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

 

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The DOGumentary

In the past couple of days, we’ve been working on filming a mini documentary about the stray dogs in Mumbai in order to help an NGO called “The Welfare of Stray Dogs”. Stray dogs in Mumbai are copious, and you can see them roaming the streets everywhere you look. A lot of documentaries that look at India seem to focus on it’s poverty, which composes about 11.8% of people living below the poverty line, so I think that, what we are doing, will be an important contribution to shedding light into other issues in India, specifically doggie issues. So far, it’s been an amazing and exhausting experience. We’ve gotten to explore so much of Mumbai by just walking around and looking for good things to shoot (with a camera).

Yesterday, I got pooped on by a flock of pigeons, which I interpreted as a good omen so I’m pretty happy about it.

Today, we went to Versova Village, a fishing village by the coast that was, surprisingly, very beautiful and engaging, even with all the trash and questionable smells.

I’m looking forward to seeing much more of Mumbai and understanding how WSD helps the stray dogs of Mumbai.

Dog in Versova

Dog in Versova

The Things That Make It All Worth While

Last semester, I took a course titled “The Human Predicament” where we studied and reflected on the nuances of the human condition. Form this course, there is one particular idea by Albert Camus that really stuck with me: “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” Even though it may seem like a bleak ideal, it is actually one that invites us to embrace and accept the hardships and wonders of life, for, if you find that life is not worth living, then there is only one way out, but if you deem that life is full of wondrous opportunities, then it is up to you to make the best of it, brood or change, and accept. After this last weekend in Mumbai, I am reminded of the events that make life, at least my life, worth living.

Shooting our Bollywood song on Friday night was completely magical. Exhausting? Heck yeah! But it was only that exhaustion that slowly creeps up on you after coming out from a state of flow, a state in which one is so completely immersed and absorbed in what they are doing that there is a suspension of self-awareness and an altered perception of time. I loved it, and I enjoyed every single minute of it.

After this wonderful experience, our weekend was still not over yet. The next day, after a full twelve hours of sleep, we visited BlueFrog to experience a comedy show (my first one ever!) and it was HILARIOUS! I was very impressed by the comedians’ ability to engage all types of audiences, even when talking about very Indian things. Varun Thakur was especially funny because of his ability to land a solid punch line, even when delivered in Hindi. I think that comedy is one of the most reflective arts of our society, so watching an Indian comedy show gave me great insights into the nuances of Indian culture; their celebrations and their struggles.

On Sunday, we visited Juhu Beach and Bandra. There we shopped, ate delicious food, stopped by Shahrukh Khan’s ginormous house, where a multitude of his fans waited anxiously to see a glimpse of him, and lastly we stumbled upon a Marati wedding procession!

If I could describe this weekend in one word: MAGICAL! Totally and completely magical, and full of those little things that truly make it all worth while.

– Vero

Varun Thakur, Comedian and actor

Varun Thakur, Comedian and actor

“Yeah, but how spicy is it?”

It’s not that I didn’t want to be adventurous with my culinary activities, but a crippling gastritis had left me unable to enjoy some, if not most, Indian delicacies. We were visiting an extremely local vegetarian restaurant, there wasn’t a tourist in sight, and while we were definitely enjoying the true Mumbai feeling of the restaurant, the names of the food on the menu left us scratching our heads: “What is this? Is it good? Is it too spicy?” This is were Mark and Priya came to save the day, ordering for us the most delicious, filling and not-spicy food ever made. We started by having some Sav Puri, which tasted something like ripe plantains (the food of my people!) and we followed that with Palak Paneer. (YUM!)

For my first 48 hours in Mumbai, the food here has been DE LI CIOUS, I’m happy to inform. Little by little, we have been adapting to other cultural changes as well in this side of the globe. Amongst us, we are hearing less and less complaints about the heat, and we’ve started to learn how to cross the busy streets without getting trampled by traffic. Today, we started our day with yoga, which made me feel so relaxed and calm that I could even describe myself as feeling like water. This reminded me of the very famous Bruce Lee quote:

“Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, and let it grow, be like water. Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend”

Now, it is not my intention to shift countries or talk about martial arts, but when going on a trip like this, I feel like our mantra should be: Adjust and adapt; be like water. Our Western ideologies sometimes trap us into one mindset — one particular discourse or narrative. We, as film makers and storytellers, must be willing to explore the different stories that can be told, and the different view points that each culture provides. This is what I think this trip will provide for many of us.

-Vero

Finally…

We’re finally in India.

It seemed like it would never happen, like all the hard work and preparation for this trip would be for nothing. That’s the type of feeling you get when you’re running through the airport, knocking people over with your luggage. “I’m sorry, thank you, I’m sorry, my flight is leaving!” I must have said that phrase around thirty times before I actually got to the gate, and found that everyone was still waiting for the plane.

“You do realize how late you are.” Said the catty supervisor at the check-in desk, smacking his lips and raising his eyebrows, after he finally agreed to let me check in for the flight.
“Yes sir, never in my life have I done this, but my train was delayed, I’m sorry.” It seems like I’m always apologizing. What am I apologizing for? Was it my fault that the police decided to hijack the train’s railways for God knows what reason? No, but still, I was grateful that I would make my flight, so I was not disturbed by his tone or his attitude. In that moment, he had been sent by God himself.

When I finally got on the plane, I was surrounded by the friends that would accompany me on this trip, all gleaming with excitement, but me, I was holding back tears. It had been a very stressful day, and I had not had the time to even consider that I was going on a trip that would take me to the other side of the world. It was also a sad day, when my boyfriend sent me off at the train station and we kept coming back to each other for one more kiss. I won’t see him for three months, even though I’ve been basically living with him for a while now. I’ve grown so accustomed to having my partner always by my side that it will be difficult to get used to being by myself again.
I’ll miss the lake-side fishing at his house, the loving dogs, and the wonderful air of the country side.

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I’ll miss you, babe, but I’ll get you something nice in India.

I’m ready to experience everything.

Veronica Ortiz