Of the gladdest moments, methinks in human life, is the departing upon a distant journey into unknown lands…
-- Richard F. Burton

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28 October 2010

Indian Journalism

October 23, 2010
Indian journalism is really something. Although news and news-seeking behavior is intrinsically a part of what makes us interconnected humans, it wasn't until I came to India that I realized just how valuable news is for the common man. I’ll give three examples of my curiosity (AND EXPLORATION) into Indian media.
unrelated, but me post-interviewing some girls and their education-loan holder mother
1.     Asking the youth
            When I interviewed Indian youth for a small research project on youth participation in the political process, I included some questions on news-seeking behavior. My survey was answered by 16 masters students at the Maharashtran Institute of Technology’s School of Government (SOG), aka kids training to be politicians. For comparison, I distributed five identical questionnaires to young women (with an average age of 22) residing in the hostel I stay in. Although Indian youth aged 18-25, residing or studying in Pune defined the target population, the sample from SOG included students from 13 states in India, ranging in age from 20 to 34—with an average age of 25 and a median of 24 years old, with 6 girls and 10 boys. The women’s hostel sample contained 4 Maharashtrans and 1 girl from UP, ranging between 20 and 24 years of age.
            75  percent of the SOG students read the national political news everyday, with 2 students reading three times a week and 2 students reading once a week. 15 of 16 MIT students talk about politics at least twice a week, with 14/16 speaking to their friends, 7/16 with their parents, and 4/16 with professors. Indian youth are most comfortable with their friends when discussing politics and most hesitant to speak to their professors. Of those four who do speak to their professors, 75 percent were female. I found it interesting that the girls appeared confident in speaking to their educational superiors, while only 10 percent of the male students did. Comparatively, 3/5 of the hostel girls speak about politics twice a week with friends only, although one girl mentioned speaking with her parents but not as often as three times a week. Almost all of them read the paper 3 times a week. I wonder what the figures look like for American youth!
this temple is the central point of the slum I am working in--beautiful
2.     Touring the process of print-media
            It’s amazing how many newspapers you see on the street everyday—probably close to 15. In the morning, I read three English newspapers: The Times of India, The Indian Express (Pune Express), and DNA-Daily News and Analysis. EVERYONE is reading—the rickshawallas, the chaiwallas, and our professors. One of my friends was saying that her host parents ask her about specific articles in several papers. Unlike in the US, where I feel most of us (me included) stick to our comfort zone of media (the New York Times for me), Indians seek diversity in their news sources, reading several local and national papers.
            Last Friday night, Kara, Melissa, Sarah, Akta, and I met Mr. Mukun Sangoram, a resident editor at the Marathi version of the Indian Express-Loksatta. He gave us a brief history of journalism in India and explained the 3 rupee sticker price phenomenon. Basically, newspapers only cost a measly 3 rupees per paper (7 cents), meaning profits are totally dependant on advertisements. This opens up readership to even the lower-income people normally left in the dark, but also makes most reporters in the news industry vulnerable to sales. We also discussed how "no Indians get their news from the internet". TV, radio, and internet have hardly slowed the print industry.
            I loved listening to Mukun talk about the physical paper being a special object. First he praised its portability, “even to toilet!” since he couldn’t physically take his computer around with him (umm laptop?). However, I was able to agree that reading on a screen is a little less active that holding a book or paper. Reading a physical paper  “goes into our memory” better. The warm and receptive Mr. Sangoram asked us about newspapers in America resorting to fees and increased advertisements to stay afloat. He insisted internet competition was not a problem for India--at least not yet. Then we viewed the layout process for the first edition on the computer, which would be sent to Khandala by 10pm. We definitely entertained the editing staff by sounding out our Marathi. It was great to see a layout! We also got to go upstairs to meet with some of the young feature staff, even gaining some recommendations on good restaurants in Pune and things to do this weekend. One features writer was at the same lecture I’ll discuss in my third point. Small world!
            Before we left, we met Mr. Sangoram's boss and discussed a bit of Indo-Pak relations over creamy chai. It was fascinating to learn about journalistic exchange between the two countries---and how different readership is there. The papers are about 20 rupees and seem to be much more of an elite phenomenon than the paper outreach in India. PONDERING that one.
3.     Lecture Time
Seeing Mr. P Sanaith, one of the foremost Indian journalists speak about food security, farmer suicides, and poverty in India the other night enthralled, enraged, and even moved to tears at one point. This man really blew me away with his candor, use of statistics, sarcasm, and delivery. Speaking as the keynote for Parisar (an environmental action NGO based in Pune)’s annual lecture, Mr. Saniath is a pretty famous dude. He spends three-fourths of the year with village Indians, reporting extensively on agrarian crises he thinks are due to polices favoring globalization and private enterprise. He famously exposes the lack of sensitivity and efficiency by the government and broadcasts information on farmer suicides in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra.
But what did he say? Difficult to summarize, but I’ll try.
One of the first notable quotations:
Mr. Sainath quoted Alex Carey, a noted Australian activist:   “The twentieth century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting corporate power against democracy”.
 WHOA. Not sure if I agree entirely….
He started his speech with some stats. In a typical three-hour window in India:
  • 6 farmers would commit suicide.
  • 8 to 12 farmers would attempt suicide.
  • 274 farmers would quit agriculture.
  • 513 children will be malnourished – and more will suffer grade 3 and 4 of malnourishment.
  • 171 crores (about 3 million USD) of taxes for the rich will be written off – not counting any subsidy. (A total of 500 thousand crores per annum.)
Some 846 million of Indians subsist on less than half a dollar per day – on about Rs. 20 (.44 cents USD) per day.

