Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dharavi Photos: Colours of Ramzan

- by Deepa Krishnan

Aishwarya and I went to Dharavi today, to meet some women who make papads. It was around 4:00 p.m., when we walked through one of the main bazaar areas. The street stalls were just beginning to be set up, with food for the evening iftar.

I could not believe the colour of the falooda packets that I saw - a pink so lurid that it would put all other pinks to shame :)

Amidst the lurid pink, were reds, oranges, yellows and greys

Foreground: Yellow Papayas
Behind: The falooda-man making take-home packets

The faloodas are really popular, so the vendor spends the afternoon tying them into little packets. In the evening, when the crowds assemble, he will have no time to do anything but hand over the packets (and count money)! Every few minutes, burkha-clad women would walk by and buy some to take home.

After the electric colours, the pale greens and muted yellows of the melons were very calming.

Just looking at these soft shades makes you feel cooler

Pineapples had been neatly peeled and the prickly bits had been taken out.

Pale yellow with dark green tops

Pomegranates add an exotic dash of maroon-pink to the fruits on sale. A mix of these fruits, sprinkled with chaat powder, will make a tangy, sweet way to break the fast.

Teen ka kitna? Lady in burkha taking three pomegranates home.

To add volume at low cost, bananas are added to the fruit chaat.

Ripe yellow with only vestiges of green

As if all this wasn't enough, watermelons and apples provide more colour!

There were lots of food stalls too, just beginning to be set up. The onion pakodas and kala-chana chaat counters were in place.

Adding orange and brown to the color-mix!

Usually the kala chana chaat is decorated with sliced tomatoes, and garnished with green coriander and lemon, but because it was early in the day, the presentation wasn't fully ready. But you can imagine it, can't you? :)

I saw people at little restaurants hard at work, setting up great big handis of mutton biryani, with coloured rice. At some counters, jalebis were being fried and dunked in sugar syrup. I couldn't see any of the famous kababs or indeed, any meat on hot griddles (tawas)...perhaps the griddles would only come later around sundown.

The chicken shops and meat shops were doing brisk business. This butcher stopped his thaka-thak-thwack for a little while to give me a smile.

Impressive heavy knife, making dull sounds on wooden meat counter. (Little bits of gristle would fly every time the knife came down. Not good for my vegetarian soul!)

These little boys had set up neem datoon stall.

Chewing the twigs releases chemicals in the plant that can kill bacteria and reduce the build up of plaque on the teeth. The neem datoon counters also sold lemons. I liked the contrast between the two colours, but couldn't understand why all the datoon stalls also sold lemons. Do you know? Is it because neem is bitter?

Meswak or Siwak is also used for cleaning teeth
(and tastes much, much nicer than neem!)

After the walk through the bazaar, we met some women, who were papad makers, to find out more about their life (material for another post perhaps!). By the time we finished chatting, another couple of hours had passed. We walked back through inside lanes to where the car was parked.

Because we came through residential twisting lanes, I didn't realize how much the bazaar area would transform in a couple of hours.

The crowd was incredible.

Our car in a sea of humanity
We inched further ahead, and found that the road was impossibly jammed with people. A handcart trundled to our left, piled high with suitcases (manufactured in Dharavi). As far as eye could see, the road was full of people.

We decided to stoically inch further ahead

By this time, I was standing with my entire torso outside the Innova, photographing the road :) It was quite an experience, actually, watching the crowd stream past, all intent on reaching home in time for prayer.

"Press walon ki gaadi hai" was the murmur in the crowd
(it's my new DSLR camera - everyone thinks I'm a professional! Whereas I can only point and click!).

After about 20 minutes of going through the dense crowd, we finally came out on the main road. I would have liked to get down and photograph the evening iftar meal. But it would have meant waiting for at least another 45 minutes. We were tired, it had been a long day already and I simply wasn't ready to jostle for photos. Besides, I had really enjoyed watching the lead up to the evening meal, and the ability to photograph all the vendors when they weren't going crazy dealing with the iftar rush.

I'm glad I could bring back these photos and post them. Hope you enjoyed them!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Schmoozing, Indian-style

By Deepa Krishnan
The media today is full of the anti-corruption / Lokpal bill protests around the country. Some folks are pro-Lokpal, some are anti, but almost everyone agrees that corruption is really a huge issue and needs to be dealt with.
I think it's useful to look at this corruption issue from a historical and cultural perspective.
Humans have always given presents and sweeteners as a way to establish good relations, improve trading ties and smoothen their way. The first tribe that came out of a cave probably received presents of meat from visitors who wanted a place by the fire.
Certainly from the time of recorded history, every historical account of landings in a new place, or setting up of trading starts with little presents. Thomas Roe presented a book of European maps to Jehangir. The Jewish arrivals on the Malabar Coast presented gifts to the Cochin king. This is routinely the case at the courts of kings and emperors; from the durban at the door to government officials, everyone is part of the sweetening process.

