We drank chaas to “cool our heads.” Still, we lost our appetite for productive afternoons and fell into naps easily. The dog—equally hot and equally lazy—spent hours with his face on the tile floor, limbs splayed, relishing the coolest spot in the house. Mangoes ripened, bougainvilleas bloomed.
Aside: Chaas (“majjiga” in Telugu, “taak” in Marathi) refers to a spiced and salted buttermilk drink, akin to lassi but thinner.
Three plane hops brought me to Washington, DC, about a week and a half ago, marking the end of my adventurous year in India. Believe me when I say, though, that thus far being back in the States has been an adventure as well, and I hope to share a few of those stories later on. While my activities in the first week back involved meandering the well-groomed streets and mingling with the well-groomed folks of Washington, I also learned about a part of the city that is worlds away from all that: the communities east of Anacostia River.
I’m delighted to share our latest gallery over at TMN, featuring work by DC-based photographer Becky Harlan. Becky and I met in university, and I’ve been looking for an excuse to showcase her work for awhile. The featured photos are from her masters thesis project “Anaquash” and were taken as she explored the banks of Anacostia. She shares stories from the river—of the community’s history, racial tensions, and environmental abuse—in the accompanying interview here.
(And don’t miss the documentary on the project website.)
New at TMN is a gallery featuring Dhruv Malhotra’s night photos of urban India. The associated exhibit “Works from Noida Soliloquy & Sleepers” is on view at Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal, which I had a chance to visit while in town earlier this month.
In person, I’ve been candid and prone to sharing anecdotes about my work in Hyderabad. Unfortunately, in writing I’ve found myself more reserved and more or less superficial in my reporting. Why? Hunch: A conversation feels fluid, impermanent, and more exploratory. On the other hand, the very thought of putting my experience in writing feels like it would necessitate not only reporting my day-to-day activities but also making an umbrella statement about them, drawing conclusions: This is how it is, and it is what it is.
As I pack up nearly a year’s worth of exploring and learning and failing—a lot of failing!—what I can tell you is that I still feel unqualified to draw conclusions about education for the poor, market solutions to poverty, social enterprise, or ex-pat life in India. That’s not to say I learned nothing and have no two-cents to offer on those topics. On the contrary, my time here has been all about learning and forming opinions about everything and everyone—and many times, shouting those opinions with fists in my house, in the office, in traffic, everywhere. What I mean, then, is that it is impossible to settle on any one opinion or conclusion, not unlike how the former boss-man told me upon arrival that India cannot be any one thing. From my work to the relationships I’ve built (and broken), what I think—and how I feel—about every aspect of my life here changes every day. I mean it: every single day. For me living and working in India is all things, all the time: excitement, anger, hope, disgust, love, empathy, regret, guilt, thanksgiving, resentment, patience.
With all that in mind, it is nice to be sure of one thing: I will be back.
Ah, Kerala. The first thing I must report about my trip to the Malabar Coast is that it was only a wink of a glimpse at what Kerala has to offer. I’d go back in a heartbeat. Kerala was March’s get-out-of-Hyd-once-a-month ticket, and seeing that I didn’t make it there until month’s end, it was much-needed and long overdue by the time I made it happen. The weekend kicked off with brief cruise into the backwaters and people-watching at Alappuzha Beach and finished with a couple of days of lazing in lovely Fort Cochin.
The funny thing is that in Bosnia there are no words that are equivalent to fiction and nonfiction. From the storytelling point of view, the difference is artificial. What if the umbrella term for all that is story? It is my belief that we as human beings have a need to tell stories—I think it’s evolutionary.
. . .
There’s something in psychology called the narrative paradigm, which essentially means that we think of our lives as stories in which we are the main characters. And there are studies that have shown that we make decisions, ethical and otherwise, based on the way we imagine ourselves as characters in the stories of our lives. In other words, if we imagine ourselves brave or crazy or open, we’re more likely to make decisions in a given situation based on how we imagine ourselves, whatever the facts may be. We imagine ourselves as constitutionally possessed of good intentions, so that the outcome of our actions is always morally solid.
This “imagining” Hemon describes, I do it all the time. In fact, the heuristic I use to judge whether an experience was or will be worthwhile is a simple question: “Do I want this to be part of my story?” or “How would I tell this story?” This decision-making tactic is nothing but the most basic of heuristics: a trial-and-error process, only imagined instead of lived. Even for the big, life-shifting decisions—go to grad school? learn Mandarin? move to India?—I always think of experiences in terms of “story” first before the economist in me chimes in to tally utility and opportunity costs.
One year ago today, I received the fellowship offer that led to my current post, an on-the-ground assignment to explore affordable private education and social enterprise in India. I imagined myself as the type of character who would transplant to Hyderabad, India to try to punch a tiny dent into the movement for quality education. Real life or not, that is the story.