Food Insecurity is not just in the rural areas, although he mentioned how families will rotate meals so that laborers for the day will be fed (and the next day, the next set of brothers or whomever will eat and work while the others stay home and starve). In fact, my new INTERNSHIP at PARVATI SWAYAMOGJAR is showing the condition of urban slums as I study the impact of a micro health insurance fund and micro loans on slum children’s educational attainment.  
What moved me to tearss was Sanaith’s section on hunger and kids. Having researched government corruption in the midday meals program, understanding hunger and educational inputs always sparks my interest. Even in non-rural Maharashtra, teachers will complain that they cannot teach before 1pm on Mondays.
Why? Because the children are so restless and hungry.
Why? Their last mid-day meal (free government incentive program) was on noon Friday. Many of them have starved for two days. Mothers will beg schools to stay open in the summer months, just so their children will eat.
Here I am, one hour before complaining about my $22 bike helmet that only I insisted on buying with my $3 used bicycle…or whining about how lots of the food is fried….yet my belly is full. I am totally capable of learning and concentrating in school, even if I don’t want to all the time. I can sleep comfortably, despite the hard mattress. I even have the energy and leisure time to exercise.
Rice and wheat prices are up 200 percent. It’s a phenomenon that people who produce food cannot eat it. 70% of farmers have to buy from the market.
Sanaith called hunger and thrist “crops”,  “ultimate revenue producers”, and “sources of profit.”
One of the biggest problems with food security and government policy is the encouragement of cash crops like cotton.  As Sanaith said, “you can’t eat vanilla”.
In 2008, there was one farmer suicide every 30 minutes. Hounded by moneylenders for the loans they cannot pay, unable to produce for their families, and massive cuts in subsidies lead them to this ghastly option.
Sanaith briefly talked about water…how can India have 54 water theme parks and a majority of people without clean water to drink? Why are they wasting 5 L of water to grow a single rose for Holland? Why does India yield four of the 10 wealthiest people in the world?
The moral questions were raised. How do we live with ourselves? How are we so desensitized to the poverty we see everyday? Myself and the crowd of intellectuals pondered in (for me, anyway) guilt-stricken silence.

I left feeling shameful. How did we let this happen? Sanaith stressed acting to resist privatization locally. He professed a lot of anti-capitalism rhetoric and encouraged us to “break the power of monopolies”! Somehow, I am not sure of the effectiveness of this strategy. Since liberalization, the days of swadeshi self-sufficiency are over. India is ridden with MNC and private businesses that won’t go away overnight.
I’ve racked my brain. Any thoughts?

