A little long. Experiences and reflections of the past few days

Thursday, January 28, 2016

I have seen the monkeys and they want my orange

Today is my two-week anniversary in India. Ten weeks exactly to go. I hardly know how I will get everything done. I am in academic paradise, working 10-12 hours a day on the computer, on the internet, in the library and meeting people for interviews. Have not done much observation yet but it is coming. I have found some wonderful contacts or, as we say in my work jargon, key informants.

I usually only eat only two meals a day and then have fruit for the third meal. The food is (mostly) delicious and there is a lot of it. [Not sure what the yellow thing in the little bowl was yesterday morning, but it did not appeal to me.] I bought some fruit last night from the stand just outside the campus gate and planned to eat it for breakfast this morning. My roommate was sleeping in so I got dressed and headed to the canteen for a cup of chai to enjoy with my orange and a banana. And the monkeys swarmed toward me and the big one was right next to me and he was baring his teeth and the students in the canteen yelled, mostly in Hindi but I all of a sudden understood, “Put the orange away!”

Have I told you that India is full of homeless dogs? You rescue-hearted folks out there would go crazy. Dogs everywhere. All medium size, except the puppies, different colors and not aggressive. But they bark—some of them all night. According to my friend, Chandra, “dogs on campus” is the most controversial student issue. Until this morning, I was with the anti-this-many dogs camp, but my orange and maybe my knapsack were saved by a cute brown shaggy-haired pooch who went after that big monkey. The dogs have a job to do and I can use earplugs.

After breakfast and my monkey learning experience, I headed to Colaba, the most southern part of Mumbai (a long and narrow peninsular reaching to the Lakshadweep Sea), to meet with Vrishali Pispati and Devika Mahadevan of Mumbai Mobile Creches. Vrishali is the Director and Devika is a Board member and a friend of my friend, Julie Smith-Bartoloni. Julie made the introduction. Vrishali and Devika told me of the founding of the Mobile Creches movement in India in 1969 and how it has evolved to provide day care and education services to the children of construction workers who are living on the construction sites. I had a basic knowledge of the movement and its organizations but they added a great deal more. They have introduced me to the directors of the mobile crèches in Delhi and Pune who I hope to visit. Vrishali is setting up an opportunity for me to visit some sites, with a translator, and speak to some of the women workers. For those interested in more details, see the page My Field Notes on the blog. My deepest thanks to Vrishali, Devika and Julie for this entry into the lives of India’s women construction workers.

I took the train down to Colaba at 9 am. It was an indescribable experience so I will use a picture from the internet to illustrate.maxresdefault

I would be the one on the far left inside the train if I had had a long enough selfie stick.

I presented my research to a Women’s Studies class this evening. I think it went fine, but I am deeply immersed and passionate about this subject and it is difficult to distill it into 40 minutes for an audience that is has no previous knowledge. And the students were shy. All the same, I learned things from the questions and discussion and I appreciated the opportunity to do a first draft of a presentation that I will do again here.

Friday, January 29, 2016

I spent all day finishing my Friday night presentation, “The Peculiar History of the Labor Movement in the United States.” I was asked to present on the political economy and labor movement to a school-wide seminar for the School of Development Studies. Although their conversation was all in Hindi, I knew that the organizers, Bindu and Meena, were very nervous about the turnout. I could have understood that in any language and I told them I have been in their shoes many times and don’t worry. I have invited guests to UMass Boston from very far away and had 5 people show up. It is an academic hazard. But I had a great turnout of over twenty students and faculty, almost all women. They loved the presentations and I loved the discussion. I have been asked to do it again in a couple of weeks when I return from Delhi.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

On my way to Delhi for 9 days. I just got used to Mumbai. Marashtra from the air looks a bit like Ohio in September. Small farms and dry, but no hills.

A little time to reflect in the airport and on the flight

The pollution has been quite bearable in the two weeks I have been here. It is reported everyday in the paper and the TISS campus is a little enclave largely without vehicles. However, on Thursday the Deonar dump caught fire. It is only a couple of miles from the campus. This morning the campus was in a smoky haze and I had to cover my mouth with my scarf as I walked down the road to get a cab. I passed a few “autos” (3 wheeled auto rickshaws) on my way intending to take a 4-wheeled cab, but an auto driver pulled up beside me. I said nei, nei, Mumbai airport, and he nodded yes. I said it again, Mumbai airport and he nodded yes. So I got in. I had plenty of time and the traffic is so bad that the cabs can’t go much faster except on the highways. I thought we would stay off the highways but I was wrong and twice we were in the left hand lane on a flyover. I got here fine and it cost Rs 300 instead of 500. (That is 50 cents instead of 75 cents for a 40-minute ride).

