5 Documentaries That Should Exist About India

Netflix has dominated the market for popularizing obscure documentaries, particularly about exotic corners of the world that the American public never even knew existed. This is my take on five documentaries that I think would be interesting and successful about India. Or maybe I’m just putting this out there because I’m curious.

The Innovative Bucket Fixers of India

One of the most unbelievably specialized jobs I’ve ever come across, the plastic bucket fixers heating-rod-supportof India embody “Jugaad.” These guys are scrappy in all the right ways. Only making a few rupees per transaction, they make a living by walking around neighborhoods and fixing plastic buckets, an item that every household has at least one of. If you’ve never been a person who has lived with the reality of the bucket bath, there are many things that could go wrong with your bucket: 1) it could burn from the electric water warming rods, 2) the handle could break, 3) it could crack – ok maybe only three things could go wrong with your bucket. I am shocked these guys even make enough to feed themselves. How do they survive? What if you miss your chance to have your bucket fixed when the bucket guy walks by? These are questions for which the world needs solid answers.

The Lifecycle of an Elephant

The Indian Elephant captures the imagination of everyone who even thinks of the exotic jungles of the subcontinent. Used for entertainment, transportation, religious purposes, weddings, and tourism, these lively beasts are one of the most fascinating animals on the planet. I want to see a documentary on all the roles elephants play in Indian society. I want to understand their intelligence, versatility, and what happens when they are abused in captivity. Think Blackfish for elephants.

Debunking Sati Sati-Ka-Yogagni-Mein-Aatmdah

The mythological story of Sati throwing herself on Lord Shiva’s funeral pyre has had more than just a place in Hindu mythological books. Reports of widows allowing themselves to be burnt alive hundreds of years ago has long plagued the minds of Westerners. For those who have more than elementary school book knowledge, we know that India is more than caste, cows and child marriage. Does sati still happen? Yes. Is it common? No.

Mussoorie, Worlds Colliding

Mussoorie has to be one of the eeriest microcosms on the planet. A hill station with stunning scenery, fresh weather and access to the plains of India, it is one of the highly coveted vacation spots for Indians and visitors alike. However, the sociological makeup of Mussoorie is one that leaves me scratching my head. As a highly accessible mountain area, many people end up there from all over the world from partying American college students doing internships at local hospitals to wandering goat herders from Garhwali villages. The Landour Language School and places lake Rokeby Manor throw you for a loop with their international guests, mingling amongst wandering Sadhus and pilgrims seeking solace in the cool foothills. The colonial history of Mussoorie hangs thick in the air along with the dense clouds that sweep your feet as you hike the mountain roads. The world needs to understand how all these people mix, mingle, and call Mussoorie their home.

An Indian Taxi Driver’s Survival in Urban America

Like any traveler, I’ve talked to a fair amount of Indian taxi drivers in various cities across the United States. On any given evening, a passenger will stories of young men who drive taxi in the evening while they study engineering at American universities during the day. One would see the crushed dreams of old men who came to the U.S. with intentions of practicing medicine in their youth, but couldn’t pass the USMLE, and ended up driving a taxi their whole lives to put their kids through college. The cabby hangouts in urban America are epicenters of conversation, food experimentation, networking, and even community development. What do these drivers see on a nightly basis? How do they interpret America nightlife when they come from some of the most conservative cultures in the world? Someone needs to take a camera, and capture these guys’ lives.

 

When you see these documentaries come out, just remember, you heard the ideas here first. 🙂

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An Easier Route – Black Americans Paved the Way for South Asian Immigrants

Gandhiji, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. are the three most well known social reformers and freedom fighters of the last century. Each of these men represented an oppressed people whose land and/or livelihood was occupied or stolen by white people. Each of these leaders fought against the unjust nature of white dominance. During Black History month, I’ve been reflecting on the contributions of those such as Dr. King, and the ripple effects which the civil rights movement caused for other Americans of color.

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Even though the United States has had South Asian immigrants for at least 100 years, Indians in America today have a complex way  of fitting into the race and cultural wars in America. With so many Indians in the media who own their cultural heritage, including Preet BhararaNina Davuluri, Mindy Kaling, Indra Nooyi, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Fareed Zakaria, Ravi Zacharias, and many more, there are still some who publicly chose to shy away from their Indian-American identity.

Governor Bobby Jindal is a prime example of a confused Indian-American.  In a recent statement, he encouraged NRIs (non-resident Indians) not distinguish themselves according to their ethnic background, but to call themselves “Americans” rather than Indian-Americans. He thinks somehow distinguishing and appreciating the cultures we came from will lead to discord among people groups, rather than fostering an appreciation.