20 October 2010

Good vibes

October 20, 2010

a common site on my morning walks...the political ads!
Okay, I don't have too much time to write a long post, but I just wanted to say it's been a great couple of days.
Good things:
  • celebrating dusserha despite my 17 page research proposal keeping me inside for most of the weekend
  • getting poured on 5 minutes into a run and being "that crazy white girl" who continues despite monsoon rains, foggy glasses, and lake-like puddles
  • I am borrowing a bicycle for the rest of the semester and can get it tomorrow
  • sponge. street. dosas. 18 rupees. 100% butter. 100% fabulous.
  • a friendly conversation with the railway ticket window man who said I reminded him of his daughter and that I was welcome to come and chat with him anytime.
  • being able to read a hindi children's book. slowly, but surely.
  • spending time with Aditi, my wonderful Indian buddy and having butterscotch softys(ice cream!)
  • having the little girls in my neighborhood greet me with hugs
  • hot chapatis
  • not getting lost all the time
  • noticing the curious smiles more than the stares
  • choosing happiness. deciding to roll with it. transcending negativity!
  • starting my internship/research project on the effects of a  micro health insurance scheme on slum educational attitudes and attendence
  • one week until my epic travel North for Diwali to Delhi, Agra, Amritsar, Chandigarh, and Jaipur!
  • reading some fiction: Amitav Ghosh is great!
Dandiya in the streets
Though it's been full of ups and downs, I am starting to appreciate more and look past the challenges of each day in India. It is nice to be surprised everyday.

17 October 2010

Long-awaited thoughts on the Mumbai visit

Sarah and I with our family for Sat and Sun of Mumbai, Ambika and Bharat, inside Bharat's lovely flat
October 15, 2010
This entry is rather dated, considering I traveled to Mumbai all the way back on the 6th, but I must document at least the educational part. In a sense, my mind was blown. Mumbai is crazy. Is this development? If walking is faster than sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic for only a few km, is that efficiency? A city that is becoming increasingly gentrified, full of high rises, and debates over the key commodity--space, Mumbai boasts a population of about 180 million people. The entire population of India is about 1.2 billion, so the former Bombay makes up quite a chunk.

Our intense three-days of a crash course in Mumbai today started with the 7am train. I love riding trains. Especially when the program pays for an A/C Deccan Queen with luxurious leather seats that probably haven't changed since Gandhi rode them. The one bad thing: the egg omelet I got was the greasiest concoction I have EVER eaten! In fact, I couldn't finish it, which is very unlike my usual "no leftovers!" mantra. Luckily I had stashed my last :( granola bar from America and a banana in my bag for sustanance.
nasty white bread, nastier oil-filled omelet (this is post 3 napkin blots)

Myspace, I know....but it was so pretty!
Plus, it doesn't really matter---this is India and all we do is eat. I was pumped to be on the Alliance's dime for three days and to have the opportunity to mix up my same-thing-every-night-hostel-mess-hall dinner. My friends have been making me jealous with their host family decadent and varied meals!

We dined at the YWCA International Centre, also our home for the next two nights. The balcony view of the Big-Ben esque clock tower and the Prince of Wales Museum were my first glances into Mumbai's British architecture. Also, the mattress was plush, my pillow was Western (not a sack of flour), and the bathroom had a heated shower, a western toilet, and toilet paper. Hot dog! (that also happens to be a favorite cat call by Indian teenage boys as I run).
St. Xaviers was so beautiful
Next we went to St. Xavier's Centre for Visually Challenged at St. Xavier's College. After performing some interesting blind-folded tasks that forced teamwork to identify numbers of braille dots, identify a spice (ours was actually tea), we discussed what it felt like to "see" without eyes.

The Center was started by a blind Sociology Professor and they serve many students and community members with braille computers, printers, and other kinds of new technology. St. Xaviers is an absolutely gorgeous campus, and I felt right at home seeing all the S.J. insigna on the Professor doors!

love the Jesuits!
After that, I was nerdily-pumped for the lecture "The Socio-economic Scenario in Dharavi and Challenges Ahead" by Matias Echanove, Contrary to popular portrayal in the representation of Dharavi as dangerous, dirty, and "a backward locality, an urban parasite presenting Mumbai from becoming 'a world class city'", it actually is a major trading hub that exports goods all over India. Matias's presentation really shook me up. .5-1  million people are living in 2 square mile zone. He explained how development happens for commercial reasons (duh--short term investment and high returns are usually the first priority).

