Bombay Dreams

Sunday, July 24, 2005

the india that i came to see

i’ve really come to understand india, an india that i wouldn’t have been able to understand through being shifted around from one relatives house to another’s through the windows of one of my cousins’ a/c cars. its this india that i wanted to see and have my eyes opened to. its also this india that i’m not unsad to leave. it’s this india that my parents sought to leave, to make a better life in America. they sacrificed a lot just for us, and here i am coming back to try to understand what they left.

i now understand how most every Indian parent wants for their child to become an engineer, doctor, or lawyer and prioritize education above all else. the fear is poverty, and in india, poverty means living in a house made of tin, and cleaning houses or or doing embroidery or hand work, or worse yet, picking through trash. while that really isn’t an option in America, our parents have a picture of poverty way in the back of their heads that looks like the poverty in India. education and professional plans are a guarantee for their kids to have a good life.

something that surprised me that i understand is the attraction of suburbia and a nice clean home or cookie cutter apartment. yesterday deepti and i had lunch at her supervisor’s apartment in the suburbs, and were blown away by how nice and clean the apartment was. i would prefer that place to ours in a heartbeat. its ironical because in America i prefer the old historical houses that have “so much more personality.”

the culture of yelling in order to get anything done or to gain respect is also something that i’m starting to personally understand. at the center, whenever there is a conflict, people raise their voices and assert that they are right and the other person is wrong, without even understanding the other person’s point of view. it’s completely opposite to the way i strive to communicate. for the past two weeks, it was something that was really concerning me, because to me it seemed to be so destructive. i’ve suggested to the project directors to initiate more communication/life skills session with the rest of the staff and peer educators, and have put together a few activities that i might be able to do with them this last week. but change is so hard.

with the lady that cleans our house, we’ve tried every possible way to communicate with her, treating her with the respect that is an expectation in america. with the other people whose houses she cleans, there is a class divide, but with us there is none. what we're starting to put together is that the only way that she’ll not take advantage of how nice and respectul we are is if we tell her very sternly what is expected. its a catch 22 for sure. this week has been especially disheartening. it sucks but it really is the culture here. magic bus somehow found a way to communicate with the kids that is respectful, engaging, and effective, and that inspires me and gives me hope. i don't know how they did it but they really should mass produce it and sell it in a bottle. change will take a long time. people are set in their mindset and that’s something that’s going to take a long time to change.

things are slow and painstakingly inefficient. a week and a half ago my cell phone was pick-pocketed on the train. very luckily the police caught the woman as she was trying to take someone else's pocketbook. when i went to the station that night, there were five people involved in writing the complaint out, and it took them over an hour to write it out. the next day, i sat at the courthouse for 4 and a half hours to be told to come back on tuesday. on tuesday they said that they'd need the phone for the case day itself and so they couldn't give it back to me, but to come back the next day that way they could set the case day sooner because "they didn't know i was leaving so soon." frustrating, yes. i can't even put it into words. and clearly i didn't want to spend my last two weeks in india in some court room where the process was beyond any hope of comprehension. and if the process is this confusing and inept for a 1300 rupee cell phone, i can't even imagine what it would be like for something that matters, when people's lives and livelihoods are at stake, like murder cases, or brothel raids.

the inefficiency, slowness, and set mindset is what makes living here and working for social change so frustrating. at the same time, the degree of poverty and work to be done make it hard to justify doing work anywhere other than a third world country.

Friday, July 22, 2005

the July gang: Richa, Maria, Sherry, Deepti, and myself in our apt. I think that we actually took about 4 pictures before getting this one just right. ;) That night we went out to "Vie," a club at Juhu beach. It was awesome, it was outdoors so there was such a nice ocean breeze and then dancing was loads of fun too (one thing i've realized that no matter how upscale the place is, there are always people to imitate dancing.) Posted by Picasa

This is from a trip to Karnala Fort with an NGO called Magic Bus-- it was amazing that such a beautiful place exists only an hour and a half outside the city. The kids we took were all from the slums or kids of construction workers. From the moment we got on the bus to the moment we got out, all to be heard was 40 kids completely engrossed in singing songs at the top of their lungs, their excitement flowing throughout the bus. Everytime we passed another bus full of people, they'd all scream and yell at them. That was the best part of the trip, seeing the kids so excited and also how much they took away from their experience. I walked up with a girl Archana, and she had a really tough time getting to the top. She was such a good sport and definately very excited once we got to the top. Then on the way down, there were a few tricky spots where she insisted on going on her own instead of grabbing someone's hand. It was awesome. Posted by Picasa

