Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Bindaas and Barelegged in Bombay

I was crossing the road to get to an ATM in Hyderabad the other day (a feat in itself given the traffic) when I felt the familiar onslaught of leering eyes on my body. I looked into the oncoming cars and suddenly they were everywhere -- men on bikes and in cars and crossing from the opposite side. I felt so vulnerable, as if the pressure of their gaze would cause my button-down shirt to literally pop right open.

But I also realized why it hit me so hard: I had spent the last few months in Bombay, wandering through the cobblestone streets of Bandra totally bindaas in dresses and shorts, and experienced only a fraction of this kind of thing. That city had proved a haven and those days were some of the most liberated I experienced anywhere in the world. Unlike other places in India, I could wear what I wanted, drink when I wanted, and come home at a decent party-time hour. And unlike cities in the U.S., there was so little focus on time and schedule, or even image, despite the beautiful and highly fashionable 20-somethings around me.

And there's more. The autos run on meter so you don't have to fight with the wonderful rickshawvalas. And the people I met -- through concerts, meditation circles, parties, whatever -- were some of the most creative, lively and coolly ambitious folks I've encountered in one place. I had long conversations about how zombies were actually, symbolically, immigrants, and what it was like to walk through the red light district at 4 a.m. I learned which train station had the best weed (and no, I had no plans to buy it), and which music festivals in India were worth my time. Novelists, screenplay writers, musicians -- I was surrounded, making it easier for me to understand why I came back in the first place.

Bombay also revealed the striking power of what happens when women are actually visible on the streets (and in offices and buses and trains). A couple of months ago I got a text from a particular family member telling me to come back home because "India was a rape waiting to happen." I felt nervous, but also defiant. India has become a second home to me, at least as much as any place I've lived for the past ten years, and leaving it in fear would mean being one more supposedly empowered woman hidden away and held back. Not that I'm interested in being a martyr, but being able to walk down the street at night to buy milk (or let's be realistic -- Old Monk) is a right that can't be taken away from me.

Not to be too rosy -- Bombay's got it's issues for sure (read Maximum City while standing in a flooded street during the monsoons if you need proof, or look at the sleeping line of homeless people around every corner). And every Indian city has incredible treasures, charms and kindness. But in a lot of ways, I got to see the best of this country during my summer in Bombay, and fall in love with the motherland all over again.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

These Bombay Shores

My friends and I sit silently on the edge of a park in Bombay as dusk turns to night, our faces turned toward the wild grey sea. Today the wind is rough and cool, and if you hold completely still you can actually feel where it meets the hot city air. 

I watch the waves below me -- following one at a time as they crest and break on the jagged rocks. Beyond the water is an arching bridge and skyscrapers illuminated in yellow light. A cluster of women in black hijabs gossip on the stone wall on one side of us, and determined joggers turn their faces toward the breeze as they make their rounds. Elderly couples saunter by in comfortable silence, their hands clasped behind their backs. I hear no one.

Everything, suddenly, feels like home. Like Clearwater Beach at night with my best friends, and the dock that stretches into the Anclote River behind my parents' house. Like watching the Potomac ebb under the M St. bridge in D.C.; that one quiet spot along the Arno in Florence. The rivers and oceans and seas flow into each other and I could be sitting on any of their shores, just belonging. And I'm not the only one.

The other day I met a traveler en route to Brazil at a cafe in Bandra — a soft-mannered guy with kind eyes and a stubbly beard. He had spent the day taking photos in the hot sun and we drank coconut water and jaggery coffee and talked about where we had been. After sharing a few adventures the talk turned to Bombay and the city's chaotic grace. There was something magical here, a quiet sort of humanity living among the fishermen's nooks and bustling Dharavi market and lover's perches on Bandstand. He took a sip of his coffee and said, "I have this theory that living on the water is good for the soul.” 

I smiled because nothing is coincidence. This is the same theory I've held for a while, created with my toes in the ocean: the idea that people must live on the water, or amid the mountains, or in the desert -- anything vast and natural and divine -- to feel truly happy. That without something expansive and beyond our grasp for reference, it is far too easy to slip into our minds and think the reality we've created is the only thing that exists. 

Out here on the edge of the sea, with the wind in my hair and the rush of water drowning out millions of voices, I  have no doubt that there is more. I feel like one of the rocks on the shore, at the mercy of the sun and waves and stars. And for now this city is as much home as anywhere in the world could be. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Scribbles

These are some of the incomplete, largely mediocre notes in the margins of my reporting notebook. Typed for your viewing pleasure.

