Mumbai & the Menstrual Man

I was reading this article on Salon when I realized that I had not kept my earlier promise: an explanation of how my awareness of India’s Menstrual Man made me a new friend.

When we returned to Mumbai after the main wedding festivities in Alibag, there were still a few evening parties planned. The first event, mere hours after we arrived by ferry through the Gateway of India, was a party on top of an apartment roof where some of the bride’s extended family members live.

Most of the Westerners were staying at the Cricket Club of India — I think that description alone is probably sufficient, but if you need more, just picture a golf club, but with a massive cricket pitch instead of 18 holes. Members of T.’s family, mostly aunts, uncles, and cousins, were recruited to meet guests at CCI and then navigate their herds through the streets of Mumbai to the apartment complex at Nariman Point, a short distance away.

Our guide was M., I believe one of the bride’s aunts (this is a difficult distinction to make because good family friends were often referred to as sister-cousin or sister-aunt, despite having no blood ties to the family). I began our walk to the party by talking to western friends of the groom, and ended it completely enthralled by M.’s story. I will endeavor to recall it correctly:

Years ago, M. met a woman whose daughter had died of tetanus. The woman’s daughter acquired tetanus through a rusted piece of metal. When menstruating, the daughter lacked access to basic sanitary products, so she used an old piece of blouse as a menstrual pad. The blouse had metal hooks, and…you should be able to see where this is going.

So the woman told her story to M., perhaps not realizing exactly what kind of woman she had encountered. M. was moved immensely by the woman’s story. She realized that adequate access to menstruation supplies was a significant, but under-discussed, issue that was keeping girls from learning, playing, doing, and most importantly, living. When M. first spoke to her husband and other men about the problem, they recognized the issues she had identified, but told her that it had never occurred to them that menstruation could be such a hindrance to girls’ growth and activity.

M. and her husband (and if I recall correctly, some other women), began an organization that would distribute, once-a-month, special packages to girls in needy areas. The packages contain sanitary pads, two pairs of new underwear, and other products that M. finds useful. There is a fantastic catch to this system: the packages are dispersed through schools, meaning that girls who wish to receive M.’s packages must attend school to get them.

I listened, totally riveted by M.’s story. My first question, naturally, was something like this: “You know, I watched this great documentary — I think on the BBC — about this Indian man who invented low-cost menstruation products. Do you know him?”

M.’s response was to laugh and grab my hand. Of course she knows Arunachalam Muruganantham, known across India as the Menstrual Man. She knows him quite well, in fact, since he is the main supplier of their sanitary products!

M. was impressed that I knew of Mr. Muruganantham. He is very well-known in India, but he has just begun to gain notoriety in the west over the last few years. But the point of my story is NOT self-congratulation. The point I’ve been trying to make throughout this blog is the importance of paying attention.

In many western countries, particularly in the United States, we are so consumed with domestic issues and local strife. The few times we engage with international news stories is when they are somehow interconnected with activities in our own country. And yes, I can speak to this issue with some authority since my previous job for a year involved watching American news programming on a variety of channels for over 40 hours a week!

The global news we receive is almost always filtered through its connection to the United States. If there isn’t an immediate, relevant link between poor girls in Uttarakhand and poor girls in Missouri, no one’s going to carry that story in the states. (Except maybe NPR or Mother Jones, amirite?) It shouldn’t be surprising or funny that a 26-year-old American woman has read about a national phenomenon in India. This guy is big news! He’s given a TED talk in Bangalore. People know his face and, if not his name, at least his wonderful moniker.

We need to start paying attention. We need to know about the people doing great things outside our immediate scope. If crowd-funding has proven anything, it’s shown that when people are exposed to good ideas, they will support them financially. And things like this always come back to money.

There’s a ton of money circulating around the world, in New York, in London, in the hyper-wealthy pockets of Mumbai (possibly another post). When well-intentioned people with money are exposed to good ideas, they will support them. We have so many examples of vast private philanthropy in the United States that it would be crazy to list them all. From tech billionaires to real estate moguls, many individuals are keen to contribute.

So for me, what this all comes down to is the American media landscape. I want to read about 20 Menstrual Men, and not just the one guy who happened to make it big in terms of news coverage. I don’t have any money, but words are free. In sharing M.’s totally amazing story, and the sanitary pads that connected us (I’ve been waiting my whole life to write a clause like that), I hope to add another voice to those already clamoring for stories about normal people making powerful change happen.