Sounds and smells of Mumbai

Mumbai does not smell. Some places in Mumbai smell. One day this week, something reeked all of a sudden and then I passed a 4-foot high pile of garbage that had been gathered for pick up sometime soon. The Deonar fire smells when the wind is blowing to campus—smells like a fire, not like a dump. There are smelly places but they are occasional and situated and then you walk or ride past them and Mumbai smells like any city—a mashup of people, animals and vehicles. Mumbai adds more animals to the mix than I was used to. In the auto on the way to the airport this morning, I momentarily admired the beautiful brown coat on a dog beside the road, but it was a goat. The other night, an auto I was in had to slow down for a donkey.

There is an unbelievable amount of trash. It is as if it comes up from the earth like the rocks in New England soil. Like the New England farmers, the people are constantly managing the trash, cleaning it out, piling it up, sweeping the streets, trying to stay ahead of it. But, for now, the trash is winning against a people who clean all day long, from bathing with buckets in the morning, to washing laundry by the side of the road and hanging it on balconies and fences each day. The women in sarees and orange safety vests sweep the roads and highways all day. The people clean their bodies, their homes and their bastis day in and day out, but the trash wins.

Women can do anything in sarees, including riding sidesaddle on the backs of motorbikes and taking a brisk morning walk in bright red sneakers.

Bidets are everywhere in private and public bathrooms. I love it and want one.

Perspective is fluid. A line of shacks two weeks ago is a thriving commercial area today and I am looking for the fruit vendor.

Mumbai is loud. First the horns. They beep incessantly. It is the weirdest thing about this town and the thing that can most get under my skin if I do not let it go. Also people talk loud but that may be so they can be heard over the horns. The cawing of crows is constant. But the sounds can be musical. For a week or more, I could not make out the source of the harmonic hum that I hear every night from my room. Was it a distant religious ritual or a concert? It is the traffic and the horns on the road a half-mile away merging into a rhythmic cacophony. It puts me to sleep now and the call to prayers from the mosque on the other side of the Deonar Farm Road wakes me in the morning.

Be aware that the line you are standing in may just be a family stopping to catch up or make plans. Look around each group to see if the passage resumes on the other side.

The one thing I wish I had brought is Visine. I never use it at home, but would here. I bought an Indian version at a Chemist shop but it is loaded with percents of this and percents of that and I don’t like to use it too often.

Things I was told that are not true:

  • “Nobody walks in Mumbai.” In fact, Mumbaikers walk all the time. And I have a FitBit to prove it. At least 5-6 miles a day.
  • “Everybody speaks English.” Not. This morning I have had encounters with the guard at the dorm, the auto driver, the security at the airport, the airline employees at the gate. None of them spoke English although most can understand a bit. That is typical and it is fine. It is their county and they have their languages—700 of them. The announcement to raise the tray tables and seats for departure was just made by a recording in English, Hindu and Marathi. I am going to work on speaking more with the Indian lilt because I have noticed that those who do are more easily understood. Sometimes I am just stubbornly attached to my Boston accent. See here.
  • “Be careful. It is not safe.” I have walked all over day and night. I take the same precautions I take in Boston and I am fine. It is a city like any other—no more, no less. But of course, I have magic hair. In any city, young men don’t see me and the older ones are not interested. Perfect safety gear!

The absolute hardest thing for me is remembering to walk on the left. Here they drive on the left so they walk on the left—mostly. Completely counterintuitive, but very important when you are always waking in crowds and in traffic. I have to remind myself all the time.

The term “crowd” is insufficient to describe what I am talking about. Have you been in a crowd leaving a concert or a sporting event? People jammed into a narrow passage, but patiently and calmly moving forward? That is Mumbai, but there is seldom an exit. And there are cars in the crowd.

