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Posts Tagged ‘Bollywood’

Just over a year ago, a community came together to celebrate the imminent arrival of its newest member.  Last weekend, we celebrated her first trip around the sun, and premiered the video shot on that day along with an animation that imagined the subtler, behind-the-scenes story.

Today, on Mother’s Day, that labor of love animation and video is unveiled to the world.

While such a production obviously takes many hands and hearts to pull together, it also points to the love and care that John Silliphant and Loveleen Dhillon invest into everything they do and every friendship they cultivate.  What else could motivate Jonathan Bhuvanesh Mason to put in the hundreds of  hours and many all-nighters needed to animate the opening sequences?  How else would Smita Khatri and Vicki Virk of DholRhythms conceive every dance step and then train a small army of love warriors to execute them?  Why would the Scott & Anamika Stoller cook vegan, sattvic feast for one hundred in a park?  Why else would body artist Alvin Petty wakeup at 5am on a Sunday to paint a belly for 4 hours straight?

May all beings live in such blessings.

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Tejdeep Singh. Photo from CBS News

On the heels of last weeks news that Howard University dental student Ramy Zamzam has been convicted of terrorism in Pakistan, the United States loses yet another dental professional in the war on terror as 31-year-old dentist Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan becomes the first openly-Sikh US Army Officer in a generation.

While civil rights groups and Sikhs around the world are certain to cheer the decision, I secretly fear that the change will sow confusion in the Armed Services and general public in a perfect storm of geography and oral hygiene ignorance.

Let’s be honest: we’re a nation where many of our people and sometimes our Presidents have scarcely heard of a country until we invade it.  Identifying it on a map, or knowing even basic information about it is tough for a lot of our people.  The following video is case-in-point.

How many soldiers and citizens think that the bad guys are brown-skinned, turban-headed men?  Introducing one of them into the Army as a “good guy” is a brain-popping level of complexity that we’re simply not equipped for as a nation.  Even Halliburton and Blackwater don’t have a subsidiary where we can outsource the massive cultural training project needed to re-educate our troops.

And what will Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh’s legions claim when they descend on Washington donning their already scarily funny repetoire of signs?  Can we expect them to be protesting the Obama adminstration allowing openly-Taliban soldiers into the US Army in the boldest move at allegedly dismantling America to-date?

Americans are also prejudiced against seeing dentists as the good guys, given our 142 lbs of per capita of sugar consumption.   Far easier to type-caste them as terrorists given the pain and bloodshed we should rightly expect on a visit, and Singh Rattan will only add to the confusion that many of our citizens are likely to feel upon learning that he’s one of our finest.

More importantly, given the oral casualties our sweet diets inflict, can we really afford to be losing another dentist to the war on terror, regardless of what side they’re on?  Don’t we need these people fighting caries in the Homeland?  One can only hope that Singh Rattan’s success means that our soldiers ravaged teeth will be protected and defended in the heroic warrior-saint tradition of his noble faith.

Meanwhile, someone in Bollywood is already churning away on a film dramatizing the story– a touching tale of an “ABCD” dentist son of Sikh immigrants finding his tooth fairy-like true love in the war-ravaged Kabul countryside as they race to stop an orthodontic madman from spreading IEDDs (improvised explosive dental devices) to toothless Afghan refugees.

My bet on the title?  Kabhi Kushi Bloody Gums!

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Anjali and I decided on an early arrival in the tekra to spend the morning with twelve-year-old Jayshree and her ten-year-old sister Bharti. I walk from a dirt road to tar road, to catch a rickshaw to the ashram where Anarben drives us to the edge of the slum.

I N N N N N H A L E

…the first meditative breath of the day; an ascension from dirt road beneath my feet to A/C in my face and Bollywood film-songs chiming sweetly in my ears.

They live on the far end of the slum near a mighty stream of greenish black sewage. The ‘river’ has carved its own mini canyon to serve as natural barrier that prevents the slum from expanding into the open areas beyond. If she were a goddess like the deified Yamuna or Ganga rivers (or any Indian river for that matter), her name would be Gandha, or ‘stink’.

We’re in a hurry so we hop into a rickshaw and let it take us as far as it can before the passageways narrow beyond where we may sensibly putter. We descend on foot over semi-paved paths of irregular broken tiles onto completely unpaved paths that grow increasingly muddy from the mystery liquid that tekrites cast out their front doors or let seep from cracks and holes in their dwellings. By the time we reach Bharti & Jayshree’s place, the ground is beyond soggy and the air dense with flies.

I’m unfazed… now more at home in slums than I am in shopping malls.

