Sunday, May 22, 2005

i’ve gone from being an april fool to a superstitious one.

13 is one of my lucky numbers & so i just couldn’t resist updating y’all from my mamma’s house in mumbai (coincidentally flat #13!) this friday the 13th. now it’s the 22nd already & time to wish ellie & wade both very happy birthdays. i miss you both very much & wade darlin’ you know how i feel. sorry i’m missing your birthday but i’ll be home soon. so last time i wrote i was in dizzy desi decision making mode. like many of my fellow indians, i realized that by saying yes & no & maybe all at the same time that i could avoid actually answering specific questions altogether. works like a charm…especially on oneself. i was uncertain about staying in india longer than the six months my visa(s) allowed but i went ahead & extended my tourist visa (thanks roopal & virenbhai!) so that i would at least have the option of returning to a’bad in june in order to catch a performance by the kids in our communal harmony project. at the moment, however, there is no guarantee that there will be a performance or if i will get back there anytime soon…speaking of being there, i really do miss a’bad. there is no real way of knowing how much a place has transformed you until you leave it & the gandhi ashram & manav sadhna & meeting my a’bad family have undoubtedly changed me in ways i just couldn’t have anticipated. in a strange way i left there feeling both much older & more youthful than i ever have before. i guess i left there feeling my true age...with all of it’s beauty & weight. some highlights of my last month there:* our communal harmony project’s retreat in sugad (at the brand spankin’ new Environmental Sanitation Institute)… where the kiddos decided to call their group “All In One” & truly bonded after a weekend of drama workshops & script writing & playing team building games that had them (& us) singing & dancing & laughing. i spent a lot of that weekend being the mother hen & trying to keep the darlings on schedule (yes, keeping others on time, that’s me. laugh as much as you want. i deserve it.) of course flexibility was key & somehow we managed to get quite a lot done in the day and a half we had. i wanted the kids to be more into the scriptwriting than they actually were but in the end we decided to just let their ideas flow & try to capture as much of their own dialogue as possible on tape/film & then later attempt to write a coherent story culling bits & pieces from all of their stories. shivana will update me on the fruit of our/their scriptwriting sessions soon i hope! * a day with four of my masis (my mother’s sisters) & the rest of my a’bad family which included much yummy food (of course), wearing a rida (the bohra answer to purdah) in order to visit a sacred roza site (the tomb of a religious soldier/saint) & watching peacocks dance while my masis prayed & patiently explained the process of ziarat to me. in ziarat there is a lot of kissing of tombstones & complicated salaams involved & i guess you could say in respect for their incredible faith i emulated what they did but outside the roza my cousin yunus & i had a long discussion about how different the concepts of islam are within our family & even within ourselves. over the course of this trip i have realized just how little i know about my family’s religion (dawoodi bohra) i have not yet let up with the constant questioning of my relatives regarding matters of blind faith & ritual. some rituals i watch from a distance, as a casual observer, taken in by the beauty and ceremony of it all. with other rituals i feel a bit more compelled to act as a critic. i suppose when i get home i’ll have a new perspective on all of it. it’s certainly been an eye-opening trip. anyways, it’s been amazing to listen to the stories & songs of my masis & i can almost picture how my own mother must have fit in with them as they laugh at/with each other. * then there was a sudden unplanned trip to kutch that i can’t wait to share with y’all via photos because it seems i’ve become less into language here & more into images. i can’t explain it really but i think it must be due to the fact that i am constantly straddling two languages at once & no longer quite sure of myself in either one. it’s that, or maybe i’ve just become quite a shutterfly & addicted to my digital camera. i must say though that kutch was one picturesque moment after another. the people & the landscape were simply gorgeous. * we made for a full-on jovial carload through the gujarati desert & i reckon from all that time spent in the car together we know all the veer-zaara film songs loved by anardidi, the punchlines to rahul’s funny stories in his funny gujarati, maria’s cute sleeping poses, anjali’s adorable laugh, jayeshbhai’s inimitable toilet humour, jayantibhai’s love of the road & my fear of it (practically-not metaphorically!) going on a trip with the manav sadhna crew invariably means that you meet the most giving & generous people doing NGO work in india. we had lunch at an embroidery collective called shrujan just outside of bhuj. the founders are old friends of jayeshbhai & anardidi & they welcomed us & gave us an informative tour of their museum/shop & workshop. i was enamored with the way they presented all of the different kutchi styles of embroidery, some of which they have actually helped to preserve. i love buying things when they come attached with a story…especially when that story includes economic & creative sustainability for women & their art. so i now have a beautiful shirt in the pukka tradition that i will wear with pride. after that was a brief pitstop at the bhuj bus stop to inspect the pay as you go public toilets & as was expected the women’s toilets were too horrific to use so we commenced cleaning them. jayeshbhai (whose father probably set up that public toilet in the first place) proceeded to talk to the station manager about the lack of sanitation & finagled a promise from him that the ladies’ toilets would be inspected more often & that they would be cleaned more regularly from now on. we took the promise & his name but on our return journey through bhuj the toilets were just as bad if not worse. sometimes you feel as if things will never change in india but part of the charm of travelling with manav sadhna is the fact that you are constantly part of a force that attempts positive change no matter what the results & you can’t remain disheartened for too long in the presence of such good energy.speaking of good energy, we reached ludiya and the smaller village of gandhi-nu-gam just after sunset & the whole place just glowed. this is the village that manav sadhna rebuilt after the devasting earthquake in 2001 & touches of their DIY philosophy & love