Wednesday, October 31, 2012

India 28: Fabrics and the Feminine

Fabric-making in India goes back a very long time, varies by region and its beautiful products are of such ubiquity and stunning variety as to be, in a way, self-canceling:  you come to expect what would be exceptional somewhere else.   The poorest woman in the slum is clad in a saree which is rarely mono-chromatic but combines patterns and colors that belong together.   

These women are from an earlier post, “Saree Circle,” about women in a low-income rural area.   If they are poor, look how richly they are attired and the beautiful expressions on their faces.  Does one contribute to the other?

Here again is the woman asleep on the streets of Mumbai with her child that struck me so hard.  Her clothing does not suggest her condition, nor does that of her child. 


When the British took it over, India textile industry had been flourishing for a long time, reached into tens of thousands of villages and  its products widely traded.  The British undercut not only an industry but a way of live, suppressing local fabrics, displacing mills in India with mills in England and--together with other policies--throwing untold numbers of Indians into a poverty from which they have never recovered.  Indian mills were actually dismantled and English textiles then sold into previously self-sufficient villages.  There is no small irony behind the NGO’s and others from developed countries that are resurrecting, promoting and making markets for the looms of rural India.  Fabrindia is one Indian company that is taking hand-loomed fabric to an international market.  Their stores in India are resplendent compared to their web site. 

So important has fabric been in India’s history that Gandhi chose the spinning wheel as the symbol of his movement to revive village life.  He wanted it on the nation’s flag.

Here’s a picture of young women who work at Vindhya for modest pay, completely typical of everyday dress, although this is not ordinary food. 

The woman who brings me tea twice a day and cleans up after lunch looks as put together as the queenof Siam.  

I asked the woman who runs Vindhya if it was just my poor memory or had she not worn the same saree once in the last two months?   Indeed, that was true. Here's a picture of today’s gold along with me in a Kurta, just received from Sudhindra Kundapura as a going away present. 


Still, the variety and richness of the fabric everywhere makes it easy to take for granted, as I’ve observed in myself.   And then there is another consequence from the omnipresence of the saree or a similar garment, the salwa faweez: the sexual energy which serves as background noise in America mellows out to nothing in India.  We males don’t have to worry about being caught peaking at cleavage because there is none.   I was on alert and I can report:  Zero in a city of 8 million over two months.  That includes the yoga class on Richmond Road.  And as for the report whichspread last week that cleavage appeared at the Ebony Club on the 13th floor of the UB Center?  Mere rumor, a squad sent for the purpose reported back.

Do you know how much male energy that conserves?  This alone might account for India’s leadership in IT.  

While this is not the least bit related, I can report that I have not heard a single swear word while here, or any expression the least bit blue.  Swearing and obscenity  goes on in what I have read but not in English in my refined circles. 

Slightly more closely related is this fact just in:  11 percent of all the gold in the world is worn by Indian women.  Women may not have equality but they carry around the family wealth.

Fabrics have not escaped the attention of every rickshaw taxi driver who never fails to suggest just a quick stop, “No buy, just look!”  I had taken a no-fabric pledge when I got here, and I love fabric.  That’s when someone like Bhaskerans, pictured above, starts unfurling one fabric prettier than the previous one and I decided not resist the shimmering swaths of raw silk, woven near Bangalore in bright ,solid colors, or the chance to have dresses tailor made.  I thought we got every measurement and style just right but I had failed to pick up was that every dress would be full length, as if I were clothing a family of bridesmaids.  There will be a whole lot of trimmin' going on. 



Tuesday, October 30, 2012

India 27: Mumbai III--Shabana Gets A Loan

 The reason I was in Mumbai last week was to capture a little story for the ACCION web site.  I would follow a single, typical loan from an applicant’s first interest until the money gets put to work.  Using a simple but effective video camera called the Flip, I had two days to shoot it, which meant faking approval of the first, application phase.

 The loan would be issued by Swadhaar, a new and relatively small institution loaning to the urban poor in two states, the largest number being in Mumbai.  It has 85,000 loans outstanding, tiny by Indian standards (I introduced you to its CEO in Three Remarkable Women last week).  The loan would be processed and approved at the organization where I work, Vindhya, in Bangalore.  ACCION has invested in both. 

The first day we saw several groups of women sign their loans and receive 16,000 rupees or about $320 and found a woman who would let us tell her story and come to her home, Shabana Shaikh.  She was very serious about the whole thing.  However going to her house was a kick, a Slumdog Millionaire tour, winding through narrow passageways, looking in on people’s lives and meeting lots of kids and lots of goats.   
My camera corrects for red eye but not for blue-eyed goats. This goat is behind the little girl on the left in the middle picture and the kids wanted to play with it instead of going to school. 
Shabana lives in New Andhari which is classified as “a slum” but then this is a city alternatively called Slumbai.  With at least 6.5 million people living in “a slum,” how derogatory can the word be?  Not much, was the sense I got.

This picture is taken from the back wall of Shabana's dwelling; this is all there is to it.  She has at least three children, two on the floor, and two neighbors are visiting.

