APNA STREET-An Essay
A writer uses words. A film-maker celluloid images. I use sounds to tell stories, paint pictures. I don't think of myself as a journalist. Certainly not as a foreign correspondent. I don't get the adrenalin rush that my friend Sylvia Poggioli says she needs every day. I don't like the idea that my story is destined to be like yesterday's newspaper, something to wrap fish and chips in. And I'm troubled that we consume news like we drink coffee or smoke a cigarette. Why do we report on what we choose to report on? Why do we devour news? And is this healthy?
"Simply because it's there", "everyone else is covering it", "you need to know to make informed choices", or "simply because it's a great human interest story that'll really touch our listeners" are the litany usually trotted out. I'd like to believe the third of these reasons was valid. But I see precious little indication that knowing about the joys or horrors or habits of other cultures has really made much difference to our behavior. I wish it were so, but I don't really believe it. I think we consume News for different reasons, not unrelated to how and why we choose particular stories, and specifically, the assumptions and questions we ask in such stories.
I think what we choose to call NEWS and how we report it tells us a lot more about ourselves than it reveals about the society we are reporting on. The questions we ask, the way we decide to frame a story-for example labeling the 1993 Mumbai (Bombay) riots as communal violence, say, when really they had little to do with religion per se, and much more to do with who gets what goodies in a rapidly expanding economy-these choices and lenses make absolute sense in terms of how we like to view ourselves. They don't help us understand India. They're the wrong questions, the wrong lens.
Trying to understand another society on its own terms requires an act of "creative imagination." That doesn't mean an apologia. It means just what it says, no more, no less. And it's not just confined to a country. It applies to class and subculture within our own or any other society. It means, if you're middle class, trying to understand what goes on in the mind of someone who is either very poor or very rich; if you're agnostic trying to put yourself into the mind of a profoundly religous person. The operating systems are, quite simply, as different as MAC-world from DOS-world.
This act of Creative Imagination, trying to put myself inside someone else's skin, inside their brain, is probably the single most important reason why I work.
But that isn't sufficient to answer why we need to understand what goes on in the mind of somebody from another culture, another world?
Because middle-class people in both the West and non-West tend increasingly to wear the same clothes, listen to the same music, see the same films, eat some of the same foods, speak the same language-there's an assumption that we're becoming homogenized, that this is the inevitable result of modernization.
It confuses Modernization with Westernization. It just happens not to be true. And it's dangerous.
If we take the same lens we use to interpret ourselves and use it to try to understand other societies we're likely to come up with the wrong answer. Cultures are also far more resilient than we give them credit for. Differences may be less visible than they used to be. But that doesn't mean they're not there, just as strong as ever. And thinking we're all the same is far more dangerous than recognizing that we're not. Discovering that someone is different from me, how and why they're different, is something I enjoy. It's what turns me on!
This is why APNA STREET was and is still so important to me. It represented a double leap, into another culture, and then into another world, that of the pavements and of the slums. A double challenge.
But would anyone else in the West, and in particular National Public Radio listeners in the United States, be interested in their story? I hoped so but at times it seemed I was the only person (with the obvious exception of Martine, my wife) who believed this. It is no secret that the top managers at National Public Radio were deeply sceptical from the start. The programs were too slow-paced for listeners, why should NPR listeners be interested in some obscure street in India? That this series saw the light of day at all is due to one man-Robert Malesky-then Senior Producer at Weekend Edition Sunday-who stuck his neck out at considerable risk. When the final episode was broadcast in March 1998, Bob asked Liane Hansen, the host of the program, to invite listeners' comments: Had this series been a waste on time? Or did they want to hear more programs like APNA STREET?
I have no idea
what sort of response Bob really expected. Until then five or ten e-mails
per episode had been the standard.
That Sunday lunchtime, Bob phoned me: We had 400 e-mails in the first hour. Nothing has ever produced this type pf volume at NPR. I'm going to put them together and send them next week! All these years, re-reading those e-mails really does bring the proverbial lump to my throat. And these e-mails were not one-liners. They were long, very detailed and showed two things: first, that listeners understood exactly what APNA STREET was about and the different kind of reporting it had tried to convey; and second, that NPR had, if anything, erred on the side of caution; listeners wanted more, much more of this kind of program. Top Management duly saw these letters. They congratulated Bob. He deserved it. I'm glad he was vindicated. And that he believed in me and in the men and women of APNA STREET.
Here are a group of several women, all illiterate, all poor, who've been forced to make their homes and raise families, literally living on the pavement. They're not beggars, they're good working-class people, doing the jobs we depend on but rarely want to pay the full social price for. Need a shoe mended, a new door? Something repaired? Your house cleaned? An errand run? A dress stitched or ironed? These are the men and women who make middle class lives middle class!