are found in every facet of the community. here is a link to the website explaining their choice of ludiya as a rehabilitation project: indicorps fellows rupal & rishi were awaiting our arrival along with viral & eric from charity focus fame. we made for quite a posse & later that night we all walked to a neighboring village for a welcome feast. with just the moonlight & stars to guide us the walk was an exercise in just breathing deeply & following your feet. to get an idea of the poetics of this space i urge you to read rupal’s article that is found here: she describes the landscape the way i wish i could…that night was my first taste of kutchi hospitality & food & it certainly wasn’t the last…we were treated like very special guests/family at every single place that we went (another element to traveling with manav sadhna & doing seva/volunteer work i’ve realized) within minutes we had kids all over us & the boys were helping roll chapatis & we were invited to several houses to see their exquisite embroidered blouses (that didn’t quite fit me. just wait til you see the photos…i look like a lilliputian in one!) after dinner there was music & song & dance & when they said we were going on a social visit i didn’t realize just how social…& this was just the first day. every day afterwards we met more & more people who continuously amazed me with their spirit, their artistic talents, & their generosity. we went from village to village for the next few days visiting the various artisans & village heads that manav sadhna & indicorps work with & it was surprising to see just how different each of the communities were & also a bit strange to realize that some of the villagers (& i mean the women villagers) had never set foot out of their own communities. i reckon that part of the visit to a few places was to convince a few reluctant village men to allow their women to leave the village & show their embroidery work in a’bad for an upcoming exhibition. i never found out what became of that…i hope that it was mission accomplished!we also ventured further out to see the temple town of karu dungar, walked along the indo-pak bridge until the soldiers told us to go no further, stared across the immense salt plains, watched maria take photos of architectural elements while we had tea at a recently opened “resort,” slept in the gorgeously mudworked house of mahmoudbhai (who sang us to sleep with traditional folk music) & his wife (a national embroidery winner!) in dhordo, hennaed the hands of a groom as part of a wedding ceremony, drove into the salt desert in the back of a lorry, rescued viral’s glasses from a dusty demise, visited a chemical factory that looked absolutely surreal planted in the middle of the desert, bought the most beautiful game of snakes & ladders i’ve ever seen at another NGO near bhuj called kala raksha (, listened to architects think at an NGO umbrella organization called abhiyan (, watched anardidi & anjali pick out naturally dyed cloth for the tailors at gramshree , had wonderful conversations with eric while spinning about in the car, attended an engagement feast for our friendly telephone operator with what seemed like the entire town of khavda…that was the last night with the whole manav sadhna group but maria & i decided to go on to mandvi to see the ocean & to visit VRTI, an NGO that does pretty much everything in regards to sustainable agricultural development in the region (see after a brief walk picking up plastic along the polluted beach we wandered the old town & the ship building yards where we crawled into the belly of a ship & then that night we had the ride of our lives in a hand cranked rollercoaster. the next day we got a really nice tour of VRTI’s facility & an overview of their projects & then headed back to bhuj. i wasn’t supposed to stay. i had bought a bus ticket back to a’bad but after an afternoon of walking around the old city i fell in love with bhuj. maria, architect that she is, highlighted aspects of the ancient & damaged buildings that i never would have seen otherwise & my trigger happy camerafinger was sore by the end of the day. i could have spent weeks meandering up & down the streets there but i was lucky that i got a couple of days… we also met up with a friend of maria’s named iris who was studying the art of indian prints & she was sweet enough to share her hotel room & her fashion expertise with us. We desperately needed both! she took us to ajrakpur to see how masters of the craft use natural dyes & carved wooden blocks to make the labour intensive & indescribably beautiful ajrak fabric. i had just seen dr. ismail mamad khatri’s work in an exhibition called resurgence: stories of an earthquake, survival, and art in a’bad a few months before. i was touched by his family’s story (see & took a photo of a print of his that moved me actually & all of a sudden here i was at his house/studio with his family seeing his artistic process from step one. such serendipity. you will see me wearing skirts made from his prints soon. we managed to get back to bhuj before sunset to see the aina mahal. it’s exactly what i picture when i think of a palace. it was badly damaged during the earthquake & in dire need of reconstructive surgery before the monsoons come. We met mr. p.j. jethi, the very sweet & informative curator of its museum & talked for a long time about the sad state of heritage sites in India & he hoped that the building would somehow be saved from further decomposition. I left with his book on kutchi culture & a promise to help publicize his cause…yet this is the first time in a month i’ve mentioned it. so if you have a chance please write a letter on his behalf to UNESCO ( the endangered site before the monsoon hits mid june. he just needs a little help & more funds to prepare the leaky walls for the inevitable water damage. alright . this will just haveta be part one of this update. i have babbled long enough. the other half of this update will center around my family visit to dahod for a wedding & seeing my parents’ old friends & traipsing about mumbai with the rest of my family…i learned a lot about our family on this trip that i’m still processing. about my plans to return home…i’ll be back after a month or so of pure mountain time. i head to the himalayas next monday & hope to wish the dalai lama happy birthday on july 6th in mcleod ganj before returning to mumbai before coming home home. i may run outta credit or karma before then so don’t be surprised if you see me sooner than later. i miss you all & have been excited to get any news of your lives. sorry i’ve been out of touch for soo long & i’m also sorry that i’m missing two more weddings, but congratulations & best of luck to dave & meredith & bryan & doreen!