On the periphery

When I was walking my friend to the car today, a family of four or five people walked past and one man tapped my arm and asked me (in Hindi) if I spoke Hindi. I instinctively said No (in Hindi) and kind of turned away; I heard a woman ask (in Telugu) if I spoke Telugu. Then, another man muttered something to her and they walked away.

I’ve had a variation of this experience several times in Bangalore and every time they leave me deeply unsettled. They’re always families and they seem to be from small towns and I always wonder what their story is. Maybe they came to Bangalore and are lost; maybe they were promised a job and were duped by someone they knew. Could they be running a scam? I don’t really know the answer and though the experiences always leave me conflicted, I’ve never sought to find out about their stories.

I’m always going somewhere when these encounters take place and in some cases stopping would make me late; in other cases though, I’ve had the time and I’ve still walked away. I’ve meant to ask about such people but Google doesn’t seem like the right place to find out. Who do I ask?

I don’t talk to ragpickers either; they’re unkempt, usually have a sack slung over their shoulder and scrounge for trash they can sell; I can’t meet their eyes. I wonder what their story is–where did they come from and how did they end up like this?

Yesterday, while going to the office, our cab was stuck behind a garbage truck and a man was in the back, which was filled with garbage, emptying a can of garbage from a restaurant around the place that he was standing. I’ve seen men shoveling garbage from the side of the road on to trucks that reek from twenty or thirty feet away. Where do these folks come from and what has led them to this line of work?

In the movie The Dark Knight Rises, Selina Kyle, a cat burglar, tells Bruce Wayne, the billionaire, says (emphasis mine):

There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because when it hits you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little to the rest of us. [1]

The part that I emphasized in the above quote keeps playing in my mind every now and then, especially when I see people struggling around me. I wonder about what millions of Indians must have felt when we became independent and what their dreams and aspirations must have been. And, I know we’ve obviously had progress and we have made things better for some people but I can’t shake the feeling that overall we’ve failed a great many people.

It is an inescapable fact that for millions of Indians life is a daily struggle and this is not just for the BPL (Below Poverty Line) families. This article asks an interesting question: does exiting extreme poverty really guarantee that the poor can attain a decent life? Later, in the article, this is a striking assertion:

India has already made striking gains against extreme poverty, but the harsh reality is that 680 million of its citizens live with various forms of deprivation.

You can argue about whether it’s 680 million or 250 million  but you cannot argue that millions of people “live with various forms of deprivation”. How do we reconcile this with the lives that we get to lead? We can’t; we’re just lucky that we had opportunities that were even available to us that we could take advantage of; sure, we worked hard but some people don’t get these opportunities no matter how hard they work.

It’s not fair and the odds are stacked against such people. So, when I hear people talking about sacrificing for the good of the nation or in the national interest, it makes me angry because the people saying this are privileged and for them, sacrificing is standing in a line to withdraw cash or worrying about how to pay salaries to domestic help, and so on. I don’t want to wade further into the great cashless debate, so I’ll stop.

When I thought about this post, I wanted to segue into a book that I’m reading, but this went in a different direction after I started writing. I know this might be a depressing post to read but this isn’t about guilt-tripping or about shaming, but about acknowledging. I think we get desensitized in India because most of the time, things around us are too overwhelming.

But, maybe, if we force ourselves to feel every once in a while, by wondering about people’s stories and imagining living their lives, we have a chance of letting the reality of others disturbing the distortion field around us.

Evolution gave us a marvelous tools, the prefrontal cortex, which allows us to run simulations in our head, mirror neurons that fire when we observe the actions or behaviors of others–all this means that we don’t necessarily have to immerse to experience. We can imagine what it might be like and we can listen to the emotions that follow.

And, then, maybe we’ll get to what John Lennon sang in his beautiful song (watch/listen here):

Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world…

[1]: Here’s a link to the movie’s script, which obviously has spoilers.



Gang Leader for a Day

Finding this book is one of the reasons I love browsing in bookstores. I was in the business section at Crossword and this book was hidden away behind some of the other books, at the back. Two copies. Classifying a book about drug gangs in the business section is creative but Gang Leader for a Day is more about the business (unintentional pun) of observing people, i.e. sociology.

If you read Freakonomics, you’d have heard of Sudhir Venkatesh. He’s the guy that studied drug gangs in Chicago and the chapter that deals with why drug dealers stay with their moms is based on his work.

Sudhir Venkatesh clearly has cojones. In his quest to find interview subjects, he finds himself trapped by gang members in Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes projects. Somehow, he manages to pique the interest of J.T., the leader of the Black Kings gang.

The book is about how he gains JT’s trust, the way the gang operates, the appalling condition of the projects and the people living there, and the machinations of Ms. Bailey, the president of the building. Oh yeah, and JT makes him gang leader for a day as well.

GLFAD is a fascinating book and is like a thriller — I really could not put the book down. Though you sometimes wonder about the decisions Venkatesh takes, it is an honest look at life in the midst of poverty and drugs.

