Narnia takes India

Outdoors and indoors, India is speckled with colors and stories. Each corner that we pass by on a rickshaw, taxi, or on foot holds inquisitive beauty. A lover of all things Baz and some things Wes, I became enamored with India’s walls and symmetrical architecture. Baz borrows the color and excitement of popular Indian cinema. Roaming the streets of Mumbai makes me see how such inspiration can come out of a turquoise wall and a gusher-red sari.

Below are a series of moments I’ve captured that momentarily left me enchanted in this magical world of Narnia part two.

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This is on the way to a sitara’s slum and community. Sitara means star and I was geeking out that I found a star inbetween some buildings while walking there. It’s a jewish star of David, which made me intrigued and a bit reserved. I haven’t met any Jews here, leaving me to wonder my place as a Jew in this community.

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Juhu Beach. So many colors on the walls and in the beauty that was the ice cream. Here is where I fell in love with the thought of having ice cream as a days meal. ALL THE ICE CREAM AND COLORS.

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En route to the Abhyudaya school. Our documentary short took me and my fellow classmates on several journeys similar to Narnia. Surrounded by rubble and small wardrobe-like houses, the sitaras that our cameras followed find hopes and dreams and are happy in their community and life. This particular picture is of the Hostel at the Bhavan’s College. Here it’s like a dormitory for students.

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En route to the store, Tribal Route. A store dedicated to handcrafted items solely of Indian artisans.

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This picture is where I learned my love of distressed doors and walls. Lolz

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At the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Super fancy, super beautiful, super Wes. Later, at the hair salon I learned that mahal means palace, so the hotel is kinda repeating itself… It was so beautiful and visually pleasing, I can’t even.

Why Narnia? Because Narnia is a magical place of escape from reality. These moments bring me to peace and showed me that there is escape everywhere and when it’s found in the present, you can appreciate life and the little parts of it so much more.

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Entry 07: Documentation Nation

Location: Whistling Woods International Time: 6:21pm

Since working on our documentary, we have been documented by other students and we have even documented ourselves answering questions for another documentary. There’s some docu-ception going on in here.

On our car ride to Colaba last Sunday to see the South Gate of India, Mark asked us: what do you miss about America? Like the profound philosopher that I am I contemplated what I really miss about being at home.
While the food here is spicy and strange, I grew up in a very multi-cultural environment. Honestly, I’m used to eating all kinds of things and trying foods I couldn’t tell you the names and textures of (but I had to try anyway so as not to upset a relative who made it). Also, I love rice. So any rice-eating country I’m in, I am fine.
My answer to Mark’s question was that I miss knowing things. I miss knowing where I am, the best places to go, how to navigate…I grew up in a state that boasts of it’s car culture, and boy do we love our cars and traveling wherever we want to go. So it feels restrictive since we don’t know too much about the area and how to get around. However, 2 and 1/2 weeks in in Mumbai, and I feel more confident here. Many people have told us that Mumbai is similar to New York City, and I’m starting to understand the comparison–people are always on the move, always working, it’s hustle and bustle and not much quiet scenery.

What I know I’ll miss when I return home is the extreme generosity and the amount of smiling done here. Everyone is so generous and kind and full of beauty it’s insane. Even the most under-privileged families who are affected by poverty the most–I find that their smiles are the brightest, their generosity the largest, and their hearts the warmest. I couldn’t tell you the amount of things I’ve learned and seen and observed these past few days, or even past few weeks…I’ve met a range of people from TV Show actors and film industry giants to humble families living in poor conditions to insightful Master’s students. I’ll never forget this tiny moment that summed up the Indian people…our documentary group was walking together to our student subject’s home in the slums. A man on the side smiles and says, “Welcome to our city!” So many little moments just warm my heart.
Even just today on our way to Whistling Woods, our rickshaw driver hit a bump on the highway–and I could tell he felt really bad about it. He turned around and tried to ask if we hit our heads or if we were okay in Hindi, and I wish we could have responded but we just smiled and gave a thumbs up.
It’s all these little moments that catch me, and the ones I will most take back home with me from this trip.

