Saturday, June 30, 2007

Rain, rain, rain

It rained hard last night. When I went to bed, I heard it beating against our large window panes.

This morning, my daughter's friend called at six thirty a.m. "There are no classes today", she said.

"Yippee", said my daughter, "I can sleep some more."

I peered down from my balcony. We are on the 14th floor, and when I looked down, this is what I saw.

The Mumbai monsoon has indeed begun.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Maker of Keys, and other migrant stories

You move into a new apartment, and you get two sets of keys. You take one, your spouse takes the other. But now there is a problem - you need a third key. It's for the maid, who comes in after the two of you have left for work.

So what do you do?

You go to the key wallah.

He sits under the shade of a tree, or at a little street stall. His only advertisement is the keys, hanging see them and are reassured..ah, this is a man who knows his trade, you think.

So you give him your key, and you say, make one just like this please. Then you wait and watch, while he works away.

The lady in the picture chose to spend the waiting time chatting. I overheard bits and pieces.

'Kahan ke ho, bhaiyya?' she said. Where are you from, brother?

In this city of migrants, this is clearly the starting point of many conversations. A sort of clearing of throats, a verbal clue, heralding the beginning of a friendly chat.

'UP ke hain', he said. I'm from Uttar Pradesh.

I wanted to hang around, eavesdropping, but I walked away, too polite to intrude.

I'm sure the usual questions would have followed: Do you have family here? What do your children do? I have myself asked these questions of taxi drivers, newspaper vendors, milkmen...the answers always tell the story of Bombay like nothing else can.

'My family is in the village', they sometimes say. There are hard economics behind that answer. In Mumbai, it is nearly impossible to find an affordable place to live. Even the slums are expensive. A registered legal hutment is hard to find, and if you did find one, say ten feet by ten feet, you would pay 500,000 rupees for it. That is more money than most migrants will earn in their whole lifetime. And then there are usually old parents in the village, or a bit of agricultural land that needs to be tended, or an ancestral home that no one wants to give up.

Sometimes, though, the answers tell stories of victory.

'My son is a trader in Dadar. He has his own shop near Kabutarkhana.'

'My daughter just got married, her husband works for the municipal corporation.'

'I brought my family to Bombay. We've been here too long for us to consider going back to the village.'

'My grandchildren go to an English-medium school here.'

These are the small success stories of migrants who have carved a place for themselves in their new environment. These are also the stories that bring more and more hopefuls into the city.

So everyday, the city slums swell with new arrivals. Once they arrive in Mumbai, the city works its magic. They lose the lethargy and slow pace of their villages, and they fall into the faster heartbeat of the city. They join the ranks of tradesmen, labourers, tea-sellers, errand boys, waiters, drivers, and car washers, all in a hurry, all rushing about to create their own little success story.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pavement Parrot

One early morning in Haji Ali, I saw this street dweller with her pet parrot. The lady had barely enough for herself, but the parrot seemed well fed and cared for.

I thought the lady might be a commercial sex worker. I found myself staring, almost as if I was looking for clues to her life. What was I looking for? I don't know...her possessions were pitiful. I felt guilty photographing her poverty, invading her privacy. I wonder if this is how some journalists feel, like trespassers.

Friday, June 08, 2007

A goddess for men. And non-men.

If you peer into the little sanctum of the Mumbadevi Temple, you'll see her - the Goddess Mumba - in all her glory. She is orange in the glow of the shendur. Her mango-shaped nosering, so typical of this region, glistens in the lamplight. There are offerings of flowers and fruits, the air is fragrant with incense. Crowds throng the little temple, pressing for a glimpse of her. On festival days, you can barely set foot inside.

Clearly, the Goddess cult is alive and kicking in Bhuleshwar.

Mumba is of course, only one manifestation of the Goddess. There are many others; you can see them carved on panels in the Mumbadevi temple.