E X X X X X HALE

…descending from first class luxury into third world poverty.

Bharti & Jayshree’s father Chelabhai contracted a debilitating infection while ragpicking, no doubt from a bacterial infection of his blood. The deadly combination of inevitable persistent filth upon inevitable persistent wounds claim many lives, but ragpickers are nearly non-entities and few count the dead among those who never lived. Chelabhai escaped the infection alive, but is now a paralyzed mute, a ‘mouth with no hands’ as Larry Brilliant might paraphrase. Chelabhai’s wife Babi has destroyed the cartilage in her hips through the combination of a pregnancy injury, and jaundice medication consumed while fighting hepatitis. She too is almost completely disabled.

The family and the neighbors greet us warmly and offer us tea morning tea amidst the exchanged pleasantries. I ride completely on the coattails of the goodwill and rapport Anjali has built with this family but am mostly short on words as I soak in the realities of their life.

Bharti & Jayshree had dropped out of school and become ragpickers to support their family. Seva Café bought the family a one month supply of food to alleviate the extreme pressure of a hand-to-mouth existence and to allow the girls to go to school. An imperfect solution, it buys time and hope until the next miracle.

The sisters still ragpick for 2 hours each morning, earning Rs. 35 collectively for recyclables that get sold for nearly Rs. 400 at the plant. One of my projects in India has been to organize a ragpicker women’s society that increases income and provides needed services while reducing the rampant exploitation in their lives. Today is my hands-on day, where I learn exactly what it is like to ragpick.

After a couple of sips of their nearly milkless, probably sugar-free, weak, watery tea, Bharti & Jayshree sling their sacks over their shoulders as the four of us head out of the slum.

I N N N N N H A L E

…a breath that seems fuller than it actually is as we retrace our steps from extreme slum poverty to ‘normal’ slum poverty and on to normal Indian streets.

I over-eagerly start gathering plastic and paper only to be chastised by Bharti. This isn’t their territory, and they risk getting beaten or worse for picking up anything around here. Instead, we catch a city bus to another part of town, paying a Rs. 4 fare that eats significantly into their take-home pay on days where the likes of Anjali or myself aren’t around to bear the cost.

E X X X X X HALE

… a short breath onto the streets of Ahmedabad. They’re cleaner than when I left them 7 months ago, the result of a horde of sweepers hired by the municipal corporation to descend upon the thoroughfares in the mornings. Still, there’s plenty of material for us to gather and we busily go at it as we walk the path that these girls travel daily.

I N N N N N H A L E

… the fumes of the busy road through a filter of detachment. We have a job to do, and from where I’m standing, it feels like noble work. Cleaning The World. The cleaner streets mask the more subtle cleaning that’s happening inside (or perhaps it’s the dust and grime that is masking that). Picking up the little scraps of trouble that society forgot about and accepting the burden for those transgressions personally. Carrying them as far as we can, and trying to convert those mistakes into fresh opportunities for ‘getting it right’. Putting sweat and toil into work that all will share the benefits of equally, even at the risk of our own welfare.

E X X X X X HALE

… back to nuts-and-bolts. I suddenly think of myself. The frequency and method with which I’m picking up trash has a good chance of giving me sore back muscles over the next couple hours. I decide to switch pick method to be more squat intensive and bend-free. I imagine my thighs becoming significantly more toned over a couple days of doing this work, thanking the energy bar & almonds I had for breakfast. My eyes look up to see that Jayshree has gone ahead quite a distance. Things suddenly fall back into perspective. She doesn’t have high-energy food for breakfast when she knows she’s ragpicking, or any other day for that matter. Her muscles can only break themselves down to fuel their own work, leaving her sore, tired, and under-developed at best. People do this everyday. Every damn day. For years. Til their bodies break.

I N N N N N H A L E

… to step it up. If these girls aren’t better off for having me around for the morning, I’m just a tourist. I notice the girls skipping things that are onesies and twosies—single or double pieces of trash that aren’t worth the bend. I resolve that the path I walk should be left as pristine as possible as a result of my presence, almost immediately noticing how much of an egotistical sentiment that is (as if my very presence should cleanse and sanctify) but rationalize that its still a useful reality to try and create. I step up the pace, pulling ahead of Bharti on a parallel path and clearing it while also capturing what she leaves behind on her path. The simple redundancy of the work allows my mind to settle into a serene stillness. I didn’t arrive with any mental resistance to overcome for this work, so it never seemed distasteful or bad to me, but as the peace descended it became a joy and a privilege to do.

