see a Lamborghinis – I am immediately grossed out (it’s the context – not the car) – and the driver starts shrieking something incomprehensible in Hindi and rocking back and forth in his seat. It takes me a minute and I realize he’s losing his cookies, screaming, “Sharukh Khan, Sharukh Khan, Sharukh Khan, Sharukh Khan, Sharukh Khan, Sharukh Khan.” YAY!
- Benny and Amina: Update on the photo front of the cuteness…Benny turns four on July 28th, but he had a little party at school (see below). Amina continues to be delicious – edible lips and cheeks!
- A Maharashtrian Baby Shower: The former CEO of MMC, Devika, is seven months pregnant, so the staff decided to throw a traditional baby shower for her. She came in a beautiful and brightly colored sari and was then ornamented like a Christmas tree with a flower belt/bracelets/armbands/headdress and decked out in jewelry. (To be culturally correct she was actually ornamented like the Lord Krishna, but I figured that a Christmas tree has more cultural currency for this blog-reading crowd.) They sat her down and offered her and baby a number of prayers – putting a red and orange bindi on her forehead and waving fire around her five times. Each woman from the office carried out a different tradition and it was absolutely beautiful to watch. They ended by feeding her a sweet and singing traditional songs in Marathi (the local language).
- An Eviction: Today is Wednesday, July 8th and Monday was July 6th. I leave India on Thursday, July 16th. I was out for a goodbye dinner with Katie (AJWS fellow), Meg and David – enjoying delicious Maharashtrian coastal food. At 9 p.m. I get a phone call and, as is typical at any Indian dinner table (a practice I WILL NOT continue at home), I picked up my cell phone. It was my landlady, Poonam – David and I call her “The Poon” (excuse the inappropriate, though perfectly assigned, nickname) – and she seems to be telling me that I need to move out of my apartment. I clearly react in an upset/stern tone – she tells me that I am “being rude”…we hang up. I see her about 20 minutes later at her shop (downstairs from my apartment) and I go in to apologize for “being rude.” She doesn’t listen to a word I say and rants for 10 minutes – a pity/woe-is-me case about me moving out earlier than she expected, her finding new tenants that need to move in immediately, all the money she will lose and the money problems she is having (don’t see how that is pertinent here), BLAH BLAH BLAH, and smiles at the end – as she always does when she feels any emotion really (this reminds me of Mr. Doctor – the music teacher at Brown Middle School in Newton – who would be telling a kid to leave the class for misbehaving and simultaneously beaming as though he were first in line for an amusement park ride). I consider slapping/strangling/doing other violent things to her but restrain myself (thank you dad for teaching me how to do this)…I am a lady. Then consider something else…this is who she is. Poonam – “The Poon” – has to live the rest of her life being who she is and treating people the way she does – poor her. So, I move out within about 24 hours – unhappily, yes. Supposedly the new tenants move in today – seven people (an Indian family). If karma serves correctly, they will likely be the worst tenants she has ever had and she will feel deep regret for her current actions. Only bhagwan (that means god in Hindi) knows. In the meantime, my eight days of homelessness mean that I get to stay with my friends Kate and Abby and got to Ahmedabad with David to see Arielle and Shaina (AJWS fellows) for one last weekend in India. C’est la vie. And the beat goes on. My roof shall leak on someone else’s head.
This has been a rough month. Still enjoying my work and time here, but it’s now a real countdown to my arrival on U.S. soil. Sure hope they let me back in…Summer plans include – decompressing, seeing all you people and eventually finding an apartment and job (in New York…duh). Eeeekkk.
With love – xoxo,