Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Thing About Indian Women



I need to tell you about India's Daughters. And her mothers, sisters, girlfriends, bosses, wives, coworkers and every other small or huge role the women of this country play in their families and in their offices and on the streets that aren't always paved for them as they walk miles without stopping.

I need to tell you about my grandmothers. Neither of them cleared five feet tall, but they were nothing less than pillars. My akkaji, in a white cotton sari, raised seven kids, lost her husband too early, and asking for nothing but the solace of her quiet, routine and the lit diyas of her pooja room. And my grandma, on my dad's side, who withstood freezing Massachusetts winters of poverty and a volatile spouse. She worked in factories and banks where everybody loved and knew her, and made meatloaf even though she was a strict vegetarian because she wanted her kids to fit in a weird new country called America.

I need to tell you about Karuna Nundy, the Supreme Court attorney who answers all my texts, calls and e-mails even though she's leading the fight for free speech on the internet, for fair health in Bhopal, for safe workplaces for women who actually make it past the first few glass ceilings. And Chandramani Jani, a village leader who convinced government officials to do their job in a village in Orissa. About Deepika Padukone, a Bollywood actress who spoke up about therapy and depression so we know the green grass needs to be watered, too. And I'll show you a picture of Pali, the woman on the Punjabi border town, who let me make lopsided rotis while she told me, without even a tiny bit of self-pity, what it was like losing her parents as a child and being forced to marry her own cousin and run their household.

If I could convince you this country was secretly run by women -- that they oiled the gears that kept it turning, brought home the water that kept it quenched, balanced the checkbooks, and painfully opened doors, one-by-one, would you believe me? Because after days of walking through those doors, India has taught me more about the strength of being a woman than any school, college, therapy session, bedroom or comfy cubicle has been able to do. And I'm pretty sure that if more of India's Daughters were allowed to grow up, they would shake the world.

I mean, could you play cricket in a sari?


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lessons

1. On India: After watching and chronicling equal proportions of sad and happy, ugly and beautiful, I've realized that nothing in India is as good or bad as it seems. And that I have no right to become desensitized to any of it -- not the pain or the joy, the beggars or the Bollywood, because it has somehow come together and allowed me to be here.

2. On Work: The more I work, the more I recognize the signs of a biased system -- from the people I interview thinking I'm a student, to editors discrediting my ability to work independently. If you're a woman you have probably been wired to underrate yourself when it matters most-- I know that I am. But knowing that has only made me work harder, and somewhat more fearlessly, to become better at what I do and unlearn those invisible boundaries.

3. On Men: I think I've somehow spent years expecting the guys I date to read my mind, and finally realized that it doesn't work. Say what you mean, ask for what you want, and if you have to wonder too long just let it go. Just kidding, I've learned nothing about this species.

4. On Money: People always ask me about money when they hear that I'm a freelancer and are surprised when I say that it's hardly an issue. I attribute this to two things -- learning to live simply and happily without too much stuff, and not succumbing to the atmosphere of deprivation and competition that we're told surrounds us all the time.

5. On Being Alone: Last year I walked out of the airport in Hyderabad after one of many trips and had a sinking feeling when I realized no one would be waiting for me, as usual. Then last week I reveled in the liberating luxury of a 20 hour train ride all to myself with a podcast and Caravan. Making friends with solitude is an ongoing challenge, but possibly the most fulfilling of all these lessons.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Dusty Dreams

My dream tastes like train coffee and a crumbly biscuit from a kind stranger. It's gritty like the sand and god-knows-what between slipper and sole. It gathers like sweat at the nape of my neck, and black smoke that chokes until my dream turns into freedom in lawless hills between rice paddies and streams.

This dream, it smells of mud and rain and phenyl in crowded hospitals. It is slow like the days that feel like weeks, and those last few moments before sleeping in a grimy hotel room where I look for comfort in the wrong places. When I look in the right places, the dream is unstoppable, booming laughter and Tibetan prayer flags and a piece of boiled corn as yellow as the sun.

I always thought that when my dreams left the clouds to touch the earth, they would fall like welcome rain on parched skin. But my dream is scorching sun and flooded pathways and unanswered questions about the child with the swollen belly. You don't always get to wake up when it hurts.

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