New Andhari is like places all over the world where people have invaded unoccupied land, then defended and hardened it into permanent residences.  Space gets apportioned, concrete laid, tar paper walls turn into block, pirated electricity gets on the grid and schools or basic clinics may eventually be added.  Compared to Annawadi, where Manju lives, it looks like Levittown. There is a school where the kids wear uniforms, meaning it is private receiving some government support, true of 27 percent of elementary schools.   If you look closely above in the middle of the three pictures above you can see a boy in a tie and short pants for school, looking as if off to a school in the English countryside.  

The home is maybe 10' by 15''.  In the corner to the camera's right is a bench which serves as the bed; you see the kitchen with pots and utensils gleaming on the walli. There is an old TV and behind me a murky aquarium.   If there is any ventilation it is slight and hidden by the doorway.  Outside her door is a nearly vertical ladder leading to the dwelling that has been built on her roof. 

Mumbai is the third most expensive city in the world, following Tokyo and London, more expensive than New York, and this is reflected in the value and cost of places like this one. 

The video version of this story will be edited by ACCION and may eventually appear here. 


Sunday, October 28, 2012

India 26: Wear Obama Hat to the Park And See What Happens!

This is the reaction I got from approaching this Muslim family wearing my hat from the Obama Innaugural.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

India 25: Leave it To the New York Times and Garbage in Bangalore

Bangalore’s newspapers have been reporting and editorializing on the  city’s garbage problem for as long as I’ve been here but it took today’s New York Times to paint the big picture, proving again the value of outside journalism.   

I had read about local business leaders concerned that garbage could ruin the city’s reputation; about garbage contractors who had controlled the lucrative trade in the past and had no stake in solving the problem; of garbage workers striking for back pay; about protests by people living near fetid landfills; and of an ambitious drive to have everyone sort their garbage into dry and wet waste. But the NYT put the big picture together.

We learned from the Times that the gleaming, self-contained campuses of global IT companies that have sprung up here in the last 20 years paid garbage companies to haul away their waste—where they did not know or much care.  The head of Infosys—which has 150,000 employees—told the Times that at some point people in Bangalore will turn on them.  We can’t keep living in our green islands, one of the company’s co-chairmen said.

The city is down to its lasts landfill, the Time’s Gardiner Harris reports.  All the quarries have been filled and groundwater contamination has polluted 300 lakes.  The city never adopted modern garbage handling systems.  “Ubiquitous garbage shows the rupture of Indian governing and the dark side of rapid economic growth,” write Harris.  In Bangalore, the system may simply collapse.

Walking around my neighborhood today I could, again, within a couple blocks see women drop little plastic bags on a common pile.  Dogs root around here and in other neighborhoods, cows.  Then the piles disappear or move somewhere else but starts over again.  There has never been garbage piled in front of my gate but when someone left tree branches on the sidewalk it attracted household trash.  The picture below was shot three blocks away a couple of hours ago. The sign in the background says "Do not dump garbage here."

My guess is landowners don’t own the sidewalks so they’re not responsible.  There are no alleys or apparent places for garbage to be set out and, unlike Mumbai, I’ve never seen a garbage truck.    There is supposed to be door-to-door pick-up and this is becoming an upscale neighborhood but all I’ve seen are little handcarts, like one used by the rag picker on my block.

The city does have one idea that sounds hopeful:  pay the city’s 15,000 rag pickers 100 rupees a day to separate garbage.  I tried to talk to two rag pickers today about this prospect but neither spoke English. Later Sunday night, I go out for a walk and two boys come by, one pushing a bicycle on which is mounted a very large white plastic bag while the other scours the streets for anything of value, mostly plastic bottles.  Now what will they do with it?  Where are scavengers supposed to deliver sorted garbage—or any garbage?  And where will it go now that the city is down to its last landfill?

Ada County, Idaho, is embroiled in a big dispute over a private company’s contract to incinerate trash using as  an unproven technology.  If that’s the worst of our problems, we don’t know how lucky just to roll out a trash barrel or two to the curb and call it done.
The Times of India has been reporting on the health hazards of accumulated garbage.  There have been eight deaths from denge fever including the death of the country’s leading director of romantic movies; thousands of cases of malaria; and now an outbreak of avian flu (attributed to migratory birds) which is killing turkeys.

You'll be pleased to know that Camilla Parker has arrived in Bangalore for ayurvedic and holistic healing, complete with a staff of eight.  I think it's about time I leave. 



India 24: The Brigade to Foil the Marriage of Children

Yesterday Bangalore newspapers carried the story of a 16 year old girl who dialed 1098 and saved herself from becoming a child bride minutes before she was to be married.  The Child Rights Commission here established a hot line which sent three volunteers and a policeman to the girl's home.  She was taken to a safe house and her father has agreed let her continue her education and not to marry her off until she is l8.

