Unfortunately my life is not like the movie ‘Wake Up Sid’, and no, I am not ‘Dreaming in Hindi’
….But maybe that’s okay.
I. Bear with me (first an update for folks at home about work and life…. Because lets be honest, they worry and generally still have no idea what I’m actually doing here)
October and November could not have been busier. After washing out the grey-brown stains of the ocean on my churidar from Ganpati late September,[i] I jumped on an overnight train to meet up with fellows visiting fellow Gaurang Raval in Ahmedabad for Navratri early November.[ii] Then for Diwali I spent an incredible evening in Mumbai with fellows at fellow Sriya Srikrishnan and her family’s home lighting off more fireworks in her backyard than are normally used in SF for the 4th of July.[iii] Essentially, I’ve spent my first few months in India immersing myself (sometimes literally) into India’s holiday season for the first time. These holidays really uplifted my spirit, brought me closer to my slowly expanding circle of friends here, and allowed me to participate in Indian culture from a uniquely intimate perspective.
Everything in between these holidays and moments of splendor were important as well. In Mumbai I stayed busy at the office, saw Jacqueline Novogratz speak,[iv] visited the Elephanta Caves, attended my coworker and now close friend Sanghamitra Bowmik’s beautiful engagement ceremony, spent time studying Hindi with my tutor, made an effort to explore more of the city,[v] and pulled some late nights sitting around the kitchen table with my roommates till the wee hours of the morning philosophizing the world and all of its contents (Omkara,[vi] Mumbai politics,[vii] Malai Kulfi[viii]). I also took a fun weekend trip to Goa with roommate/fellow Prerna Khanna.[ix]
At work I’ve been trying to jump into everything- maybe too much- because sometimes, as per usual, I overwhelm myself. But either way its been really exhilarating. Sometimes I worry I won’t be able to understand all the work going on here because I work for such a large Foundation with loads of diverse programmes. From my east wing south tower air conditioned banking office chair in Mumbai I often picture myself perched in a tall tree throwing pebbles down into pools of water to see if I can hear a splash. But now that I’m in the field a lot more often I’m becoming more sensitized to the nuances of our work. Our ‘beneficiaries’ I write about in our annual report become patients, students, mothers, daughters- people.
Basically though I travel a ton and receive glimpses of every project. At the beginning of November I visited the Apna Clinic in Pune, a health clinic and community center I’m helping monitor for long distance truck drivers. Then I made my first trip to Rajasthan two weeks ago to Udaipur to cover our School and Teacher Education Reform Programme. And last week I travelled back to Rajasthan to Baran, where I covered Master Trainers getting trained for our Financial Literacy programme for women’s Self Help Groups and visited our programme for Reducing Child Undernutrition. Afterwards I headed to Jaipur and spent a great touristy day with fellow Aditya Pasumarty and then attended a inspirational Capacity Building workshop for our education programme staff. Next week I’m travelling to Rajasthan twice- once by plane and once by train.
I am busy and I am learning. Soon I will (hopefully) be finishing up my larger marketing-cum-documentation[x] work for the foundation overall and focusing my efforts more exclusively on our programme for Reducing Child Undernutrition in Rajasthan. This programme is part of a huge government scheme that has been widely underutilized, so we have established a partnership with the Government of Rajasthan to help implement the programme in one of Rajasthan’s south eastern rural districts, Baran in Shanbad and Kishanganj Blocks, which are mostly inhabited by Sahariyas, a highly vulnerable tribal group in Rajasthan. We are at the brink of beginning implementation. I am aiding our staff conceptualize important new communications materials/mediums for the field. My research on this is just beginning, but the final project may include diverse mediums like wall paintings, text messages, or even tv soap opera commercials, and street plays to raise awareness amongst this tribal group about their rights to malnutrition services. I can already tell my mind is immersed in the complexity of this project. I’m sure I will learn a lot from it though and will be writing more on this project once I myself really wrap my head around it.
Everyday, whether it be excruciatingly challenging or completely inspirational, is important here and I never seem to fall asleep at night with the feeling that the day was “normal.”
II. Unfortunately My Life in Mumbai is not like the Movie ‘Wake Up Sid’
… or any other bollywood film for that matter.
I had quite a moment yesterday. I was leaving for work, getting ready for an important meeting in my best salwar kameez suit, and I locked myself out of my apartment with no keys, no wallet, and no cell phone. Thankfully I figured out that I had my computer and that by some miracle my wireless connection reaches to the area right outside my door. So crouched in my doorway, I emailed everyone at work about my ‘situation’ and skype messaged my landlord that I would be waiting nearby in the Bagel Shop down the street doing work so she could bring me her keys.