Sunday, July 10, 2005

is this exploitation?

for a while i thought otherwise, as i was particularly impressed when reading about a women's collective project in a village in Maharashtra where the women in prostitution were able to organize together to stand up for their rights. the women put together a statement about themselves, and in it they proclaim that prostitution is a way of life, just like any other, and that it is the way that women make money, just as others may make money from using their brains or in physical labor. this part i agree with in theory-- a woman should be free to choose how she uses her body and sex work in itself isn't an inherent violation of a woman.

then the question in kamathipura is if prostitution is ever a "choice." i've come to know that 99% of the time, it is not. there aren't even numbers on the number of women who are stolen/tricked/sold, and i can't even find words to express how horrifying it is. no girl ever thinks that her life will end up that way-- every girl in rural india dreams of her shaadi (wedding) and having kids and maintaining a clean home. and this is where gender and poverty become intricately intertwined. in india, having a girl child is burden on the family. if you are poor, and someone, usually a neighbor or trusted family friend, comes telling you that there is good work for your daughter in bombay and that they'll give you a lot of money up front, it sounds like a damn good deal. alternatively the lure of the city to a girl who has fallen in love with this dalal (pimp/middleman) within 4-5 days can bring her to the city. you also have the girls who are 2nd or 3rd generation in the area. on thursday, one of the women brought her 9 year old niece to the center to eat lunch. another woman told me that even at such a young age, she had already started to eat paan(tobacco and mint like things wrapped in a leaf that is chewed on). On one of our visits in the community, two girls in school dress uniform passed us by, and the peer educator who I was walking with said to me, "yeh ladkiyanh bhi karenge," meaning that those girls will also fall into the line of prostitution.

even after a woman repays her debt to her gharwali (brothel/bunglow manager), what choices is she left with? she cannot go back home, her family would denounce her. she probably doesn't even know where she is, and she doesn't know how to read or write. i spent some time teaching our peer educators the hindi "alphabet" and was blown away by their persistence to learn and especially with how incredibly hard it is -- they just haven't had that sort of development, and it's so sad.

okay so then you must think that now the woman is out and on her "own," and clearly she must have some sort of control or autonomy. and this is what i wanted to believe more than anything else of the women in kamathipura, that at this point she has economic independence, and runs the household because she makes the money.

instead the majority of the women in kamathipura still face relentless exploitation and discrimination, all in the context of poverty and most likely also now illness. one peer educator explained to me, "hahn, sub admi log kahthe hain," literally meaning "yes, all the men eat." the woman makes money so that their admi can eat, or drink or eat paan. instead of being the head of the household, the women face verbal and physical abuse from their admis. they can also have more than one admi, one that lives with them, and one/two in the community who also take money from them.

aside from the admi, the woman's gharwali also abuses her a lot. she is often more concerned with how many customers she has, because if a customer gives 100 rupees (about 2 dollars), she gets 50 and the woman gets 50. the woman also faces constant harassment by the police, who also take advantage of them personally. soliciting on the streets is against the law so the police often also have raids where they'll pick up the women who are standing on the streets and then charge them a fine of Rs. 1200 (which is a lot for them-- often the gharwali will bail them out, putting them back into having a debt to pay off). finally, society shuns her as being "bekar," or worthless.

she really has no where to go, and the only life she has known is the one of exploitation. they say "ubhi tho meri zindagi aissi chalegi," meaning that my life has gone like this. she has accepted it, while she still knows that intrinsically that it is not right.

it's so sad, but they see it as the reality of their life. they are okay with it and have in ways made peace with it, and often it is us that have a stronger reaction, because we feel bad or guilty that a fellow human being's life should be as such. and so we should. and while i fundamentally believe that answers must come from bottom up in that community organizing/grassroots sort of way, i also see the need for their to be top-down policy changes, for things like the trafficking of girls into bombay. it's challenging because of the corruption and ties between the "sex industry" and govt officials/police..., but it is imperative.

in kamathipura the women are strongly divided in disharmony based on geographical origin, and often don't recognize their similarities. this is a challenge in organizing the women into a collective, like the one i had read about, where the women enjoyed economic independence and autonomy over their lives and livelihood. the women in kamathipura have such little control and power and face so much abuse. finally, when the choice is between working so that you or your children might have some food to eat (literally), or working towards a long term goal whose end isn't even in sight, the choice is clear. in paul farmer's infections and inequalities, he writes "There is nothing wrong with underlining personal agency, but there is something unfair about using personal responsibility as a basis for assigning blame while simultaneously denying those who are being blamed the opportunity to exert agency in their lives." (p 84)