Valtoha, Punjab

I want to ask why you build your homes of concrete and glass
stretched across this plot of land like an unfinished palace
wrought iron gates guarding what you make sure others can see
while the light bulbs flicker and the taps run dry
lean season is not limited to your fields of wheat

I want to know why you built your homes on a crumbling foundation
of promises and greed and gold that turns black
when our grandfathers knew that if one person is weaving the cotton
the other has to dye the fabric
and that a breeze cannot blow through a wall made of stone

Preet Nagar, Punjab

The days here are long and difficult. They start early with the sun rise, as farmers do, and end only when you forget about the mosquitos. In the middle there are endless stories to hear -- from the drunken Sudeep to weary women who bear the burden of this broken, broken system. 

I try before every conversation, before nib hits paper, to remind myself why I am here. Sometimes this work feels too fluid and suspended in ideology to be meaningful to these faces that sit across from me. 

Amritsar, Punjab 

I used to watch Chitti (dark and beautiful, half sari and silver bangles) race up and down the marble stairs of the Somajiguda house with trays of chai and bundles of clothes. Battered, tiny feet with a silver payal. I asked my family then, doesn’t she get tired? And they told me: No, no, usko aadat hai. She’s used to it. 

So for years I watched these people who were used to it — watched them carry buckets of water half their weight through the hot, hot sun. Cut vegetables for hours on the scorching terrace. Scrub a household’s worth of dirty clothes on a rock with a bucket of water. Lift bricks in silver bowls on their heads. And I tried to tell myself that they were used to it.

But I knew better. And so I packed my suffering and their suffering in a blue backpack and landed in a home where Chitti could have lived. I watched my family’s words fall to pieces upon the aching shoulders of a laborer, the open wounds of a farm hand, the tired feet of a mother with too many hungry children. There were pills and fake doctors and bottles of promised relief. And when those failed, there were chemicals designed for escape.

But nobody was used to it.

Khem Karan, Punjab

I am too full of fresh village air to crawl into a shell. I feel at once insignificant and powerful. 

Chandigarh

I want my paper back
and my ink
the words I gave to you
not to mention the words you gave to me.
In your hands each letter was
heated with a soldering iron
to be twisted like your mind

This is a world of limited reams
impatient blue lines
notebook bindings that actually stay together
after days on the rough, winding road.
I didn't realize that not everyone
hands you an extra pen
when you lose yours on the bus




Friday, May 2, 2014

Farmhouse Meditation

"When the winds come the rain doesn't stay very long," Sanjeev Anna tells us as the thunder rides in on dark, swift clouds.

I breathe in those telling winds, gazing over the mud porch at the hills before me. There are acres of wild forest and farm and creatures, mango trees heavy with still-green fruit, yellow eggplants, prickly branches, banana leaves that shade wild, uncultivated earth.

The rain begins. It comes softly and suddenly, leaving no room for the overbearing sun or the thick, languid air that weighs on my eyelids all day long. The flies retreat, the beetles scurry away. For minutes I just sit on the porch, watching the soil quench its thirst.

When I inhale I notice something under my ribs -- an ache like heartache, a love like my mother's warm hug. After days of talk and travel, there is nothing left but to feel open and raw like the fresh dirt under my finger nails, dusting my soles and speckling each sip of water I draw from an earthen pot to drink.

I think of life's sharp edges that have followed me to India. A friend's accusations, a family secret, an unanswered question. I think of a boy and feel ashamed that my words turn their feet in his direction.

The rain stops and the sun stays hidden. A grey sky is cool and welcome and the leaves drip green and red and brown.  My heart is wet and weathered and I tuck it away so that I can return to the safety of my mind, where stories are made.

Sitting across from me, Sanjeev Anna has this peaceful smile playing on his face that can come only from having one hand in the soil, eyes bright from gazing at the starry night sky.

I look for courage in the trees.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Keth Notes

It's only been a month since I started reporting in India, but that's enough to know that every 1000-word article comes with a second story -- a much longer adventure best chronicled in patience, sweat and possible tears.

Behind that quote from a local politician, for example, is hours of waiting, droves of leering men, cups of chai served in direct proportion to visible frustration, and several fights with auto rickshaw drivers that charge vastly different fares for the same exact distance.