Story is consistent with what one of my three remarkable women, Jyoti Tanna, told me: girls are married off because families can't afford to keep them and look for an out.  The Commission says it has intervened in 932 cases this year, all of them successfully.  However the larger picture is that 40 percent of all the child brides in the world are in India and last year 14 million girls 15-l8 gave birth.

In a previous blog on the subject of women's rights and treatment I touched briefly on the plight of widows.  In the Hindu tradition, widows are suppose to destroy all their jewelry, not remarry and live a chaste life.  A 20 year old book, City of Djinns (Demons) by William Dalrymple, told of 5,000 widows in a temple in Vrindavan who lived on a little rice and two rupees a day because they had nowhere else to go.  I assume this could not possibly still be the practice.  But the 2008 Rough Guide to India says the number of widows in Vrindavan is now 9,000!  There are NGO's at work trying to help them.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

India 23: Three Remarkable Indian Women


I’d like to introduce you to three eminent Indian women I met last week, another run of good luck.  For meeting two of the three I am grateful to friends in Idaho. 

Rohini Godbole—High Energy Physics


For five years while at the State University of New York at Stony Brook my Idaho Falls friends Catherine and Debu Majumdar befriended Rohini Godbole, like Debu a science graduate from India.  Both were in high energy physics which later sent the Majumdars to the Idaho National Laboratory and Godbole back to India.  She is today one of her country’s leading scientist and a member of its Academy of Science.

I was lucky she had time for dinner at her home because she’s in particularly high demand as a lecturer after the discovery of the Higgs boson.  She sits on the advisory committee which sets the research agenda of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland which verified the particle’s existence.   (I told the guy who named it the “God Particle,” Leon Lederman, who has a house in Driggs, Idaho, but she was unimpressed.)

Interviewers consistently comment on Godbole energy for her size, which are in inverse proportion to one another.  She stands 4’ 8”.  High energy describes not only her field of study but her personality and opinion.  At dinner with us are a retired professor of ecology and a videographer with an interest in Indian agriculture, past and present.  When the subject turns to genetically engineered food it is Godbole who has the strongest opinion.  She is still livid that a scientist who vouched for the safety of GMO seeds for the Academy of Science had taken money from Monsanto.

Her success is remarkable in light of a report released in Washington this week saying that among the sciences, women have been most discriminated against in physics.

Dinner, prepared by Rohini’s visiting mother, is typical of Western Maharashtra, where everyone at the table is from and looks plain to a visitor’s eye.  But that rice with bits of green has been marinated, not cooked, and rocks with flavor.  Plain looking balls of something must be eaten slowly to savor everything that is there.  Something that looks like a large, doughy clove of garlic is sweetly rich with cardemon. 

To repeat something I’ve written before, how can there be so many tastes I’ve never tasted before? And I thought my taste buds were over the hill.  Rohini is serving a special bottle of French red which ends up mostly inside me. 

She lives on the grounds of the Indian Institute of Science, a campus so large and leafy that for comparisons I can only think of an intact Spanish Land grant in California, like Orange County’s Irvine Ranch.   She laments how the neighborhood around the campus has become so inhospitable she no longer rides her bike to buy groceries.  But when would she have found time?  She’s recently back from a month of lecturing in Vietnam and will be off in two days for Geneva. 

The Majumdar’s have been fondly remembered and we are both eager to see that Debu—now retired and turned to writing—gets his novel published.  We have such a good time that we’ve promised to have another meal together before I head home. Physics has not been mentioned.  Next time.

Jyoti Tanna—Each One Teach One

Last Sunday I have lunch at the home of Jyoti Tanna thanks to my friend and neighbor in Boise, Catherine Scott, with whom she has shared a friendship and been guests in each other’s homes over 25 years.   Set in the middle of Mumbai, Jyodi’s home is modest by American standards but well staffed, including a chauffeur who will show me the city later.  “In India we live like kings,” she says, “but in America we must live like beggars.”  Her husband ran a successful company that makes boilers and highway equipment.

Jyoti is the founder and still responsible for an educational program called Each One Teach One.  She started out helping five students who were likely to fail in school.  Eighteen years later the organization she built supports 10,000 students at seven schools in Mumbai and two in the villages.  We watch a video she commissioned a couple years ago I’ve never seen a better one.

I visited an Each One Teach One School in Bangalore last week and 45 of its l0th Form students will come to Vindhya next week.  I tell the kids this is India’s time; that girls can now do anything they put their mind; to and that by learning a second language--English--they have expanded their brain capacity in a way that single-language speakers have not. 

 EOTO does not run schools itself, although its dozen patrons in Bangalore have raised large amounts of money and material such as computers for two private schools that receive partial government support.  Rather it provides out-of-classroom education, experiences, encouragement and life-coaching that can make the critical difference.  EOTO picks up the cost of uniforms, books, libraries and transportation and pays for the next step after l0th Form, which is usually a one or two year course in a profession, by which time the student is 18.

The genius of EOTO is what its name tells us:  students from upper grades tutor students in lower grades.  In similar fashion, those who have graduated continue to serve as tutors or adopt students financially, as I promise to do.   

