Wednesday, May 28, 2008


Christopher (see below post) and I spent a three-day weekend in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the largest city in India and one of the largest in the world. Mumbai has an official population of 19 million, and seems to me like New York (financial epicenter) and LA (entertainment epicenter) combined, except that over half of the people in Mumbai are desparately poor and live in slums. It was a pretty wild combination of sights, sounds, smells, and people, and I loved that there was something going on 24/7. It made Bangalore seem like a sleepy little town.

The most interesting thing we did there was tour a slum area called Dharavi. With over one million people, Dharavi is Asia's biggest slum. In 2003, the UN reported that one billion people - or 1/6 of the world's total population and 1/3 of the world's urban population - live in a slum, with that number expected to rise to TWO billion over the next thirty years. Increasingly we find that the rural poor are migrating to cities and becoming the urban poor, which has pushed the state of urban housing to crisis levels. While possibly a more urgent concern than ever before thanks to rising urban populations, slums are nothing new. A slum is created when a bunch of people with nowhere to live - always poor, often immigrants - begin squatting on some undeveloped piece of land, usually that is public. Often, the government will respond by blustering and making threats and trying to kick people out for a while, before conceding the land and offering minimal legal protection and facilities such as running water and electricity.

Mumbai's situation is especially interesting. The government passed an act in 1995, which offered an amnesty of sorts to existing slum areas. Those areas could remain, and basic utilities would be installed, but future slum-dwellers were guaranteed nothing. Therefore, in communities like Dharavi, you see buildings that pre-date 1995 and are equipped with running water and electricity, as well as those that have been illegally added since and have no facilites. Dharavi, in particular, is in trouble because what used to be an undesirable piece of land on the outskirts of Mumbai is now prime real estate located between two rail lines in the heart of the city. There is a scheme underway to allow private development in the area, with provisions for those slum-dwellers who have been there since 2000 (the 1995 crew and then some) but none for the thousands and thousands of people who arrived since. Hence, we will likely see a mass upheaval and migration of poor people to some new slum on what is now the outskirts of the city, and the cycle will begin again.

Dharavi is not a frightening place. It is filthy and crowded and the living conditions are abysmal, but the streets are orderly (sort of), people are productive, and industry abounds. In fact, Dharavi's total yearly export amounts to $665 million. There are many neighborhoods within Dharavi, each of which is devoted to some type of industry. We saw potters, tanners, women making papad (a spicy cracker thing), and people sewing garments and luggage in back-alley sweatshops. The largest industry in Dharavi is manual recycling, and we observed the process of cleaning, melting, dyeing, and reforming plastic waste into small black pellets which are sold to manufacturers by the kilo.

Cameras were taboo on our tour (and for good reason), but I found images on the internet that reflect exactly what we saw and I want you to see them, too. Credit for these photos goes to a variety of sources; ask me if you really want to know which ones.

Dharavi is mostly one- and two-story buildings with a few high-rises resulting from failed government redevelopment schemes.

Houses are made of anything and everything. The ones in the picture above are patched together with corrugated metal and tarps.

Garbage and raw sewage are everywhere. I can only imagine what it looks like during monsoon season.

There are lots of informal (and illegal) electricity-sharing schemes between the pre- and post-1995 homes. You can purchase from your neighbor enough electricity for a lightbulb and television for, say, 200 rupees per month (five dollars). Same thing goes for water.

Many times, entire multi-generation families will share one- or two-room dwellings. The entire community of one million people is located on a one square-mile plot of land, so it's safe to say that it's pretty crowded.

These workers are recycling cooking oil cans. They wash the containers and steam off the labels before selling them back to the manufacturers. Besides cooking oil and plastic, workers here recycle aluminum, cardboard, and glass.

Within Dharavi, there is a community of Muslim tanners that immigrated from Tamil Nadu - a state on the other side of south India. Here they are laying the processed animal skins out to dry.

The potters' quarter - known as Khumbarwada - is one of the more affluent neighborhoods within Dharavi. Some potters make up to 10,000 rupees per month, or $250.

Round-the-clock sweatshops are everywhere. We saw people making garments and luggage for 80 or so rupees per day - far more, however, than they earned in the rural communities all over India from which they emigrated.

Despite the squalid conditions, life is just life in Dharavi. Children go to school, people worship and celebrate, and families do all the normal family things.