The numbers kind of freak me out: India’s urban population increased by 31.2% between 1991 and 2001—nearly double the increase of 17.9% in rural population over the same period. The urban population is expected to reach 660 million by 2025.

Sugarcane juice! MMMM
Twenty-three urban centers have more than a million inhabitants, and 30% to 40% of urban dwellers are estimated to live in poverty. Bombay's growth has meant a high demand for space, making for-rich-only real estate priced as high as Manhattan property---and little housing available for the poor.

Dharavi people were angry to be called "dogs" in the representation of the slum in the blockbuster "Slumdog Millionaire". I never really thought of it as offensive until thinking about it. Imagine someone taking the worst attributes of your home, exaggerating them, and showing footage to the world!

The government has decided to attempt to widen the streets and "redevelop" Dharavi, a plan 80 percent of the residents vehemently oppose. As Matias said, "it's hard for the government to visualize Dharavi not backwards". Massive concrete re-settlements will not serve the people. Dharavi citizens are artistans, requiring space for their work (lots of pottery) to dry. One citizen said in October 2008 "Families who are given a flat are soon selling and leaving. They need money because they cannot continue with their livelihoods in these buildings. People living in these high rises don't know their neighbors anymore. This street activity will be gone. Where will my people go now? They say it is development, but it is just the opposite".

He showed us comparative images of Tokyo's development next to Dharavi. Between the narrow paths, scooters, and obvious economic production, the only way to tell them apart was the ethnicity of the people! Comparisons in terms of architecture were also made to Florence!

After delicious dinner, we headed out! For the first time, I did NOT have a 9:30 curfew. Although we passed many Indian girls who laughed at us in our garb, I knew I felt more comfy in my roomy salwars than they did in their mini-skirts (never in Pune!) and heels. Stumbling upon 'Ladies Night' at Red Saloon, we got free shots all night and danced to Shakira remixes. We even celebrated a Bombayite's 22nd birthday with him...and he promised that Bombay would be the "best five days" of our lives.

The next morning, I woke up early to run on the glorious Bombay waterfront. I wasn't stared at. I wasn't acknowledged or photographed. It FELT great. Many Indians were outside doing yoga and walking--and I spotted 1 female Indian runner. Yay Bombay!

We then attended a stimulating lecture by Neera Adarkar entitled "Mumbai: Mills to Malls". As an architect and urban researcher, Ms. Adarkar presented the history of the Girangaon mill area that once produced an incredible amount of material, especially after Independence. Mill workers have struggled not just over wages, but were key players in the independence movement, linguistic movements, and the current post-urbanization struggle.Many of the mills have been closed as land becomes more important for real estate than production. In fact, from June 09-June 2010, there was a 473% increase in value of the mill lands. Adarkar reiterated some of what Matias said--especially that the international developers do not understand the way Dharavi people live. She said the gentrification of Dharavi is inevitable if the government continues to "re-develop" it as it did with the mill lands. The original re-development have 1/3 of mill lands to the mill owner, 1/3 for public housing, and 1/3 for open space which would be 600 total acres "available to the city".
a potter in Dharavi

However, the mill owners fought agianst this agreement, using their power to reduce the public housing share from 33% to 8%, with 86% of the settlement going to the mill owners as of 2001. Just a few weeks ago on Gandhi's birthday (October 2nd), 20,000 workers gathered to demand more than for their housing. Adakar said the only reason they get any land at all is that the mill workers constitute a major vote bank. Dharavi citizens might not hold as much clout. Most of the aim in the eyes of the government is to make Mumbai a world-class city without slums, that represents corporate and financial India. But as the ex-mill workers struggle as fruit sellers and taxi drivers, one wonders if this is just. I thought of gentrification in D.C....how often can we live "life in a bubble" and forget the imperfections outside the ritzy Georgetown gates?

Stirred up, we headed to Manibhavan, the Gujarati-style house where Mahatma Gandhi lived from 1917 to 1934! It is now a museum that preserves his spirit...photos to follow....
all of the currency printed with Gandhiji--LOTS
Gandhi's Room--note the chakra for spinning

After lunch, we took off for the much anticipated visit to Dharavi, to see Kumbhar Wada and a recycling plant. OMG Mumbai is so hot. sitting on the non-AC bus for 2 hours was absolute torture. Soaked and dehydrated, we tried to keep our eyes open during a welcome lecture from a Dharavi leader inside a community center.