For the past fifteen years, these women have embarked on a wonderful adventure-to empower themselves and millions of other across Mumbai, India and the World-to literally transform their lives and build homes of their own. This may seem trite. But for men and women, all over the world, whether in Soweto or Mexico City or Shanghai or Chicago, this is what their lives are all about also: struggling to survive, then coming together to try and get a place of their own, and the self-respect that flows from that.
This is the story of those who never listen to NPR, who only ever see CNN and cellular phones as the middle class go past in their luxury cars. They know what those things are alright. But their priorities are more mundane, the sort of things we risk taking for granted. So, beware, if you think this series isn't also about parts of America. It might be. It is!
Indians call Mumbai the City of Gold, the city of Lakshmi-the Goddess of Wealth-where you can come with nothing and end up a millionaire, or a movie star. Tens of thousand flood into Bombay every year. The rich want servants. Downtown offices want clerical staff, the factories want cheap labor. And everyone wants fast food and the thousand and one services that keep a fast-paced city going. The newcomers fill those gaps, and nobody ever goes to bed with an empty stomach in Bombay. But for thousands of these workers the pavement is their roof, their stars, their bed. It's the only home they can afford. For many, the only home they'll ever know. Whole villages have sprungs up on the pavements that line once-elegant middle-class boulevards.
One such area in Byculla, smack-bang in the heart of the city, a place you usually pass through en route to somewhere else, a place of middle-class apartments, small businesses, old cotton mills: a kaleidoscope of cultures, languages and religions, of immigrants from all four corners of India, and the world.
For years, the pavement dwellers went about their lives, struggling to make ends meet, to raise children, to make marriages work, to survive. But to the city they were Invisible. It was as though they didn't exist. They swept the streets, they worked in the markets, they cleaned luxury apartments, they unloaded containers at the docks, they drove taxis. But they showed up on no electoral roles, they had no address, no official ration card. They simply did not officially exist. They were truly Invisible.
But a decade ago, faced with yet more demolitions and uncertainty, a handful of these women of Byculla-a mixed neighborhood in the heart of Mumbai (Bombay), decided it was time to stop being passive, reactive, and to do something to change their condition.
came together-their organization Mahila Milan literally means Women
Coming Together-under the guidance of SPARC, a local welfare organisation.
They would meet, at first just a few, then go back to their streets, tell
their neighbors what they had learnt. Next time, more women would come to
see what was going on. And in this manner word spread and the movement mushroomed
and eventually became autonomous. The women decided to ask for land on which
to build permanent homes of their own, so that their children and grandchildren
would never again have to know life on the streets.
First, they taught themselves self-respect. Then they taught others to respect them. First the police, then the politicians, then the bureaucrats, then the Central government. They learned to organize, to establish savings accounts that today have become a People's Bank, to which government and international lending agencies extend lines of credit worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
They learned to design, then to build houses to suit their needs and their budgets. They made the City and the State stop and take them seriously. The latter discovered, to their gradual amazement, that just because one is poor and illiterate does not mean that one doesn't have both common sense, and uncommon abilities. Today, the state is considering turning over the running of ration shops to these women and their organization-Mahila Milan-because the women have shown consistently that they can deliver services better than the lumbering machinery of the state.
Fifteen years, but still no home of their own, still living in their huts on the street. How come? Sign of failure?
By most conventional measures, yes! But if the women of Mahila Milan have not concluded the official sale from the city of the land they've set their sights on, it's perhaps because they've discovered something even more important along the way.
Almost from the beginning, once they learned self-respect and self confidence, they've been teaching, blazing a way for others by their example. Not just in Mumbai, in slums like Dharavi or the Railway Slums or in Goregaon or Dauri Nagar, but in other Indian cities-Kanpur, Bangalore, Madras-and oversees-Thailand, South Korea, Columbia, South Africa. In any one month, more than half of the original founders of Mahila Milan will be out of Mumbai, travelling somewhere as ambassadors for Mahila Milan, for India, for the poor everywhere. Their message is universal because their example is universal, that the Salt of the Earth should indeed inherit their share of this earth, and not just in the Developing World.
So, this is the substance of their story, of APNA STREET.
Now, there are many ways I could have told this story. Equally, there are many reasons I might never have been able to tell it.
The obvious way is to tell it as a morality play that is meant to move Westen audiences. Brave, little, poor women struggling and succeeding. That's how we like our stories from the Third World. Whether consciously or not, they're meant to make us feel good about ourselves, and they are almost always condescending in tone. Amazement, pity are the dominant emotions. We focus on poverty, on illiteracy, on lack of modern amenities, to contrast their lives with ours. Maybe to convince ourselves of our own worth, to proclaim our own success. I've often said that if Calcutta, for example, hadn't been founded by the British, we'd had had to invent it!
