Thursday, January 27, 2011

A lesson in exchange for memorable photos

Now that the anger has faded and I've stopped kicking myself, maybe I can focus on the lesson. Indeed, I've started downloading photos mid-trip from our camera fairly diligently and regularly. Sometimes we have to pay a high price to relearn well-known lessons.

Several months ago, we traveled the Himalayan region of Uttaranchal by road, moving at a relatively leisurely pace, taking buses from one town to another. We visited small towns and ashrams and temples. And all along we kept taking photographs.

Photos of the smiling locals, of small children, monkeys, saffron-clad swamis with flowing beards, of temples and creeks and waterfalls and mountains. I had my laptop with me, but each night I put off downloading the photos because we were too tired and there was plenty of space in the camera's memory card anyway. I was lazy.

Many journeys into the Himalayas begin in Haridwar (literally the 'gateway to the gods') as did ours. After three very enjoyable weeks, and with over 800 photographs, we boarded the return train at Haridwar. And in that brief melee while rushing to get on to the train, someone walked away with our bag of valuables. The train's conductor believed us and let us travel without the tickets which were in the bag. We called US and froze the credit line. We got over the monetary loss fairly quickly. We got a new ATM card. We upgraded to a new cell-phone to replace the one that was stolen. We bought a sleeker camera. The biggest loss turned out to be the photos. We don't have a single photo of the trip. Like I said, lesson learned.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Diligent Flower Lady

This week, heavy rains have lashed Chennai, the city where my parents live. All the reservoirs in the state of Tamil Nadu are overflowing, and rice paddy fields have been submerged in the flood. A lot of other regular activity has been suspended, due to the rains.

Despite the rain, the old lady who delivers flowers showed up in the morning. Each day, my mother buys a small string of marigolds or jasmine from her. (It is common in India to adorn pictures and statues of gods as part of daily prayers.)

The flower seller apologized to my mother and said that she wouldn’t be able to show up tomorrow because of the rains. Before leaving, she gave my mother some extra flowers for the next day.

"I am surprised that she made it in this weather," I told my mother.
"She must have bought the loose flowers yesterday," my mother explained. "If she doesn't deliver them, the flowers will wilt and she won't get paid. That's why even in this pouring rain, she's going from house to house delivering the flowers."

I learned that this lady used her meager capital to buy loose flowers. At night, she wove them into long strands and cut them into small strings. The next day she personally delivered them to each customer's home.

"What do you pay her?" I asked.
"Two rupees daily."

For her efforts in home-delivering fresh flowers seven days a week, this flower lady earned Rs 60 from each customer. That is less than US $1.35 per month.

Friday, November 26, 2010

10 Movies About India that I enjoyed - Part 2

Seeing India through 10 movies about it – Part 2

This is part 2 of my list of 10 movies about/on India that I have enjoyed. The criteria I used can be found in part 1.

6. The Cup (1999, Khyentse Norbu): This movie is actually about the life of young Tibetan novices, but the location is India. This lighthearted movie is about current day life in Dharmashala and Mcleodganj. An endearing movie which uses the backdrop of a soccer world cup to portray the modern-day struggles of novice monks trying to live in an environment full of worldly attractions.

7. Born Into Brothels (2004, Zana Briski & Ross Kaufmann): This is the only documentary in the list, and it won the Oscar for Best documentary that year. The real life story of the lives of a group of children of prostitutes in the Sonagachi district of Calcutta. Zana, the filmmaker goes there as a photographer, sees an opportunity to help the lives of these children and documents it as she goes along. This is an uplifting movie in which we watch the children blossom into pretty decent photographers, and some get to travel to Europe for a showing of their pictures.

8. The Namesake (2006, Mira Nair): This is a movie about the life of one Indian family in the US, based on the novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. (As an aside, her book of short stories about the Indians abroad is "The Interpreter of Maladies" is exquisitely penned while also being very readable). Namesake is a very faithful adaptation of Jhumpa's second book by the same name. India forms the backdrop, and we get to see many aspects of the protagonist Gogol's life. Kal Penn and Tabu both give authentic performances. I also remember being impressed with director's version that was included in the DVD extras.

9. Outsourced (2006, John Jeffcoat): I wanted to choose one movie that shows contemporary India. Of course, this is a Hollywood version of a fairly romanticized view of the IT outsourcing phenomenon. Those of us who have worked and lived it know that it is not all fun. This is a very good effort with likable characters and lots of humor. (At present, there is also a Primetime NBC sitcom airing on Thursdays based on this story.)

