29 January 2009

Slumgods ?

I have passed by slums ever since I was born. The hired help who came from the nearby slum massaged me when I was an infant. Shantabai as she was called also moped the floor, washed the vessels and clothes. On Christmas and diwali my mother gave her bakshish -“extra” wages along with her regular ones. She came 6 days a week, 365 days of the year barring the usual vacation when she wanted to go to the village. She didn’t have young ones and she rarely fell sick. She was lean and healthy. When my mother gave her the extra rotis (flat bread ) or chawal ( cooked rice ) that was made for the day shantabai would ask it to be packed up for her son . Shantabai didn’t live in a slum all her life. She came from a family of modest means in the village and was married to a rich landlord.

Shantabai was the second wife of this rich landlord. In addition to renting out shops and some residences ( read
chawls ) they also owned a roadside temple and celebrated ganesh ustav with pomp. When the landlord decided to take the third wife, Shantabai was thrown out with her 15 year old son on the streets. No alimony and no children expenses. And no place to rest her head. Shantabai now turned to a slumdweller who was paying rents to her husband landlord. When they were hesitant she took her bundle of clothes and borrowed some vessels to cook in an open playground at night. At night she slept under the skies and in the morning she sat around. Initially everybody in the neighborhood was afraid to offer her work because she was a rich landlord’s wife who also had a political clout in the area.

Few months later a woman was courageous enough to offer her work – washing, cleaning etc. After that she got steady work – at least she cleaned and moped 4-6 houses and had enough money to rent a place in the slum. Yes, she was paying money to her husband for her dwelling in the slum. She had money to pay for groceries and that was it. But it was not sufficient to keep her son in school. He dropped out. Walked around the streets, befriended the boys in the slum and turned to ways that bought an extra income through any means possible. He landed in jail a few times , but his father did not bail him out. The mother would take advance from her employers and go to the police station to pay bail once she collected sufficient amounts.
Shantabai never dreamt that she would live in a slum one day. She did not even think that her son will turn to wrong ways because they lived very well by all means ( not American of course).

The people living in the slums in Bombay are people who cannot afford even the modest means of dwelling in one of the priciest real estate places in the world. They are peons, household help, vendors, cooks, construction laborers, janitors, and tailors. They are the waiters that you see in the five star hotel working as waiters and sous chefs, They are also cooks in the glamorous houses in the sky scrapers of South Bombay. They polish your shoes and wash your clothes and also take care of your children when you are dressed in a suit and a tie and go to make business deals.

Many did not choose to be in the Slums. They live in a slum because they were forced out by adversities of life from their villages, forced out by the unemployment in small towns and even mid size towns .
They are the majority of the population of Bombay – resilient by force, and not by choice. They are the reason why there are chauffeur driven cars and south Bombay employs them for cheap. Ever wonder why the imports from India that you buy at
Banana Republic and Anthropologie and Ann Taylor is cheap ? Because these exploited tailors do not get sufficient wages to get out of the slums and move into a decent place try hard they might.

The money they earn are shared with the extended family members in the village they migrated from years ago escaping hunger. They have a sense of community than you and me. Infuriate one and you infuriate many. Successes, joys and pains are shared. And festivals celebrated amidst with the little that they have. Some become like Shantabai’s son but not all. Some go on to become doctors and engineers and one whom I personally know even studied at
IIT for his master’s program. But these are exceptions and eventually get out of the slum while many others continue to stay in the slum generations after generations. slum dogs are not the term for them, not even slum gods. The society has lost a sense of respect for fellow human beings if they have started to name people by the kind of dwelling they live in. it is a movie, but it is also a reflection of society. Doesn't artists express and expose society in their art? Yes, but they also edit it and the audience is left with what they have not "Cut".

A Quick Note to Mr Boyle, the director of the movie
Slum dog millionaire.

