Archive for August, 2007

The Humsafar Trust

27 August 2007, Bombay

We climb up to the fourth floor of the meat market in Vakola, Santa Cruz East, on wooden stairs that are surprisingly sturdy. Upon entering the drop-in center (DIC) of The Hamsafar (“companion”) Trust, which caters to the hijra (the third sex) and MSM (Males having Sex with Males) communities, the first thing you see on the reception desk is a basket of condoms. Then you notice the pink curtains. The mission statement above the desk read:

Mission: A holistic approach to the rights and health of sexual minorities and promoting rational attitudes to sexuality

Today is a special “Transgender Mondays”- it is the day before the hijra festival, and many of the hijra and transgender clients are dressed up in their finest saris and jewelry. Fragrant flowers adorn their hair, some of which are made into buns with hair extensions. Most of the hijra are too, too thin – their falsies slipping out of their bras and sari blouses; a few have decent breasts and round bottoms, the result of hormones.

 

The celebrations begin with bhajans (devotional songs) sung before the alter bearing a wooden deity wearing a sari. Time is kept by hands clapping to the beat. After the prayers, one of the hijra places tilaks on everyone’s foreheads, both red (kumkum) and yellow tumeric, with a grain or two of rice. Then the dancing begins. Filmy music blasts out of a CD player and different hijra perform, solo (there is not enough room for more than one dancer at a time). Their dancing is expert, and suggestive, with a few “nontraditional” gestures thrown in, much to the amusement of the other celebrants. Appreciation is demonstrated by surprisingly loud clapping, a carry-over of the trademark double-clap of the hijra who beg for a living.

 

Strong communities of hijra exist in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In order for a hijra to become part of a community, they must be socialized by another hijra and adopted as a “sister” or as a “student.” Some of the hijra in this community were castrated in a procedure performed (without anesthesia and without instruments!?!) by a traditional healer somewhere in South Bombay. I am told that hot oil and water are poured on the genital area for 10 days after the procedure, and the hijra is isolated (cannot leave the house or look at a man) for 40 days. In the area that this drop-in center covers, there are from 5,000 to 7,000 hijra between the Malad station and Malvani, a resettlement slum in Malad, in the western suburb of Bombay.

 

This drop-in center of The Humsafar Trust (funded by NACO) provides workshops, a library of resources, and a place for the transgender and MSM community to gather. (Aside from “Transgender Mondays”, Friday evenings are for MSM.) The DIC also provides links to the Voluntary Counseling and Testing Centre and the STI Clinic. Outreach workers and members reach out to the community to distribute condoms and teach safe sex as well as inform about the services available at The Humsafar Trust.

 

Sachi Maniar, Avani Shah, Anurema Chatterjee, and other members of a group called Beyond Borders, are working with The Humsafar Trust to see if they can engage the community in awareness activities through the development of a cultural program. These young college women (girls, as they refer to themselves) have become accepted by the community, attend meetings after the Transgender and MSM gatherings, and seek to get the buy-in of the community in some kind of program that will bring attention to the needs of the community. They propose to have workshops, film screenings, and plays centered around the themes of gender, sexuality, and identity.

Today, the celebrations last an hour longer than the usual 6-8pm – a time period that allows for the beggars and wedding/birth ceremony dancers to get there after work, and for the sex workers to leave for their jobs. The beggars, dancers, and sex workers make a living based on the following myths:

 

  1. Eunuchs can bestow fertility – therefore they are paid for dancing (usually uninvited) at weddings or birth ceremonies and blessing the couple or child; or paid not to curse the recalcitrant victims of groups of hijra who extort money from shopkeepers or motorists and passengers caught at traffic stops.
  2. If you have sex with a eunuch, you won’t get AIDS.
  3. If you have sex with a eunuch, you will get cured of AIDS.

 

East-West Breakfast: Roti and Peanut Butter

27 August 2007, Bombay

Today, I had the breakfast of returned Indians:  leftover roti (any kind of Indian “bread”) with peanut butter and fruit preserve.  I first had this delicacy at the home of Suchitra and Shreedhar in Byculla, Bombay, who have been here for about a year now.  A visiting friend gifted them a jar of peanut butter.  That, combined with a jar of homemade (by Shreedhar’s mother in Pune) mango preserve on yesterday’s roti made by the maid/cook, zapped in the microwave and … voila… an east-west treat.

When Mark and I returned to Bombay from our brief respite in Pondicherry, I brought back the Naturellement organic peanut butter and pineapple orange marmalade (made in Auroville) that we had purchased for the few days we were there.  Our standard breakfast in Pondy is PB&J on rusks or digestive biscuits and fruit.

