Week 2 in Bangalore has been filled with incredible people, new places, and all the carbs in the world - a standard meal might include two kinds of rice, potatoes, and bread. I love this place... Seriously, though, I've met people this week who are doing jaw-dropping work that is all the more amazing to me since I'm still just trying to figure out how to get around and feed myself here. So, expect this post to be a whole lot of fangirling, and please do check out the links to the organizations I've learned about this week - they're well worth the time.
On Monday, the group had a check-in with Anu and Amy. A couple of things came up in our discussion that I want to touch on here. The first is that this program is emphatically NOT a service trip - we are here to learn from people who know way more about Bangalore and its issues than we ever will, not to suggest solutions for them. The more time I spend here, the more I disagree with the voluntourism model. Unless you're a doctor or an engineer with hard skills that another place desperately needs, it's almost certain that someone in that place can do and is doing the service you want to perform, and they're probably doing it better than you could. Which leads me to the second thing we talked about: a better model for social change is to pursue local solutions to local problems. The NGOs I've learned about so far are effective precisely because their employees live in the areas they serve, eliminating much of the cost of travel and the barrier of cultural difference. Maybe it's ironic, but my time abroad has reinforced my goal of focusing on U.S. policy in my studies and career - I want to be part of a local solution.
After a day of reflection and wandering the city, on Tuesday the group met a feminist organization called Hengasara Hakkina Sangha, which, translated out of Kannada, means Women's Rights Organization. HHS is essentially two women, Indhu and Usha, who have worked tirelessly for more than a decade to empower rural women by educating them about their legal rights. This dynamic duo led us on a walking tour of the neighborhood near their office, including a visit to a five hundred-year-old Hindu temple and a walk through a park where fruit bats hung from the trees. This city is so green, even compared to Seattle, and I said a silent "thank you" to ESG.
Wednesday was our second day with HHS. Indhu and Usha first introduced us to Prathibha Nandakumar, a Kannada poet and translator. Prathibha ma'am is one of the only female Indian poets writing about women's bodies and desires in a way that has historically been reserved for men and also one of the only poets to write about the struggles of dalit women. In her talk, she discussed the process of translation from Kannada into English and from her own identity as an upper-class, upper-caste woman to the voice of a poor, dalit woman. In both cases, Prathibha ma'am stressed that although details may be lost in translation, the core identity of the work or the woman must come through. She also spoke about the competing identities within her - she is a woman, a poet, and a journalist, and sometimes the cultural expectations placed on women make it difficult for her to write poetry or prose effectively or she must decide whether to write about something in poetry or prose. The idea of choosing identities seems obvious, but I loved the way she put it - no matter what aspect of her comes into play in a given situation, she is no less herself, and while some identities are static - her gender, her class, her educated status - she has chosen to be a poet and a journalist.
Our next speaker also had a lot to say about identity. Akkai Padmashali, a trans activist, told us her story of growing up in a patriarchal society and her journey transitioning to identifying openly as female. Although hijras, MTF transgender folks, have long held a respected place in Indian society, Akkai spoke about the patriarchy within the hijra community and her decision to break with its traditions and expectations. As she told us about her time as a sex worker, conflicts with hijra leaders, and the struggle to gain legal recognition as a woman, she never stopped smiling. Akkai gave us really difficult material to process, but she did so with a generosity of spirit that kept us energized and open. Her teaching is an art in itself.
On Thursday, Usha and Indhu had lined up two more people to speak with us. First, we checked in with them about everything we'd talked about so far. Each of us listed three things we'd been thinking about during our time with HHS. Here are mine:
1. There are some identities that I am born with and others that I can choose.
2. It is impossible to theorize the balances between relationality and individuality and between universality and distinctness.
3. Taking these two truths into consideration, it follows that I must constantly negotiate tension between my identities, being conscious of how each comes into play in a given situation and of how they change over time.
Indhu and Usha spoke to this too. Usha talked about taking the train back from rural Karnataka, where she was teaching women who lived in extreme poverty, to her comfortable home in Bangalore. Her discomfort with her own privilege hit home for me, and the fact that she and Indhu struggle with feelings of guilt and inadequacy and yet do such incredible work inspires me to keep engaging with my own identities as a white, American, educated person and to use them to do good things rather than to feel bad about them - this is an ongoing and difficult practice, but Usha's words gave me a lot of encouragement.
Next, we listened to Deepu, a filmmaker for an independent documentary studio called Pedestrian Pictures, speak about the power of film to increase public awareness of social issues. He showed us a documentary his friend had made about Bangalore garment workers' attempts to unionize. Having studied American labor law last quarter, I was struck the similarities between the poor conditions Indian workers deal with and those in the U.S. a hundred years ago. Abhorrent labor practices are a part of the birth pangs of development, it seems, but local union organizers are able to use the same tactics that American unions pioneered to hopefully protect workers sooner. However, it's not quite that simple - today, trade is global, so unionized workers risk driving international corporations to countries with more vulnerable labor forces and losing their jobs altogether. As Deepu pointed out, it's difficult to determine what a fair wage is in this context - enough to live on might be more than corporations are willing to pay when cheaper labor exists elsewhere. He urged us to speak out at home to promote international solidarity among workers, which he sees as the only way to prevent this destructive outsourcing. Rather than boycotting companies that rely on Indian workers, which would decrease demand and put those workers out of a job, it is better to publicly shame those corporations until they ensure better conditions. This is a much trickier job than simply not shopping at, say, H&M, but as Deepu told us, "walking creates a path where there was none."
Our last speaker was Nisha, the founder of a fantastic feminist news outlet called The Lady's Finger. A mainstream media reporter, Nisha saw that the only women covered in the news were CEOs and rape victims - the most successful, powerful people and those whose humanity was overshadowed by sensationalism. With a few friends, she decided to start a website devoted to news about individuals and issues that would provide a better representation of women in India. It's a small group and they rarely break news, but they provide in-depth reporting on stories that they feel aren't getting the coverage they deserve. Some of their most well-known work was reporting on the dearth of women participating in conference panels on everything from politics to tech. The mainstream media picked up the story, and a once-invisible problem is now at the forefront of social discourse here. Nisha used a lovely metaphor to describe her work: it's not ballet, she said of her reporting and activism, it's dancing in the road. It doesn't really matter if you mess up and it's not going to be perfect anyway, so just have fun and give it your all, and whoever's watching will probably enjoy it.
On Friday, I moved out of the hostel to my homestay. Aruna, Gopa, Madhu, and Vishnu welcomed my fabulous roommate Ruby and me into their beautiful home in Indiranagar, a neighborhood on the east side of the city. Madhu is the same age as my sisters, and we've become fast friends - the weekend has been a whirl of Bollywood movies, dressing up in sarees, and souvenir shopping. I can't believe we're leaving after just two nights with our host family - this evening, the group will reconvene at a retreat center outside the city for a three-day workshop with Theatre of the Oppressed, after which we'll move back to Indiranagar for ten more days. Stay tuned for stories about my awkward acting skills next week ;)
Prathibha Nandakumar: www.poetryinternationalweb.net/pi/site/poet/item/2734/27/Prathibha-Nandakumar
Akkai Padmashali: http://www.thebetterindia.com/21961/how-jagadeesh-became-akkai-padmashali-and-a-transgender-activist-was-born/
Pedestrian Pictures: pedestrianpictures.wordpress.com
The Lady's Finger: www.theladiesfinger.com
Know them. Love them.