The rhetoric of “America as a melting pot” is outdated and inaccurate. America should be described as a chunky stew where each bite gives you a variety of tastes, as individuals own their unique identities. Jindal’s one-size-fits-all philosophy is very 1970s where we were taught not to see color, but just hold hands and sing kumbaya while pretending we have all been given the same social power.  So called “colorblindness” as we attempt to form into one singular identity, has clearly not worked.

Instead of a adopting a one-size-fits-all identity, we should be inspired to own each of our ethnic identities and embrace the freedom to be who we are. This kind of freedom has only been made possible by respectable people like Dr. King, and all those who fought, and continue to fight for equality in our country.

The road of immigration to the US has been built on the civil rights movement. Not only the rights of black Americans were fought for, but an opening for many more people of color to gain access to the American dream was also created. 

Three Tips for Succeeding Professionally in India

Living and working in India can be a strange mix of personal and professional, informal and formal, fascinating and frustrating.

Indian White HandshakeAs a Westerner, one of the biggest struggles I had was figuring out how to navigate personal and professional life while remaining in the appropriate frame of mind for the moment or context I was in. What are the unspoken rules of professional life in India? Where are the invisible lines of work vs play, colleague vs friend, or manager vs peer?

Here are three tips which I’ve learned through my own mistakes in my personal and professional life:

1) Know your place in the Hierarchy

Have you been hired as a contractor for 6 months to do training? Are you an employee of a large company sent for a long term project? Are you a manager of people? No matter what your place, it is essential to find out who is “above” and “below” you as far as the corporate hierarchy is concerned. If you’re a Westerner like me, you probably cringe that I’ve just written “above” and “below” in this way. Western companies are great at pretending that we are all equal and that people should feel open to knock on the CEO’s door at any time. In Indian companies, this hierarchy is simply acknowledged and consistently reinforced according to who has more power. This hierarchy is not written anywhere on paper, and others are unlikely to give you an organizational chart. This is discovered through observing others, asking indirect questions from other staff, and finding out who you are able to go to and ask direct questions to when you are confused.

One of the most important ways you can immediately implement this is by learning who to address as “Sir” and “Maam.” These are basic manners in the office place, and you may be surprised to know that even someone just a year older than you, or someone in a slightly different position than you could be cause to call them “Sir.”

Also learning to interpret age is important (don’t be fooled by a thick mustache on a 23 year old). Even though the person who picks up the garbage or the person who brings chai might be 60 years old, it is not appropriate to call them “sir” or “maam” in an office context, but it could be nice to express gratitude and respect for them as a person by adding “ji” to the end of their name. This is another example of acknowledging hierarchy in an appropriate manner. There are endless rules of hierarchy and where people’ s place social status puts them in how they relate to you, and how you relate to them.

You have even more responsibility if you are a boss or manager to respect the hierarchy. You must realize the power that your words have. People may just bend over backwards even at your slightest suggestion. You are not seen as an “equal” but as a superior. Even though you may relinquish this power and attempt to implement a flat structure, your employees have it hard wired in them to put you in your proper place in the hierarchy.

2) Don’t take cues from other foreigners

I made this mistake of taking cues from a male boss who was about 10 years older than me, a clear authority figure in the office. I was in a role where I was just an employee of the company, around average age of the other employees and an unmarried female. How I addressed other employees and colleagues needed to be different than my boss. I made the mistake of picking the wrong role model given my age, gender and position in the office. He had figured out behaviors that worked for him, but would not work for me.

I also made the mistake of mimicking the dressing style of my friends who were not in the workforce, when I should have been watching what other working women of my age and marital status were wearing instead. I showed up to work in everything varied from ripped jeans to a saree. In India, what you wear speaks volumes about who you are, where you come from, and what you do. This is infinitely more difficult for women than men. I made the common mistake by dressing either too casual or too “wife-like.” Selecting the right amount of jewelry, applying the right kind of makeup (if any at all), wearing the appropriate length and style of clothing, with appropriate texture and fabrics is all a matter of great delicacy. If you work for a larger company in a metropolitan area, they may have clear guidelines on what to wear, then you don’t have to wonder like I did.

3) Learn where you fall on the personal scale of society

The biggest factors your place on the societal scale, are your age and marital status.

Age – If you are a young person, you may think you automatically deserve respect based on your merit or achievements. The fact of the matter is, older people always know best in Indian society, regardless of either of these. Indians know that no matter how old you are, there is always someone in the family older than you, who will have the final say. You are always a youngster in someone’s eyes. Seeing oneself in the context of your family (including ancestors), your caste or religious group is an integral part of the Indian mindset. Even if you don’t belong to an Indian family, figuring out who deserves respect because of their age alone, is an imperative part of successfully understanding where you fit on the personal hierarchy.