Not knowing what else to do I walked over to the bagel shop, took a seat in my favorite chair, opened up my computer and started working nonchalantly on our December newsletter.
Then I had my ‘moment’. After a few minutes I looked up and noticed that every single person sitting in the café was white. At the table next to me there were three girls with southern accents wearing tank tops and shorts chatting about facebook and at the other end of the café there was a guy wearing a Red Socks hat- yes- a Red Socks hat in Mumbai- typing on his mac computer. What is crazy is that this scene in my neighborhood, West Bandra, is commonplace. I think there are more foreigners who live within walking distance from my house than in the rest of Mumbai combined. But for some reason yesterday it really confused me.
This was because I stuck out like a sore thumb. I was wearing a bright red perfectly starched to the knee vegetable dyed kurta, pink cotton churidar, and a dupatta so large and voluminous it almost reached the floor. I felt like a freak. The phrase pagal gori, ‘crazy white woman’, that I use to refer to myself jokingly when I miss an important cultural reference came to mind. But this was different: I had followed all the rules. I had been spot on with appropriateness when I had gotten dressed for my meeting that morning but I guess while trying so hard to fit in at work I had missed my own cultural references. Now I was confused. What was I, a blonde girl from California, doing parading around West Bandra wearing a formal salwar kameez while every other foreigner (and therefore everyone) in this cafe was wearing the normal clothes they always wear? What was I trying to pull off? Was I trying to become “more Indian”? Was I just trying to be respectful by wearing these clothes or trying to gain respect? Who was I dressing like this for? Me or my coworkers?
It struck me that at work I have created my own image, my own terms, my own goals, and my own relationship to everyone around me. Because I am the only foreigner who works for the foundation and the only foreigner who works in my bank building of over 3000 people, I had no references. What does a foreigner wear to work when all of her coworkers wear salwar kameez everyday? I don’t know. And even if I realized I could wear more western clothing, would I want to?
To add to this less than three days before I was in a village in Kishanganj feeling equally out of place. I was wearing modest clothing but even my dirty half broken sandals made me feel like a city girl because they had shiny buckles and looked expensive. How was I supposed to be able to traverse such diverse terrains in a single week?
At that moment though I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I was mortified. And I also wanted to tear apart my now seemingly stupid favorite salwar kameez. I legitimately felt like my life was a joke here- mocking me.
Last night when I came home from work I immediately took off that red and pink suit and I put on my favorite long dress my mom had recently sent me in a recent Christmas package (thanks Mom!) and went for a walk. I think I was trying to regain my identity as ‘the blonde girl from California.’ But walking along the sea promenade felt equally strange. No one heckled me and no one stared but I knew I still stuck out like a sore thumb. Now I was just a pagal gori walking down the street alone in a dress. The generally uplifting promenade all of a sudden felt unwelcoming and cold. Normally walking along the promenade makes me feel empowered. I pretend I’m Konkona Sen Sharma enjoying the sunset waiting for Ranbir Kapoor to sweep me away in the last scene of ‘Wake Up Sid’. But in that moment there was no romance in my stroll. I was just Katie Stricker, alone in a dress, not looking at all like Konkona Sen Sharma, Ranbir Kapoor nowhere in sight, pretending to have a nice time holding an overpriced and over sweetened Café Coffee Day drink. And the promenade was not clean and refreshing like it looks in the movie- I couldn’t feel a breeze from the ocean. It just smelled like loads of dead fish, and teenagers, and small adorable but dirty beggar children who wanted to grab my arm and ask me for money. These things usually didn’t bother me, but yesterday they did, and I couldn’t pretend to escape the discomfort I often face. In the end I just ended up feeling more uncomfortable for wanting to escape it. I couldn’t look ‘normal’ here- I never would.
I performed a duet last year my friend Kirsten Schnittker choreographed in which at the end of a long dance sequence Kirsten and I changed clothes on stage and then performed the same exact dance again in the newly changed clothes. It was a reaction to critical and unnecessary feedback we had been given about our ‘costuming’ at a showing earlier that month when we had shown the same piece at a different theater. We wanted to make a statement about how people should really stop worrying about what clothes are being worn on stage and just focus instead on the actual dance being performed. While we changed clothes we read a short script that my friend wrote in an almost sarcastic tone. A part of it went something like this:
Are my clothes distracting you?
Are they making you think of things you wish you weren’t?
When I dance, I like to remind myself that I wear clothes, but also attitude and presence.