E X X X X X HALE

… bubbles of joy into the world to be carried on the winds of grace to an anonymous recipient, under whose nose they burst at the opportune moment. Indeed, under the influence of effervescent joy, it’s easy to powerfully feel that the spectrum of realities experienced by humanity have no objective or intrinsic character beyond the ethereal and distorted reflections in the ruffled waters of their unstill minds. Still, its dangerous to trivialize the tumult, pain, and suffering that the world swims in. Especially when one’s own deepest stillness remains a rare treat that’s savored in the way a blind pig does when it chances upon a truffle.

I N N N N N H A L E

… with deeper awareness to try to peer beyond and beneath the peace. I recognize that I am clinging to my joy, wanting to explore what’s deeper without letting go of what’s in my hand. Trying to have my cake and eat it too. The grip tightens reflexively, choking the peaceful flow. How sad and paradoxical it is that as I cling to comfort, certainty, and security, they slowly slip between my fingers and leave me empty-handed. How much have I not done for want of comfort, certainty, and security?

E X X X X X HALE

… a silent prayer through my lips… that I may not forsake good deeds for chasing things that can’t be caught. That I have the wisdom to see the Highest Good and the energy to align myself with It. Easier prayed than done.

We’re crossing from the main road to enter into a building society. Not previously aware of attracting any undue attention, I now notice several small groups of people clearly staring at Anjali and myself as we scour for trash with two ragged slum girls. One man is along the path we must cross, looking straight at me and showing no signs of budging.

I N N N N N H A L E

… a deep breath to be ready for the conversation about to happen.

“What are you doing?”

“Collecting trash,” I say with a smile.

“Yes, but you?”

“Yes, me.”

“Why?”

“The road is dirty,” I say, as if he’s a silly man for overlooking that obvious fact.

He stares blankly and blinks in disbelief. Twice.

“We’ve thrown so much trash everywhere,” I continue.

“That’s true…” he concedes with a hint of shame.

“And so many children like these small girls spend their whole lives picking up our trash.”

“That’s also true…” he says with a glimmer of recognition in his eyes.

“They can’t go to school, they get sick, they get hurt. Their lives are so difficult. I thought I would make their lives a little easier today,” I say as I spot a plastic water pouch near his feet and grab for it. From even a short distance, it would have looked like I was bending to touch his feet. As I straighten up, I catch a shocked look on his face which makes it seem that he too thinks I bent to touch his feet. I decide that that might be the best way to end it, so I start walking away, stopping to pick up some more water pouches not ten feet from him.

“But are you with some organization?”
“No, just with my friend. And those two girls,” waving in the general direction of Jayshree and Bharti who are out of sight around the corner.

“I want to do something to improve these people’s situation. So I came today to work and understand. Then when I figure out how to move forward, there will be power behind my action and weight behind my words,” I continue. This answer seems more complete, and registers a smile on his face. The look in his eyes tells me that he’s understood. Action before words. Experience before knowledge.

E X X X X X HALE

… a small sigh of relief. One person understood. Maybe he won’t throw trash on the street today. Ok, at least not for the next hour or two.

I enter the concrete courtyard of what looks like an abandoned building society. The pavement has severe cracks in it and the walls are loaded with trash. Anjali, Bharti, and Jayshree are already busy sorting through what looks like a major score to me. As I come close, I see how there have been many fires lit here to reduce the amount of trash to a manageable amount. Its clearly failed. And made the task of finding recyclable items more difficult.

Squatting next to Bharti, I start sifting through the charred scraps. Bharti’s fingers outpace mine 10 to 1 despite my best effort to accelerate. She also tries to take the sack from me, which now weighs about 15 pounds. She probably weighs like 60 so I tell her that if she carries the sack, then I’ll have to carry her or else Anjali will think I’m a wimp. Bharti doesn’t find that nearly as funny as I had hoped, letting a sheepish smile that seems to say, “Yeah, you are a wimp.” She bounds off to the next heap of charred waste and I squat back down digesting the humble pie served by a 10 year old girl.

Minutes later, they all are nearing a spot where they’ll exit the courtyard. I move into the opposite corner, eyeing what looks like tons of unburned paper for the taking.

“Hey, there’s lots of stuff over here. Come back,” I yell.

Just as I’m moving through waste nearly six inches deep, I think of what might happen if there is broken glass in this pile. Just then, I feel glass break under my sandals.

“Hey, be careful if you come here. There’s glass,” I yell out again.

I take another step and crush a tube light under my foot.