So–what it’s like to be different here? I don’t really know. To be honest, I kind of like it. America is my home, but I’m still regarded as different there, too. I’ll go through my entire life getting asked “where I’m really from” or “where my parents were born” because I look mostly ethnically ambiguous. It’s just a fact of my life and something I’ve developed an automatic response to. What’s different about “being different” here, is, like I’ve mentioned before, the open curiosity. Yeah, I get stares and second looks. But that’s all. In America, I’ll get people trying to hide their curiosity like they’re not curious about my ethnicity, and maybe if I’m talking to them, I already know that the question is in the back of their mind. And that’s fine, I’m always curious about other people and where they came from too. However, in America, when stating your ethnicity or where your from–there are so many unnecessary and unneeded stigmas attached to race and color. Once I tell people where I’m from, there’s a high chance that they’ve categorized me in their head both politically and socially just because of my background. Here in India, I can tell that it’s just curiosity and nothing more.

Which is why I’m not as phased so much as the amount of attention our group gets as a whole whenever we go somewhere. When we visited the touristy Gate of India, people swarmed around us to take pictures of us and with us, and they especially loved my blonde-haired friends. I’m not really shocked or stunned about it, though. We don’t realize how fortunate we are in the United States despite all our internal USA problems. I’m actually more fascinated at how this is the product of our global impact of entertainment. Really, American entertainment has seeped into cultures all around the world–such as India–and this is the lens in which they view us.

On a different note, interacting with our students and their mentors for our documentary project has been extremely touching and rewarding…Whitney, Iara and I can’t stop squealing and giggling at our footage over every kid’s little smile and to see how much their families love and support them. Visiting their homes was incredibly humbling and insightful.

Give Someone a Hand and They Rip Your Arm Off

“It is for you to find a way, my friends,

To help good men arrive at happy ends.

You write the happy ending to the play!

There must, there must, there’s got to be a way!”

Epilogue, page 113, Good Woman of Setzuan

 

In Bertolt Brecht’s moralistic play “The Good Woman of Setzuan”, the main character, Shen Teh, a poor young prostitute, is the only person in Setzuan who the gods deem to be “good”. Because of her charitable heart, the people of Setzuan take advantage of her to the point that she cannot even maintain her own needs. In order to get ahead in life and gain economic wealth without tarnishing her reputation as a charitable woman, she dresses up as her fictional male cousin, Shui Ta, a ruthless business man willing to do anything to get ahead.

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“Ramkali – The Good Woman of Delhi” Based on Bertolt Brecht’s “The Good Woman of Setzuan” Adapted in Hindi by Amitabh Srivastava

In the last scene of the play, Shui Ta reveals his true identity to the gods as Shen Teh, criticizing them for creating a life for humans were it is impossible for people to be “good”, and for not intervening to protect good people from the vulnerability of being good. There is no concrete ending to this play and nothing is resolved in the plot. Instead, Bertolt Brecht asks the audience to solve this problem: How can a person be good where good acts are not appreciated?

This is a problem that I have pondered about during my stay in India; how can I do acts of good in a world that is essentially not good? When I first came to the U.S., I became painfully aware that my socioeconomic background was not in par with those of many Syracuse University students. I would be considered middle class in Puerto Rico, while in the States I would be considered more lower class. So while in the United States I was faced with adjusting to dealing with people who are used to a prevailing culture of privilege, coming to India has been the exact opposite. Here, a lot of people are used to having to struggle and work in order to survive, so they are more appreciative of the little things. Throughout the many interactions I’ve had with children begging on the streets, I’ve been conflicted between ignoring them, giving them all my money, or taking them home with me. Sometimes, giving them money is not the best idea since we don’t really know where the money will end up and with what purpose it will be used. Also, if I gave money away every time I had an encounter with a beggar, I’d end up on the streets right along with them. Still, even when I do give money away, some get angry and ask for more, and others have even tried to lead me to strange places with the pretext of buying them food (God knows for what purpose).