There's Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning, with her customary swan. There's Lakshmi - Goddess of Wealth, on a lotus. There's Durga, the warrior Goddess, riding her tiger. There's dark angry Kali, the fearsome Goddess of Destruction.

But alongside these familiar Goddesses, I saw something I had never seen before - a Goddess on a Rooster.

I pointed it out to my friend Sandhya. She didn't know this Goddess either, so she asked the priest. 'This is Bahuchar Maa', said the priest. Neither of us had heard of Bahuchar Maa, so I came back home and looked her up.

Bahuchar Maa, apparently, is a very popular goddess in Gujarat, with a large temple in Mehsana. Interestingly, the website of the temple says the Goddess "gives virility to men". In addition, I found that Bahuchar Maa is also the Goddess of the hijras, the eunuchs/transsexuals of India.

Obviously, this goddess has something to do with sexuality, so I hunted around for more information, and I found a couple of curious folk tales.

Here's one of them: There was, once upon a time, a man who tried to molest Bahuchar Maa (Go figure. Who would want to mess with a lady carrying a sword and a trident?). Anyway, this man was cursed with impotency. So he gave up his masculinity, dressed in women's clothes and worshipped her. He was finally forgiven and cured of his impotence.

So - Bahuchar Maa is a fertility goddess, and both men and women seek her blessings if they don't have children. Naturally, the hijras, who dress in women's clothing, are dear to her. In fact, in the temple in Mehsana, there is an annual garba dance by the Deviputras, the hijras. I wonder if the Hijras dance in prayer in Mumbai as any of you know?

The other story around this Goddess is that she was once a princess who castrated her husband, because he dressed in women's clothes and refused the pleasures of her bridal bed. Ouch.

And here's a third interesting story - there's a guy from London called Steve Cooper, who now lives in the Bahuchar Maa temple, wears sarees, and offers blessings to anyone who wants it. I'm not surprised. This is India. There's a goddess for everything. And everyone.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Finding Warli where it belongs

It is impossible to miss Warli art in Mumbai. You walk into any gift store, and you'll easily spot the animated white stick-figures on tea coasters, trays, boxes and paintings.

As art forms go, Warli is pretty old. Yashodara Dalmia, in her book The Painted World of the Warlis suggests that Warli represents a continuous art tradition stretching back to 2500 or 3000 BC.

That sounds plausible. If you check out the rock carv
ings at Bhimbetka, in Madhya Pradesh, you'll see the similarity to Warli. The Bhimbetka caves have had continuous occupation from Paleolithic times, and the art dates from the Mesolithic period (10,000 years ago) to medieval times.

I was shopping recently with an overseas visitor, when we spotted a typical Warli painting, neatly framed. "You mean this is traditional art?", he said. "It looks almost contemporary, very stylish!" And I thought to myself, perhaps that's what folk art is all about, perhaps it is timeless in some sense.

In Bombay's fancy gift stores, Warli art has been transformed into something fashionable. But this week, on my way to Mumbai's Kanheri Caves, I was very pleased to Warli art in its natural setting for the first time - on the walls of a mud house. The house was 'adobe' style, a mud hut, but with a tiled roof. The men of the household were on the roof, repairing it before the monsoon set in.

Here is a closer look at one section of the painting:

The entire village seems to be illustrated in it - dogs, cats, cows, women, men, houses, the village well. Notice how everyone is busy - drawing water, sweeping, tending cattle, cooking, carrying things. In fact, when I saw the painting it was like seeing the sleepy village come alive. My favourite bit though, are the village hens, check them out! I suspect one of them is the rooster, and the rest his harem!

The name JAG is written on the wall in both English and Marathi, obviously it is the name of the painter. I can't tell whether that's a male name or a female one...Warli is traditionally a woman's art though. Warli paintings are
typically done before weddings, to seek the blessings of the goddess. So perhaps they had a wedding in the family recently.

If you want to see Warli painting in progress, or the inside of a Warli home, you simply shouldn't miss Dr. Stephen Huyler's wonderful collection of photos on his Painted Prayers website.