Posts Tagged ‘delhi’

Family Portrait

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Styrofoam Beat

Drums made of styrofoam and sticks, these boys were playing a mad beat on the streets of Delhi.

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India: Surreal Familiarity

Being back in India is both surreal and familiar. My friend Sonam said that when he saw me at the airport I was walking as if India was my second home. Familiarity does not however remove the feeling of being a stranger in a foreign land, especially in a metropolis like Delhi, with its frenzied pace and relentless motion, and the impersonal feeling this gives. Nor does it hide my differentness as evidenced by the penetrating stares.

With each trip, I continue to learn how to use the Metro – Delhi’s subway system – with it’s vast number of rail lines, platforms and stations. And passengers. Yesterday I waited for the metro to arrive in the crowded platform. The uniformed man blowing directives through a whistle tried to get everyone to form single lines, to no avail. Few paid attention and those who were close to the front did not want to lose their place. It seemed everyone had to be somewhere in a hurry because when the metro arrived there was a mad rush to get onboard and secure one’s place before the doors closed shut.

Less than five minutes later another train arrived. In one giant pushing motion, squeezed tightly together as one entity, we piled onto the subway, everyone jostling to find a place to stand and hang on. My arm was curled around the waist of a young man to reach the pole in the center of the aisle, where I found a space, among the other hands, to hang on. A few minutes into the ride, a gloved hand started caressing mine. I moved it down the pole, the hand followed and continued its caress. When I looked over in the direction it seemed to be coming from I caught the eyes of a man in a leather jacket and gloves. I again moved my hand, and close enough to someone else’s so that if he continued, he would have to be caressing both hands. The man to his right probably wouldn’t have appreciated it, so he stopped.

India is crowded, chaotic and alive! The streets are a virtual panoply of activity – whirring sewing machines, haircutting and shaving, children playing, men sleeping, women laundering, dogs scavenging, beggars begging, food cooking,vendors hawking, brooms sweeping, metallurgists pounding, fires burning. It never sleeps. All night long from my fourth story hotel room I hear the roar of traffic, the blare of horns. Fortunately it stops once the dreams start, but sometimes when I wake I feel the dust of the streets in my eyes. And I wonder if I slept at all.

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Enroute to India, and about to be in Delhi, I am posting a story that is particularly troubling.

India has less than a year before the start of the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

It is the biggest international sports event the country has hosted in two decades.

But as pressure mounts to complete venues on time, there is growing criticism over the treatment of workers.

Many are saying they lack even basic facilities.

They are crammed in plastic tents and entire families are forced to live there without sanitary facilities.

Perna Suri reports from the Indian capital.

Indian workers allege exploitation

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After seeing the film Slumdog Millionaire a few weeks ago, I felt not jubilant, but disturbed. Having been to India five times and (collectively) spending 1.5 years in various locales, I’ve experienced the fascinating, difficult country firsthand.

Poverty is ever-present. The slums are not always hushed into dark pockets of the cities; they may exist alongside opulence on busy boulevards. Though, some slum areas, as shown in the film, are being leveled with high-rise complexes put in their place, further displacing the marginalized. And this is cause for concern.

A good friend of mine, a native of Calcutta, recently told me this in a correspondence:

In India the situation is getting from bad to worse. There is NO accountability at all. The new change now is that many of the downtroddens are rising up to protest / to demand . The Adivasis are rising. The Maoists movement is spreading like wild fire in India. They have support bases in Nepal and Bangladesh. They are as bad as the criminals in other parties. We have lots of political parties with all kinds of names, but basically the goal is the same – ” to come to power and to remain in power ” at any cost.

In Delhi the slums are being destroyed and people are being displaced in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games:

India razes slums, leaves poor homeless

Maiming children, as they did in the film by blinding a boy, is not simply a movie phenomenon nor is it a rare occurrence. If a begging person is missing part of a limb or if they are blind, more money may be extracting from the unwitting. It plays on our emotions.

During my last trip to India I had a personal encounter with a young boy who was a victim of intentional maiming. I was walking down Main Bazaar in Delhi when he spotted me. Westerners with money enough to travel to India are prime targets.


He came running towards me and then trotted alongside me, parroting “fifty rupees!, fifty rupees!”. It was the desolate look in his eyes that first caught my attention. Seeing his missing hand explained the expression.

The end of his arm was covered with a clean, stark white bandage. It stood in sharp contrast to the layers of dirt on his face, feet and clothes.

I stopped walking and asked him “who did this to you?” Both enraged and haunted by this child’s circumstance, I continued to try talking with him but he only knew enough english to beg for money, not converse with a foreigner.

I did not give the child 50 rupees but settled on ten in exchange for his portrait. I felt a twinge of guilt about that, but I knew I would not be allowed one without compensation.

I saw the boy a few days later in nearly the same stretch of Main Bazaar. However, this time his bandage was bloody and dirty. He was jumping up and down with his mutilated arm in the air, trying to get the attention of a (western) couple who were in conversation and paying no attention to him.

A month later, in Dharamsala, I met a man who had also seen this boy when he was in Delhi. He told me he saw him squeezing the end of his arm to make the bandage bloodier, and hopefully, more profitable.

Those who’ve not spent time in India wouldn’t necessarily know what parts of the film Slumdog Millionaire are fact versus fiction, though it’s well known that India is home to a wealth of impoverished people.