How can this be an "informal settlement"? I thought. Walking through Dharavi is just like walking through another part of urban India. Somehow, despite the chaos, a system of organization and community permeates the air. His words struck me: "We are developed. The government doesn't want human development; they want land development. They want to push us out. But the high prices they give for our housing are often too hard to resist".

He told us about the community: cohabitation of Muslims and Hindus, families producing with their small businesses, etc. Schooling was mentioned; about 5000 students require more supplies and teachers but the government has failed to deliver formal education. Without formal exams, he thinks the schools are illegitimate: A boy in the 6th standard cannot even write his name.

 Dharavi has an extensive recycling system and has an impressive plastic and metal breakdown system. It was so neat to walk through all of the organized systems and see how efficient the community works as a cohesive unit. Informal, my butt!

Friday, our last formal program day, started with Dhobi Ghat. Near Mahalaxi Railway station, Dhobi Ghat is where Mumbai's tradtional washer folk, dhobis, collect dirty laundry, wash it in mass, and press it for a very small fee. This is their livelihood. What a system!

Check out Melissa and her kababs! I assist with chutney display
Next we visited High Court. No pictures allowed here! It felt like Hogwarts, complete with the judges robes. We even got to sit in on some cases and watched Indians do what they do best, according to Sen: argue. Although I have not really experienced too much US court for comparison, Indian court was full of technical rhetoric and spirited hand gestures. I am curious about the judicial system but haven't done too much reading. I do know that life in prison doesn't happen here--though there is a death penalty.

Then we had an EPIC lunch. I mean--HUGE. Shiv Sagar is a famous chain known for its great Indian food, and the brownie sizzler!

Stuffed beyond belief, we headed to our last lecture of the day. I was SO pumped for this one. At the Indian Express, a liberal newspaper, we sat in the boardroom with the renowned journalist and economist Kumar Ketkar. He was a dynamic speaker and had so many interesting thoughts on my prompting about Obama's upcoming visit. Mr. Ketkar, who has lots of international experience and has covered 6 US Presidential elections, was only a few feet from me on Election night outside the White House and remembers the rain and honking. We discussed 26/11 and 9/11, Pakistan as Clinton has said "the epicenter of terrorism", the Indian mafia, food security and farmer suicides, and so much more. One of the most interesting topics was actually Hurricane Katrina in the US. Along with the economic recession, most Indians apparently never thought the US could mess up as badly as it did with the poor treatment of its own citizens. Katrina opened a lot of eyes to poverty in the US to Americans and Indians alike! Still swimming with thoughts and questions, we left the Express's luxurious high rise and headed back to the YWCA.
note Sarah photographing the bathroom at Mahindra Towers

Some headed back to Pune, but like others, Sarah and I decided to capitalize on our time in Mumbai and stayed Saturday and Sunday. We lived like goddesses under the care of Udayan's grandmother, Ambika and family friend, Bharat. Their warmth and kindness overwhelmed me. We stayed in Bharat's company penthouse, the Mahindra corporation, and even had two caretaker/servants fluff our incredible pillows, make fabulous breakfast, and [I'm absolutely serious] dry our toothbrushes. Quite a change from the cockroach friendly hostel and iron mattress I'm used to! Ambika and Bharat took us for an enormous dinner at Indian Summer, a restaurant even I, the food gawker, felt awkward taking pictures in! However, as you can see to your life, I managed a sniper shot of Shankar and Arjun, our caretakers, when Sarah and I were climbing on the balcony.

Saturday, Ambika's knowledgeable neighbor Freny took Sarah and I on a ferryboat from the Gateway of India to Elephanta Island to check out one of my favorite things: caves! Freny told us all about the history of Bombay on the hour ride. She has quite the knack for story-telling and I was absolutely enthralled. At Elephanta, I learned more about Hinduism in two hours than I knew about Christianity or Judaism in my 20 years of life. She spent about 25 minutes at each panal, explaining the symbolism in each of the old OLD carvings of Shiva, Parvati, and other Hindu gods and godesses. It is too much to recount here, but WOW. I learned. Also picked up some great life lesson one-liners about making our own meaning, karma, etc.