“Jyoti is the most remarkable person I’ve known in my life,” says Catherine Scott and what is remarkable to me is how un-self important she is, seeing to it that I am okay while in Mumbai (which anyone who lived here before the politically-correct name change still calls Bombay, which has a better ring to it but which, as a foreigner, I avoid.)   Her driver picks me up at my hotel and spends four hours taking me to the museum and sites that have captivated visitors from early days.  (See an upcoming post called Mumbai III)  She lends me a camera.  She calls twice to see if all is well.  It is.

Veena Mankar--Swadhaar


Mankar is a banker and has a good banker’s demeanor, rectitude, credibility and attention to the facts.  Her career led her through commercial real estate banking and banking in the Middle East and to founding a firm which pioneered “factoring” in Mumbai—the sale of one company’s accounts receivable to provide ready credit.  She does not have an Idaho connection, poor thing.

We meet in her modest office at Swadhaar, a financial organization providing “reliable, efficient financial services to the vulnerable urban poor."  She started it and ACCION  invested in it. I’m in Mumbai to video a  story about a loan to one of her clients.  She too started small six years ago with pilot projects.  She twice thought they wouldn’t prove out but ACCION’s advice was that it would work if she kept going.  Today Swadhaar has 85,000 loans in the cities of two states and a staff of 400. 

The acuity of her mind and her directness leads me to believe what she says which is that microfinance cannot lead people out of poverty without more emphasis on the quality of individual, direct loans, in larger amounts.  Poverty, I would add, is alleviated most immediately by the conditioned, direct payments such as the Bolsa Familia program in Brazil and Oportunidades in Mexico; by lift--all--boats; economic development as in China; and through education and training.

She is determined to build Swadhaar’s loan portfolio to 150,000 in fairly short order and launch an individual loan program of a kind not encouraged now under Indian regulations.  She will also push hard for electronic money transfer for her clients, thereby reducing her costs and enabling the poor to save, buy health and medical insurance and participate in the market of the future like everyone else.

I would expect her to succeed. 







Tuesday, October 23, 2012

India 22: Searching for Manju from Beyond the Beautiful Forevers

At 4:30 today I was kicking myself for sitting at gate 7 while my plane from Mumbai to Bangalore took off from gate 1.  Besides not knowing a 1 from a 7 I had sat like a ninny waiting for a gate attendant until it was too late.  I did something similar years ago in Mexico and drove Rickie and myself crazy trying to compensate for and not accept what I had done.

But somehow on this trip I can imagine this happened for a reason or I can make something out of it.  And I knew what that something was:  I wanted to find Annawadi and Manju.

Maybe you remember my writing about Manju and her slum two posts ago.  She was a young woman in Katherine Boo’s great book—“Behind the Beautiful Forevers"—about two years in the life of Annawadi, a small slum which stays alive by scavenging waste from the nearby Mumbai Airport. She is the slums sole teacher and pretty much floated the family.    A New Republic book review of the book said that Manju was "frequently the voice of self-reflective decency and goodness."

And I am at the Mumbai Airport.

For that to happen I had to fall into the arms of Menesh. 

When you miss a flight at Mumbai you have to exit the airport and start all over again.  Heading for the office of Air India I brush off a guy who is telling me the obvious to make a little money: go over there.  I’ve become brusque with cabbies in Mumbai and this man is only a rickshaw driver.

But Air India is booked for the rest of the day, which Menesh immediately observes and offers to take me to another terminal and other airlines.  A guard says to pay him only 10 rupees.  However on the way, Manesh pulls up to a tiny office on a strip of questionable shops and says I can get my ticket right here. 

This seems suspicious but I like Manesh and I’ve been in Mumbai just long enough not to be put off by the hustle; moreover, I’ve just told myself not to be so damn grumpy with cabbies.  Sure enough, the computer guy gets every flight on his screen and I choose the cheapest one.  This mean’s I’ve now got four hours on my hands.

They don't knows where Annawadi is but I’ve got my Nook e-reader with brief videos of life in the slum which I play for them.  After a while, they recognize the Hyatt Hotel in the background and deduct where Annawadi must be, so off we go.

Rickshaws feel perilous in Bangalore and even more so amidst the trucks and crush of rush hour in Mumbai.  I’ve again put myself in the hands of someone I do not know based solely to fulfill a desire.  Do I really want to do this, I ask myself, or just tell myself I tried? 

At the Hyatt guardhouse we learn how to get to Annawadi and before long we're there,  playing my e-book video again and pointing to names of people who shot them. No recognition.  Now comes up an attractive young man who speaks English and tells me Katherine Boo is not here just now but comes back regularly.  Boo has spent 20 years reporting on the lives of poor people and spent 3.5 years here. That she retains a continuing interest is stunning.  So does he know where Manju is?

Soon we’re inside and searching through tiny alleys, asking questions and I begin to know where I am: here is the maiden or open area and over there the best public toilets in the slum ,where Manju and her best friend Meena spent their time together before Manju got her four hours of sleep a night.  And here is the temple, lit up for Durga Puna, the nine day festival for the goddess honoring the triumph of good over evil.