There are something like 26 Hindu temples, 12 mosques, and 5 churches within Dharavi. (Those numbers are off the top of my head; don't quote me.) With a few notable exceptions (such as the 1992 riots between Hindus and Muslims that swept Mumbai), Dharavi's diverse residents get along remarkably well.

Seeing the bit of Dharavi that I did had a big impact on me. It's overwhelming, it really is. It's hard to confront a world where, within the same city limits, some people are spending $500 on one night in a hotel, and some good and very hard-working people don't see that much in a year. I think most of us would like to “do something”, but don’t really know where to start. Take this with a grain of salt as I'm no expert on social change, but I think it starts – and ends – with every person’s own heart and mind. You may find yourself overhauling urban housing policies in Mumbai someday, but it’s far more likely that you will have a more subtle impact. That’s okay, though, because the cumulative impact of many caring, knowing people adds up to a lot – more even, I think, than the impact of a few people who are hell-bent on drastic change. We owe those few people a lot, but we shouldn’t let ourselves off the hook because we’re not among them. And even those movers and shakers need to make sure their hearts and minds are in the right place. So what can we do? We can remember to be so grateful for what we have, we can stay informed, we can consume thoughtfully and share freely, we can pray for peace and equality, we can take care of the people we love, and we can try to be very, very broad about who it is that we love.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Okay, fine.

Wow, it's been a while. Things are well here in India. I've been busy. I keep meaning to update this blog, but this weekend I saw something in Mumbai that I really want to tell you all about, so it finally compelled me to write. First, though...

I've been getting a lot of flak from people who saw my profile on Facebook change to "engaged" and think I haven't spilled enough juicy details of my life lately. (Will someone please remind me how we caught up on all the gossip before the advent of the Facebook Relationship Status?!) I never meant for this blog to be all about me (more like all about my experiences in India), but I guess it is kind of a crazy story and deserves at least a brief telling. By way of explanation, let me just transcribe a conversation I've had about 50 times this month.

Me: ...well, actually I'll be going back to the States at the end of the summer.

Them: Oh really? How come?

Me: I'm getting married at the end of the year.

Them: Oh wow! Congratulations! I didn't even know you were dating anyone...did you meet him in India?

Me: Um...yes.

Them: So who's the lucky [or unlucky, depending on your perspective] guy?

Me: His name is Christopher.

Them: So is he Indian?

Me: No, he's American and also from Seattle.

Them: So he's working in India also? For how long?

Me: Actually, he lives in Mali, West Africa.

Them: Oh.

Sometimes they get sidetracked by offering congratulations at this point, but sometimes they stare blankly, in which case I keep going.

Me: We got engaged when he visited me in India last month.

Them: That is so great! So what is Christopher doing in Mali?

Me: He's a volunteer with the Peace Corp.

Them: How long has he been there?

Me: Almost two years.

This is where they stop to try and add all the pieces up and think, "Hmm...both from Seattle, but he's been in Mali and she's been in India. If he's been there two years, that's a pretty serious long-distance come I haven't heard about this guy before? I thought she was dating people in Seattle before she left for India. Wait, didn't she say they MET in India? I'm confused." At this point I usually put people out of their misery and clear things somewhat up by saying...

Me: So actually we weren't dating all along. Things started to get pretty serious long-distance, and he came to India to visit and everything fell into place and we decided to get married.

Then if they're really bright they'll say...

Them: Wait a minute. Didn't you just say you met in India?

Then I have no choice but to say...

Me: Okay. So the whole story is that we met online last summer while I was still in Seattle and he was halfway through his stint in Mali. We began this amazing correspondence, talked nonstop for months, and fell in love before we'd even met in person. Then, he came to India last month and it was as great as we knew it was going to be and he asked me to marry him on our second day together.

By now people are usually stammering for something to say, usually some variation of...

Them: Oh my gosh! That's the most romantic thing I've ever heard!!!


Them: You're bloody crazy. You know that, right?