10. Slumdog Millionaire (2008, Danny Boyle): There is no being neutral about this movie, or so it seems. I haven't yet come across a movie that so decisively divides people. In general, the Indian diaspora (those living outside India) seem to like it, but a huge majority of Indians seem to abhor the way it portrays their country. (Some of my relatives were aghast and just about ready to deny me dinner and turn me away because I had said I liked this movie.) The movie is based on the popular quiz show "Who wants to be a millionaire" based on Vikas Swarup's book Q&A, presented as a series of improbably connected vignettes. You might love it, or hate it, but you must view it.

The following movies probably belong in this list, but I haven't watched them yet.
  • Mr and Mrs Iyer
  • Hyderabad Blues
  • A Train To Pakistan
Hope I didn't miss too many other good movies about India.

Related Posts: The 10 Best Movies about India - Part I

Friday, November 19, 2010

The 10 best movies about India – Part 1

A few weeks ago, a reader Mike asked me for a list of movies about India.

First, a few caveats.

I've intended this list for a Western (non-Indian) audience.

Undertakings like this (listing movies that capture India well) are inherently flawed. India is so vast and diverse that it resists encapsulation. I have spent half my life in the country, I visit it every so often, and yet the country never ceases to amaze me.

In order to limit the scope, I have only included Hollywood movies about India. And I have only included movies that I have seen. (If I included Bollywood and regional Indian movies, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.)

For many of these movies, it has been years since I viewed them, so I am going based on what still lingers in my memory.

Here then are ten movies which, taken together, will give the viewer a good perspective on life in India, its landscape and its people.

I'll post five today, starting with the "classics."

1. Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough) – I still remember the hype around the release of this movie. I also recall that I was surprised that the director had cast someone who wasn’t from India (Ben Kingsley) in the lead role. But the hype was justified, and the movie delivered. There are a few good scenes where we get to see Gandhi growing and becoming the revered leader he ended up as. The following year, the movie won 8 Oscars, including best picture.

2. City of Joy (1992, Rolan Jaffe) – Ten years after 'Gandhi' came the 'City of Joy.' I had just come to the US, and watched it here in my university. It is undeniably a Hollywood-version of the slums and the tough lives of those in Calcutta, and contrasts the lives of a doctor from Texas and a rickshaw puller. Patrick Swayze and Om Puri excel in their performances.

3. Salaam Bombay (1988, Mira Nair) – A realistic movie about the life of the street kids of Bombay. NYC-based director Mira Nair made her name with this movie. She is tough and doesn't pull her punches. The movie ends up being educational for us the audience just as it does for Krishna, the boy hailing from a village learns the scrappy ways of the Bombay underworld.

4. Monsoon Wedding (2001, Mira Nair) – Yes, another film by Mira Nair. (I too am surprised that two of her movies made it into this list.) A very neat idea of making a movie around all the machinations that go into an elaborate Indian wedding. It appealed to the Western audiences as they glimpsed the inner-workings, and the Indian audiences liked it because they could relate to the events. And this being a Mira Nair movie, the plot line does not get diluted down into a syrupy comedy.

5. Fire, Earth, Water: The Deepa Mehta Trilogy. (1996, 1998, 2005) India-born Canadian director Deepa Mehta is comfortable making movies that deal with mature themes. Fire deals with the story of one joint family, with two brothers, their wives and the mother-in-law and a servant all living under one roof, and the ensuing complex interactions. Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das light up the screen, and some of the themes that Deepa touches on had the audiences squirming. I haven't yet watched Earth. The movie Water (2005) is about the lives of destitute widows in the city of Varanasi, and it received a lot of critical acclaim and it was an eye-opener for me.

Looking at the list above, I see that it has turned out to be more somber than I intended it to be. Nor do they add up to give a sense of life in India. (Maybe even 10 movies is too few.) I'll post some of the more contemporary ones in part two of this list.

I am sure I have missed tons of other good movies about India. If you think of others, do add them in the comments section.

Friday, November 12, 2010

This is India #3 -- We, the People

Things I can’t get used to in India

I love most things Indian. In my previous stay there, I had jotted down the following list of things that people in India do, to which I just can’t get used. I really hope some of these things change with time.