Mr Boyle, As for the title “slum dog millionaire” your artistic mind copied the hindi translation of the phrase “gali ka kutta ( street dog , when literally translated and is used as a curse word in India.) metaphorically meant as a scum dog into a movie calling out for many discussions and accolades. Cheers to poverty as a source of inspiration, is it ?

Your kaleidoscopic western lens has brought tales of poverty to the living rooms of Hollywood and for those who wonder if such conditions really exist. This movie has brought a buzz to evening cocktail parties where wall street conversations leave a sour taste. Will you title a movie a foul prince- Prince charles. Run before the palace dogs hounds you.It is disdain to feel entitled to name the lesser known with an abusive catchy title. The people who live in the slums are not proud of their state.

28 January 2009

the travails of an immigrant

They were honest and truthful. Sujata didn't add false years on her resume so that she will get a job. Honesty was returned in favor of "no job" and no sponsorships. But she chugs on with life thinking that there will be a day so good that such memories will fade away. On the other hand her partner Satish continued to work and did not negotiate a higher salary or a promotion because the US immigration laws wants him to remain in the same job title from the day that he first applied for a green card (in March 2003).

Though they received an Employment without authorization card in 2007, the gap in Sujata's resume (of not working due to visa reasons) was considered a major block. Satish could not take better job descriptions or even change his field of work because he would have to refile his papers and go back to square one.

Satish's dreams of pursuing a full time school are now adjusted to being a part time student. He says that he cannot do justice to his school work and work on his readings thoroughly as much as he wants to because of the commitments of a full time job and aggressive course load. He cannot take some classes because some of them are held during business hours and work does not permit him to attend them. Nor can he leave his job because one of them has to bring home bread.


In April 2007 when the financial companies were starting to show the fall – starting with Citigroup he was the first to go. Since it was the month of April he had the burden of finding a job in 60 days, take 2 finals, find a good immigration lawyer, and complete all legal formalities. His wife took the share of the legal aspect, contacted her friends and passed on his resume. Friends were very helpful and so were strangers who were in the same boat. Being a good student, some of his professors also put a word for him in certain companies. In this darkening economy he survived another lay off last Friday and will know in a few days weather he will survive another one. His wife Sujata has never stopped to look for jobs. She is still exploring. But amidst all this a sense of gratitude prevails.

From the diary of an immigrant.

06 January 2009

Washington DC in my words

To plan a visit to DC and hit the major spots Fodor’s or lonely planet offers more information . The following are my impressions over a period of years.

I have been to DC couple of times by now. In 1998 we were dropping off a friend to the
university of Maryland and stopped at the world bank to pick up another friend and drove by the usual places - the sheer curiosity to see capitol hill ( by twilight ) and the white house. In 2002 I took classes at the Washington DC campus of Syracuse university. In 2007 we marched to capitol hill and in 2008 I was one of the few who represented north east petitioning to the congressman and the senators ( aka their legislative aides).

This was the first time we were real tourists – tourists with a purpose – to see the city of power and why everybody wanted to have a piece of it in time. On a student’s budget we wanted to find “free parking" and hence drove to
Hill wood museum, which once belonged to Mrs. Post the daughter of the Cereal magnate C.W.Post. The largest collection of Russian artifacts outside Russia( that were being thrown out after the czar was ousted was bought by Mrs.post in rubles. The china, the kink knacks, the vases ( there cannot be enough gold in Russian artifacts of the czar ) was displayed splendidly in many of the outhouses and the main home itself, which also had housed the French collections. Anybody who likes intricate carvings and too much of gold and intricate designs and all that goes with the royalty’s taste of pomp, glitz and bling in every object this is the place to be, though all of this made me feel dizzy.