There are children to be played with, traffic jams like you've never seen, and interviews that start and end with incredible home-cooked meals of fish and rice and spicy daal. There is traveling in 106 degrees and choking pollution. And women -- amazing, brilliant women with silent strength in their narrow shoulders, sturdy steps and ability to do anything in a sari.

Reporting is not easy anywhere, I assume, if you do it right, but this is a whole new world. Gone are my days of calling up a congressman's press office, of knowing exactly where to find reliable data and measuring time with a clock. I've replaced it, instead, with a struggle to balance constant adjustment and a stubborn fight to get what I need, against the odds.

Journalism to me has always been about discovery and new voices, but this might be the first time that I feel completely at mercy of the world around me. Luckily, the world tells much better stories than I  ever could, so all I have to do is show up.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Princesses In A Princely State

The Hyderabad of my childhood was full of palaces.

The first, an old bungalow where my mother grew up with her seven siblings.  I spent hot summer days there in frilly frocks, playing with small wooden toys and hiding from the dog, Cindy. My cousins and I would swing on a huge metal jula in a courtyard teeming with leafy plants and accessed through a beautiful wrought-iron gate.

I remember the stone grey floors that stayed cool in the summer, the stories that my mother told about her late father. Learning to drink milky sweet chai out of saucers so I wouldn't burn my tongue, and the sway of my grandmother's soft cotton saris when she did pooja in the morning.  I remember that next door there was a small buffalo farm with sounds and scents so strong that I knew exactly where I was when I woke up.

The second palace was my cousin's home, a sprawling estate perched on the top of a hill. There were white arches, black-and-white marble floors and a terrace where I spent hours asking Chitti, a beloved maid, thousands of questions and chasing lizards on the banisters.

This was a house meant for dreaming -- I could imagine the portraits of my cousin's ancestors coming to life, their swords and turbans and jewels in tow.  I convinced myself I was part of that royalty -- though my heart was fullest playing barefoot in the yard and following my cousin into the nearby construction sites for daily "adventures".

The palaces of my childhood are gone now. By the time I graduated from high school both had been demolished for personal and financial reasons -- land sold and replaced by apartments and modern houses where the marble and stone give way to glass and steel.

It's a lot like what has happened to the city, Shah Alam tells me when I visit his Golconda Cigarette Factory with the Chaiwallas. At 88, he is the patriarch of one of the city's oldest families, the ones who claim Hyderabadi as their identity before any state or faith. In Alam's Hyderabad, dinner tables are stocked with biryani and mirchi ka salaan and meant for at least thirty people.

Back in the day, he said, the princely states kept social order as it should be -- families were close and trustworthy, servants were loyal, and money was secondary to respect. Abolishing these states, and the power of the Nizam, monarch of Hyderabad, was the worst thing that could have happened.

His nostalgia is a little bit like the city my mom describes, one of shaded streets and rickshawvallas and more bungalows with open doors. Now, new money directs urban sprawl, and political tension has divided many people earning and living in the city. Huge malls line the streets and the cost of everything -- from a cup of Irani chai to a haircut -- has grown exponentially. My mom says she doesn't always recognize her hometown, or its people, and I've spent the last several visits vicariously bemoaning the change.

But in the past few weeks I have discovered beauty in this new Hyderabad, too. I follow my friend into the depths of Old City one day as he visits schools in mostly poor Muslim neighborhoods. I sit in a circle with thirty eighth-grade girls -- the first girls to be educated in their families -- and we learn about each other. One of them, clad in her uniform and black hijab speaks of the changes happening in her volatile neighborhood with such hope and clarity that I have to believe she and her sisters will take over -- the new princesses.

I spend hours with my cousins who have perfected the art of working to live instead of living to work -- enjoying each meal together, taking drives with their friends just to talk. I eat the best shawarma ever with Vivek, party at the most beautiful house I've ever seen, and enjoy two wonderful dinners at the National Police Academy with one of my mom's best friends, the first woman director in the institution's history.

When I think of those crumbled palaces my heart still hurts for what this city's people, and my family, have lost. But when I look into the face of that school girl in Charminar, I can think only of it's strength -- something like the stone statue of Buddha in the middle of the Tank Bund, so peaceful and timeless that it's core can't be shaken.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dating the District


October. Arlington. We're full from dinner that he cooked, I'm a few glasses of red wine into my night. He walks me back to the metro and says, "I'm not going to end up on your blog or something am I?"