That evening we went to Bharat's SWANK apartment. It was the best night I've had in India. Between his delicious tasting of Bael (THE BEST THING EVER), Gujarati sweets, and corn soup, watching his daughter (about 28)'s wedding video, and looking at baby pictures of Udayan, I felt at home. It also made me miss home. Seeing how Bharat spoke about his daughter who lives in America made me question my own ability to do this to my dad, if my plan of an international career works out. Phew. Anyway, I really felt the love and it was so comforting.

That morning, Sarah and I awoke pretty early to see the Haij Ali Mosque, an incredible center of worship in the middle of the bay. One has to heed the tides to walk out to the jetty, because the path is surmerged if you time it wrong! It was amazing to see so many people celebrating God together. The kind of peace I feel at places of religious worship is just that: peace. Shanti, shanti, shanti.
the most ridiculous dosa ever. SO GOOD. Note the drained pineapple juice and coconut water to the left.

After a delicious breakfast at the straight-out-of-a-New-England-yacht-club Bombay Gymkhana with Bharat and Ambika, it was time to say farewell to the big city. Bharat's driver brought us to the bus station, and we were off home to Pune. I felt sad to leave Mumbai and the familial bonds I felt to these incredibly warm people. We loved it so much that we've resolved to spend our last days in India there. Bharat is even going to store our luggage while we traipse off to Kerala in December!

I feel so lucky!

12 October 2010

Development in India

Because I am lazy/am still processing from Mumbai, I decided to post a link to another blog I wrote. I am a 2010-2011 Berkley Center for Peace, Religion, and World Affairs fellow, blogging on religion and culture while abroad. Here is the link to my letter about urban development in India, following a visit to Magarpatta City with my political economy class.

I will intermix some of the text from the letter with some photos to add effect. I also encourage you to check out the website and read some of the great material from my fellow fellows all over the world!

October 5, 2010

The Future of Development?

What is an Indian environment? Is it the vast rice paddies smattering with collective labor? Is it an ashram overflowing with hippies finding inner peace in the style of Gandhiji? Is it the decrypted urban slum rote with distended bellies of malnutrition? Or is it mountains deep in the Himalayas surrounded by snow and greenery?

Try 20 minutes away from central Pune, a bustling metropolis of the 7th largest city in India where I am spending my semester abroad. 

Magarpatta City is a modern township on the outskirts of Pune consisting of a mini golf course, an artificial lake, multistoried residential apartments, and a flourishing IT park. It promises 32,000 trees and a “new way of life for the networked society of the new millennium.” How is this neatly planned, creepily spotless, zero-crime, zero-poverty place real—and in India?

Being a development enthusiast in India can be a little overwhelming. After reading philosopher Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom sophomore year, I began to judge every development scheme from water management to education equity in terms of how much agency local people were given. As far as Magarpatta City goes, many domestic and international developers consider it a model of future communities in developing countries. My Political Economy Professor announced a field visit to Magarpatta City to give us a lens into modern development as we finish discussing theories in light of India’s explosive growth. I was excited to see this “different kind of development” marketed as an alternative to the coercive land acquisition and exclusive development projects happening all India.

Hailed as an “innovative township,” Margapatta City is the result of 123 farm families pooling 400 acres of ancestral farmland and setting up a private company that developed a commercial-cum-residential project. To oppose the Pune administrators seeking to convert their agricultural village into an urban zone, the farmers decided to embrace urbanization on their own terms. Now the same farmers own shares in the company proportionate to the value of their land, earn dividends on the shares they hold, rent from tenants and make more money from contractual work for the company.
By holding principles of environment control, good living standards, modern education, and total security, Margapatta City’s 7000 citizens adapted the San-Jose walk-to-work and walk-to-school model. Only here can one “enjoy an environment which vibrates with positive energy to live [his] life better.”
This commercial complex is coyly named "the Pentagon"

Margapatta City feels like a cross between an extremely sterile section of Manhattan’s financial district and a desolate army base. Because it is meters away from the hopelessly chaotic squalor of Pune, the glossy uniform IT and apartment buildings of Margapatta are appealing, yet seem Pleasantville-perfect. The foreign look and promise of “a fresh way of life” provide respite from the dust, potholes, noise, and broken roads of urban India. The development of the city emphasizes a growing popularity towards Western convince living and desires for security, leisure, and transportation. 