I also wonder if the field of sociology was shaken up by what Venkatesh did, the equivalent of embedded reporting in a field that typically gathered data using surveys and analyzed data using statistical models.

Brilliant book and if you look behind the shelves at Crossword, you just might find a copy.

The deal with Slumdog Millionaire

I watched Slumdog Millionaire a couple of weeks ago. I read reviews that were critical of the movie and some that praised the movie, so I went in with minimal expectations.

I ended up being surprised by the movie, mostly in a good way. I hadn’t realized that the movie would have a nice thread of suspense holding it together, which made it interesting to watch. The movie was also nicely paced so it never felt boring. There were parts of the movie which made me cringe because they were difficult to watch. More on this later. Overall though, it was a pretty good movie and definitely worth watching.

Now, to the controversy regarding what the movie showed about Mumbai (and India in general). I had no problem with most of the stuff that was shown in the movie. The poverty that was shown was essential to the movie, given that the main characters were from the slums. You can’t gloss over all that.

So, I cannot understand the holier-than-thou attitude that some people had about the movie. Is it not a fact that you see poverty and filth and squalor in India? Do we not see children begging, children working, children being exploited? Maybe we are so used to it that it doesn’t register to us. But, it is there and it is a part of the India we live in. That the movie was written by a Westerner and directed by another Westerner makes no difference–it was mostly accurate in what it portrayed. And, remember this is a work of fiction we are talking about.

Also, to the people who complained, I’d like to ask them why they don’t complain about the authenticity of most of the films that Bollywood makes? They’re so fantastic, and by that I mean fantasy-like, you might as well call them fantasy movies. Think of the number of Bollywood movies that show the “real India” as opposed to the ones that don’t. So, if someone’s showing a part of India that you don’t like to see on screen, tough luck. Do something about changing India rather than attacking the director and the script writer of the movie.

The fact that is probably hardest to digest, and this sorta hits you when you watch the movie, is that India is still a third-world country. In spite of the wonderful strides we’ve made, we are still a nation that has so many people who don’t make enough money, who can’t afford to eat a nutritious meal, and who don’t have access to clean drinking water among other things.

To go after Slumdog Millionaire is just ridiculous and it’s just happening because it’s a soft and an easy target because of its success. Please.

What I didn’t like about the movie was that it was sometimes over the top. The one sequence where the young Jamal tries to get Amitabh Bachchan’s autograph was, pardon the pun, a load of crap. It was over the top and unnecessary and it was unrealistic.

The other problem I had was with the accents of the brothers when they’re still children but slightly older (after they’ve escaped their horrible situation). They sounded like convent-educated English speaking kids and that part of the movie was jarring. The younger kids were so believable with their accents primarily because they spoke in Hindi. I wish the director (and script writer) would’ve stayed with a mix of Hindi and English for the movie because I think that would’ve made the movie feel even more authentic.

About the child stars who portray the youngest Jamal, Salim, and Latika. They were terrific and it was some of the best acting I’ve seen from children in an Indian movie. For me, they were the true stars of the movie: they were believable, you felt empathy for them, and you were moved by them. Credit should go to the script writer Simon Beaufoy (and Vikas Swarup, the author) for creating such realistic characters.

So much has been said about Rahman’s music but didn’t we all know that he was/is brilliant. It’s just that the world’s finding out about him now. He is really something and if there’s one person I’m rooting for in this year’s Academy Awards, it’s him. If he were a Hollywood composer, he’d be a highly decorated one, so here’s hoping that he wins an Oscar for his contribution to this movie.

If you have not watched Slumdog Millionaire, you should. It may not be the best movie of the year, it may not win an Oscar, but it still is a damn good movie and it is worth watching.

The unusual story of a rising star

A terrific article in The Guardian, by Gethin Chamberlain, about a young, rising football star in India.

Rounding the last defender, Raja Chinnaswamy looks up towards the iron frame of the goal in the lee of the white-washed wall of the orphanage behind. He pulls back his right foot and lets fly, sending the ball hurtling past the goalkeeper and out through the gaping hole in the torn netting.

Eight years ago, when he first arrived at the orphanage in the southern Indian state of Kerala, Raja had never seen a football. Today he is a rising star of Indian football, a 14-year-old already being talked about by his excited coaches as a future fixture in the national team.

P.S.: The article’s title is Street beggar to star striker, Raja is India’s football hope

The suffering of a stowaway immigrant

From a beautifully-written, heartbreaking piece titled The cruellest voyage (written by Nick Davies for The Guardian):

In 1992, Kingsley Ofosu fled poverty in Ghana for the promised land of Europe. But the journey had barely begun when he witnessed the callous murder of his fellow stowaways. He escaped, and an article in the Guardian brought his story to the attention of the world. Hollywood and fame followed, but now he is back in Ghana, living in poverty again. Nick Davies, who wrote the original story, visits him in Accra and hears how it all went wrong.