In this chapter entitled "Invisible Women," he details the stories of three women, an African-American woman in Harlem, a women in rural Haiti, and coincidentally an Indian woman sold into prostitution in Bombay (on Falkland road, very close to Kamathipura). Lata's story couldn't have been more typical of what I have heard and seen. Regarding the interconnectedness between gender, poverty and HIV, he writes " both Harlem and Bombay, it seems fair to assert that the decisions these women made were linked to thier impoverishment and to their subordinate status as women. Furthermore, it is important to remember that Darlene and Guylene and Lata were born into porverty. Their attempts to escape poverty were long bets that failed-- and AIDS was the ultimate form their failure took." (p 78) Between 50 and 70 percent of the women in Kamathipura have HIV with virtually no access to treatment.

actually, i think that i have failed to give an accurate picture of these women. over the past month, i've come to know them as incredible, strong, soulful women with such a will to survive and enjoy life. in the center we dance a lot. they ask me to teach them how to dance american style, and to bring in american music (which i think that they aren't going to like at all) :) they have so much fun with the new meditation/yoga class that we have every day, and actually don't think about the injustice in their lives, which makes a lot of sense.

back to my initial question -- yes, even though the women are accepting of their lives and find happiness through dancing or through their children, this is exploitation. it is in the beginning, and it is throughout their lives by individual people and society. i'm still struggling with what can be done to change the system.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A couple weeks ago, I was waiting in the train station and saw this woman and absolutely couldn't take my eyes off of her and her baby. This being my first time taking an upclose photo of a person just randomly, I shyly asked her if I could take her photo. "kya mein aapka photo lei sakthi houn?" She agreed and still chose to look away. They were absolutely stunning and after I took a couple photos, I gave her a few rupees and told her that her baby was absolutely beautiful. "yeh aapki beti/beta hai? bahut sundar hai." :)Posted by Picasa

Monday, June 27, 2005

dhupatta diyo!

so i was on my normal route home today on the train, and since i've gotten so comfortable riding the trains, i wasn't paying very much attention at all. the train was relatively empty and there were only a couple of people ahead of me to get off at the bandra stop. the two in front of me get off, and i'm slowly moving towards the door, when i notice someone from behind urgently pushing me with their hand to go forward. they weren't pushing me because they wanted to get off as well (which often happens), but instead because they thought i should be getting off much more quickly. i pick up my speed, to be met by a MOB of indian women trying to get onto the train. and when i say mob, i mean MOB. and they were clearly winning the battle. i had made it out onto the platform, but was being pushed back towards the train. my instinct to survive sank in and i renounced all hopes of being civil, and pushed, shoved, and elbowed my way out through the mob of women. i'm probably being a bit melodramatic, but it was so overwhelming!

okay so then i'm finally off the train, and realize that my dhupatta (scarf) was missing! in the chaos, it had gotten caught amongst all the women and was somewhere trampled on inside the train. so i stood outside the train doors shamelessly yelling "dhupatta, dhupatta diyo!!" (give me my scarf!) they all stared at me, just kind of stunned.

on the next train and on the way home, i felt almost naked in a way. before this trip, i always thought that of a chuni/dhupatta as an accessory. the first few days at the main office (in the swanky part of mumbai), i noticed that everyone wore their chuni's in a v-shape so that it covered their chest. i quickly learned that it is a modesty measure, and out of necessity rather than just tradition. it tells you a lot about the culture and gender inequity that a woman has to drape a long piece of cloth over her chest to feel comfortable walking around in public... and while things like this do set a tone for the culture of gender (especially as i experience it for myself), it is nothing in comparison to the situation that puts girls in rural villages at risk of being tricked or sold into prostitution, and the kinds of things that the women at the center have been through and go through every day.