So that, folks, whether romantic or really bloody crazy is the true story of how I met Christopher. The answer to your second to last question is December in the Seattle LDS temple, and the answer to your very last question, which I realize I will never, never, never live down in my whole entire life is... Baby.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Microfinance in pictures

After over a year with Unitus, I finally had the opportunity to see some microfinance in action last month and I thought I'd take the chance to give a quick explanation and post some pictures of my visit to a center meeting. Broadly, microfinance is financial services offered to the poor. These can include credit, savings, insurance, remittances, and other products. What people usually think of when they hear "microfinance" (and what Muhammad Yunus is famous for) is essentially a small, short-term business loan offered to a very poor woman. The typical microfinance client is too poor to secure a loan with collateral so she joins a group of five or so women, all of whom receive loans from the same MFI (microfinance institution) at the same time. While money is received and repaid individually, no woman in the group can receive a second loan until she AND her group members have paid back their loans. This innovative lending methodology has resulted in repayment rates that are much higher than those found at traditional banks. The women use their loan capital to purchase the supplies or equipment or workspace they need to engage in some type of business. One might purchase chickens with the upfront money, and then sell the eggs to generate ongoing revenue and pay back her loan. Another might invest in cooking equipment so that she can sell food on the street. The possibilities are endless. In my opinion, microfinance is revolutionary because it challenges the idea that the poor can't be trusted with money, or need to be retrained. Poor people have many revenue-generating skills and money management skills - they simply lack collateral and access to capital. Many MFIs lend exclusively to women because repayment rates tend to be higher, and the social impact tends to be greater. A greater percentage of a woman's profits will go towards things - such as education - that benefit her family far into the future.

This center meeting was held about 45 minutes away from the city center, in one of Bangalore's large stretches of slums. These women were sitting on the floor of a member's home with many of their children crowded around the doorway.

Every woman had a yellow book (like the one that the woman in the blue sari is holding) in which they record their loan repayments and contributions to their savings accounts. They proudly showed the books to me and I observed that the average savings deposit was 50 rupees (or a little over one US dollar).

The weekly or bi-weekly center meeting is a chance for women to make loan payments, connect with the other members of their group, and ask any questions or talk about problems they were having. In general, they were chatty and seemed happy to be there. I kept getting distracted by their beautiful children, however.
Here are some scenes from their neighborhood. Some women who receive microloans become incense rollers.
The slums are filthy, filthy, filthy, and CROWDED, but not entirely depressing places to be. There were bright colors and beautiful, friendly children everywhere.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Betcha never seen...

A bloody, severed cow head,
a nun in safety goggles using a weed-whacker,
a man with about forty tin pots on the back of his two-wheeler,
Or, well...enough said.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Just a hint of things to come...

Yesterday I ran in a half-marathon on a commune in South India under a fake name. Ha! I've always wanted to start a story that way. It actually happens to be true, though. I owe you all many updates, and I will catch up, but here's a little something for starters. That's me, Benazir Muthubuthuamanarajan (not quite sure on the spelling of my last name).

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Cows on the Beach

Is that weird? I can't tell anymore...

I took an impromptu weekend jaunt to Gokarna, a tiny town on India's western coast. Gokarna is known for two things - fabulous beaches and really holy temples. The temples are so holy, in fact, that I wasn't allowed inside them, and was forced to spend all my time on the beach. Rough.

Anyway, Gokarna (or "cow's ear") is so-called because Hindus believe that Lord Shiva emerged from the ear of a cow there. There's a pretty great story about the history of Gokarna. Ready? Hindu gods attained immortality by worshipping a divine lingam (uh...phallus) that belonged to Lord Shiva. A king, Ravana, wanted said immortality so he approached Shiva and asked him for the lingam. Shiva said, fine, you can have my penis statue but DON'T PUT IT ON THE GROUND. I'll give you one guess what happened: Yep, long story short, Ravana was tricked by some other gods with ulterior motives, and the lingam ended up on the ground. Ravana tried to lift the lingam, but to no avail. It remained rooted to the ground and the Mahabaleshwar Temple was constructed around it. Like I said, I wasn't allowed inside, but here's what the outside looked like.

What I DID do was spend about 48 hours straight on the beach. Since my parents believe that family reunions in Utah are the funnest vacations ever, I'd never been to a tropical beach before and it was everything the Hawaiian Tropic commercials make it out to be - azure sky, palm trees, people with cameras in my face ALL DAY LONG. "Madam, one picture?" It's a little surreal to think about how many random photo albums in India I'm in.

The beach I spent the most time at is called Om Beach, named because it looks like an inverted "om" sign.

