Saturday, July 25, 2009

Back in Bharat

Whatever you say about India, you're wrong. I've been wrong for the last eleventy posts, and will be just as wrong in this one. At least India has given me this one thing--consistency. Just as my first sojourn in India coerced me into developing an entirely new skill set--directing plays that nearly cause riots, walking straight into freeway-speed traffic, deciding that my left hand is an appropriate substitute for toilet paper--so did my second. Along with another former Rotary Ambassadorial scholar (Cate) and a few other American women, I returned to Hyderabad with POP Jewelry Collective. POP is a women's handicraft business Cate started in order to employ women in one of the worst Hyderabadi neighborhoods. The women make jewelry, we sell it in the US for inflated prices, and then the money goes back to that neighborhood in the form of school supplies, wages for the women, and scholarships. The goal is to educate ourselves while we help provide a platform for Indian women to become educated, empowered entrepreneurs. Business savvy has never exactly been high on my list of personal descriptors, but India isn't known for keeping one in the comfort zone. Continuing the theme of tackling projects for which I'm under-qualified, I also helped make a documentary about our trip, which you can watch here. I did a lot of the filming, some of the voice overs, and took the photos you see in the first segment.

Part One:
Part Deuce:

Multimedia aside, India was as India as it ever was, crashing into me and filling me with joy at the phrases necessary to describe my existence. My favorites:

  • As I stand at the side of the road, foreign coins lining my pockets, contemplating hurling myself into traffic once more, I am nearly run over by a wobble-lipped camel.

  • I charm my way into an air-conditioned restaurant by bobbling my head indiscriminately, to discover that the featured dish of the day is Taliban Soup.

  • In Mecca Masjid, a turbaned man comes up to us. I am concerned he is angry that we are not properly dressed (and not Muslim), but all he wants to do is assure us that Islam has more people of peace than it does of violence. "Bad Muslims are like the driver of a truck…it is not that truck's fault if the driver steers into a tree."

  • As I sit on the side of the road, a man dressed as Charlie Chaplin walks up and unblinkingly stares at me for five minute, straight, twiggling (it's a word now) his mustache the whole time. I swear, the bats in my belfry are going to form a tenant's union at this rate.

  • I love how trains let you into the lives of people as they slice through India. . .for a moment, I am an old woman carrying a sled-sized tray of dirt on my heed, chest-deep in water

  • In the slums, the smell of cilantro somehow cuts through the stink of fetid water, and to the right, a bus stop is filled with orange and yellow flowers.

  • My friend Bilal, who runs a hotel, comes and sits beside me after checking out a bunch of his countrymen. He sighs, puts his head in hands, and says "I don’t like Indians.”

  • In India, it seems everything is operating in its superlative version--everything is the best, the brightest, the strongest, the most dramatic...and the worst, the most grotesque, the lives so terrible they make god seem heedless and cruel.
And, as always, there were the things that make My India mine--Fragments and pavements and all-day night trains and the assurance that because Carolyn is Carolyn, and India is India, I will be back. To learn stories, to listen to the intersections of languages and consensual realities, to learn none of the things on my list, and all of the things that are not. (As long as I'm sending you to links, you can also check out the jewelry website, as well as another sustainable women's education business that came out of the trip, a tea-selling project to educate women in Darjeeling.)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Forgotten Indias

The problem with life in the world’s largest democracy is precisely the same thing as its greatest strength: everyone has a voice. But when you have over a billion voices all talking at once, it’s distressingly inevitable that some voices are not heard—especially when those voices haven’t eaten for almost ten years.

Irom Sharmila, a journalist, poet, and civil rights activist, has been on a hunger strike for nearly a decade. The only reason she is alive today is because of feeding tubes that have been forcibly inserted into her nasal passages by her jailers: the Indian Police.

Sharmila, known as the Iron Lady of Manipur, is fasting for the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), a law enforced in troubled areas of the country (Manipur in Northeast India, Jammu and Kashmir) which allows officers of the armed forces to:

  • "Fire upon or otherwise use force, even to the causing of death, against any person who is acting in contravention of any law" against "assembly of five or more persons" or possession of deadly weapons.
  • To arrest without a warrant and with the use of "necessary" force anyone who has committed certain offenses or is suspected of having done so
  • To enter and search any premise in order to make such arrests.

According to Thongam Bipin, a Manipuri native and Ph.D scholar, the laws were put in place during times of severe unrest—unrest caused by the perceived forcible appropriation, structural neglect, and diversion of resources by the Indian government.

Sharmila, in accordance with the Ghandian traditions of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (holding on to the truth), has been in a David/Goliath standoff with the Indian government as a result of this Act. In November 2000, 10 civilians were killed under the auspices of this act. Accounts vary widely, but a huge number of Manipuri citizens, including Irom Sharmila, view this and numerous other killings as examples of official abuse of power gone unconscionably wrong. Sharmila started a hunger strike a few days later, and was almost immediately arrested for attempted suicide, a crime under the Indian Penal code.

She is released once a year, as per the letter of the law, and then immediately re-imprisoned due to her refusal to end her hunger strike. Many Manipuris believe the only reason the government bothers to keep her alive is because they don’t want a martyr on their hands.

This has been going on for Ten. Years. 10.

And, for the most part, it has gone largely unnoticed by the world outside. Indeed, even the world inside. Many Northeastern Indians are accused of being anti-Indian or seditious or worse when they raise objections to the AFPCA or other examples of how the Northeast region has been alternately marginalized or exploited since they became part of India.

When Ghandi-ji went on fasts, the world listened. But with all due respect to Ghandi-ji, he was an upper-caste, classically educated male. Just because he didn’t necessarily subscribe to that superiority complex doesn’t mean it didn’t work to his advantage. Irom Sharmila, a woman from a state most people outside of India haven’t even heard of, does not have that same luxury.

And so, like the Roma in Europe, the Maya in Mexico, and the Native Americans in the US, Northeastern Indians are only heard when they add color or diversity to nationalistic self-promotion. But when they try to get their voices heard regarding the more unsavory aspects of nationhood, they get thrown in jail, a tube shoved down their noses…and are drowned out by a billion voices.