The day after I returned to Bombay, and was here all by my lonesome (“Where’s John?  Where’s Mark?”), our neighbor Vandana decided that she was going to feed me.  “Don’t get food from outside.  Reshma – give her some fish curry and rice.” So every afternoon (people eat very late here), Reshma (one of the salon workers who doubles as pedicurist/cook) brings over lunch (on the rare occasions when Cleopatra Beauty Salon has a client, lunch is even later).  For the first couple of days, it was different types of fish curry and rice.  Then, she decided that I should have chapatis as well.  So, I would get rice, dal, fried fish, a vegetable (usually potatoes and okra) and chapati or papad.  Way too much food – hence, the leftover roti for breakfast.

I don’t have a microwave, but do have a two-ring gas “stove”, one of Nina’s family’s extra gas canisters, and Kumar’s gone-for-six-month neighbor’s gas regulator, along with a set of pots and pans, again from Nina’s family.  I heated the first roti on the tava (flat, round pan for cooking roti).  Warmed up nicely.  Heated the other one and a half rotis and left them on the tava with the gas turned off to stay warm while I ate my first “burrito” of peanut butter and marmalade spread on the roti and rolled up not like a burrito, actually, but more like a jelly roll.  Then I went back for the other one and a half, which had crisped up for having been left too long on the tava.  So I had PB&J tacos.

Door to Door

26 August 2007, Bombay

Chikki Walah
Chikki and rusk walah

 

“Epel walah, pear walah, sitafel walah!”

“Kelaa!”

“Baajeele!

Three weeks ago, the fruit walahs would call out: “Epel walah, pear walah, aam walah!” And I would get up off my chair, walk a few feet to the front door, and buy a kilo of aam (mangoes) – the last langda and chausa of the season. Now they call out “Epel walah, pear walah, papaya walah!” Or “Epel walah, pear walah, sitafel walah!” And I get up off my chair, walk a few feet to the front door and buy a kilo of sitafel (custard apple). I’ve also been talked into buying a few “epel” (apples) and pears, and Rhea (my 4-year old neighbor) once asked me to buy a papaya.

Three different fruit vendors ply my lane every day, sometimes twice a day, into the late evening. Two of them carry a large, flat basket on their heads, cushioned by a coiled piece of cloth, and filled with fruit, a scale, and weights. One only sells green bananas (the skin is green, but the bananas are ripe) and doesn’t need a scale – bananas are sold by the piece. The “epel” and pear walahs sometimes sell the small, yellow, finger bananas (kelaa), called elaichi (cardamom) bananas, which are more expensive than the green bananas. (I usually buy them for Rhea, who eats three at a time.) Each of these men call out their wares so that you know exactly what they sell.

Others announce their presence in different ways. The idli (steamed rice and lentil “discs”) walah, who carries a huge metal pot filled with idli and metal containers of chutney and sambar as well as banana leaves (as serving “plates”) on his head, squeezes a Bozo-the-clown type of air horn. The pau (the ubiquitous bread rolls that Mumbaikers eat with everything) walah, who keeps his wares in plastic bags that hang many-deep off the handle bars of his bicycle and comes by in the early evenings, rings his metal bicycle bell. The guy who comes by in the late afternoon and sells a snack of puffed rice and roasted chick peas carried in a ragpickers large, white sack slung over his shoulders, merely grunts.

The knife sharpener doesn’t say anything, or ring his bicycle bell (I don’t think he has one) – he merely pushes his bicycle with the grinding wheel mounted on the frame along the lane. I guess most people here know his schedule and keep a lookout when they need him.

Machlee Walah

 And you can smell the fish ladies, who generally don’t have to advertise their wares – they have willing customers up and down the lane – they just go to a door and ring the bell. In fact, my neighbor, Vandana (Rhea’s mom) usually buys the whole catch. And if there is shrimp, she’ll buy all of one vendor’s and all of a second vendor’s as well.

The vegetable ladies who carry their wares on their heads also walk up to their customers’ doors, while the men pushing their carts, one loaded just with tomatoes and the other with different kinds of vegetables, yell out: “baajeele!”

In fact, not a minute goes by without a vendor walking past your door. Most of what they have to sell escapes me, although the many junk collectors are fairly obvious, pushing their long carts with 3 pieces of scrap metal nailed to the end and sides. In the past, I’ve bought bindis (Rs. 2 or 5, depending on the type vs. Rs. 30 at a street stall in Elco Market) and a broom (Rs. 10). John has bought 5 meters of rope and some ear buds (as they call them here). Don’t need kitchen rags or aluminum pots or ceramic cups and saucers (the guy selling them claps the cup and saucer together to announce his wares) and I don’t like the guy who sells disinfectant – way too aggressive a sell.