And then there's the Western liberal guilt-trip that sanctifies and romanticies the poor and the illiterate. Peasants become pious innocents, motivated by only the purest of impulses. People who make a difference become Mother Theresas. All women are by definition victims, of their culture, of men, of poverty. This is the Third World sentimentalized, something our medias also do well.
But, invariably, this also means we make human beings in development stories conform to fairly obvious stereotypes, and they rarely become flesh and blood we feel we can identify with. They're cardboard cutouts, of whose inner lives we know little or nothing at all. They're "They", not "We". They remain obstinately two dimensional. Journalism, by its very nature, unfortunatley tends to reinforce this.
lack of time do the rest. Western journalists rarely are able or willing to
go behind the headline. Missing are the context, the characters, the third
dimension. Only Richard Critchfield in modern memory has set out to reverse
this deplorable but understandable tendency, spending many months living,
sharing and observing families and communities in India, Indonesia, Africa
and the Arab world. His books have proved justly famous, precisely because
they allow readers to identify.
Years ago, I resolved that one day, if I had the chance, I also would try and make a radio series along the same lines. I wanted to convey some of the richness and humor that Critchfield had succeeded in writing down in print.
But how? And where? And when?
This is where luck comes in. In October 1986, someone pointed me in the direction of Bombay. For some reason I ended up at the garage that serves as office, bank, training centre for the women of Mahila Milan. I did interviews, taped a protest meeting, went away. I came back for a couple of days eighteen months later, did more taping, even interviewed the same woman all over again without realizing it (she knew it and was too polite to say anything); came back again two years later and got it all wrong; and then came back for good in 1992 and stayed, at the invitation of the pavement dwellers, to chronicle their lives and their great journey.
They treat me now as family. They're comfortable with my work-indeed, they now make their own audio training tapes for others round the world. They asked me to teach them, as part of our bargain. Now I can call on some of them as field engineers-and they've learned to tolerate my idiosyncrasies.
That doesn't mean I've abandones my objectivity. What it does mean is that they feel free to tell me to piss off when they don't want to share something on tape. But more importantly, it means they allow me to share parts of their life that no other Western reporter will probably ever be allowed to see.
Anybody with half a brain knows well that most people in Third World countries like to tell Western media what they think the latter want to hear. Sometimes, they can say the most outrageous things because they know the media can't understand their language. It's left to a deft interpreter to make something up on the spot.
Rarely, do they share their privacy, let you see them as they really are. Talk to you as you, or they, would to a normal human being, stripped of the miasma of stereotype and cliche.
For ten years I recorded the progress of the original group of Mahila Milan women. Of course, at first, I wasn't aware I would become their chronicler. It was just a story. And the story is far from being over. When and if they finally get the land on which to build their own houses, you can be sure they won't go soft or abandon their mission of spreading the word across India and the World. It's too important, too much a part of them. They know how much it's transformed their lives and their characters. It's the getting there that's more important than the goal, the journey that's transformed them, not the destination.
There are thirty one stories in this collection. Not all of them aired on National Public Radio. But I wrote and produced them for another reason. Back in 1993 or 1994, I remember being struck by a Canadian film called "Thirty Two Films About Glenn Gould," the classical pianist who abandoned the concert platform at a ridiculously early age, for the anonymity of the recording studio and underground bunker. Each of the thirty two films were short, maybe three or four minutes. Each was about a facet of Glenn Gould-the man and the musician. Taken altogether, the kaleidoscope made up a convincing whole.
So I intended and hope still is the case with APNA STREET. I actually wrote two others, but have never produced them for lack of time. One is about the area called Dharavi (usually described in the Indian and foreign idea as Asia's largest slum, but a rich and vibrant place where you can get just about anything: also home to the best South Indian food outside of Chennai (Madras) and a scrap metal cottage industry that has to be seen to be believed); and The Travel Writer Who Never Travelled about a man who spent all day reading the Economist magazine on the pavement, or in the libraries writing a history of the United States for would-be immigrants. Yet has never been outside of the city.So, in APNA STREET you're going to hear their story over the years and from many different angles. I'm going to try and give you a slice of daily life in a typical Third World city. Twenty of the largest twenty five cities in the world are now in developing countries, and this is where the majority of the world's population will live in less than fifty years, completing perhaps the greatest human migration in the shortest amount of time. That's another reason why this is important.