Friday, June 24, 2005


lately i've been thinking a lot about community and how it is constructed in indian culture. there seems to be such a dichotomy in thought that i'm trying to understand. in some situations, there's such a strong sense of the word, but in others people seem as though they could care less.

i've been realizing that the majority of mumbai is a slum. as i've been exploring the city by walking around, by train, by "rick" (short for "rickshaw" which is a small three wheeled automobile with no doors), and by yellow-topped black taxis, it seems as though the only thing that i see are homes made of plastic tarps, burlap, and tin. i always stare in awe about how people can live like that. it's just hitting me that the endless rows of tin houses aren't going to end.

marks of progress in india are things like clean running water, a garbage system, and public bathrooms or water sewage, things that we take for granted in america. instead... the poor (which, keep in mind, is the majority of the city) have to walk pretty far to get water and the water is dirty and they get sick from it, especially in the monsoons, because they might not have the resources or knowledge about how to clean it. there are a few ways to make the water safe to drink. i drink water that been put through our "aquacop" filter which shoots uv rays into the tap water, thereby killing most of the viruses and bacteria. afterwards, i boil it for a half hour. you can also boil it straight from the tap and that's okay too. when we go for outreach at work, for people who aren't able to boil their water (because they don't have a stove, or they do but gas is too expensive, or they don't have the time), we suggest cheap tablets can be put in a bucket of water that's supposed to cause the bacteria etc. to settle to the bottom. thinking about it on a larger scale, it's absolutely ridiculous: all the water in india is not suitable for drinking. are 1.1 billion people supposed to individually clean their water?

garbage is slewn all over the streets and is somehow transported to more central locations where the poorest of the poor assemble their tent houses and the kids pick through the garbage for things that are recycleable (plastic and metals). there is no other way for anyone in the city to recycle. the kids are called rag-pickers, and often they eat things that they find in the trash. plastic is a huge problem, and when i insist not getting bags when i buy fruit or clothes or whatever, i get so many puzzled looks.

as for bathrooms, everyday on my way to work, i'll see at least 4 or 5 people squatting close to the tracks to take a shit. there's this one spot close to a small river where a lot of people go to do their business. it smells so horrible as we pass by. i've seen people bathe in that same water. all the people i've seen use the bathroom are kids or men. for older girls and women, using the bathroom is even harder because they can't use the bathroom in public during the day.

witnessing all this, i know that something must be done. i'm absolutely shamed that people live like this. of course, the poor know this as their life, are comfortable in this way of life, and are happy. but what does the middle-upper class say? where does their idea of community start and end? because they see the same things that i do, on the trains and all around the city.

this is where i see a dichotomy. because in smaller settings, like in the train, in one's family, in one's neighborhood with friends of the same socio-economic class, there is such a strong sense of community. on the train, there were these two muslim women and one was complaining about her 10 year old son who was hanging off the pole in the doorway, and didn't listen to her. a third woman, unknown to either of them, fiercely told her to tell her son to clear away from the door. and so she did and he scooted back. why did the third woman step in? would she have felt responsible if something had happened to that child?

so many little things like that happen but then when it comes to the situation of the poor, nothing. people don't see it and i'm guessing that for the majority of the middle/upper classes, they think that it's not their problem. or, if it was their problem, what could they really do about it? also, there have been examples where things have been done to help but haven't been utilized, like public bathrooms not being used properly, or provisional housing put up that the previous slum dwellers then sell and move out of and back into the slums. (i'm sure there's so much more to those stories...) there's also this idea of karma, that fate determines your place in society and there's not much you can do. that idea of karma/fate might also be why women in kamathipura may resign themselves to a life of sex work.

in kamathipura, i'm just beginning to think of community and what it means to these women. for most, it doesn't exist and it's hard to trust anyone. they are from different areas: nepal, maharashtra, karnataka, andhra pradesh, west bengal, and tamil nadu, and the different groups don't get along. this makes organizing a women's rights movement especially challenging. police, govt, and mafia profit from the industry as well, making it also so hard to break.

so how does one create community or help to build it? at the center, amidst the endless arguments among the women and peer educators, there was this one moment where i was sitting and playing cards with a regular ("noreen") and trying to include a newer girl, "anjali," in the game to the dismay of the one who asked me to play. while the cards were being dealt at one point she told me that she had a "saheli" (hindi for close girl friend) back in her town whose name was sapna. then she went on to say that she didn't have any sahelis here in kamathipura because there wasn't anyone she could trust. at that point, one of the peer educators piped in and said, "no, well here all of us in the center become sahelis." then anjali goes on to say, "what do you consider to be a saheli then? because if you got sick, would anyone come visit you in the hospital?" then noreen and the peer educator both said how here at the center, if anyone else got sick they would go to the hospital and how if they got sick, that people would come visit them as well. :)

Sunday, June 19, 2005

deepti's photos of the some of the kids living in slum called govandi. Posted by Hello

from the inside of the trains (deepti took this photo and jenny's on the left) Posted by Hello

deepti nearly dropped dead when she say yes the one and only INDIAN IDOL abhijit sawant at barista, india's starbucks. Posted by Hello

hello from mumbai!