Today, a young man pops his head in the door and asks if we have old printer cartridges, or other equipment we’d like to get rid of. We point to Nina’s computer, which has been lying on the floor, gathering dust. He asks for a screwdriver (we happened to have a small one – why doesn’t he carry one? Dang, did he take our screwdriver? Damn him – yes he did!); opens up the CPU, then offers Rs. 200 for the CPU and Rs. 100 for the monitor. Nina says she’ll give it for Rs. 500. He says: Rs. 400, last offer, and makes off with the CPU, monitor, keyboard, and mouse (and screwdriver!). Not bad. Kumar had been meaning to get it repaired and give it to an NGO, but that would have meant spending money on getting it repaired, finding an NGO to take it, then transporting it there. This way, it’s off our hands and we didn’t have to lift a finger. Plus, Rs. 400.

Half an hour later, another young man comes to the door and holds out a bed cover. No, I don’t need a bed cover. Hey, he’s selling a bed cover exactly like the one we have on the futon. Wait, that’s our bed cover! (Actually, Madhu and Meghna’s, but it came with the futon and mattress we’re borrowing from them.) I’d given it to a guy who came to deliver laundry next door two days ago. “How much?” I’d asked. “How long will it take?” The man said he’d be back at 2:30pm and he’d let me know the answers. He never showed up that day. Then, two days later, on a Sunday afternoon, he brings back the laundered bed cover: Rs. 50.

Wanted: Ragpickers with good track record

“Rail Cleanup – Wanted: Ragpickers with good track record” is the title of an article in the Hindustan Times by Rajendra Aklekar, reporting on the Central Railway’s decision to hire ragpickers to remove garbage at 31 selected railway stations and sections of track in the Mumbai division “after the last local of the day passes by.”

Skill sets will include working in extreme weathers [sic] and spotting rubbish.

Aklekar’s title is by far the best of a number of articles published on the directive to all divisional railway managers to hire ragpickers through contractors to clean the railway lines as part of “Cleanliness Year: 2007” declared by Railway Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav. (The Times of India reports that the Northern Railways will phase in ragpickers at 40 stations in and around Delhi: “Ragpickers to help Railways in cleanliness drive” while Livemint carries the same story under the title: “Railways outsourcing cleanliness to ragpickers”.)

The ragpickers will be assessed for collection and cleaning on a scale of 100 and will get paid only if their performance is up to the mark, according to the project document on Rag Picking and Garbage Disposal.

Ragpickers, or more accurately, scavengers, currently pick up trash at the railway stations and along the tracks every day.  They do so barefoot and gloveless, hauling a giant plastic bag over their shoulders (or on their heads, when full).

They will be equipped with masks, latex rubber hand-gloves, safety shoes, nylon brushes and brooms, polythene bags, dustpans and wheeled trolleys.

Handicapped young adults or small urchin boys will sometimes enter the train compartments and sweep the dirt and trash accumulated on the floor with a piece of newspaper or scrap of rag to collect a few rupees.  If no one in the compartment gives them anything, they will move on to the next compartment without sweeping the collected mound from the aisle onto the tracks.

“The ragpickers are supposed to pick up plastic bottles, rags, papers, tetra packs and any other loose material lying on the tracks within 50 meters of both ends of a platform,” said a senior railway official, requesting anonymity. “They will also keep clean the garden area and halt boards and collect floating waste from the drains near the tracks.”

Sounds like a good thing, right? Destitute, homeless immigrants finally getting a chance at a better-paying “job”, with protective gear and equipment.

Let me relate a disgusted remark by a young friend who reported that bus drivers were now required to complete the 10th standard: the bus drivers will be exactly the same, they will now have to pay more in bribes to get their jobs.

The cynic in me assumes that the lot of the ragpickers will not improve.  The contractors will make money, the Railway officials will get richer, and the protective gear and equipment will never reach the ragpickers.

Go see “The 11th Hour” this Weekend in San Francisco, Chicago and Boston

This just in from John Knox, Executive Director of the Earth Island Institute:

I wanted to add my enthusiastic recommendation that you go out and see Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film The 11th Hour, opening in San Francisco this Friday at the Embarcadero Cinema (call theatre at 415-267-4893 for exact times). If you haven’t heard much about the film, here’s the Warner Brothers site, complete with trailer: http://wip.warnerbros.com/11thhour/?dates=true.

This important film has been compared to Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, but it goes on to link together the many threats to a sustainable world that we currently face. Directed by our friends Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners of Tree Media Group, in collaboration with DiCaprio, the film features many of the most important voices today for understanding the full spectrum of both the threats that we face and the solutions that we need.