1. People playing MP3 songs on their mobile phones without earphones and inflicting loud music on others
2. People buying sweets despite there being dozens of flies on them
3. People throwing all their garbage right outside their own homes or shops
4. People spitting all day long – some silently and incessantly, and others making a noisy production of it
5. People who talk all the time during movies, wisecracking with their friends.
6. People who start walking out minutes before the movie is about to end, opening the doors and ruining the suspension of disbelief for the rest of us
7. Parents not shushing their kids (or taking their kids outside the auditorium) when live performances are in progress, even though they know that their child is being really disruptive.
8. People standing patiently in long lines to use an ATM
9. People in cars who pull up in front of an apartment building and honk loudly to signal their arrival to one person, unmindful of the dozens of other residents that they are disturbing
10. People who saunter along on the railway tracks, as if there is no other place available to walk. And especially people who scurry and cross the track right in front of an oncoming train, and clamber onto the platform seconds before the train comes rushing in.
11. People on power trips, who want to be administrative bottlenecks and delay things, just so that they can flex their muscles and show everyone “who’s boss.”

Related Posts:
This is India #2 - Contrasts
This is India #1

Friday, November 5, 2010

Himalaya by Michael Palin - BBC Video

One way to enjoy the Himalayas is to go there and visit places for weeks at a time, taking in the scenery and the charm. The next best thing is to watch the BBC video series Himalaya. I recently viewed this 3-DVD set which is hosted by Michael Palin of Monty Python fame.

Michael is very down to earth, with his own brand of humor and that makes the viewing all the more enjoyable to me. Having previously watched his "Around the World in 80 Days" program, I knew I was in for a treat. Michael is at times very serious, touching on politically sensitive topics, and at other times he is delightfully irreverent, with his quirky little antics when he jokes with the people he encounters.

This is a 6 part series. The countries he visits are Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tibet, Nepal, China, Bhutan and Bangladesh. He starts in the westernmost parts of the Himalayas (Hindu Kush & Karakoram) and ends his long journey where the river Bramhaputra's delta runs out to the sea.

Along the way, he visits places along the Indo-Pak border where conflicts are a way of life, he gets an audience with the Dalai Lama, he goes to Everest base camp, he gets to circumambulate Mt. Kailash in Tibet, he does the Annapurna trek, he drives the Katmandu to Lhasa highway, goes to monasteries, and to a number of other towns in these 8 countries.

Everything that I come across produced by BBC Video seems to me to be of very good quality. If you are at all fascinated by the Himalayan mountain range, these extremely well produced episodes are a great way to vicariously travel this region.

Friday, October 29, 2010

When You Take Away Hope…

This desert story from India is almost surely apocryphal. I heard it a year ago, but it has stayed with me. I heard it from the venerable Aruna Roy when she was speaking at the Pushkar Literary festival, in Rajasthan. She's given up her life of comfort to live and work among the people in that part of the desert. She shared this story with the audience to illustrate the sustaining power of hope.

In the western Thar desert in Rajasthan, life is hard. Many families face an acute shortage of food and water. One family of five occupied a small hut, among a cluster of similar huts. The father and mother were both itinerant migrant workers, and they barely earned enough to feed their three young children and themselves.

One summer, the drought was so severe that there was no work to be found in the village. So the couple made a tough decision – they decided to let the kids remain in their hut while they went to other villages in the desert to search for work. They knew that their neighbors would look after the kids until they came back.

Before setting out, the couple gathered the children. "You see this mud pot?" asked the dad. "It has laapsi. It is the only thing we have, but we can't have it now." Laapsi is a sweet wheat porridge dessert, and it is prized as a delicacy by those who reside in the desert. "I am going to dangle it from the hut's roof. When your mother and I come back, we will all feast on it."

Then the couple went away to look for work.

The three kids managed by themselves, with the neighbors helping out a little. Even if the neighbors wanted to, they couldn’t give much to these children because they didn't have much for their own family.

On some nights, the eldest brother would tell the other two, "We don’t have anything for dinner. We only have some water left. But look up there! When papa and maa come back, we can feast on that laapsi!"
"What does laapsi taste like?" his little sister asked.
"No dish tastes better than laapsi," her brother told her. "It will be so sweet and filling!" That night, the three kids sipped some water and went to sleep hungry.

This way, the kids managed to scrape by for several months.

Eventually, their parents returned. The kids were so happy in rushing to welcome them that they didn’t read their body language. They hadn't found any work. The parents had no strength left to do anything.

"Papa, let's have the laapsi now!"
"Kids, let's wait a few more days."
"No!" The kids were adamant.

So the father was forced to bring down the pot that had been hanging from the roof. Very reluctantly, he showed it to the kids. The pot was empty.

The laapsi that they had been dreaming about for months wasn’t there. Within a week, one by one, all three kids died.

Sometimes, when I hear someone expressing false hope I have this urge to contradict them. But remember this story and hold my peace. When hope is the only crutch someone has left, we should pause before kicking it away.