In Puerto Rico, most of the homeless and beggars are also drug addicts. Since Puerto Rico is the gateway from which drugs from South America enter the U.S., a lot of it ends up in the hands of the homeless population. Puerto Rico has been nicknamed “Zombie Island” due to the large amount of homeless that roam the streets under the influence. Horse tranquilizers are also a very popular drug in Puerto Rico, which makes people walk and stand around in a manner very similar to that of a reanimated corpse.

So while I have had a lot of interactions with beggars, I’ve only been accustomed to ignoring them or giving them a couple of quarters. Back home, it’s: “Misi, no es pa’ drogas, de veldad, es pa comel” (Miss, it’s not for drugs, I swear, it’s just for food”), but some of the times I have offered them food they have gotten angry or told me that they just don’t like that sort of food. Here, children will put out their hands and then signal their mouth; as if to say that they need the money to eat. In the Dominican Republic, the little kids have been trained to smile and yell “Money, money, money” whenever they see tourists.

I’m not unfamiliar to poverty; Puerto Rico’s poverty rate is about 45% — three times the national U.S. figure. Yet, here, poverty has been presented to me in an unfamiliar light, which has made me contemplate about these differences, especially comparing it to the way that some students live in our campus. Some of the people on this trip have taken pictures of the beggar children here, uploading them to Facebook with their smiling faces as if to say “Look, how cute these little Indian children are!” but when the children extend their hand and bring it to their mouth, they answer with “Sorry, I don’t have any”. While I understand that this practice does not come from a place of malice, it does come from ignorance, and it ultimately denies the children’s humanities, replacing it for that of a decorative figure. By acknowledging their cuteness, but ignoring their suffering, we are continually reinforcing the comfortable utopia that has been created for developed countries, in which poverty is not a real thing, and it is hidden behind smiling faces.

Jesus: Surely you’re not saying we have the resources to save the poor from their lot. There will be poor always, pathetically struggling. Look at the good things you’ve got! – Everything’s Alright, Jesus Christ Superstar

 

So, where in Africa are you from?

If I wasn’t already incredibly frustrated with the American media industry before coming to India, then I am now. I’m going to make a slight generalization here: Indians do not believe that black people live in America— although, black people (slaves) built America.

Let me break this down: people who do not live in America, mostly learn about America from mainstream American media*. I am, and I am not talking about people who are fortunate enough to travel to America.

Clear and simple, the lack of black and brown faces in American media— especially black faces in this case, claims that America is ‘white’ in ignoring people who are just as American as any white person, in that their ancestors played a huge role in building America, and their families had been living on American soil for hundreds of years.

Where does this come from? Hyphenated Americanism, the notion that black people act a certain way, the lack of color-blind casting in the television and film industries, the notion that films/TV shows with more than two black lead actors are only for black people, AND the very, very incorrect assumption that we live in a post-racial society.

Back to India— so, if people around the world are watching American television programs and films, and only white people are being shown on the screen (i.e., Friends), being portrayed as Americans… will people think that black people live in America?

A woman wrote Africa on my receipt, then proceeded to ask me: “Where in Africa are you from?” This jewelry boutique owner lived in Jersey for four years, but probably not in an area where a lot of black people live.

“Are you from South Africa or the West Indies? South Africa.” I wasn’t too offended by this cashier, but I also was because… why do I only have two options of origin— the W.I and Africa? I AM of West Indian descent and I love my culture, but I am American born. I don’t claim being American very much, if at all, but I do claim being a New Yorker.

“Are you from Nigeria?” I was expecting resistance or awe at the fact that I responded “No, I’m from New York,” but this rickshaw driver was well-travelled.

Earlier this year, Shonda Rhimes, the show-runner of two of my favorite television series, Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy, won a diversity award from the Director’s Guild of America. This is what she said about it: “When I heard I was getting a Diversity Award, I was really, truly, profoundly honored. I began to get calls from VarietyThe Hollywood Reporter, etc., and I was asked to comment on the award. Asked how good I felt about the award. Asked if it made me feel like I was doing the right thing. Asked if it had been a struggle making diversity happen on my cast and crews. While I’m still really and truly profoundly honored to receive this award, but I was also a little pissed off.”