My life here for the most part is so busy and confusing that I often forget about values and understanding I once held in the states. Especially within moments of cultural confusion I constantly worry about how I am perceived here- how I look, dress, act- because I know that my ability to connect with people in a foreign place can be inhibited if I make cultural missteps. But I think I have to begin to let go a little. It definitely doesn’t matter what clothing I wear (as long as its not offensive). And I need to think less about what everyone else is thinking about me and more about what I do, need, and feel. Otherwise how can I be genuine? My attitude and presence are so much more important than how I appear on the outside, because really I’m not so different.
When talking to friends I realize Indian men and women (and particularly women) in cosmopolitan India deal with a lot of the same confusions that involves drastic costume changes. For example in Mumbai if a young woman goes to a religious function, a market, and a movie she might change from a sari to a salwar kameez to jeans and a t-shirt all in a single day. So when I try to fit myself into the maze that is cultural adaptations of modern day Indian dress (often selfishly because I just love Indian fabrics) its no wonder I get confused along the way.
So, what will I wear tomorrow? Maybe a combination of a western pant and an Indian top. Maybe I’ll wear a full western business suit or just go all out and throw on a full set of bright salwar kameez complete with matching bangles. More likely though I’ll just wear whatever I had the time to get around to washing. Either way I don’t need to care so much. There are bigger fish to fry here. Who I am here will matter much much more.
III. No, I am not ‘Dreaming in Hindi’
My biggest challenge at work is not being fluent in Hindi. I do technically know some or maybe even a lot of Hindi. In the back of my brain there is a distant database of words and sentence structures I have been storing back there that hopefully sum up to at least half of the material I learned in my three years of Hindi classes in Delhi and at Columbia. But in actuality I just cannot converse. I sit and listen and understand a decent amount, and I can spew out ill formed sentences to get around but at the end of the day when I want to get a point across, I usually can’t. While doing my work in the field as a communications assistant I feel a bit useless. How did I expect I would be able to interview a truck driver in Pune or a mother of a malnourished child in rural Rajasthan when I can barely buy vegetables at the market without using overly emphatic pointing and gesturing? This plan was overly aggressive for the time being. With all the different dialects, and languages that float around in India it just doesn’t work that way. Baby steps: First I should just be better at talking to our own programme staff.
So I’m working on it. But the process is slow….Slow and painful and I just want it to go faster and be done. I tried to enforce a Sirf Hindi Mangalvaar Act of Apt. 101 amongst my roommates but that seems to be broken as soon as a Tuesday morning comes around and we need to pay the electricity bill not just talk about the weather. And in the field I feel so embarrassed when I speak Hindi because its so inefficient and usually wrong. I picture a fluent Katie of the future who speaks quickly and forms long long sentences and can say words like ‘main bhul gayi’ not just ‘main bul gayi’, but I don’t know if she’s real.
I’ve got to let go of the embarrassment. I need to let go of the excuses and I need to dive in wholeheartedly if I want to make any progress in Hindi during this amazing year here. And as fellow Gayatri Agnew always reminds me there is no more “maybe it will happen,” you can just make it happen. I want to make a commitment to myself to do so. So in fact, I will go study Hindi now.
And quickly before I go as a concluding note I will include the following food for thought from Navratri: http://youtu.be/hMuB74nGS9I
[ii] Navratri facebook photos here http://on.fb.me/ShCla3
[vi] Omkara is a 2006 Indian film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Othello set in modern day rural India. Yes, yes it is.
[vii] Mumbai politics are too complicated to even begin to describe so I won’t.
[viii] Malai Kulfi is a cold desert like ice cream made with clotted cream. It is made by heating non-homogenized whole milk to about 180°F for about one hour then allowing it to cool which creates a thick yellowish layer of fat and coagulated proteins that form on the surface. This is then scraped off and frozen. This is just one of millions ambiguously untranslatable Indian dairy products that I love. Only India can do this with dairy. Its no wonder these cows are holy.
[ix] Goa facebook photos here http://on.fb.me/Tr8hHi
[x] In hinglish (or really just English Americans don’t use) the abbreviation ‘cum’ used between words is used to mean ‘with’, or ‘in combination’. For example a flower-cum-barber stand would be a flower stand that is also used as barber stand. A rickshaw-cum-party bus is a rickshaw that might be used during the day for transportation but then transforms into a chota chota party bus at night. A friend-cum-enemy would be a frenemy. And there is even Hindi-cum-English like the sentence Dial kiya gaya number abhi vyast hai, or ‘the number you’ve dialed is currently busy’.
You get the picture….