Our next stop was the
National Cathedral . Fortunately there were no security checks here and the place was open for all visitors. Made in the gothic style and standing Tall (looked like 20 plus feet ceiling to me ( i guessed badly) it is 301 feet according to washington.com) it emitted rays of power and oozed “ Majestic and bombastic”. Just the place where powerful people and presidents would attend. Towards the evening a very kind looking old priest came in and said the evening prayers with 20 or so visitors on this new years eve. Since it was a cold breezy evening we postponed to explore the outsides on our next visit. I have seen architectures that would catch every eye, but this one did not command such attention, but demanded every bit. The capital of the US was true in its every sense – Every other building had “national” on it or something related to it.

it was January 1st and when we drove into the city we enjoyed the privilege of empty roads with pedestrians or dog walkers. And park we could, anywhere we liked! Dressed head to toe with only eyes visible to see we walked towards the mall ( the essence of the US shopping – only this time – the art galleries, aquarium, natural history museum, and the Smithsonian were all along this square.) There were many tourists like us but this was so much unlike the DC that I had seen before – Crowded, dressed in black, poker faced men and women going to work in the government offices , consulates , non-government and international organizations which the city is known for.

The cold wind was kissing us and a cup of coffee was also scarcely available !( 99 percent of shops are closed on the 1st of Jan) Another tourist whom we met mentioned how he had to book the tickets to visit the white house almost 3 months in advance through his state senator. DC was a ghost town except for some visitors who was around the mall. I was even surprised that the confusing
DuPont circle also wore a deserted look. - a place that I have got lost many times on my way to attend classes . I heard a 20 year old yelling out on her phone, “ I have nothing to do in this god**** town!"( Actually there is so much that one can and see and do on a working day) The buildings looked all the same” was another comment that I heard many tourists say. Some new buildings had steel and glass. B-O-R-I-N-G is the architecture of many new buildings. it would be difficult to win a guessing game to identify the buildings except for the few monuments, the capitol hill or the white house, but the old neighborhood of the capitol with run down houses was colorful and warm. Just like the most of America cities the official part of the town, looked homogenized.

The buzy , bustling town in George town was more expensive than the
SOHO of New York. My initial impression of the people of Washington including the many diplomats that make their temporary home here was that they all wore a poker faced look, trying to look powerful and all knowing ( Read: The black Swan to know more) Every country consulate was trying to hog a bigger and better mansion than the others! Every policy analyst and lobbyist trying to get as close to the congress man. It was power play at work. Wit, cooperation, coalition , intelligence, charisma - all of these and many more were in action when the people in power and those who wanted a slice of the power pie played.

Politics was a business in this city. And the players of this sport played it at every game irrespective of the number of players. DC was a complex composition. Add components like manipulation, lie, cheat, and deceit, subtract the nervousness, increase or decrease the number of players, you have a new game, but the sport remains the same . And once you get a steady hand in the game you are the power - lock, stock and barrel. Only now the formula will have to be more accurate. You need it all to stay in power and weld it with every kind of flexibility to Stay put. However the ultimate game of governance will only get going when the animosities of the players are reduced to as much as zero, and business be taken care of.

My visit to this city will always refresh – not for the place but for the people who live here and work here and call it their home. of those senators and the congress men and their legislative aides who want to bring governance. They started with an idealism that bought them to this business to bring forth difference in the lives of the citizens who elected them to bring about welfare that would reform their lives. During the ride some loose it and some abuse it and very few become a pragmatic idealist. But if they completely loose themselves and misuse them the people can throw them out,thank goodness to a democratic way of finding
this lion of the jungle.

We saw President-elect Obama banners at book stalls, shop windows and even the freer gallery. “Presidents come and go but the problems of poverty, war, disaster, racial discrimination, health care, education have continued to remain in varying proportions.” A man who once looked at politics with cynicism, but have waded through deep waters including initial indifference of empty halls of meeting him when he first ran for senate a few years ago now will take office in a few days. Only time and people will be the true judge of How he will conduct the business of politics, the biggest sport played in this city.

P.S : Georg has left an interesting piece of info in the comment section. Thanks Georg.

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