This speaks to the lack of, but growing amount of diversity in mainstream American media. There really shouldn’t have to be an award for diversity, and diversity shouldn’t have to be conscious, because well… we live in a diverse country but not every writer/filmmaker feels the need to portray that in a positive light if at all…

Fascinations with Whiteness

Coming to India, I knew the whole deal about colorism. What is colorism? Colorism is a phenomenon that causes people to preference and give privilege to, lighter/whiter-skinned people. Colorism is rooted in the idea that light or white skin is more beautiful than darker skin tones, and that attributes of kindness go hand in hand with that lighter or whiter skin.

So, there’s this whole thing about skin-bleaching that’s very popular in India and one or two West Indian countries, namely Jamaica. People want to be lighter because they think it’ll make their lives better— open doors for them, make them more attractive, etc. Then there’s skin-lightening in photography, the progression of Rihanna from #teambrownskin** to high yellow, Beyonce from #teambrownskin to #teamredbone.

For God’s sake, I was an entire shade lighter for the Bollywood music video shoot. Whitney, must’ve been three shades lighter— that night she was playing for #teamlightskin.

When we go to major stand-still areas (i.e. Juhu Beach, the Gate of India), some of my classmates always get asked to take a picture. Only once have I been asked to take a picture with someone. Based on the nature of what I am speaking about, it should go without saying that these classmates meet the stereotypical standards of beauty.

There is a fascination with whiteness in this country.

I am not in anyway speaking negatively of India or it’s people. Colorism exists in most places on this earth. There’s extreme colorism in the Caribbean, Brazil, America; any place where there are people of color. It’s something that isn’t really out there. It’s subtle, it has to be observe or noticed and it is a repercussion of colonialism.

In Morocco, I got marriage proposals and I was followed all of the time, because of my dark skin. In Europe, Italian men would always, somehow find me and compliment me on my skin. Skin color plays a different role everywhere in the world that you go, and colorism takes on different forms from country to country.

As I was writing this piece, I started to do some research and discovered that in India there is a lot of racism against Africans in this country. More specifically, Nigerians in particular, are heavily discriminated against by Indians, although millions of Indians live in Nigerian and less than 50,000 Nigerians live in India. I won’t really go into this much.

*When I use the term “media” I am referring to television programs and films.
** #teambrownskin, #teamdarksin, #teamlightskin, #teamredbone, and many other skin-color related hashtags are embodiments of colorism seen in the black community that have been given life via social media (mostly in America).

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about colorism, watch D. Chansin Berry’s documentary Dark Girls http://officialdarkgirlsmovie.com

Basically Albino in India

My ancestry traces back to the pastiest of white ethnicities on the planet. I’m American-Irish/Polish and in India I might as well be albino. Growing up in Syracuse, NY (among my fellow pasty compadres) I’ve never experienced being a spectacle purely because of my skin color but as soon as we landed in the Mumbai airport I realized I’d get my first taste. At first it was just a few stares here and there and extra attention from beggars but then it upgraded to full on paparazzi level stalking.

 

When we visited Juhu beach for example, before our feet even hit the sand we had a circle of locals surrounding us, awkwardly asking if girls in our group would be in pictures with them. Luckily I somehow avoided being in pictures on the beach but fast-forward a few days to when we visited the Gate of India and I wasn’t so fortunate. I just hope someday I come across them on the internet.

 

If this has taught me anything it’s how not to deal with someone who is different when they’re visiting your country. The attention is extremely uncomfortable. It’s also shown me how much it must suck to be famous, with everyone staring at you and taking pictures when you’re just trying to enjoy the moment. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining about this trip though, because this journey has been the most exciting of my experiences with SU abroad so far. Every new experience here has taught me something and I’m so glad I decided to come here.