“Don’t come here. There’s too much glass,” I yell out again. Their flimsy rubber flip-flops would have been easily pierced by the step I just made. The dangerous reality of this work hits home once again. Such a flip-flop-piercing cut would render them unable to earn, and thus eat for probably more than a week. That’s if an infection occurring in parallel didn’t do something worse.

“That’s why we didn’t take any of that stuff,” yells Jayshree.

I take another step, this time crushing massive numbers of tube lights, almost driving a shard of glass into the side of my foot.

I N N N N N H A L E

… except in a sudden gasp.

Millimeters from a horrible, bloody situation, I gingerly crunch my way out of the minefield, thankful to have earned no scars with which to remember this experience.

E X X X X X HALE

… in relief.

I think of the other possible experiences I’ve been spared so far and probe my fears. As yet, the waste has been totally dry. I recognize that I would be significantly more disturbed to have to sort for recyclables through wet-waste. Yuck!! It certainly smells more than anything else and feels like it dirties you more thoroughly and seriously than dry stuff. My mind seizes on that prospect and it keeps repeating in my head, no less disgusting with each iteration. The girls have found a spot where they play house, and though I’m outwardly observing and marginally participating, I’m inwardly resisting the images of pure fetid muck now flashing through my mind.

I N N N N N H A L E

… to be prepared for what the universe might just deliver.

We continue along our path, coming to a spot where the brick fence dead ends. We have to climb around a t-junction that sits some 25 feet above a road underpass in order to get two the next spot where we need to go. Jayshree and Bharti are over and across like pros. Anjali goes next, carefully climbing across and making it look pretty easy. Now it’s wimpy Rahul’s turn.

E X X X X X HALE

…and then

I N N N N N H A L E

…for good measure. Savor this breath like it’s your last. It just might be.

For someone my size, lankiness, and clumsiness, crossing this small, awkward space is a much more difficult task. My sandals don’t help. I think of how this is yet another major hazard of their work, and wonder if anyone has ever fallen off this spot, deciding to look down before I can catch myself. Bad move… Vertigo. I thrust forward and stumble over the edge, landing in two feet of garbage.

This space is clearly used as a universal dumping ground. The girls don’t do much sifting here, telling us that we won’t find so much here. We go a few paces forward and then stop. The girls wait by the railroad tracks, telling us that they can’t cross until 9am. We wait for a train to go by roughly 5 minutes before 9, and then cross the tracks onto a small residential lane.

Jayshree starts claiming that her and Bharti need to carry the bags now, because if their ‘dada’ sees them without the bags, they’ll get in trouble. Apparently he lives around here. Just as Bharti is adding her own protest to Jayshree’s, she lets out a mirthful little outburst upon spotting a municipal trash cart. The two of them run forward and start rummaging through the waste. It mixed—wet and dry.

The universe manifested that disturbing thought that was reverberating in my mind. Dis-gus-ting. I try putting my hand in to grab something, but cringe the moment my hand feels moistures. I’m too revolted to do it myself, and hold the bag open while the girls dig and sift with remarkable efficiency. Adding significantly to the weight of the sack after a few minutes, we move on.

Along the path, we come across several men loitering around a public water receptacle. Bharti rinses the stainless steel cup bolted to the receptacle and drink some water. I suppose if you drink slum water, you can drink anything. Anjali and I use it to wash our now blackened hands, and continue along to our destination.

We end up at a corner where we empty our sacks into a much larger sack that was half full and waiting there for us. Our sacks weigh about 25 – 30 pounds each at this point, perhaps half of Bharti’s body weight. Since it would be nearly impossible for them to transport these sacks back to the slum, they load a much larger sack here, for which they pay a cycle rickshaw driver 10 Rs to transport back to their home. That’s a significant portion of their daily take, and I wonder whether there is additional loss due to the pedal rickshaw driver selling off some of the recyclables himself. Wouldn’t surprise me, as exploitation seems to rule most aspects of their lives.

Relieving ourselves of our burdens, Anjali decides to take the girls out to breakfast. I have an 11 o’clock meeting to attend, so I zip back home for a quick shower.

E X X X X X HALE

…and scrub the dirt off my body. The girls don’t get that chance so often. Somehow, cleaning myself feels a little more selfish than cleaning the streets and I think of how there seems to be something saintly about the unappreciated, silent service they provide to society. Sitting there on my plastic stool, I recognize how much gratitude I owe the countless ragpickers across the city for doing a necessary but unpleasant task, and feel as though I spent the morning with semi-saints in who taught me a new form of meditation.

(migrated from my original Livejournal post.)

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