hello friends across the world!

i've been in india for about a month now, and was in delhi visiting family for the first two weeks and have been in mumbai for the last two. i'm working with an organization called committed communities development trust, and they have projects all over mumbai that work on community health, hiv/aids, and children at risk. i spent the first week here at their main office, helping them get ready for an exhibition that they're having of beaded jewelry/artwork made by hiv + women, who i had the privelege to get to know. i spent last week mostly getting oriented at the project that i'm going to work with which is called roshni ("ray of light")-- they are located in the redlight district in mumbai and have a drop in center for the commercial sex workers ("csw's") as well as a peer education program where they train csw's to spread messages in the community about things like condom use and other health issues.

it's been unreal realizing the huge social impact of this "industry"-- honestly more than half of these women are hiv positive. in our area alone (called kamathipura) there are about 6000 women. most of the women are decieving forced into it. basically pimps go into the more rural villages and either promise to marry the girl and take her to the city, or promise her of good work in the city, such as housework or something like that. then they're basically locked up in these houses called "bunglas" until they become too sick and then they're thrown out with the excuse that okay their debt has been repayed. then, they know no other life than that, and it's quite hard for them to find another way to make a life for themself. it was so sad seeing women of all ages, from 14 all the way to grandmother-ish age. in kamathipura it's very subtle-- during the day, normal business is going on: vegetable markets, normal little stores selling stuff, kids playing, people all over the road driving, but if you look closely you see women just standing around in front of a house not doing anything. i went to another area called falkland road where it's much more apparent. it's also been mind boggling to try to think of an "answer" to this huge social issue, which is rooted in so many other larger cultural and societal values, such as gender equality, education, poverty...

this past week i've enjoyed getting to know the staff and the peer educators, and going out into the community with them. yesterday we decided on the project that i'll do and i'm really excited about it. i'm basically going to interview the women and do field based research on a few topics, including behavior change, gender, and stigma/discrimination against hiv/aids. i think i'll find some focus to the project after the next one or two weeks. it's going to be really interesting though, and they said that it will be helpful to them as they modify their outreach strategies and messages with the next phase of their project which starts in August.

this morning i went with my friend deepti to one slum (she's doing her work in the slums), where they had a health camp, which they have twice a year and basically a whole bunch (maybe like 100-200) of kids ages 0-5 came through for a check up and also if they had any problems... deepti helped dispense meds and i helped get their height and weight-- some of the kids really cried when i did it but i tried to find ways to make it less scary for them, which i had fun with, but they cried anyhow. ;)

i'm also having a ton fun exploring mumbai-- its such a cool city and all the people that we work with are sooo cool. last night we went out to this amazing club and had fun imitating the local dance style. it was quite fun.

let's see: here's some info on the logistics of living on my own in mumbai:
getting around -- the trains are pretty reliable, and i love public transportation. deepti always raves about how much she loves seeing people and seeing their faces. sometimes it's SUCH a fight to get on the train and you get shoved and pushed around.

apartment -- it's pretty nice, two bedrooms each with an a/c!, a living room with 2 computers, a kitchen stocked... there is also a woman, suman, who comes to clean for us everyday (dishes, clothes, and in general). i don't know how we'd manage without her.
i live with four other crazy "mugs" from the states, deepti (from mcg), rashmi, manu, and jenny. deepti and jenny are working in the slums, rashmi with an education project, and manu is with ccdt working on the exhibition.

food-- sometimes we eat out, like dosas or indian food, or even indian chinese, and a lot of times deepti's or jenny's relatives will send us awesome tiffins of food.

temp-- it's been HOT yo. like sweating all day long HOT. riding on the train and sticking your head out side of the door is such a high. the monsoons have just started, won't stop until mid august. :) i'm expecting to be wading around in muck pretty much to get from place to place.

and last but not least (as a reward for those of you who have gotten this far)... i got lice. :( upon arriving in mumbai i noticed my head to be a bit "itchier" than normal, to which i thought it was a change in climate, or shampoo, or dry skin or something, but no, i got little creatures in my head. they're gone now (i hope)...

okay i think that's enough for now... i'll write more later, about my work and the red light district esp as i get to learn more about it and what slums here are like.

ps-- (hey- can any of you you tell the indian accent/lingo that i have picked up? recently i've noticed that when i write, i'm thinking with an indian accent)

in awe outside elephanta caves, a temple completely carved out of the stone on the side of the mountain Posted by Hello