A young man invites me to take off my shoes and come into the temple, which I do.  Doe he know Manju?   A young woman turns around.  And there she is, right out of her video. I am silly with happiness.   

I said I’d come to see her which must seem ridiculous and makes her blush, turn away and straighten her hair.  But I explain.  I show her the video.  As children jump about seeking attention, we talk.

How are you, what have you been doing since the book was published?  She taught English.  Now she’s a trainee for Cathay Airlines.

Great, that’s a really good airline.

How is her mother (who has a seventh grade education and wanted to be the slum boss)?  She is fine.  She is teaching in two schools.

And how is Sunil?

Boo dedicated the book as follows: “For two Sunils and what they’ve taught me about not giving up.”  I’m thinking about the 12 year old Sunil who risks himself to make 33 cents a day scavenging airport garbage.

“He’s fine, he’s got a job.”

We talk some more and she gives me her full name, Manjusha Waghekar,” and her mom’s phone number and there’s more fun with the kids but it’s time to go.  I say to her, “Do you know the meaning of the word ‘hero’?” and she says yes.  “You are my hero,” I want her to know. 

I walk out slowly, putting as many things in place as I can.  This is where the old slum lord must live and across the street must be his horses, which he periodically paints up as zebras.  There’s a brothel on this square somewhere. There are the video games which mean the man who purchased airport junk must be next door.  Here are piles of garbage in white bags waiting to be sold.  Those who collected them have been known to sleep on them lest they be stolen. 

My two still cameras are out of battery power and I’m down to a little movie camera with which I recorded as much as I can in failing light.  I’d love to turn this into a video for you and may do it some day. 

So what has this been about?  Surely it is the thrill of reading something in Idaho and seeing it in India.  The thrill of the chase.  But it is much more.  I come to honor in some way the journalist and her several collaborators who cared enough to tell Annawadi’s story.  She allowed readers to experience life here humanely and compassionately. Does it also make any sense that this enclave of 3,000--little different from the 6.5 million slum dwellers in Mumbai—is hallowed ground and that the public toilets , for example, should be memorialized? Maybe I’m on a guilt tour but it doesn’t feel that way.  I’m just glad to there, in fact I’m delighted. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

India 21: Heartbreaker in Mumbai

 Give it a day and Mumbai will break your heart.

My day in Mumbai began at 1 a.m. after the plane I was on shuddered to a stop at the end of the Bangalore runway, turned around and checked in for repairs.  Arriving  late in Mumbai was no big deal however compared to the assault of the taxi guys.  Bangalore’s hustlers are guppies compared to these pirhana’s. 

My cab took me along some ugly miles and past people sleeping in the street under the glaring lights of an underpass, exactly as expected, but we sped on.  After being taken to the wrong Ramada, I was welcomed by a peerless staff of the right one and safely in bed by three.  (I postpone until the morning finding out whether Notre Dame beat BYU, fearing the worst as usual.)

Sunday afternoon I’m to have lunch at the home of Mrs. Jyoti Tanna, a close friend of a Boise neighbor and friend of mine, Catherine Scott.  (She’ll be the subject of a future blog)  I’ve got a little time before Jyosi’s driver picks me up—a driver yet!—and decide to take a little walk.  I discover my hotel is on a thin strip of land with a beach facing the Arabian Sea to the West and another across the street to the East.  Take your pick.

I’m soon in what I’ll call a food court: a couple dozen brightly lit stalls, most with giant griddles and giant woks and young men furiously chopping onions, greens and tomatoes and other stalls with massive menus of sweet things.  I’m tempted but head toward the water instead.

Without thinking, I give urchins who come up to me a few coins, then a few pieces of paper worth 20 cents American.   However I was flush with large bills because I’d just come from an ATM.  So when more children arrived making the familiar hand-to-mouth gesture for hunger; when they were joined an old woman selling stamps to adorn my body with dye; and when child-mothers arrived with children on their hip, all saying they are hungry, I retreated to the food court.  Would you like some lunch, I try to say?

Actually, no.  What the kids want is in the stall next door that serves the Mango Kulfi Falooda,  a glass of juice, red syrup, some fruit and a big scoop of mango ice cream on top.  I believe I bought 13 of them.  But grandma got the juicy looking stuff on the griddle along with four big rolls and so did four or five little children to whom I did not offer the drink option.  In beating a retreat back to my hotel I had to break away from a new trail of kids who had heard the news.


Around ten that night I went back to the stalls and took this picture of the one with the griddle and had a good time with spectators and sellers at the morning’s event.  Just as in Kerala the beach was full of families, kids on tiny rides and a crowd admiring a sand sculpture of a goddess. 

Again, I am tempted by the food.  How dangerous could it be?   But again I turn away and have a simple but excellent  vegetarian meal across from my hotel.  Coming out, I thought about going to the CocoBerrry yogurt shopt next door but lying on the sidewalk outside were a woman and a child.  I had seen them before going in, the mother sleepy, the child playing.  Now the child has her tiny arm across her mother’s head and both were asleep.  A tiny movement of that arm threw me into tears and I can not stop crying until well after I got back to my room and they are with me still. 