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A Big Fat Indian Wedding

That’s the playful title the bride’s family has been using on all wedding related correspondence and notifications. It would be hard to think of a more apt description than that one!

S. and T.’s wedding was, and I say this with no embellishment whatsoever, the most extravagant, fabulous wedding I will attend in this lifetime, and quite possibly the next. I am hesitant to give too many personal details since there is always some degree of intimacy in a wedding, no matter how big, so I won’t be posting any photos here. Most of you have probably already seen the snaps I’ve posted on Facebook, so I’ll record a few thoughts here with the assumption that you have some idea of the nature of this amazing wedding.

Last Saturday morning, we miraculously flew into Mumbai from Jaipur in an extremely timely fashion on a local domestic carrier, IndiGoGo. Despite our 5 AM flight, we were eager to get on a ferry to Alibag, an island-esque offshoot of land just south of Mumbai with beach resorts and a small town. We stayed at a beautiful conference center compound that was lavishly decorated for each new wedding event.

The wedding was planned extremely well, mostly due to the bride’s mother’s knack for fabulous decor and creative elements. Since this was a real east-meets-west affair, each event of the wedding was designed to give a sense of a different part of Indian culture: one event to display the food, clothes, and traditions of a specific cultural and geographical region in India. This was a fantastic idea, and a great introduction to India for all of us ‘ugly Americans.’

There were multiple dance events, the traditional mehndi party, and a south Indian Hindu wedding ceremony. I’m not sure how to go into any detail about each event because they have all blended together and it would become a National Geographic essay.

Some observations: events of this scale, particularly in India, run entirely on the labor of an unseen, integral workforce. There were probably about 200-250 guests at this wedding. At one point, the bride’s father thanked all the workers who had made the wedding possible, mentioning that there were 250 of them. One laborer for every guest.

The work of these people ranged from managerial to menial, yet every person was essential to pulling off this incredible event. There were security personnel for the venue, wait staff and cooks (cooks who took great pains to ensure everything was clean for sensitive western stomachs — I want to be very clear that I became ill AFTER this magnificent wedding!), transportation organizers, and even older men who woke up with the sun to string flowers into welcome necklaces for guests and long decorative garlands to drape around the site.

Here’s the rub: I can’t, and won’t, make any further comment on this labor because I don’t rightly know its conditions or expectations. Anything else I might offer is speculation that easily elides into paternalistic concern. How much were these people paid? I don’t know. Where did they sleep? I don’t know. Presumably outside, as the weather was temperate. What did they eat? I don’t know. Maybe leftovers from the various feasts. I observed some wait staff eating from the buffets once the festivities ended.

I had an absolutely wonderful time at this wedding. Do I feel conflicted about that sentiment? No, it’s a fact that I had an amazing experience in Alibag. What I feel conflicted about are the small, discernable indicators of privilege that I can distinctly recognize.

It makes me uncomfortable to have a man in white gloves peel my hardboiled egg for me. It makes me uncomfortable to have another man spread butter and fruit preserves on my toast. This is not my world, and I am unsure how to cope with such actions.

But ultimately, in terms of experiencing this event, I do not know the circumstances of anyone’s life beyond my own. I could find out, sure, but I am not writing a journalistic expos√©. I was here to celebrate a dear childhood friend’s marriage to a charming and generous woman, and I don’t think it’s right to deny myself the beauty and sweetness of that moment because of my internal conflict.

However, I also think it crucially important to ask questions — especially of myself and of my world — even if I am not prepared to answer them immediately. I find the more questions I have lingering at the back of my mind, the more I want to answer them as I move forward.

In that vein of posing questions and learning about many possible answers, I promise to tell you how my knowledge of the “Menstruation Man” came in handy at the penultimate wedding event, a rooftop party in South Mumbai. Until then.

Jaipur pt. 2

(note: this post may be light on photos since the only internet connection I’ve got here is a WiFi setup reliant on a Linksys router from 2006. No shade, just fact.)

Where are we? Noon, Jaipur. Our driver takes us to a small printmaking and carpetmaking operation outside a store.

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A young man showed me how he pins the cotton in place for printing

As we learn how to make woodblock prints on fabric, a traditional craft of the Rajasthan region, we assume this is just another tourist destination where people get a cursory summation of a centuries-old creative practice and then shell out some cash for a souvenir. We then observed a husband and wife team knotting a beautiful silk carpet at a furious pace, with a similar feeling.