I hope listeners will come away from each story (1) a step further on in the story of how these women pulled themselves up from nothing; (2) they'll start to identify with some of the eleven as real flesh-and-blood characters; and (3) they'll get a real feel for the sheer vibrancy of life on the street, in the bazaar, the slum, the favela.
After you've listened to a few of the programs, and if I've done my job well, you'll not only know who Laxmi or Samina or Sagira are, but you'll be interested, maybe involved in their individual dramas (and boy, do they have dramas-all the way from how they got to Bombay to broken marriages, making ends meet through unemployment, communal riots or the monsoon; escaping from prostitution; keeping other pavement dwellers in line, living beyond their means, or travelling to South Africa for the first time).
This is life
in a typical Third World community as seen through my eyes. But also through
their eyes, with their conscious and willing participation. They knew
that NPR listeners were going to enter their privacy. But they'd decided to
share that with you, using me and my microphones as their medium. And this
really is the simple truth: before I went for good in 1992 they held a meeting,
debated whether they could put up with my presence and the disruption it would
They decided, on balance, it was worth the experiment and they drafted a letter to that effect to the great and powerful US funding agencies to make explicit that this is a collaboration in the true sense of the word. They know who and what NPR is. They've travelled to the West. They know it's different. They know how affluent White folks view them. They've decided it's a challenge worth taking to try and shake NPR listeners out of their certainties.
So, I want to present their story from different angles, at different times along the journey. It won't be in a strictly linear line because life isn't linear in practice. Some stories have simple plots that progress logically. But most stories are best understood if they're not hemmed in by limitation of style, format or length. So, I've opted for storytelling, breaking their journey into self-contained segments that, taken together form a whole, greater than the sum of its constituent parts.
There are many ways of telling a story. Sometimes, it makes sense to first describe an event and its consequences. The listener reaches an obvious and familiar conclusion. But what if you then look at the same event from another angle? Or from a different moment in time?
This is how we perceive events in our own lives. The truth is approached from different angles and not in sequential order. We reach a conclusion only to have it modified when we hear another side of the same story. We gaze on a landscape or a building or a person from one angle, until we convince ourselves there is only one picture, one lens, one way. Look at mountains from a valley. But then go up the mountains and look down upon the valley. The same elements combine to make different pictures from different perspectives.
So, we approach truth elliptically, from many angles, in several attempts, at different times, each time peeling back a layer, encountering a new voice, seeing something from a different angle. Gradually, it begins to fit together. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the larger picture reveals itself, but only over time.
A linear narrative is how we smooth out the bumps, eliminate the flashbacks, impose order where there was chaos, and often lose the very flavor and mystery that made the story worth telling in the first place.
So expect some detours and some movement to and fro across the past ten years. It will all make perfect sense in time. For this is storytelling, not news reporting, and we storytellers have our own rhyme and reason.
Within the Mahila Milan story there's also a subplot-that of the Sadak Chhaps or street kids. The pavement dwellers and the street kids now work loosely together. After all, pavement dwellers are often street kids grown to adulthood. It's part and parcel of the same phenomenon of urban life-and that's where most people now live-all across Asia, Africa and Latin America.
I'll introduce you to some of these boys. We'll go rag-picking to understand their vital role in the unofficial recycling that keeps a huge city like Bombay from drowning in its own waste. They'll try to teach me Caroom, a form of portable Pool, and how to fly an Indian kite whose string is rubbed in glass powder the better to destroy your opponent's kite. They learn to form their own bank, pool their resources. We escape, literally, by the skin of our teeth from the clutches of the Jappu Police from the Children's Remand Home, and solitary confinement in the infamous Chiller Room, made famous in the film Salaam Bombay.
They adopt a four-year old orphan found on a railway platform. And just as with the adult pavement dwellers, we can see them grown physically and emotionally, make the awkward transition from the street kid to street adult, start families, settle down. The director Mira Nair got some of it right in Salaam Bombay. But not all. The street kids have worked with me as my assistants. In return, I've fashioned five or six stories out of their lives that they're eager to share. These kids aren't shy!
So, once again, why should NPR listeners (and you) be so interested in following the lives of these men and women on the streets of Mumbai (Bombay)?
Because it's a great story, and I hope good audio. But also because this is where and how the vast majority of the world now live. It's WE who are the exceptions, the odd ones out. They're never going to become like us. They'll go their own way. It would be nice and romantic to hope that our homeless can learn something from Mahila Milan and the Sadak Chhaps. But the reality is probably that only a minority will have the inner strength to do something about their condition.
APNA STREET isn't meant to be prescriptive. I do indeed hope that listeners will question their ignorance on their prejudices. But most of all, I hope they will simply enjoy these stories.
(C) Julian Crandall Hollick, Littleton, November 2000