Business as Usual (Scars)

Sunday, we made a surprise visit to the region known as Colaba. As our taxi’s approached, I couldn’t help but notice the unorthodox architecture presented. Until this point, buildings in Mumbai appeared to be either of a modern western or of traditional Indian style. In Colaba, however, the architecture was very gothic, with both Spanish and British influences. It was quite a steep contrast. As with most tourist destinations, people were everywhere both taking pictures and trying to sell us merchandise. Early on, I couldn’t help but notice the unusual amount of security checkpoints.

Further down the road, a majestic building with a red top cross my eye. It looked like a palace. Mark informed me that it was The Taj Mahal Hotel. At first I was confused; understanding that the actual Taj Mahal would be our last destination on the trip. Before entering, there was another series of metal detectors but these searches were more thorough. As I waited in line, I kept hearing phrases like “that’s where it happened” and “bombing”. Up until this point, I was not aware of the tragedies that occurred in 2008. The Taj was beautiful; constructed with golden ceilings and marble floors.

For dinner, we decided to eat at the world famous Leopold Cafe. Once again, I was not aware of its relation to the 26/11 attacks. It was there that my stomach started to ache again. After I received my burger, Mark made us aware of the bullet impacts in the walls, positioned very near to where our heads were resting. I then slowly noticed a similar looking caliber of hole in many of the restaurants doors and windows. I began to fill a strange mix of emotions.

Part of me was appalled. It’s one thing to have the strength to go back into business after a major catastrophe, but why keep such gruesome blemishes as relics? Usually, after an attack, a plaque or sign is erected; commemorating the lives of those lost;  not the manner to which they met their demise. Beside from a few stylized paintings; the only commemoration of the events came from the exit impacts that pierced the walls and windows. Secondly, I felt this display was exploiting the events. For some reason, I could imagine some patrons coming to view this location like a Hollywood movie set, it just seemed very grim. As I had time to process, I remembered that the wreckage from the World Trade Center is on display in many regions of New York. People also visit the sites of Pearl Harbor on a regular basis. What we call national landmarks, in United States, could equally be considered morbid. At the end of the day, even though the display of damage may be perceived as tasteless to me, personally, the management’s intention was carefully thought out. The destruction caused by a few, cannot destroy the semblance of what the restaurant represents to many. The rubble and debris are the equivalent of an aesthetic scar; the business carries on as usual.

 

Invest in the Human Soul

“It’s nice to see your smiling face,” says Manisha as I walk into the office of the Abhyudaya School. Prior to Manisha, I had never been told how nice it is to see my smiling face – sure I’ve had the usual “It’s nice to see you” or “I’m so happy you’re here,” but interactions like these always seem to lack a certain kind of sincerity. Manisha’s genuine happiness about seeing me smile was as refreshing as the air conditioning just starting to cool my overheated body, and only reinforced what I had been feeling all day: I was in the right place.

 

On Tuesday, we started the documentaries we will be working on during our final weeks in India. My group was paired with the Abhyudaya School, which provides underprivileged children with an education, and a chance at a better life. With education as their platform, the Abhyudaya School guides young boys and girls in a holistic journey of self-discovery and growth. Beginning in 7th standard, ages 11-15, Abhyudaya supports these boys and girls until the completion of their education, which means until the children decide they want to stop, even if that means supporting them through graduate school. The children that attend Abhyudaya are referred to as “sitaras,” which means star in hindi. These little stars are selected from the schools around the area, and then begin taking classes at Abhyudaya on the weekends, and are paired with a mentor. Abhyudaya is unique in that it is not a full time school. The sitars attend their regular government funded schools where they learn all the necessary subjects, and then on Saturday (after their regular school day is over), and Sunday they study supplemental subjects like english or drawing. Each sitara is paired with a mentor, who is a graduate student at S P Jain College of Management and Research. The mentors visit their mentees at least 24 times an academic school year where they work on building the sitara’s confidence, and helping him or her find their full potential.

 

I am amazed every day that I visit the school at the beauty, grace, and intellect of every sitara. I ma thankful to Abhyudaya for opening it’s doors to me, and allowing me to learn along with the sitaras.