It wasn’t my intention to hop all over world—east to west, north to south—with the galleries I’ve compiled for TMN. But it sure is neat to look back and see the roster of countries that have been featured, no matter how small or significant the connection. This week Namibia joins the list through Jim Naughten’s portraits of the Hereros in their European-influenced garments: women in billowy, floor-length gowns with matching headdresses; men donning military uniforms akin to the German colonizers’. In the accompanying interview, Naughten and I discussed how he came to interact with the Herero community.
I was not expecting to see deserts, ghost towns, Bavarian architecture, First World War relics, or tribes wearing Victorian-era dresses. I felt as if I was on a Wild West movie set where they had ordered all the wrong people and props.
View the featured pieces and read the Q&A here: Costumes and Conflict.
For TMN, I recently interviewed artist Tamara Natalie Madden about her newest series “The Guardians.” We discussed women as protectors, the immigrant experience in America, and more. Our exchange accompanies a preview of Tamara’s work in this week’s gallery feature: here.
With the exception of a weekend work retreat at Songs of Earth—a “nature resort” and conference center little more than an hour’s drive from the city—I didn’t leave Hyderabad in my first two months here. One of the best things about returning home from my first trip out (to Goa) was just that: returning home. That we had settled enough, lived enough, for this house and this colony of ours to feel like home. But as much as I enjoy the life I’ve built here, I’ve found that the best way for me to hack at the challenges and the built-up frustrations therein is first to step back—to spend some time away, even if it’s just for a day or two. About once a month, I try to visit somewhere new and with domestic transport so affordable—for instance, a train trip to Chennai costs about $6—doing so has been more feasible than I realized when I decided to move to India.
Now on the opposite end of my contract’s timeline, with two months to go, the once-a-month visits elsewhere continue. Most recently (and finally!) I went to Hampi, a village on the banks of the Tungabhadra River in northern Karnataka. Hampi is home to the ruins of the Vijayanagar Empire’s capital city (1500s), a strikingly green landscape contrasted by massive boulders, and bands of (mostly) European backpackers smoking away seemingly without a care in the world. There are plenty of places to explore if you have the time and are interested in history and archeology. Do rent a bike as the sites are expansive.
But as for me, I went to Hampi more for the scenery and the company than for the history. Though certainly touristy, Hampi is far from hectic, and it was a relaxed few days away that I most needed. Out of the house. Out of the city. So relaxed in fact that I was too busy breathing in fresher air and lingering on the greenery all around to bother taking many pictures. But here are a few—captured on my phone.
This week saw the launch of the teacher development program at my school—finally, after over two months of wading through rescheduling and frustration and low morale.
Do what you can, when you can—and the rest of the time, be the most patient version of yourself.
I wrote the above on a post-it note last month and said note had various turns stuck to my keyboard, my notebook, and my closet door. Despite the delay in starting the sessions with teachers, I remain optimistic that we can be productive in the time we have left and that each person, myself included, will learn something valuable.
I wanted to include an icebreaker/energizer in our intro session, so of course a question ball made an appearance. Turns out there remains more than an ounce of Camp-Counselor-Extraordinaire in me. Coming up with questions took longer than expected this time though since I had to account for the language barrier and cultural differences. But if you’re wondering whether the question ball was a hit, the answer is yes.
Walk down any road in Hyderabad with a discerning eye and you’ll notice bits of ingenuity all around. Hustlers, hackers, streetside innovators—call them what you want, they are everywhere and they are brilliant. Consider the rickshaw repair shop that emerges from a box the size of a dorm-room fridge. Or, the vendors near railway stations who hop aboard passing cars to sell tea-time snacks, distributing with their fare a triangle-shaped cardboard piece—cut from a cereal box—to use as a utensil for scooping bits into one’s hand or mouth.
I am fascinated by streetside economy and the various ways food vendors, mechanics, and just-about-everything wallahs make a living by making do. Ron and I recently got into a discussion about Indian ingenuity, but I like to think of it a little differently—as human ingenuity.
The grounds were a bit windy at last week’s cricket tourney. Notice anything special about this banner?
What comes to mind first when you think of Greece? These days “financial crisis” is a likely answer. In her latest exhibition “Cassandra”—currently showing at Dallas’s Conduit Gallery—Rosalyn Bodycomb captures scenes from everyday life in today’s Greece. Together the paintings had me wondering: Do all Greeks look so pensive all the time? Visit the gallery feature at TMN.