>> GO SEE IT THIS WEEKEND. For this film to get traction, Warner Brothers needs to see that it has an audience. Please consider going this weekend, to help generate the buzz needed for wider distribution.

Here’s the recent SF Chronicle review with more discussion of the film: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/08/21/DDORRKOVD.DTL&type=movies.

>> GO TO 11TH HOUR ACTION DAY THIS SATURDAY. Earth Island’s newest project, Bay Localize, is working with Green City Gallery in Berkeley to present a day of local solutions to the problems discussed in the film. See the event information immediately below.

See Leonardo’s New Film, Come to the 11th Hour Action Day, Aug. 25!

Get Informed on the Issues, Get Active around Solutions to Heal Our World

 

Dear friends,

The hour is fast approaching when Leonardo DiCaprio’s long-anticipated new film “The 11th Hour” opens in theaters. Through multiple lenses, the film presents a harrowing account of the planet’s current condition, an exploration of the causes and, finally, a look at what can be done to heal the damage.

On Saturday, August 25th, come to the Green City Gallery anytime from 11am to 6pm for “The 11th Hour Action Day” to hear various experts from the film and local community leaders on how we can solve critical issues that face us today and how you can take action! The Gallery is located at 1950 Shattuck Ave @ Berkeley Way (2 blocks north of Downtown Berkeley BART).

Please attend the opening week screenings of the film in San Francisco Embarcadero Center Theatre starting this weekend (call theatre at 415-267-4893 for exact times), and then join us again Saturday night in Berkeley at 9:30 pm for The 11th Hour After Party with DJ music, refreshments, and conscious community.

More About The 11th Hour Film:Leila Conners Petersen & Nadia Conners from Tree Media directed this stunning film, which showcases an impressive lineup of environmental gurus and stars. The film debuted at Cannes to much paparazzi and fanfare.

The 11th Hour opens in the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, Boston and many other cities on August 24. Bring your friends and go see the film in the 1st hour on opening weekend. Check out the engaging movie web site and social action campaign at http://www.11thhouraction.com.

Here’s an excerpt from a review of the film in The New York Times: “To judge from all the gas-guzzlers still fouling the air and the plastic bottles clogging the dumps, it appears that the news that we are killing ourselves and the world with our greed and garbage hasn’t sunk in. That’s one reason “The 11th Hour,” an unnerving, surprisingly affecting documentary about our environmental calamity, is such essential viewing. It is our astonishing capacity for hope that distinguishes “The 11th Hour” and that speaks so powerfully, in part because it is this all-too-human quality that may finally force us to fight the good fight against the damage we have done and continue to do.”

Plug Pulled

 

I never imagined that I would be so devastated upon hearing the news that our event, just a mere 5 days away, had to be canceled for “reasons beyond our control.” (I can only now begin to write about it.) I had heard the day before that our partners in Delhi had received a security threat and that they were going to be meeting with officials from the Home Ministry as well as the Intelligence Bureau to report the threat. Intellectually I knew there was a chance that we could be shut down, and I did my best to stall flight and train bookings for the balance of the crew and invited guests going up to the Atari/Wagah border, but I never really internalized the grim prospect.

 

While the Intelligence Bureau set about to investigate the security threat, with Mark and our partners pacing the floor of the office in Delhi, I went to the bank in South Bombay to get a demand draft for the insurance we were purchasing for the event. Then, I made my way by taxi to the Air India office to request waivers for 400 kilograms of excess baggage that our musicians would require both from Madras and Bombay. As I reached my destination at Nariman Point, I got a call from Mark: our event was canceled – the Government of India “advised” us not to proceed with our event as planned.

 

I sat in the cab, as waves of emotion hit me, in shock. I had been given the task of contacting our event producers, but was unable to make those calls immediately. I proceeded to the Air India office, even though the need was no longer there and sat in an anteroom for about 45 minutes, waiting for the designated official. Since I was already there, I’d decided to inform him in person of the cancellation and to thank him for the “intention.” But as the realization sank in, I needed to leave the office (a dead cell zone) to start making the phone calls. I left a note and walked outside.