Justice for Rohith

India is unsafe for some people. The prejudice toward Dalits is comparable to the institutional racism against African-Americans. It has made me think about “caste” as a component—a complicator – of the position of African Americans within the broader concept of People of Color. Rohith was a student who, along with four comrades, was unjustly expelled from his university for political reasons and because he was Dalit. He committed suicide, a part of this story I find hard to grasp. Was it a political act, a martyrdom, or was it an act of despair or shame because a Dalit’s position in society is so very tenuous and he was knocked off the ladder by the expulsion? It does not matter to the student movement here. They have taken his name and the unjust act that was done to Rohith and made it a national movement for justice for Dalits. Google Justice for Rohith to learn more about students’ protests across India and politicians’ responses –ranging from stupidity to repression with heavy doses of opportunism in the middle.

I am safe and happy and I love it here.

Love to all.

About susanmoir2015

Researcher, feminist, labor activist.
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12 Responses to A little long. Experiences and reflections of the past few days

  1. Susan-I wrote about ten lines and then it got wiped out. I love reading what you are writing. You complain and then you say how much you love it. Your descriptions are great. The orange, monkeys, women dressed in sarees while doing labor, the stuff in the yellow bowl, walking on the left side and the benefit of white hair. And the sounds. You catch the flavor well. And as you say they don’t teach English with a Boston accent. I wonder what you will sound like when you get home. The newness is refreshing. Reminds me of when I was in Gt. Britain, China, Japan and Nicaragua and then rereading my journal. You probably didn’t write your presentations before you got there. You have lots to do. I look forward to more reading. I’ve read everything you sent.
    Marsha Jauary, 30, 2016

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Diane Factor says:

    Wonderful description – and also made me laugh, I can really visualize. I promise never to complain about LA traffic again, it pales in comparison.
    Did you see the article in the NYT today, Jan 30, by Ellen Barry – Indian Women Seeking Jobs Face Taboos and Threats. Very good piece, about No. India I can’t figure out how to share with you all, but if you didn’t see it, I think it is worth finding it.


    • Thanks Diane, for the tip to go back to the NYT article. I have had a “google search” for India, women, construction for over a decade so I get almost everything that hits the internet. And sometimes I get overwhelmed by it. Last night I was tired, I saw it and I went to bed. Will go back to it right now. Love that you are following me and that we get a chance to talk about this real time.


      • Diane Factor says:

        Once we talked about me escorting Hayden to India to visit you – is that still potentially part of the plan? Cause I would try to work that out.


      • Now Harneen says she will come. But I still want you to come. I am trying to set up 2-3 day “workshops” in a couple of locations. I have a lot of interest in Mumbai– my Indian hometown– and I will try to make something happen when I am in the south. Hey, do you have skype? I am at susan.moir48.


  3. pat Van Menk says:

    Hi Suze, Lover reading your blog and so great to hear that you are well. Will try Skype as soon as I get my computer back. Super proud of you. XX Pat


  4. Karen says:

    Hi Susan! I knew you were a great public speaker, but what a great writer you are too! Your blog is so descriptive, it almost feels like we’re there with you – great balance between information and personal thoughts. How the hell do you find the time? Keep on truckin’, have fun, and know we love & miss you. k


  5. Marilyn says:

    Wonderful story-telling, Susan! I am so enjoying reading about your travels and perceptions. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I know it takes time and mental energy to do so. Stay well and safe!


  6. carol says:

    thank u for keeping us informed and your descriptions take me there! love to read your blog and will continue to do so. stay safe and so proud of all your accomplishments! lov u always. boz


  7. Robin says:

    Susan- I so much look forward to when I can carve out the time to read your blog. You are incredible! Thank you for sharing so much of yourself and your adventures with us, truly fantastic to “be there” with you. Love, hugs, health, Rob

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I got your email and tuned in your blog and this post early this morning here in California, just before I headed out to host a women’s writing group. I was so struck by all the possibilities in your opening line — “I have seen the monkeys and they want my orange”–that I gave it to the group as a prompt with a word of introduction about you and your project. The whole thing resonated for everyone and afterwards 6 of us read the pieces from our own lives that were sparked, all different and touching, many hilarious. As a metaphor, this line really opened people up! If we can type it up, we may send you our work as a thank-you project. Later I read the group your paragraph about being in the canteen. They loved the mix of detail, unique Boston-voiced sentences, and socially relevant information. Don’t be surprised if some of these folks sign up to read your blog. So glad you let me know about this. Louise


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