A small thing to celebrate: front row window seat on the 49M bus and not a crowded bus at that. Spent a lovely afternoon on a familiar street: solo for once, reflecting, breathing, missing. | Realizing what a blessing it is to miss someone. As I’ve learned again and again since moving to India, a slight shift in perspective—just carrying my head a little differently—affords a whole new attitude towards difficult or painful situations. | Lately finding the neatest social innovation stories and have been less shy to reach out, to ask questions, to exchange stories—to connect. | Discussing our shortcomings and so-called failures. | Bourbon brought back from the good ol’ USA. | Funny how life builds upon itself yet also circulates the same experiences, the same relevations, the same people, in and out from year to year. | Two meals’ worth of vegetables for less than $2. | There
is was a French press in the house, and it is was the most wonderful thing. | By the time we arrived in Colombo, brushed our teeth, and found our beds, it was 4:30 a.m. I love arriving at a new place in late evening, blind to the life outside the bedroom window, and to discover its beauty with sleepy but eager eyes upon waking. | Rolling through Sri Lanka’s hill country in a choo-choo-train. | Makar Sankranti rangoli and watching kites dance from neighborhing roofs and as far as the eye can see. | They ask how it feels to be in my mid-twenties, to be well-removed from the forgiving university bubble but not close enough to the allegedly serious thirty. I tell them the truth: So very young. Strangely, I feel younger now than I did a birthday ago. How many times in our lifetime will we feel young and old and young again? | “I miss sex. No, I miss intimacy,” reads a text message I received overnight. I don’t know how to reply, but I know what she means. | What a lifestyle upgrade it was to cave and (finally) unlock my iPhone. | Accidental all-nighters catching up with a friend, when I don’t notice the hour until the first call to prayer echoes around the city. | Half-marathon was there. And it was a great reminder of what a blessing running has been the past decade-plus. | You can be more than one thing. Begin anywhere. Keep moving. Do good work. Do what you can, when you can—and the rest of the time, be the most patient version of yourself. | Advice is autobiographical.
Rangoli (Kolam in Tamil) is the traditional Hindu art—and ritual—of adorning entrances with decorations that vary from simple geometric patterns to elaborate flower paintings. At sun up each day, thousands of women across the city wash the area outside their front doors or gates and, using rice flour, mark the ground with dots that will form the guiding grid for a rangoli design.
We see intricate white patterns outside temples and homes day-to-day, but on special occasions like weddings and festivals, walking down the street is a whole different treat. Bright colors fill in the patterns and some designs incorporate real flowers, are layered with glitter, or are otherwise enhanced.
Makar Sankranti, a Hindu harvest festival celebrated on January 14th, brought with it the most beautiful rangoli I’ve seen in our colony. That morning Jin and I took a walk with our cameras to capture these short-lived paintings.
Lamakaan recently hosted a forum on women’s safety at night, part of the nationwide conversation on violence against women. The event followed a midnight march during which thousands of Hyderabadi took to the streets in solidarity, and the ensuing discussion sought ways to build upon that momentum. The facilitator asked the attendants to divide into four groups, with each one tasked to discuss one of the following questions:
- What went wrong and/or right in the response following the December 16th gang rape of a 23-year-old Delhi woman?
- How can we change cultural mindsets to be gender-sensitive?
- What can the community do to continue the current mobilization against VAW?
- What can we demand from government to make nights safer for women?
As people shifted chairs to form teams, for a minute Ana and I hovered awkwardly between two: one, a group of 20- and 30-something men who relegated themselves to the three back rows during the intro and showed no sign of splitting up and two, a group of Aunties in the front whose circle appeared at both intimidating and intimate. We eventually settled on the latter, based on rudimentary judgment of who would engage us in the meatiest discussion. We claimed two seats in the circle and sat with ears perked, bodies leaning in, and notebooks at the ready.
Our group was assigned the question regarding the response—from politicians and the media and the general public—once news broke from Delhi. The first thing I noted was how the women passed around phrases such as “the incident” and “post the incident” and “16th December” and how most did so at a lower volume, nearing a whisper, as if saying “incident” wasn’t discreet enough. Not once did the word “rape” surface. At first I assumed the discreetness to be a product of discomfort or even fear, and I wondered whether the discussion could be fruitful if even at a forum like this, women didn’t feel comfortable confronting the situation head-on. A friend had warned me that acquaintances of ours attended similar events and left more outraged than inspired; the women present seemed resigned rather than vocal and action-oriented.
But I was wrong to doubt.
The women in the circle—the Aunties, as Ana and I like to call them—were some of the most action-oriented ladies I’ve met in Hyderabad. I quickly realized the perceived discreetness had nothing to do with being less vocal. We covered just about every angle when we addressed the prompt: disappointment over reports that women at VAW demonstrations, including Hyderabad’s Midnight March, were groped or eve-teased; how organizations are reaching out to women in rural areas; media coverage and the police response; India’s “medieval mindset” and so much more.
What I most appreciated about the evening, however, wasn’t the meat of the group discussion, but the way in which opinions and ideas floated from one side of the circle to another—mindfully. Even more notable was how the Aunties’ approach fit into the forum-wide conversation. Did they have to shout and stomp and use harsh words to be heard? Absolutely not. Quite the contrary: Most of the audience sat up in attention when one of them spoke. They were class acts. It was an important reminder that the loudest voices aren’t always the most impactful.
How can we make India’s urban areas safer for women? If you’re interested in ways to address VAW, particularly in India, I would love to have your input on the following:
- What are community-level improvements—be they in infrastructure or service—that would make cities safer for women, especially at night?
- What are examples of solutions being developed or carried out in India?
- What are examples from outside of India?