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My mom discusses silk carpets with the shop manager

We reluctantly walked into the carpet showroom, and our expectations were completely shattered. We were shown a huge variety of silk, hand-knotted carpets, as well as thick, plush carpets made from camel hair. Amazing handmade craft work, but not for my budget. Then we were led upstairs to the fabric showroom and my entire perception of fabrics and clothing was changed.

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There were sample clothing pieces and patterns in Indian and western styles all over the store. Along the walls, columns of locally-produced fabric from their proper factory just outside Jaipur. Most of the fabric came in variations of silk, cotton, and silk-cotton blends. Four columns of hand-painted Rajasthani cotton: my personal heaven.

My mom had a full, silk brocade skirt made for yesterday’s wedding dance event (we’ll get to that soon!)

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My mom and the store manager bargain. The fabric on top became a beautiful silk-cotton kurti.

I selected two dresses and a blouse in the Rajasthani cotton, correctly assuming cotton would be better to sweat through during the Mumbai heat. I then met with the shop’s tailor, who took my measurements and allowed me to specify deviations from the original pattern, such as the depth of a neckline and the length of a hem.

All of this activity was done by 2:00 pm. Our clothes were delivered to our hotel at 10:00 pm by one of the shop assistants, who made me try on the clothes immediately and said he would wait. When I came downstairs and gave him a tip, he remarked that the money was going to the tailor, who would be so happy everything fit well. No child sweatshop labor required. Also, please ask me the price of my dress when you see me in person. I have been told an Indian woman would bargain more, but I left thinking I had gotten the best deal of my life, and the tailor was glad to have work on a day when we were the only people in the shop.

I don’t care if my memsahib privilege is showing, but I don’t know how I will ever purchase clothing off the rack again. I’m hoping to have a few more items made before we leave India, but I had a few Indians at the wedding tell me that my experience in Jaipur is unique to the city. Unfortunately most places that make clothing to order (and quickly!) are not as good quality or made from such fine fabrics as one finds by visiting the factory showroom.

Eventually we leave the store (after our driver Mr. S. comes upstairs to approve — or more frequently, disapprove — of my fabric selections) and we are in the car en route to the Hanuman temple. I’ve seen city monkeys scrambling across metal fences in Delhi, but now we get to visit their spiritual home.

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The temple was once a place where sadhus gathered to live and pray. At some point it became a haven for monkeys, and an icon of Hanuman was placed in a small shrine near the entrance.

As you walk through the courtyard, monkeys begin to appear: on fences, emerging from holes in the structure walls, skulking around the path. They are adorable, of course, but they are also fairly aggressive. Somewhere along the way, the monkeys began to identify purses and bags with food. Usually Hanuman worshippers leave them food offerings in the mornings and evenings, and I can only imagine that dumb tourists have reached into their bags for bananas.

As we first approached the inner area, my mom tried to get her camera out of her bag. Big mistake. Monkeys started to stalk us, looking for something more exciting than a camera. She closed the bag and several minutes passed uneventfully.

Then, as we attempted to head toward the stairs leading up the hill, an aggressive male monkey raced toward us. Well, raced toward me. He grabbed my skirt with his left (and only!) hand and began to climb my leg. I screamed and moved away from him and our poor, gentle guide Mr. S. attempted to shoo the monkey away, even though he had admitted only moments earlier that the monkeys also made him nervous.

Later Mr. S. told me that the monkey was just blessing me — perhaps with a lifelong terror of one-armed primates. I’ve been told this means I have good karma now. I don’t know about the monkey though.

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Maternal love

It began to rain as we left the Hanuman Temple, unusual for this time of the year. Perhaps you can see the massive balls of hail hitting the windows of our car as we attempted to drive back through the city:

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We had a few more eventful occurrences, and in rich white girl fashion, I had a small diamond stud made for my nose. I mean, I think it’s small, but I was told by many people, including driver Mr. S., that it is insignificantly tiny and an Indian woman would never wear such a small diamond. I definitely don’t own the gold jewelry that was de rigueur for the Indian ladies at yesterday’s festivities.

This post is quite long now, so I will finish up by saying that Jaipur is a fantastic, wonderful city and I hope to visit again soon. I could easily spend four or five days exploring the city, but even a rushed day of touring, shopping, and exploring was worth the trip.