When I asked the marketing executive of the company where the religious centers were on the impressive model of Magarpatta City in the glass case, he shook his head. “We celebrate all services at the ‘Cultural Center’ here.” My mouth flew open. One cannot walk more than 100 meters without running into a place of worship or an idol in Pune. Religious holidays occur frequently; literally everyday involves some kind of worship, even if it is morning sun salutations. The marketing executive went on to explain that the community celebrates Christmas just as they celebrate Diwali. Though impressed with the religious inclusiveness, I still felt like the ‘cultural center’ was another substitute for Indian tradition. Just like the fake pond, the promise of a city where “religions and cultures melt and become one” left me with uneasiness.
Religious ornaments are common in most Pune home

Besides homogenizing Indian culture, Margapatta City doesn’t really constitute development in my opinion. That original group of farmers is surely pleased with its amplified income, but switching from farming to capitalism was not a systemic change. If one has to make an average income of 70,000 Rupees a month to afford an apartment here, the rising tide is not lifting all boats.

How do you build community in a place like this where traditional Indian values of family and shared space seem distant? I wonder if the 11pm-7am quiet hours and 24-hour security feel restrictive. Discussing our class visit afterwards yielded words like “bubble,” “safe haven,” and “dystopia.” Our professor couldn’t figure out why a bunch of Americans felt so uneasy in a place she perceived as our normal surroundings. Stepping out of myself for a moment, I looked back at my rural upbringing. Though not technically the suburbs, Durham, CT is a pretty isolated and isolating place. It was clean, safe, and comfortable. Feeling hypocritical for my criticism,
My home--a horse pasture!
I racked my brain for why Margapatta City felt unsettling. I guess it is the slogan that unsettles me: “the pride of Pune.” Though I’ve only been here two months, the pride of Pune is not an IT park you can reside in. Pune is an incredible, buzzing melting pot of international intellectuals, faiths, socioeconomic classes, and cultural diversity.

Magarpatta’s CCTV cameras, guard checks, strong gates, and security teams may produce a 0% crime rate, but these measures also close Magarpatta to the rest of Pune. The isolation is reminiscent of Washington D.C.’s gentrification pushing out vulnerable populations into other communities. What will happen to the children growing up here, perhaps not even knowing the yes, suffering and yes, incredible diversity just meters away? Will they awaken to the real world or remain trapped in Plato’s cave? Perhaps that is a little overly dramatic, but after falling in love with all of India, including its grime amidst beauty, Magarpatta felt like a mono-culture…and thus un-Indian. 

I'd love to hear your comments.

We also ate lunch on our professor--meaning we got apple/mango sundaes :D

04 October 2010

A moment of resourcefulness

Pouring rain. Rickshawallas don't want to go all the way to Dattawadi without tacking on a 100 extra rupees to a 32 rupee ride. After sloshing through puddles and getting turned down by every rickshaw, I approached a traffic cop. I explained how the rickshawallas were attempting to cheat me. He immediately pulled over a rickshaw with his whistle, told the rickshaw it should be 30 rupees no matter what, and wrote down the rickshaw number. I was home and dry in no time. I felt proud for finally being resourceful! Yay!

02 October 2010


October 1st, 2010 --REALLY OCTOBER ALREADY? 1.5 months down, 2.5 to go! 
Georgetown with Jesus in Goa!
So about that Goa post that was meant to happen last week. Upon my 5:45 AM arrival from Goa's fabulous overnight semi-sleeper bus, I immediately got crackin'. This week was a bit of academic hell, providing me with a much-needed wake-up call that a) I am a student and b) I need to amp up my commitment to Hindi and c) I might be having too much fun. Although I managed to surface after a paper, a research project, a presentation, a written exam, and the hardest language test I have ever endured, this week wiped me out! Mushkil, the title of this entry, translates directly to "difficult" in Hindi.
Watermelon juice makes everything better

I almost decided to end this blog. It is terribly easy to get behind with reporting my experiences in India since something happens every moment that is worth reflecting on. I am starting to look at more "big picture" themes as I briskly walk to my 6:30 Pranayam (also spelled Pranayama) breathing  practice, read Hindi signs, watch the unpacking of milk bags and the stray dogs getting frisky, enjoy fresh watermelon juice whenever I'm willing to splurge $1.60, laugh with my great ex-pats, chuckle at my text forward messages from Indian friends, feel the tug of the 800th beggar kid, watch the thousandth click of a cell-phone camera by some creepy guy, struggle with my Hindi prof's high expectations, try and find some peace with some traffic dodging runs, and consume TONS of carbo-happy food with my fingers. I have no daily routine and am learning to live without expectations.  

Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.
-- Lawrence Durrell

garlic mussels
I definitely feel a test of inner strength and am challenged in ways other than I anticipated. I am philosophizing a bit, but the life lessons kind of hit me like a TATA Goods carrier. For every light moment, there is a heavy one. Attitude matters. One chooses to be happy. Sometimes a smile really can make someone's day.

Despite the giggling girls in the neighborhood wanting to touch my hand, the warmness of Sarah's host parents' decadent banana cake with extra homemade ghee, and the calm stillness I feel watching Swapna play her violin, this is a world swarmed with difficult sights. Children whipping themselves for money, a bloody dog suffering a bizarre traffic-induced death, tears of a host mother missing her ambitious U.S. bound children caught up in India's brain drain, and youth frustrated with their unrepresentative democracy calling for dictator-led development.

Wretchedness amongst serenity. Cruelty next to kindness. Such richness I can't contextualize in this forum.

St Augustine Tower
We learn such fascinating things everyday. A guest lecturer explained the practice of Vipassna, a kind of meditation originating in India and then spread to Burma and the rest of Southeast Asia. At Tilar jail in New Delhi, 9000 of the 10,000 inmates await their verdict. Even though the poor conditions can make an inmate a literal prisoner of his own fear, anger, and desire, India began testing vipassna workshops in prisons in 1993. I was moved by this vision of an Ashram prison that has turned "criminal killers into saints". Even I find these concepts a bit hokey, but realizing the power of the mind through my own meditation makes me believe there might be something useful here. Apparently US prisons have tried vipassna workshops as well-10 days of silent meditation.

My public health professor is very active in rural reproductive health and tells the most enthralling stories. Even in this modern day, his daughter had to show her wedding night sheets to her in-laws to prove her virginity. Talking to college kids about "safe sex" means they nod enthusiastically perhaps without ever having seen a condom. Oh the stories...more to be continued.

St. Xavier Cathedral
I should share a little bit about Goa.

It's beautiful. It's warm and tropical. The Arabian sea is very salty. Vendors are ruthless and persistent to the point of annoyance. Kingfisher is a great beer. The port wine is strong and fabulous with buttered garlic crabs. The Portuguese influence is uncanny--Catholics everywhere, "Jesus Knows" bumper stickers, nuns amongst bikini clad foreigners, Indians with names like Servio Fernandez (our favorite waiter).

We stayed for cheap cheap right next to Baga Beach, renting some two wheelers for exploring the low-season tourist atmosphere of North Goa. Goa was a microcosm of everything I love and hate about India. INCREDIBLE seafood, great weather and architecture balanced the harassment and creepiness of the cameras and cat-calls. I got pretty uncomfortable pretty fast. Granted, we were wearing much less clothing and it was very western, but so was everyone else! I felt good to go back to my head scarves and salwar kameze back in Pune city. Overall though, it was a fantastic, inexpensive paradise with a GREAT group of conversational, witty friends. The pictures speak better than my words...
This waiter was so great we came back for breakfast!
I'm using this weekend to catch up on work, put in some miles, and prep for our field slum development visit Wednesday-Friday in Mumbai. The line-up looks great. Sarah and I are staying Saturday and Sunday with Udayan (our friend from Georgetown)'s grandmother to do some sight-seeing and non-academic activities.

I think I'm hitting the point of culture shock I was so warned about--homesickness! I have many other things (like a project on youth political participation) and Bollywood films and trekking to entertain me.

It may be a few days until you get another post from me. Until then, namaste. And Happy Birthday Bapu. It's Gandhi's birthday today and liquor and meat are not sold, nor consumed in his honor.