I took this picture of me above, them below, and it feel exploitive or a crime scene but getting closer might be worse and this is what I saw.  I’m carrying health bars bought in bulk at the Boise Costco and leave some at their feet. I tuck some paper money under the child’s arm where I hope it will be found and not stolen.

The route from my hotel to Jyoti’s house earlier that day went by Dharyi, a slum that I know by name from what I’ve read, the largest slum in Asia by someone’s reckoning.  I’ve been in the slums of Caracas long years ago, seen Brazil’s flavelas and a lot of poor places in Africa.  But just driving by Dharvi was so transfixing that I sat at attention and Oh My God came out under my breath.  Maybe I’ll be there tomorrow, I don’t know.

But that was driving by, a slum voyeur safe in Jyoti’s car.  Here was a mother and child and all I could ever do for them would be to leave something, the way you might leave milk for a cat.  Mumbai is filled with families and mothers and children just like this. I’m thinking about an earlier post, the one about tattoo on the heart.




Wednesday, October 17, 2012

India 20: Big Books about Mumbai


I began reading books about India five months ago, first some history, then some religion, then a couple of books on development.  What has gripped me most has been three books about Mumbai.  It emerges as at once thrilling, enterprising and vibrant and as sordid, corrupt and violent.  It has a grip on its inhabitant like few cities in the world.  Here are three powerful accounts of Mumbai:


“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” exposes two years in the perilous lives of slum dwellers in a place called Annawadi   It is written by a staff writer for The New Yorker and a Pulitzer Prize winner, Katherine Boo.  We follow with particular care two families as they try to stay alive by recycling what is thrown away at the nearby Mumbai Airport--which owns the land on which the slum sits and could evict them at any time.  Boys fight over a plastic bottle and risk injury for a little copper wire.  At one point a demented woman sets herself on fire.  As she dies she accuses her neighbors, with whom she has had a minor dispute over a common wall, of causing her death.  They are innocent but father and son are nonetheless thrown into the notorious Arthur Road jail.  Now the family is expected to bribe those in the justice system to get themselves exonerated.  The slum dwellers are victimized at every turn by the police, not protected by them and the education system is also corrupt.

I read Beautiful Forevers as an e-book which features short video stories shot by young people in the slum.  One is about Munja whose mother has paid someone in the education system for the right to open the slum's only school.  Since the mother has little education—and is trying to become the slum’s political boss through the Hindu nationalist party Shin Seva—teaching falls to the only woman in the slum who has been to college, her daughter Munja.  We see the eager children in her class, Munja preparing the family meals and Munja enjoying her one moment a day with her best friend, Meena, at the only public toilet in the slum.  But her mother has other plans for Munja—a job as an insurance agent—so the school is gradually shutting down. 

The first family takes a chance, bribes only a little and eventually father and son are released.  However they have lost the tiny franchise they had established to collect and sell trash and the 2008 financial collapse has gutted the world market for plastic, dropping their meager income by 40 percent.  There is no happy ending.

MAXIMUM CITY by Suketu Mehta

Mehta left Bombay in 1977 for Queens, ached to go home, and came back as a journalist of extraordinary courage and insight.  Here is what Salmen Rushdie wrote of the book: “Mehta writes about Bombay out of the unsparing ferocity of his love, which I share, for the old pre-Mumbai city that has now been almost completely destroyed by corruption, gangsterism and neo-fascist politics, its spirit sustained in tiny moments and images which Mehta seizes upon as proof of the survival of hope. The skill of the investigative reportage by which he persuades hoodlums and murderers to open up to him is quite amazing.  It is the best book yet written about that great ruined metropolis, my city as well as his, and it should be widely read.”

Jhumpa Lahiri says of it, “Mehta writes with a Victorian genius for character, detail and incident but his voice is utterly modern.”

Not only do hoodlums and murderers open up to him but a police chief who routinely tortures those he arrests; Bollywood film directors trying to avoid riots if they get the story wrong; sex workers; the odious politician and Muslim-baiter Bal Thackery; and a wealthy family of jewelers who renounce everything (although maybe they still have a safety fund) and become Jain ascetics who will live as beggars and walk from place to place for the rest of their lives.  The prison at Arthur Road appears in this book as well.

SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts

This is one wild ride of a book.  It is a work of fiction but based on the life of Roberts, a heroin addict and bank robber who escaped from an Australian prison, fled to Mumbai, lived in a slum as its only “doctor” and became part of the Muslim Mafia.  The figure in the book also fought with the Mujahadin against Russia in Afghanistan. It is a richly written adventure story, highly masculine and—at 930 pages—dense with the sounds, smells and misdeeds of Mumbai.