Jaipur

We spent a day in Jaipur on a sort of greatest hits tour, and it was much too short. The state of Rajasthan is beautiful and fascinating, particularly its mixed history of Indian and Mughal kings, and its resistance to British control or occupation. We have learned from Mr. S, our excellent local driver, that many people plan weeks-long trips just to visit this one area of India. That does not surprise me at all.

Yesterday was a total whirl of activity, but I will try to give a sense of the highlights for me.

We started the day by doing one extremely touristic activity: an elephant ride up to Amer Fort (forgive me if I misplace some proper names along the way–I am scrambling to recall some interesting moments right before we leave on a 5:45 am flight to Mumbai to begin wedding festivities!).

Elephants congregate at the bottom of a steep, rocky hill. Each elephant is owned by an individual man who has trained the creature to respond to specific verbal and visual commands. Given that Indian elephants are significantly smaller than their African counterparts, their treatment resembles that of a beloved family dog–and I would know all about that. As I took a picture of the elephants, one mahout noticed me and gave a sound to his elephant, causing the elephant to raise its trunk at me.

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(If you read the above link I’ve included, you’ll see that there is some controversy over the methods used to train the elephants. I know this interruption makes the story messier to tell, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge this fact. I did not see any of this behavior while I was there, but of course that does not mean it never occurs.)

Before the ride, when Mr. S asked if we wanted to go, his encouragement was, “You’ll feel like a maharani.” And you know what? I damn well did feel like a queen, sitting on my elephant palanquin, leisurely cruising into the hills. I know this wasn’t a real representation of India, and I know the female tourists wearing fake hats in the shape of a Rajasthani turban were mistakenly appropriating a garment worn only by men for centuries. I also know that despite my ethical quandaries, I enjoyed this experience quite a bit.

It was also extremely interesting from a historical perspective, as the kings and their wives who lived high atop the mountain entered their domain in the same manner, as did food and other supplies (But not water! There was an ingenious Persian-inspired water pulley system for that!) I doubt I would have been as awed by the expansive views and location if I had not been so high up on an elephant.

Our first stop was a temple to the mother-goddess. You may know her as Kali, a creator and destroyer among the numerous Hindu goddesses. We hired a local guide to take us through these important places, and as a practicing Hindu, he kindly explained the processes and traditions of his faith as we stood in the temple entrance. I think I would have had a very shallow understanding of this holy place if he had not explained some of its significance. I also felt like less of an asshole when our guide, another Mr. S, encouraged me to take a blessing from the temple priest.

Next Mr. S took us to one of the most incredible places I have ever been: Sheesh Mahal, the mirror palace. I could not even begin to tell you why the Taj Mahal is considered one of the world’s greatest wonders when Sheesh Mahal exists a few hours away. I will do a poor job of accurately narrating its history, which was explained to me by Mr. S, but it is linked above in the article on Amer Fort (but really should be called Amer Palace!). Instead I will share some photos that cannot even begin to capture this magnificent structure:

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Inside view of palace

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Exterior walkway ceiling

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Mirrored wall detail

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Inlaid stone decorative window

Now I have to get ready for this morning’s upcoming flight, and we have just made it to 12 o’clock in the afternoon. It is hot and it is very sunny. We have stopped by the side of the road to gawk at the astonishing water palace, Jal Mahal, rising out of a man-made lake. We learn how the palace was built before the lake was dug, and we ponder out next destination on this altogether too fast, cursory glimpse of the Pink City. Stay with me a bit longer, and I promise to tell you soon about the one-armed monkey who blessed me.

Agra – Taj – Jaipur

Yesterday was a long travel day, beginning in Delhi and ending in Jaipur. In Delhi we hired a local driver, which is not at all a strange rich lady thing to do. Except that it is. Sort of.

I am not a wealthy woman by most American standards. I come from a middle class family (probably upper middle class, depending on who’s asking) where the household income is higher than the average American household income, but quite far from doctor-lawyer territory. Like I said: not rich.

And I am certainly not rich by the standards of the wealthiest Indians who live here. From what I’ve gathered in various conversations with locals, their lifestyles are impressively extravagant (and our driver, Mr. S., and I had a good laugh over the horse polo-playing habits of a former maharaja of Rajasthan.)

However, and this is a HUGE however, I have to acknowledge that I am a wealthy lady here. Me with my dwindling savings account and state-sponsored healthcare, my funemployment and my indeterminable cover letters. I am a rich bitch.