There was a whole class full of kids in pink uniforms that came with their teachers to play at the beach...

Some children hanging out in front of their house on the edge of town...

There are people whose job it is to scale palm trees - unaided - and harvest coconuts and palm oil. As I was walking along, I heard one such man yelling in the trees...

Okay, I think that's about it. Sorry to post so much at once. In parting I would only say, YOU SHOULD COME TO INDIA. Seriously. It's amazing. And if you come in the next year or so I'll be your tour guide!

Monday, December 31, 2007

Christmas in India

Thanks to all for your happy Christmas wishes. I had a great holiday here in India. I missed things, of course (like family and the Messiah sing-a-long and Grandma's chocolate mint brownies [that I would have eaten this year since I'm not vegan anymore!!!]), but I think this will truly go down as one of my best Christmases. It was refreshingly uncommercial (except for the creepy skinny Santa in a pale-faced mask at the bank), and, as it is not widely observed here, everyone that did celebrate Christmas seemed to do so with a closer eye on the true significance of the holiday. I participated in a hilarious Christmas program at church, went to midnight mass at an Anglican church, spent time with friends, and was fed more food than I have ever eaten in a 24 hour period. I think I'll have South Indian food every Christmas from now on to remind me of the hospitality and generosity I was shown by the wonderful people here. (Mom, I know you always have tamales on Christmas; can we have tamales AND masala dosa next year?)

I know I have a pretty mixed audience on this blog, but I'm hoping you'll indulge me in a bit of reflection about what being in India for Christmas meant to me spiritually. You can skip to the pictures if you're not interested.

I've always loved the Biblical Nativity story but somehow being in a poor, dusty, hot country on Christmas gave me a new appreciation for some of the details of the story. For example, did you know it is 97 km (60 miles) from Nazareth to Bethlehem - the distance that Joseph and Mary traveled to pay taxes in the final stages of Mary's pregnancy? To take a BUS on the rocky, dusty, buggy roads here can be uncomfortable; I can't imagine what it would have been like on foot or by animal on the primitive roads that existed two thousand years ago. And speaking of animals? They stink. A lot. The whole city smells awful, partly because there are cows (and dogs and goats and chickens and cats and camels and enormous rats) roaming around as they please, pooping wherever they feel like it. To give birth among a bunch of them and their poop? Gross. By the way, living in a place with breathtaking economic inequalities, it's easy to observe that money makes things happen. If you can pay you can get what you want because people with less money than you will get it for you. That Joseph and Mary were relegated to a stable speaks not ONLY to the fact that there was no room in the inn, but also that they were poor. If they had had enough money, they could have gotten whatever they needed. That's just the way it works when some people have money and some people don't. Lastly, I was walking home at dusk one night last week and observed a number of destitute families leaving the construction sites at which they work as day laborers, headed for the makeshift shacks along the side of the road in which they sleep at night. Whole families were in transit, weary moms clutching babies, old men and women carrying heavy tools, filthy children (their dirty faces belying the fact that they were not in school but shoveling sand all day), and men that looked like they were too tired to take another step. The thought hit me that these families - poor, dark-skinned, tired, shuffled from place to place - probably look a lot like Joseph & Mary's young family looked, on the run in the Middle East for some number of years with at least one small child in tow. Anyway, it was interesting to have a new look at a story that tends to get sanitized, whether through religious idealism or irreligious disinterest in the origins of the holiday.

Okay, that's enough pontificating for now. Here are some photos of our Christmas program.

This is Elder Janga, as Jesus, and Bobby (in my bathrobe), as the callous sinner who rejects the message that the shepherds offer and then, after having been blinded in a horrible accident, meets Jesus thirty years later, repents and is healed. What, you don't remember that part of the Bible? That's probably because they added it. Anyway, it seems like the TYPE of thing Jesus would do, right? :)

None of my pictures from that night turned out very well, so excuse the poor quality, but this is Aishwarya, an 11-year old girl whose family I joined for dinner #1 on Christmas Day.

These people are roughly my age; here they are performing a little "lessons & carols" (I was at the piano). From left to right is Deepa, Saritha, Chennaswami, Mega, Prebhu, Manuel, Charles, and Pinto.

I cannot get over how beautiful Indian people are. These teenaged girls sang a couple of Christmas songs during the program. (I teach piano lessons to the one on the right, Subashini.)