Life in the slum is particularly moving.  More than 25,000 live on 10 acres—the size of the place where I grew up.  Yet the slum welcomes an additional 5,000 homeless living openly “on the footpaths” when the he monsoons hit.  The kindness and generosity of the poor toward one another and the laughter and good spirit they exhibit is extraordinary and, like “Beautiful Forevers” humanizes life in the slums.  We understand why, when offered a high-rise apartment, many refuse.  Community means more than comfort.

One man could not have survived the life described in “Shantaram” so it was likely cobbled together from several lives. Our hero was also in Arthur Road Prison and beaten almost to death.  After Mumbai, Roberts was arrested in Germany for trafficking heroin and served out his sentence in Australia.  He now has a foundation providing health insurance for the poor in Mumbai, according to Wikipedia. 

I left my first copy in a Wyoming motel, bought an audio version to finish the book and then bought a paperback version in Kerala.  I’m on page 854 with 80 pages to go before I get to Mumbai!

There is a tiny slum in my neighborhood and a rag picker living on my block, making a living the same way as the residents of Annawadi.  But it is in Mumbai, it appears, that the rich and middle class live side by side with slums.  We shall see.

Can you understand how I approach Mumbai with some trepidation?  I will have a little less than three days there—late Saturday to late afternoon Tuesday--and most of my time is spoken for.  I will only glimpse “the great ruined metropolis” but I want to experience as much as possible.  Maximum City was written in 2004, Shantaram in 2006 and Beautiful Forevers in 2009.  How much has changed I will, of course, not be able to determine.


Tuesday, October 16, 2012

India 19: Weddings and the International Day of the Girl Child


When I woke up in India for the first time I immediately went to the wedding of an ACCION staff member.  A couple hundred were there along a band, everyone ate a hearty lunch and then lined up to personally delivery gifts--which the wedding invitation had discouraged but suggested that, “if you must,” bring cash.   Here is the Hindu wedding with the priest on the right, the band, and the happiest people, the grandmothers and aunts.

Finally, time to hand over the presents--all cash--so the newly married can build a nest egg.
I realize now this was a modest affair by Bangalore standards.  An October 12 report in The Times of India summarizing a university report saying that an average of 1,000 people attended the 85,000 weddings were conducted in Bangalore’s 351 wedding halls.  That’s 85 million people attending weddings each year in a city of seven million! And it’s probably more because the study says guests eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.   Moreover, they wasted enough food to feed 2.4 million people an average Indian meal, according to the study.  That’s what’s happening with urban middle and upper class Indian weddings.    

A couple weeks back The Financial Express featured a story on the other end of the economic spectrum, about a family of itinerant brick makers living on cracked rice and spoiled vegetables and drinking the water from which they made bricks.  Certainly they were exploited but a critical element of the story was that they were in debt to the brick manufacturer for 15,000 rupees they’d borrowed in advance for a daughter’s wedding.

This is not uncommon.  The cost of weddings—and the dowry traditionally required from the bride’s family—is frequently the major financial burden weighing down on families over a lifetime.  It must contribute to men outnumber women in India: girls are aborted and occasionally abandoned or killed. 

Forty percent of all the child brides in the world are Indian. Nearly half of all Indian women are married before they are 18, a major obstacle to the advancement of women, a recent UN report says, notwithstanding that marrying under 18 has been against the law since l930.  The report expects the absolute number of child brides to increase, not decrease in the future. The largest percentage is in Muslim communities. In some traditions, girls should be married when they reach puberty and reports still arise of girls given in marriage while under the age of ten.  

October 11 turns out to have been the International Day of the Girl Child, a day to focus on the adverse consequences of child marriage in particular.  Hillary Clinton spoke to the issue--the latest in a campaign for women she has conducted throughout her time as Secretary of State.

In one particularly outrageous commentary last week, an elected official from the Congress Party in the state of Assam said that the answer to a recent increase in the number of rapes reported was for girls to be married at 16.  He also said 90 percent of rapes are consensual.  Does this sound familiar?

And here's an even worse story, from the October 18 Times of India:  in the state of Bengal, three women were hanged recently by villagers for being witches.

Dowry is also illegal in India but still expected.  A bride is valued by some families for the shopping list they can force on the groom’s family.  Two cows and a goat have been replaced by a refrigerator and a cell phone.  An academic in Kerala says men marry young so they can get the dowry and take off for the Gulf States or start a business. 

There are no virtually women bus drivers, ticket takers or waitpersons.  No women taxi or rickshaw drivers except inMumbai. Billboards and cab advertising for political parties shows all men, although a percentage of political positions are reserved for women, some lead small parties and an Italian who married into the Gandhi family leads the largest party.

A few nights back I witnessed a heated dispute between a group of 20 part time workers arguing with a single male over how much they were to be paid for working Saturdays.  The men in the group hung back while a dozen women gave no quarter.  They were determined and unbowed.  Young, professional urban Indian women would cut it anywhere in the world, a very rapid change.





Monday, October 15, 2012

India 18: Awards Night in Bangalore

          On the first floor of the Vindhya office in Bangalore, India, excitement is building on a Friday evening in October.  Soon we’ll learn who won the best employee awards for the third quarter.