In search of a solution to his young family’s poverty in Ghana, he had stowed away on a cargo ship with his brother and six friends. On board, they found a ninth stowaway, who had crept on to the ship in Cameroon. Six days later, on the high seas, they were discovered by the crew, who were afraid that they would lose their jobs if they arrived in Europe with the migrants. And so, after locking them in a tiny, dark storage room for three days, the seamen set about murdering the would-be migrants.

Ofosu was the only survivor. As he watched his brother Albert being shot and tossed over the side to join the seven other corpses in the churning sea, he managed to escape from the crew. For three days, he hid in the dark rafters of the hold as the seamen searched for him. Finally, the ship put in to Le Havre to unload some of its cargo of cocoa beans. With extraordinary resourcefulness, he not only found his way out of the locked hold by shinning up a ventilation shaft but had the foresight to break open a sack of cocoa beans and plant his Ghanaian identity card deep among them to prove that his unbelievable story was true.

It is a sad story of struggle and of what it means to be poor in today’s world. A must-read.

Maya Organic

If you’ve visited the top floor of Crossword bookstore in Bangalore, in the toys section, you may have noticed products with the Maya Organic brand name.

I first came across Maya Organic when I was looking for gifts and came across their selection of lacware toys which looked pretty cool. Having read the information on the back of the toys, I looked up the site on the net, made a note to write about the work they’re doing and promptly forgot about it.

I’d heard of Maya when they were primarily working with children, but they’ve expanded their perspective since:

At the time of MAYA’s inception in 1989, MAYA sought to address child labour and children’s rights by programming initiatives aimed at working children and at-risk children. As a result of continual processes of reflection and learning over the years, the organisation has increasingly realised that though the primary cause of child labour appears to be economic poverty, this immediate interpretation fails to capture the complexity of the issues on the ground. In reality, poverty is a state of deprivation that includes limited opportunities for the poor to articulate their needs, to improve their capabilities, and to access to resources.

Maya Organic was one of the organisations that they formed and what they do can be summarised thus:

Maya Organic is a livelihood development Initiative that helps micro-entrepreneurs build a network of sustainable enterprises that makes impeccable quality products by collaborating and partnering with umbrella structures to manage supply, product development, design and marketing. Maya Organic aims to create wealth and build capabilities for the families of poor informal sector workers.

Maya Organic designs and produces lifestyle products such as home and institutional furniture made of solid wood, wooden organic lac coloured toys and Apparels from natural fibre. The products are sold under the brand name of MO.

To cut a long story short, Maya Organic makes Lac-ware educational toys, children’s accessories & children’s furniture, Apparel & accessories, Wood & Metal Furniture, and Home Accessories. You can get more information on their product page. One of my favourite products is the lac-ware keychains, which are colourful, puppet-like figures.

I think it’s a cool idea to empower people to sustain themselves and you can find out ways to participate here. The easiest way, of course, is to buy products made by Maya Organic.

They have a showroom at:

#15, Bannerghatta Road, JP Nagar III Phase
Bangalore-560078. Ph: 26580511. 26580512

Landmark: opp. Shoppers Stop

You can get directions and additional information on their Contact page.

Designing to help the world’s poor

Superb article from the New York Times about designs that solve problems for the world’s poor. Here’s an excerpt:

“A billion customers in the world,” Dr. Paul Polak told a crowd of inventors recently, “are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar lantern and a $100 house.”

The world’s cleverest designers, said Dr. Polak, a former psychiatrist who now runs an organization helping poor farmers become entrepreneurs, cater to the globe’s richest 10 percent, creating items like wine labels, couture and Maseratis.

“We need a revolution to reverse that silly ratio,” he said.

I love the rolling drum for transporting water. I’d imagine that we’d have a few people in India being able to use it, especially in remote villages where women walk for water.

Speaking of designs to help the poor, I was reminded of the clay pots that were ubiquitous in summer. You know the ones used to cool water before we could all afford fridges? I do see the pots now and then but I’m thinking more people use their fridges than the pots, especially in the cities.

But enough of my reminiscing, go read Design That Solves Problems for the World’s Poor by Donald G. McNeil Jr., for the NYT.

Recycling to live

An interesting article from Al Jazeera titled Recycling for life in Argentina:

‘Cartoneros’, or ‘recyclers’, have become one of the enduring consequences of the Argentinean economic crisis of 1999 – 2002, when the peso devalued by 70 per cent.

Their job has meant dramatic results for the environment by reducing the amount of solid waste going into landfill by 25 per cent.

Cartoneros collect cardboard, plastic and glass from the more salubrious neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires and then sell it to recycling companies.

According to some estimates, there are now 30,000 cartoneros in Buenos Aires. While Argentina shows signs of economic recovery, entire families are looking for garbage on the streets in order to translate their findings into cash, in a job that pays less than $10 per week.

The Indian equivalent are the ragpickers and they usually have a gunny sack that is used to carry the “useful waste”, usually on their backs.