Oops.

I've lived out of a backpack in India, trekked through central America, knocked on doors in the shadiest of DC neighborhoods,  driven through a snowstorm in Appalachia and made plenty of almost-disastrous decisions along the way. But an intentional foray into the dating world seemed far more nerve racking.

Even so I knew it had to be one of my experiments in 2013. Grad school was over, I owned more than one pair of cute shoes, and my evenings were free as long as I made deadline. Not to mention, my past romantic history had been a mix of bad timing, impulse decisions and lack of communication. I always had some sort of boy drama going on, but it rarely proved worthwhile.

Luckily, a bunch of my friends were in the same boat. Some of us were recovering from breakups, others from summer flings. Our particular demographic is prone to being detached, and the four of us were proof.

So we channeled every terrible romantic comedy and Time magazine dating feature and did what all girlfriends do -- we made it a game. Not the sort of data-driven, critique-filled Hunger Games stuff you might imagine, but just a bit of competitive spirit and constant banter. 

Finding guys in D.C. was easier than I thought. This city is full of the kind of people I like -- idealistic, big-picture thinkers that live at happy hours. I employed all the millenial dating tools I had never used to broaden the pool: mutual friends, set-ups, and a slew of (free) dating apps and sites that are all the rage.

When you sign up for dating apps a lot of weird things happen. First, you see a bunch of your guy friends and try very quickly to click through them, or send them awkward notes to clear the air. Then, you get tons and tons of weird messages like this:




If you happen to mention said app or site in public, you suddenly find that everyone you know is on them too. It doesn't matter if they're drop-dead gorgeous, high-powered professionals, and the most put-together people you know -- OKCupid is the great equalizer, and it has become acceptable to Tinder at parties.

Sifting through the messages -- skirting offensive grammar, clean shaven faces and people who lived in Herndon, Virginia -- I worked up the courage to respond to my first date in September. He seemed great: worked at an embassy, wasn't scared to leave NW DC and wanted to move abroad. That he was cute, tan and tall didn't hurt either.

We met at a generic Dupont bar on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, and I had dinner plans with friends afterward to ensure a clean getaway. My biggest fear walking in, though, was not rejection but just plain awkwardness. 

But during that first date -- three hours of seamless conversation, few uncomfortable pauses and the strongest gin and tonics in the city -- I learned something new about myself. I love talking to people, almost all people. I love listening to their ideas, childhood stories and wild, ridiculous dreams. I always know in the first couple of minutes whether I think a guy is cute, or if we have chemistry, but that has little impact on whether I want to continue a conversation. I realized it was almost like reporting, without the notebook.

A genuine interest in the people I met helped fuel the next, wait for it, 19 first dates. Not to mention the second and third dates that allowed me taste test libations at almost all U Street and Columbia Heights establishments, usually for free despite my protests. My normally packed schedule teetered on ridiculous, but I was meeting and seeing all of D.C: the tired med students, the policy wonks, the IT nerds, the ex-bro now-hipsters, the hippies who didn't mention they were in open relationships. And the hippies who did.

I also met a guy who became incredibly depressed during the government shutdown, a sweet guy that made my middle school insecurity look like nothing, and an abrasive consultant who almost choked when I asked to split the bill. 


And while I consider myself a fairly insightful and observant person, I realized my radar is totally off when it comes to dating. I was shocked by several of the guys who asked me out on a second date -- guys I felt no connection to at all. One of them was so damn cute that my 25-year-old self gave my 16-year-old self a high five when I saw his text light up my phone the next morning. 

My friends, meanwhile, had varying results of their own. One gave up after her first date -- things were too fresh from a past relationship. Another found that her town had drastically fewer options that those of us in big cities, though she was a great sport. And the third, like me, found the experience both liberating and empowering and tested waters that previously seemed ice cold.

But the experiment quickly became tiring and I was learning even more about my preferences. I liked new people, but I loved my friends more. I was far less emotional than I thought, and got annoyed when someone expected me to text them every day or meet more than once a week.  And while I'm a sucker for romantic gestures, saccharine words from the wrong person are positively jarring.

By mid October, I was done dating, at least in a competitive way.  I didn't "win" based on our collective terms, and I didn't find a guy, but I was considerably more open and fearless when it came to the men of D.C. As for the ones outside of District borders -- I'm going to need another year.