 

My first thought was: escape. I was in Nariman Point, so called a friend who worked close by to see if she and her husband wanted to have dinner. The answer was yes – they would be busy for the next couple of hours, apartment hunting, but would be around the Fort area and free around 7pm. OK. I would make the rest of my phone calls and find a café nearby to hang out until then. My second phone call was to the insurance agent, who was expecting me to fax a copy of the demand draft to his office. I called to say that we would no longer need a policy. His reaction was unexpected and very touching. “Where are you? OK, wait right there – I’m coming to get you. I’ll drive you back to Bandra.” Of course, he was right. I needed to get back to the office and start emailing all the invitees that were expecting to be at the border on 14 August. Got a raincheck with my friends and called our television producer, who was still in Bombay – he was scheduled to leave the next day for Amritsar. He didn’t believe me. He hung up and called Delhi. I tried calling our ground production manager on site. He did not answer his phone. I sent a text message. Either he was getting the news from our team members already at the border, or his cell phone service did not work there. (I found out later that he and his core team could not bear to watch as the stage, which had been 70% completed, was torn down by the crew.)

The car ride back to Bandra saved me. Our insurance agent, who insures all the major events and the top-rated shows on all the TV channels, voiced all my thoughts, and ended up by saying: “You should do another show.” In fact, that was the universal reaction from all of our production partners, TV channel partners, and sponsors. And after a day of mourning, we tried our level best (as they say in India) to come up with an alternative for the same dates, but with four days to go, and with two of them weekend days, we just ran out of time.

A representative of our PR company came up with the line we have since been using: our show has been “postponed,” perhaps indefinitely.


Denizens of New Kantwadi Lane

Spotty

Spotty is the alpha female of the pack of 4, sometimes 5 to 6 dogs that live in our lane. She is mostly white with a black patch over her left eye. When she is terrorizing Limpy, the other resident female in the pack, the hair on her back stands up like a Ridgeback’s. Spotty gets all the scraps when fish are being cleaned for the next door neighbor, and most of the biscuits handed out by the various neighbors on a regular basis. (I am told that Tiger biscuits are a favorite of dogs in Bombay.) Limpy’s limp is improving and the terrible open wound in her neck has healed miraculously quickly. The two males are Brownie and Slice. Their coloring suggests that they may be related to Limpy in some way.

Rhea and Slice

These dogs are the friends of Rhea, the plump, self-possessed, independent, stubborn and bossy 4-year old who lives next door; the daughter of Vandana, a single mom. Rhea goes to kindergarden in the mornings, dressed in her school uniform, with a handkerchief pinned to her dress. In the afternoon, between changes of clothing (which happens about 5 times a day), she roams the lane, entering other people’s houses at whim, much to the consternation of her “servants” who lose her constantly. The cries of “Rhea!” ring out every few minutes as someone or another tries to catch up with her. Rhea comes into our office to make cards, taking pieces of printer paper, pens, scissors, and glue, and writing her favorite number: “5” everywhere.

There are numerous cats, most of which hang out in the back alley, along with most of the rats, although some rats do venture into the front alley from time to time. This is the first time I have seen rats shaped like Dachshunds – long and low. The cats don’t much mind the rats. In fact, John saw a rat jump on a cat’s back, and the cat merely looked at it in surprise, but didn’t bother to do anything.

The dogs become quite active at night, and bark at any stranger that comes along. Our friend Kumar calls us on the phone and asks one of us to come and fetch him from the main road because he is afraid of the dogs. So, we have to walk him in and out when he comes over to check in on us. The rats squeak all night long. The cats are silent.

Then there are the two-legged adult neighbors, who are mostly Christian. The Fernandezes, who live across the lane, keep 2 parakeets in their front window, one blue and one green. Myra Fernandez has asked me to ask Nina not to talk so loudly, particularly in the afternoons, when she and her husband take a nap. (Those of us with Airtel service must go outside to talk on the phone, and many times, Nina stands in front of the Fernandezes bedroom window and yells into the phone.) “We’re old” Myra says by way of explanation – “we need to sleep in the afternoons – tell her to go the other way when she talks on the phone.”

The neighbors in the back, behind Vandana, are a drunk but nice husband, and the wife who refused to pay for her share of the unofficial sewer cleaning, but did get the BMC to come and do the job.

Vandana is the tatooed mother of Rhea, who owns the beauty salon on the other side of us. She doesn’t get much business, so she is converting the salon into a residence, enlarging the toilet area to include a place to bathe. She and her best friend, a young, thin, attractive woman who spends most of her time at Vandana’s, are two of very few women in Bombay who wear shorts in public. Vandana’s ex comes by every so often to see Rhea, who runs over to our place and asks rhetorically: “why has he come?” He spends most of his time yelling at her (“don’t walk around without your chappals!”) and being ignored by her.

Our landlord, Iqbal, comes by every once in a while to ask us to pay half of the bribes he’s had to pay to one BMC official for renting us the space to use as an office. This petty official is now coming by on a regular basis to extract baksheesh from the rest of the people doing business in this residential neighborhood.


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