I was chauffeured (a word I’ve only used before in jest to describe my dear papa driving me to and fro, or maybe the one time I sat in a hired car for my grandmother’s funeral) from Delhi to Agra, and then to Jaipur: the Golden Triangle. At the Taj Mahal, my photograph was taken on innumerable smartphone cameras and I became a souvenir for many visiting Indians. At the ruins of a mosque, I was followed by vendors and children with outstretched hands.

This is a kind of western privilege I have never experienced before. Many times, the color of my skin, a warm, easily sun-burnt beige, a vast swath of whiteness, was immediately conflated with wealth. Even when I said I did not want the items being thrust toward me, 2000 rupees became 1500 became 1000 became, “What do you want to pay? I can give you a very good price, Ma’am.”

A young boy of 11 or 12 attached himself to us at the mosque. We had chosen to forgo a tour guide and this boy made it his mission to impress us with his knowledge of six languages and the history of his home. K. said he had learned all his facts by following around older tour guides and listening to their speeches. He also said he attends an English school in the mornings and an Islamic school in the evenings. Satisfied with his answers, we   let him take us through the mosque in an informal way. I hope this bright, articulate boy does go to school, and that, like he said, he may not be topper, but he’s still number 2 in his class. I hope that’s all true. I don’t know.

It’s very difficult to discern what is real and what is a show for tourists. Sometimes the show is funny and both parties are aware of the absurdity of the situation. Sometimes the show is less funny, like the begging boy whose leg had been twisted with the sole of his foot facing forward in an unnatural position, a bend unlikely caused by a deformation at birth. My mother last traveled through India in the late 1970s and she said she saw more children like this then. I have only seen the one boy: I hope the organized groups who maim these children have found other ways to extort money from tourists.

Much of what I’ve seen has been tied up in this idea of hope. Many things are going well for India, from new initiatives in expanding digital technology to preservation of important monuments. From what I’ve read in news articles and blogs, there is a lot of forward movement in this country.

I’m here as a tourist and it would be easy to focus on the progress and reforms that are slowly changing Indian society. But it is hard to reconcile political advances with broken children. So I do hope K. is number 2 in his class, and I also hope he spends his pocket money on chocolates, which is what he said he likes to buy when I asked him. I hope and press on, uncertain in the veracity of my experiences here.

Dulles – Dubai – Delhi

As many of you might know, my mom and I are going to an Indian wedding quite soon. This endeavor requires about a full 24-hours of travel, and then an 8 PM collapse at a Delhi hotel.

After numerous issues obtaining an Indian visa (which perhaps I’ll describe in more depth after this trip ends–I have been cautioned against telling that extremely long story while I am still visiting India), we finally made it to Delhi. We won’t be staying here long unfortunately, as the trip is short and we are going to Agra, then Jaipur in a few hours.

My impressions of Delhi are thus equally short and imprecise, tinged with after-images of its colonial past. There are strange little figments of some obscure British idea of high society that pop-up in the mirror-image arrangement of government buildings, or the¬† way people speed through traffic rotaries. To my eyes, it’s bit like someone planted a medium-sized British village here many years ago and it grew into a city that is a bit unwieldy and sprawling.

I took an Indian cinema film studies class once where all the descriptions in course readings on Delhi were some hackneyed variation of “teeming with life.” This representation always struck me as rather condescending because aren’t all cities this way?

I think perhaps many Westerners, particularly those of us who grew up in quiet suburbs, hold a clear definition between our public and private lives: cities like Delhi upset that delineation. As we drove through late afternoon traffic to get a sense of the city center (and please know that we have only see a single small portion of Delhi on this trip), I watched people engaged in the sort of activities I am used to doing behind closed doors or, at the very least, a partition of window-glass. I saw a man getting a shave from a barber on the street, another man clipping his toenails in stalled traffic, other rituals of daily life that escape my tired brain right now.

I was thinking about how these activities have been made to seem specific to Delhi in the aforementioned lightly paternalistic essays I have read. But these are things I’ve seen in every major city I’ve visited or lived in. No one ever writes about Manhattan subway toenail-clippers, or east Los Angeles highway mascara-appliers in the same reverential tones. Somehow seeing regular people live out their lives takes on a magical quality when it happens in an area outside one’s immediate frame of reference.

I wish I could be more specific about what I’ve read, and the special kind of wonderment-condescension that often appears in essays on Delhi, but I think just noticing it is the best I can do for now. And in this space that is so different from my own experiences, just noticing, watching, and listening is probably the right way to go.