Friday, 25 November 2011

Mami, hold my hand.

So here's the part where I tell you why I moved to Mumbai an entire month before my semester is over. I'm not sure if I told you much about the SIT program I'm enrolled in this semester but maybe I should start by telling you that SIT has a very hands-on, experience-based approach to learning. Hence the excursions, the one week workshop in Varanasi and hence my independent study project. For their ISP everyone has one month to research a topic of their choice in a location of their choice and write a 30 page research paper about it. A topic related to health and human rights, of course. Fun, no? Well, despite having to write a 30 page paper it's really pretty easy to spend a lot of time on your project if you have a topic that truly interests you. Something that you're truly invested in.

My topic: the female "rehabilitation" centers of Mumbai, Maharashtra. For those of you who don't know what a female rehabilitation center is (I hadn't heard of one of these before coming to India either), a female rehabilitation center in India is a shelter home where girls are taken after they have been rescued from domestic violence, sex trafficking and rape among other cases. Once at these homes, the girls are supposed to be provided with (if funding allows, which it usually doesn't) shelter, medical care, education, life skills and vocational training, and counseling services. Some of the girls learn how to make jewelry or different pieces of art so they can sell it in the market, while others are trained to work for different companies.

Over the past few weeks I have been spending some time in some of these homes in Mumbai, some have been run by NGOs and a few others have been run by the Maharashtra state government. It only takes a bus, two trains and an auto rickshaw ride to get over to them from where I'm living here in Mumbai. And yes, that's only a bus, two trains and an auto rickshaw there AND back. But don't mind my sarcasm, my 2 hour commutes every morning and afternoon are worth the hassle. Throughout my time in Mumbai I have had the opportunity to interview social workers, counselors, NGO staff and directors, a government home superintendent, staff members of the International Justice Mission, members of the Child Welfare Committee and even girls who have lived in the homes for a few years. I can only interview the girls who have turned 18 according to the International Review Board's rules but I have had the opportunity to also chat with some of the underage girls who live in these shelter homes.

Talking to these girls is a tricky thing. They love me instantly because I am a foreigner and want to talk to me and know all about who I am and what I'm doing there but I have to be very careful about what I say to them because their story is the last thing they want to talk about - it's too painful. But I spend a lot of time looking at their files, building case studies for my paper, learning about every painful, traumatic part of their life and their stories. Then I have to turn around and look at them, talk to them, and be a bubbly person that will hopefully cheer them up and make their day a little better. I talk to them about the latest Bollywood film and how cute that new actor is, nail polish and whatnot but I all I want is to be able to undo what has happened to them. But I know I can't and it's hard. It's really, really hard.

I'm sorry to say that there's no uplifting, happy conclusion for now. All I can say is that this has been my life for the past couple of weeks. But that doesn't really matter because this has been their life forever and will be their life after I leave Mumbai in a week.


P.S. For obvious reasons I'm not allowed to take pictures inside these homes but you can take a look at the few that I've taken on my morning commute just below. And if you're feeling a little blue after this post, just take a listen to "Momma Hold My Hand" and "Green Lights" by Aloe Blacc. As some of you may know, I'm quite obsessed with Mr. Blacc. While the second song lightens the mood more than the first this post brought both of them to mind.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The Special Rajdhani Express. Next stop: Mumbai.

Trains are the preferred mode of transportation in India, at least for long distances. They might not be the most comfortable or the cleanest but they are usually pretty inexpensive and relatively fast. The Rajdhani is not faster than flying to Mumbai but being the second fastest train in India, it was naturally only a 21 hour train ride! Hey, I'm just glad I didn't have a 33 hour train ride to Bangalore like some of my friends.

This train ride in particular was a bit different from all the other train rides I've been through so far and I thought I might mention it here. My roommate and I said our bitter goodbyes to our host parents and headed for the New Delhi Railway Station, arriving with time to spare in order to catch our midnight train. I fell asleep almost instantly. The next morning I woke up looking a hot mess, with cilantro chutney on my kurta of course. My roommate was already awake but we didn't feel very energetic at the time so we both busted out our books only to be interrupted by the guy sitting across from us. After being interviewed about our lives and what we were doing in India, we had made a new friend despite having been told by our academic directors not to talk to sketchy strangers. This guy seemed a little crazy so we figured he was harmless. He taught us how to play Indian card games, we taught him how to play some American ones, we argued about corruption and the time went by really fast. He doled out some useful info on Mumbai; where to go, what to eat, which public transportation to avoid. He gave us business cards for all the places we absolutely needed to go see and then threw his in just in case we needed anything while we were in Mumbai. 

His card caught my attention, it said something about immigration services. Naturally, I was really curious about what he did and after interrogating him about it for a bit, it turned out it was just a fancy title for recruiter. American and Canadian universities pay him to recruit wealthy Indian students; the more students he brings in to one specific institution, the higher a percentage of the students' tuition that he is entitled to. All I could do was laugh nervously as he confirmed my undying belief that college is a business. I've always been aware of this but it had been merely lurking in my subconscious and all of a sudden it was in my face, as most depressing things in India seem to be. It does seem like this is increasingly the case in the U.S. On that note, I read an interesting article in the NY Times. It's worth a read.  Both very fun things to think about, I realize. Sorry I'm not sorry.

