Monday, June 25, 2012

Reckoning With History

Running full steam ahead into my final project for the trip! I was typing out details during breakfast this morning. We found a cafe with wifi and a super hipster atmosphere. So hipster, in fact, that the inside had modern furniture, worn iron walls meant to look like an old warehouse, and a fixed gear bicycle tied to the railing of the loft that we sat in and sipped black coffee. Ever day I edge closer to fair trade shade grown vegan hipster (but not really).

I decided to research and write about women entrepreneurs in Dharavi. The industries they tend to work in, how they started working in this particular field, how many people they support through their work etc. Think of it as a series of ethnographies about the informal economy in India, through a case study of Asia's most famous "slum." It's incredibly awesome how much this research contributes and takes from the other work I'm doing on the side right now.

Side note: a relevant TED talk!

And really, it kinda feeds into some of my ideas for fellowships for next year. Yes, I have returned a little bit to this possibility. I think I stumbled on a really great idea while I was here, and I'm trying to flush it out amid Colombia reading, Bombay explorations, and my class. Which is still super awesome, in case you were wondering.

This week we have started our discussions around violence. My professor and I have a really funny relationship. Whenever he talks about the slums, I bring up gangs. Which have a very different sort of relationship to the city than anything I have ever seen before. I find it utterly confusing... especially since I felt safest of all in Dharavi. In fact, I'm so excited to be working there because it was the only place outside in the city that I felt calm, collected and not flustered by honking cars and people essentially running into you or men loudly blowing kisses (gross. This needs to stop.). I digress. Our relationship is funny because he knows I'm going to bring up violence, and he even indulges me now by including comparisons to Latin America.

Today we discussed partition and the 1984, 1992, and 2002 riots. We talked about the history of religious tension between Muslims and Hindus in India, the first census and numerous other factors that made this tension all the more palpable. He lived in Bombay during the 1992 riots and showed us images of the violence from his 20s. He talked about working with the refugees and victims after the violence -- and gave an example from one of the camps where a member of the mob that ran through killing muslims using a textbook provided by a political group here (with the best methods to kill and rape without getting caught... yes it's as horrifying as it sounds) ended up working as a volunteer in some of the centers.

Talk about coming to terms with the past. Going through the waves of following the community blindly, then reckoning with your actions, and finally seeking redemption. Can one ever repay a community that it has taken so much from to begin with? Honestly, dont you surrender your membership to the larger community when you trespass on this level?

And then... you get to Dharavi... where, as far as I can tell, there isnt the same religious tension you might be able to feel in other areas. I'm really curious about its history during the riots, since all I have heard about is the harmony of these groups living together and providing each other space for religious centers in a city that really doesnt have any space to spare.

I'm working out the details for a translator and access to the city this evening, but maybe in my digging I'll be able to learn more and figure out how this magical place that is Dharavi can exist as it does. It's funny. As soon as we were leaving, my professor stopped me and said, you need to work in Dharavi for your final project.

He was right. I think it's in my blood now. It's constantly on my mind as this mystery I want to start unraveling.

The last thing I'll mention is the interesting gender dynamic that has changed the way most of the girls in my class are doing work. Our projects include mine and a look at "Beauty" based on skin tone and gender in advertisements for beauty products, and a few others. Many of us are talking about writing on gender. Probably because yesterday was the first episode in my life where I really wished that I was not female. I wished it more than anything so that I could feel safe going out in the dark to buy myself dinner. I knew that I could not. That barrier, that KNOWLEDGE that my GENDER prevented me from feeling safe in the city.. it was a lot to handle. Especially for a female college student who grew up with empowering parents and access to anything that I wanted to do. Here I was needing to fill a basic need that I could not fill.

I think we are all looking for positive examples of female empowerment in the city. Really looking, digging, seeking... ANYTHING. Because walking down that street everyday to people looking at me like I am a sandwich and really feeling scared to walk around alone as a result is not something I want my daughters to deal with. I am sure part of it is the foreign experience and my own tainted perspective, so I want to teach myself to see the positive.

And Damn it, that's what I'll do.

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