Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Field Notes: Araku Valley

The hills in Araku are a million shades of green. There are shelves of rice paddy ponds and groves of straight, tall trees shading lush coffee plantations. Bulbous jackfruit, each the size of two basketballs, hang off branches and rot on the side of the road when they fall. Fields of methi and spinach and millet thrive, even though the monsoon rains have only sprinkled the valley. Out here streams rush down the slopes and across the roads and through the tiny villages of mud houses and red tiled roofs.

It's too beautiful to close my eyes, too alive to daydream. I forget about the ribs of the jeep seat jamming into my hip, or the numbing vibration of long motorcycle rides. I forget about the work I came to do.

But V. Rao, a community leader and researcher who has opened his home to us for the week, says he no longer sees this Araku, a tribal area in Andhra Pradesh that was once a hotbed for the Maoist movement. "I just see the poverty. I see how bad things are," he says without emotion, steering his bike expertly through the eroded roads.

I don't know much about Rao. I don't speak Telugu, and he doesn't know Hindi or English. Vivek, my reporting partner, translates for us, and there isn't much time. But I see that he dresses with care, speaks with authority, and in the evening, dances tipsily to dimsa music while he brainstorms ideas to move his community forward. His home -- three bedrooms in Araku town -- doubles as an orphanage for the twenty abandoned girls that he has taken in as his own along with his own children and their families.

That day, we're returning from a daylong meeting with about fifty village leaders and youth -- a meeting where Rao has spent hours making sure attendees know their rights at a time when their land is threatened by the mining industry, illegal timber markets, climate change.

Those struggles, while very real, are not the most immediate in these striking communities. In villages like Chintalveedi, the families tell us they're just trying not to get sick by drinking the well water that is covered by a sheet of algae. They wonder why their babies keep getting viral fevers, or why their feet swell with disease while the doctors remain far away. And they wait for the government to turn the skeletal bamboo huts where their children study every day into actual buildings that resemble a school.

But there are also signs of incredible health and harmony -- a vestige of age-old wisdom that dissolves as you get closer to industrialization. Here the farmers have sinewy arms and strong, white teeth. They eat local grain and rice with lentils and green vegetables straight from the earth. Men and women share tasks like cooking and taking care of children, and the threatening leer of creepy men is nonexistent. And while the next generation seek an education to grapple with the economy they can no longer avoid, many said they would prefer to stay close to this lush, green haven.

I think back to the cities, bursting at the seams with new villagers choosing the urban life, just like my great grandparents did years ago. I think of scarcity -- power cuts and dry taps and fights over space and walls and borders. And how far removed the rice on our plates are from these paddy fields. Amid the traffic and concrete jungles that I have deemed my comfort zones, there are diseases of a different nature in every home.

In Araku I don't know what's right or wrong and I'm too tired and uninformed to figure it out. When a weathered grandfather in one village asks if I've come to find out what medicines to send to them, I feel helpless and misdirected. So I wake up every day for the journey instead -- the hours in the backseat, staring at the valleys and hills with renewed awe. And I think of this line from the Bollywood movie Highway when the heroine says: "Where I came from, I don't want to go back. But wherever we're going, I don't want to reach."

The road has yet to let me down.

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.