I also realize I still haven't told you why I'm in Mumbai and what I'm actually doing here but since I'm on a bit of a time crunch, we'll just leave that for the next post.


Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Love is Here

Happy November everyone!!! There's nothing too happy about today as I am leaving New Delhi tonight (I am going to be in Mumbai for the next month or so, which I will talk about later on in another post) and will be leaving my very sweet host parents, whom I have grown very attached to. However, In the past couple of weeks (all final exams and papers aside) I have experienced some very neat things here that are all very true to the heart of India, today I will share two of them with you: Diwali and a traditional Indian marriage.

The first, Diwali, was the Indian new year as per Hindu tradition and actually took place in the last week of October, a whole three weeks back. Being the Indian New Year, Diwali is a week-long celebration of family, friendship and love. Families come together from wherever they may be, friends visit each other's homes and they give each other gifts. These gifts can be nuts or dried fruits (which are quite expensive here and thus coveted), chocolates, tech gadgets, money, and most traditionally mitai - the Indian sweets which are sure to fill your tummy with flowery, sugary, buttery goodness (they may or may not be fried and then dunked in syrup, ti's up to you). On the actual day of Diwali (designated by the phases of the moon) houses are completely decorated in what you understand to be Christmas lights and diyas (small pots with candles in them). The family comes together at night to perform a puja (refer to earlier post for explanation) for Ganesh and Lakshmi, Hindu God and Goddess of success and wealth/prosperity respectively; you pray for a little bit, decorate the altar with garlands and place money in front of the altar (typically silver coins), burn some candles, and eat some sort of pashaad (blessed food) in the gods' honor. We had jalebi in some cold milk and it was delicious. Auntie and Uncle then encouraged us to make use of all the sparklers they had bought for us, while everyone else on the block and really all of India lit fireworks well into the A.M. Quite a few fireworks actually went off a couple of feet from me, I made no attempt to hide the fear in my eyes. My roommate thought it was hilarious and was shocked that I never did this in the U.S. It was a lot of fun and I can say that I really felt like I was breathing happiness all through Diwali season, which may still be going on as it's difficult to tell when a holiday has actually ended in India. Most kids get 5 or 6 days off of school for Diwali in India, because I am studying with an American institution I got none...not that I'm bitter or anything....

Anyway, fun event number two, an Indian shadi (marriage) took place just two days ago. My host sister's best friend was getting married so naturally my roommate and I tagged along. For those of you that may not know, Indian marriages are really long and elaborate, they literally last for days because of course you have the engagement ceremony, the mehendi day for the bride, the marriage and the reception - the last two may or may not be on held on the same day. My roommate and I attended all but the engagement ceremony and I was definitely blown away. The mehendi is the night before where the bride, her family and closest friends get together to celebrate before the wedding and apply the bride and her loved ones' mehendi (henna, just in case you haven't read the previous post). Aside from the cilantro, tres leches, corn cake thing we were forced to eat, it was really fun. Dinner was delicious, the uncles' dancing was quite amusing, and Tania and I were invited to apply some mehendi for the wedding as well! The next night we trekked over to Lalit Gardens for what would be an extremely fun reception. It was a giant green field decorated beautifully with magical lights; the sides were lined with every Indian street food cart you could imagine (I blame my premature death on this), where the back of the garden had an even more intense buffet. Yes, all the food was amazing but that wasn't all that there was to be seen. We paid a visit to the bride in one of the most ornate and beautiful pieces of clothing I have ever seen; her outfit in the traditional Indian bridal colors (red, gold and green) was beaded and embellished til you could no more, the stacks of bangles on her arms almost covered the mehendi that went up to her elbows and there was so much gold hanging from her that she could barely stand. In fact, the second she stood up to greet us everyone scolded her for standing. Just to give you an idea of this, the gold hoop that serves as the nose piercing is usually tied to her veil so that the weight won't tear her nose off. Yes, that's a true story right there.

As for the actually ceremony, you don't just sit around and watch the priest marry the bride and groom; there are many traditions that must be carried out. The groom arrives on either a horse or an elephant (in Delhi's unfortunate case, it's usually a horse) along with his posse and band. The groom's family and the bride's family exchange pleasantries and dance for a little bit at the entrance. The groom and co. then attempts to cross the threshold but is stopped by the bride's sisters and female relatives.They argue a bit about his eligibility, they refuse to let him in until he bribes them and they feed him some mitai and throw rose petals on him and the entire crew behind him. It was actually really amusing. The bride is then revealed and more pleasantries are exchanged before the ceremony is performed under the moonlight at appx. 2am. Basically, it's an ordeal and a half. But it's a beautiful ordeal. You see how nervous the bride is and how shy the groom is and you feel it. You feel the love.

I thought I'd share both of these experiences with you because yesterday when walking through Khan Market (tourist central) there was a powder blue power box with white graffiti on it that caught my attention. All it said was "Love is here." Well, it got me thinking about the past few weeks of my life in India and I must agree; love is here.

 Love,  Eli