The fiction is the fairy-tale ending, and the sense it gives moviegoers, that despite deep poverty and dangerous conditions, the people are still smiling happy, even dancing for joy in the railway station, a place where many street children make their home.

I think this illusion gives us permission to go back to life as usual after the credits roll and the curtain falls. Their situation and suffering is not something we need concern ourselves with. Besides, they’re happy. Aren’t they?

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See: Slumdog Millionaire’s child actors still live in ‘grinding poverty’ in Mumbai

Rubina Ali and Azharuddin Ismail, two of the child actors in “Slumdog Millionaire,” are still living in the slums of Mumbai, despite the film’s $14 million budget and worldwide success. Ali earned 500 British pounds ($710) for one year’s work and Ismail earned 1700 pounds ($2414), “less than many Indian domestic servants“:

Both children were found places in a local school and receive £20 a month for books and food. However, they continue to live in grinding poverty and their families say they have received no details of the trust funds set up in their names. Their parents said that they had hoped the film would be their ticket out of the slums, and that its success had made them realise how little their children had been paid.

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From my third story room – at Hotel Arjun – I have a birds-eye view of the street below. The Main Bazaar; one of the busiest places in Delhi. Complete madness reigns in the street. Never a hollow space. Every square inch covered with life. As I stand in silence and watch the moving landscape, I think to myself that I can learn all lessons here. In quiet observation. Free of judgment, anxiety, thought. Just watch, listen, learn. Removed from it, while also a part of it.

Traffic, of all kinds, never ceases. Meandering cows (and their splattering dung), feral dogs (who sleep during the day after a busy night of running wild in packs), relentless beggars, ware hawkers, slick salesman, motor and cycle rickshaws, bicyclists, scooters, trucks, tractors, wedding processions, motorcycles, ox-pulled carts, global travelers. Everyone jostling to claim their space in the chaos.

Music blares, but still the cacophonic horns trump the melodic notes rising skyward. Sometimes a dozen horns at a time. Vying for the right-of-way on a road barely wide enough for one midsize vehicle. When two pass each other, with a motorcycle in between, cows and pedestrians on either side, the mind nor eyes can bend to accommodate the seamless way they pass each other without mishap. Indians will tell us, ‘everything is possible in India’. Indeed.

Shops line both sides of the street, most of them selling colorful wares to travelers, though Gulam, a Kashmiri travel/tour merchant tells me that eight years ago it was primarily a street for the locals. A lot of bangle shops for Indian women. Now most anything can be had here. As I wander down and back up the street, I am offered a sundry of fried foods, cotton clothing, mendhi tattooing, tours to anywhere in India, tobacco (or hashish if I need something stronger), chai, pashmina shawls and carpets from Kashmir, jewelry, taxi rides, maps, fresh fruit, or chances to redeem myself by filling a beggars cup or by giving rupees for chapattis (Indian flat bread). A tapping on the back of the arm followed by a small voice asking for alms. Matted-hair women with a sleeping child attached to them. Wide-eyed three and four-year olds tugging at my sleeve with unapologetic pleas for money. Working the street for a living. Tiny little outstretched hands crusted with their dirty life.

The verve seeps into and fills my room, keeping it lit up with commotion at all hours. Bouncing off my walls and marching on the marble floors. Stealing through every open crevice. It’s only when I judge it, absorb it, that it affects me. I have learned to let it flow by me with relative ease, unaffected by the madness. Watching it from above or strolling in step with it in the street, it has become my meditation.


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India is a country in flux. Economically, it is growing exponentially. With economic growth comes opportunity for the betterment of life. For some. But for others, who are not a part of the boon, conditions worsen. The divide between those who grow wealthier and are blessed with prosperity, and those who live in the streets dependent on handouts for survival, is rising.

One day while buying fruit for a young couple (she, a legless woman in a wheelchair), I suddenly found myself surrounded by a group of people with outstretched hands. As I was paying the vendor he told me how I would not see this begging and hunger in my country. I don’t think that he believed me when I told him that America has many hungry as well as homeless citizens. His eyes widened in disbelief: “In the most wealthy country in the world?”

One young boy of maybe six or seven would always track me down in the street so that he could get his daily banana. It cost me little to give a piece of fruit, especially kalas (bananas) at two rupees a piece (approx. five cents). There are scams too; some who insist that you buy them the most expensive piece of fruit, generally a mango or papaya, so that they can sell it back to the vendor at half it’s market value and use the money for something else. It’s part of their survival, something to keep in mind as we sit in satiate comfort.

The photo is one that I captured while I was a passenger in a rickshaw at a stoplight in Delhi. I had seen this man before on one other occasion; he was walking on his hands through traffic in an effort to get handouts. But on this day, he was (mostly) covered, sitting under the scant shade of a tree.

When a friend of mine saw the photo, he said that it was fake, that the wound on his leg was not real. His reaction may be one of avoidance, not wanting to look at the plight of a fellow human being that he feels we can do little to help. It’s easier to pass by and look the other way. The other piece is that there is a “beggar mafia” in India. They are known to maim the impoverished and then send them out into the streets to beg with missing limbs as a way to garner more sympathy and money. Not wanting to support that, many people feel it is best to ignore a problem they feel they can do nothing about.


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