Thomas Roe at the court of Emperor Jehangir
We should really first admit that this kind of dealing is part of the normal human way of life. Sweetening is done in many ways, you go with presents, you send boxes of mithai at the next Diwali, you return favours and contacts, and you eat and socialise together to make sure the relationship is reinforced. This is the way work gets done among human beings. We schmooze. We relate. We give and we take.
Shop selling fancy Mithai boxes for Diwali gifts
To expect that people will come out of thousands of years of a way of life/way of work and suddenly stop this way of influencing things is just very impractical. It may be "morally correct" but it is not practical. Those who can influence will always do so, whether it is by money or contacts or through ideas and words. I think taking the high moral ground on this is very much like many other moral stances that we love to take - totally impractical and completely blind to historical reality, or any understanding of what the average human being is all about.
When I look around me historically as well in the present day, I find that everyone in India understands the concept of influencing and schmoozing very well. After all, it is very much a part of our social culture and tradition!! What varies is the extent and style with which it is done. The current brouhaha is only because people simply are boggled by the SCALE at which it is being reported. Therefore we are seeing a feeling of outrage among people.
So what is the practical solution?
Before we attempt a solution, we need to understand that humans WILL try to influence, whether by social means or by money. So we CANNOT end that. But the line between baksheesh (tip), the traditional way of rewarding work, and ghoos (bribe) does exist, although it is very thin. So how do we ensure that this thin line is maintained?
I am inclined to think that the answer lies in the Indian legal system. All organizations have rules about what constitutes a gift and what constitutes a bribe. In large corporations this is called "a material amount" i.e. the amount above which you cannot accept gifts. In government also, this rule exists. So what we need really, is to tighten the EXISTING legal system to work faster, to allow reporting and punishment when someone crosses these rules. THE ABSENCE OF AN EFFECTIVE LEGAL SYSTEM IS THE ROOT CAUSE OF CORRUPTION IN INDIA.
There was a McKinsey report regarding this some years ago. The facts of that report were staggering. With the additional hiring of judges and setting up of speedy courts, the benefits to the nation were mind-boggling in terms of just economics.
I for one would like to see that report again, and look for solutions within that. Setting up a new Lokpal doesn't seem like a solution to me. My fear is that it will set up a new authority that goes against the basic principles of checks and balances enshrined in the constitution. What we need to do is make our current checks and balances system to work well. That is what we need to debate.
It is good that we have an Anna Hazare to raise the consciousness of people, and the current media-hype and circus around it is a necessary evil to increase awareness of the issue. But the stupidity of the situation is that this will lead only to Congress downfall, and not any long-lasting change in the historical way in which we Indians operate.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Narali Purnima in Mumbai - fun with coconuts!

by Deepa Krishnan

I was walking along Bhaji Gully yesterday when I saw a crowd at a coconut shop.

It was Narali Purnima yesterday, the day that marks the beginning of the new fishing season. The fisherfolk offer coconuts to the sea, and pray for safety and a good catch (this year with the oil spills along the coast, they're going to need those prayers!)

Crowd at the coconut shop

What I didn't know is that the guys play a coconut breaking game on Narali Purnima. I chanced upon it suddenly, so it added a real dose of fun to the day!

Basically the game consists of two players, each buys a coconut from the shop, and then they try to break each other's coconut. The tougher nut wins :) :)

Stack of coconuts for sale, game in progress. Mr. Orange T-shirt gives it a go!

There is of course, a science behind the coconut selection. Too big, and the coconut will crack. Too small, and it won't be allowed in the game. Each player gets one turn to hit, and one turn to submit their coconut for hitting.

Give as good as you get

Sometimes, there's only a tiny crack on impact, and sweet coconut water comes spilling out. I saw the guys drinking the water by simply holding the coconut up over their mouths and letting the sweet water rush in. I wanted to go ask for some!

The coconut crack'd, nectar flowing!

Sometimes of course, the coconut totally shatters on impact, leaving a very pleased winner.


I had never seen this festival celebrated this way before - have you? There was a lot of shouting and glee all through the thing; a bunch of guys having a total blast. I had fun photographing it!!

Monday, August 08, 2011

Portrait of a Mumbai courier boy

- By Deepa Krishnan

I met this courier boy outside our apartment complex a couple of Sundays ago. He was sensibly dressed for the rainy season - shorts instead of long trousers, water-proof bag, documents covered in plastic. It was 9:00 a.m. and his day was just beginning.

I said to him, "I just bought a new camera, I'm learning to use it. Can I click your photo?" He nodded and said ok, and he posed for me on his bike. He had an infectious, almost cheeky smile. In fact, he came across as a very confident kid.

Nine am, quiet Sunday morning in Sion

He was wearing a T-shirt that said 'Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere'. It brought a grin to my face.

Confident look and cheeky T-shirt.

I showed him the photo in the camera viewer, and his smile widened. Since I'd just bought the camera, he asked me "What does this camera cost?".

I spread five fingers of my hand and said "Fifty thousand". He made an expressive "Oh boy" gesture, half grimace, half-grin, and I suddenly felt the sharp divide between our lives. I knew he thought I was super-rich. I suppose I'd react similarly if I went to that crazy Ambani house on Altamount Road.

I wanted to say something to the boy. Should I say "I didn't start out rich. I've worked damn hard for this"? That seemed too much like a guilt-assuaging trip :) Or should I say "If you study and work hard you can get there too"? That seemed like too much of a lecture to give to a stranger. But everything else seemed inadequate. So in the end I smiled and said "Yes, it's really expensive, no? I got free vouchers at the Croma store, that's how I bought it". The explanation eased things a bit...anyway, he said bye and zoomed off on his delivery round.

I thought to myself, just another day in Bombay, where multiple worlds collide. The differences are there, staring us in the face. We can't wish it away; all we can do is handle it as gently as possible.