I’ve staged many of such event but this one buzzes with a higher energy because of who is gathering and the momentum Vindhya has gathered in the last quarter.

Staff has been at work all day, as usual, on 29 projects that demand a high degree of concentration, working side by side in tight quarters.  Some have been digitizing documents into master files; some recording data, often translating from one of seven languages into English; others have been making or receiving phone calls.  After a full day, you might expect them to be tired.  Doesn’t look like it.

To the outsider this may seem like the classic back-office work we’ve come to associate with India one expect would be mind-numbing.  But closer examination shows skill, judgment and experience are as important as discipline.  For example, one team is calling people who’ve signed up for the first pension they’ve ever known.  Are you in the right investment, are you keeping your money at work (and not withdrawing it for a wedding, for example), can we answer any questions for you, they ask 900 times a day?

Another is analyzing business expense reimbursements.  A third is assessing the qualifications of applicants to become insurance agents.  A fourth is handling requests for infant and baby products out of Ireland.  And so on through another two dozen jobs.

Beneath the veneer of sameness there’s a wealth of discrete and precise undertakings.  As a small company, Vindhya has focused on small, unique needs larger competitors might have overlooked.  

On the other hand, Vindhya’s first client was Wipro, one of India’s largest companies and it’s still a mainstay.  Others are Indian companies in partnership with global insurance giants.

The reason clients remain loyal is because Vindhya’s staff remains loyal years, not months, which is often not the case in the rapid-turnover BPO industry.  The reason for this longevity is evident as the first floor fills up for the award ceremony.

Company with a Difference

To the left of a makeshift stage is a phalanx of staff in wheel chairs. 
Some staff walk in on their hands as well as their feet.  Having a crippled lower body is not unusual for the people coming down stairs, often with difficulty.  Others among the 200 are communicating in Vindhya’s official language, sign language. 

The secret of Vindhya’s success is that at least 80 percent its staff is “differently abled.”

In the United States we say a person is “handicapped” or “disabled.”  What terrible words compare that to the phrase “differently abled.”  At Vindhya, being “differently abled” is its secret formula, the critical difference.  The work is conducted in their minds. “Differences” are what makes them tenacious.

At least 20 million Indians are “differently abled.” Fewer than five percent are employed in the marketplace.  Imagine what a position with dignity and respect--a job which celebrates what others have shunned—means to someone who thought they might never work.  Appreciate the power this brings to bear on the work Vindhya does.  Is it any wonder Wipro has remained loyal to Vindhya for six years?

The ceremony comes to life when the featured speaker enters the room.  He is V. S. Radhkrishnan, fondly called”Radha,” of Janalakshmi (which mean’s “People’s Wealth”) an organization which provides financial services to the urban poor.  He is clearly touched by what he has seen going room to room.  He apologizes for coming to see Vindhya for himself after many years as a client and promises the big boss will visit soon.
On the table are three brightly wrapped mystery packages.  The first, for third place, goes to Sunil Kumar, a young man whose body is canted awkwardly backward and to the side.  His father has been invited and you have to imagine his son--who has a college degree--has come a great deal further than he could have imagined early on.     

Second prize goes to Sharadha,a determined young woman who made clear early in the quarter that she was going to be a winner and the first prize goes to Suguna.  (People go by their first names in India.)

          Each makes a short speech, notable for what they say about others, not themselves.  They’re working so their brothers and sisters can advance; they are helping their families.  They speak of their teammates.  They speak of helping one another.  Whatever is in those boxes, if it can be share there’s a good chance it will be.

Expansion Time on the First Floor

          Three weeks ago the space we are in was empty and there was room for staff to spread out on the floor for lunch each day.  Tonight people are bulging out the back door because the space is newly filled with cubicles and computers connected to a ganglia of blue wires disappearing into the wall. 

          That’s because Vindhya has been building momentum.  When I arrived six weeks ago, Vindhya had a staff of 200.  Soon it will be at 300 and more growth is in the pipeline.  (I claim to be a good luck charm:  rub my head and jobs appear.)

          Of course it takes six months and often much longer for a connection to turn into a client.  Moreover, Vindhya has had to reinvent itself during difficult times.  It was founded to provide back office services for a then exploding Indian micro-finance industry.  That came to a halt in 2008 after unscrupulous practices in Andra Predesh triggered suicides by clients who could not make good on their loans and the government stepped in with more stringent standards.  The global finance crisis came right behind.

          This accounts for Vindhya becoming a niche player with a “We can do that” attitude.  Without the crucible of necessity it likely would not be hiring staff to work on site for a major insurance company in every Indian state, as it is doing.   It might not be helping hire insurance agents or verifying expense accounts.    

          When an organization doubles in size and begins spilling out of doorways it’s a challenge to retain culture and values.  My guess is Vindhya could face span-of-control challenges but will easily retain the culture and values so evident on the first floor this evening in October, 2012.  You can’t make this up for a visiting dignitary.  Who Vindhya is, and will likely remain, is evident on the faces in this room.