Marital Status – Simply put, being married equates being an adult. Married life is one of the ancient philosophical ideas of Hindu Stages of Life and is still very much in practice today. For example, even if you’re 45 and unmarried, people may not know where exactly to place you in society. This is a invisible social system, yet highly important and envelops all parts of life.

Other qualities which you may be judged on while ranking on the personal hierarchy scale:

  • what kind of a career you have
  • what kind of careers your parents and siblings have
  • your basic ability to speak politely to elders
  • your physical appearance (height, weight, tone of skin, good looks)
  • how nicely you dress/ quality of your jewelry and accessories

Becoming friends with a few key people that you naturally connect with in the office is a helpful both personally and professionally. Getting to know an Indian family in the home environment by attending festivals and family events will help you understand important aspects of personal life which affect each professional outside the walls of the workplace. You will gain insight on new parts of Indian life which help you understand why people do what they do. This is not only important for your professional life, but your overall survival in the country.

Ways to master this:

Find an informal mentor of your age and gender. Find ways to learn their lifestyle and kind of copy them until you’re enculturated enough to have confidence in your own ability to make culturally accurate judgements. By spending time with various types of people outside the office will help you understand more of where you fall on the social scale and therefore, the professional scale.

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, but find a trusted friend to make them with. Find that special friend to whom you can ask questions. without being judged.

Other applications: The workplace, is not the only time I’ve run into troubles with these three challenges. These rules also apply in organizations like religious clubs or social societies.

The Racist Inside

Growing up I thought racism was something “out there.” Slavery, the KKK, and white supremacists were what I thought of when I heard the word “racism.” Of course, it wasn’t something that hit close to home for me or that I even acknowledged as a problem. I knew there were racists in our country, but it was something that I only saw on TV, or read about in my children’s US history books about the evils of slavery.

I regret that only recently I’ve becoming aware, of white privilege and systematic oppression of people of color (POC), particularly African Americans. With extreme cases like Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and Michael Brown we are confronted with a pervasive racism in our country which needs to be addressed. But not only this, but even on a much smaller scale, in daily interactions, we need to be aware of the racism that POC face.

Young-Woman-Covering-Mouth-Featured

As I’ve become more aware of this I feel two things: “How come didn’t I clearly see this earlier?” and “How should I respond?”  I’d like to address some of my feelings on the second question in how I feel white Americans can respond to racism in our country:

 

1) Listen first 

This is an uncomfortable place. If you’re like me, you will naturally react in your mind when you hear people talk about “white supremacy of America”, “white privilege”, or “systematic oppression.” If you’re like me, you will feel reactions against what is being said to you and excuse yourself from injustices that you feel you had nothing to do with. Acknowledge that while you might feel non-racist, push yourself to LISTEN first. Speak less. Think about the things in your life which might have strings of prejudice attached and start pondering there.

If someone says they are being discriminated against, don’t write them off. Really listen. Consider it from multiple perspectives.

2) Push back against your “filter against anger”

No one likes to be yelled at, cursed at or called names. The reaction is to stop listening immediately. But look beyond that. Challenge yourself and your way of thinking.

There is a lot of talk about the angry black folks and people discarding what black people say if there is a slight twinge of anger in their voice. Being a communications professional, I’m particularly sensitive to mediums of effective communication, but if one is to be superbly understanding, look beyond the emotional response of the communicator and listen to the content of the message. People have a right to be angry about institutionalized racism, and it is our place as the listener to filter through the anger, and listen to the underlying message. Find voices out there who are balanced, intellectual, and bold like Michele Alexander or Ta-Nehisi Coates.

3) Don’t embrace self hatred for being white

Feeling a deep sense of “white guilt” or feeling regret about your race is not going to help you.  Part of the initial guilt is a good thing, helping us to realize the privileges we have in this country due to our race. However, you can do something about it. While other people may stoop to the level of saying hateful things about someone based on their race, you don’t have to let it soak into your skin.  Acknowledge your privilege, but don’t hate yourself for it. See my article “Why I’m OK Being White” which talks a little about my personal experience of discovering my whiteness as it pertains to being in relationships with POC.

4) Be an advocate

One way to fight back against racism instead of sitting back and doing nothing, is to be an ally. Look at your race and privilege as an opportunity to build others up. When you see an injustice going on, speak up. If you’re put in a position of power which a POC color deserves, step down (easier said than done).

5) Speak up 

Even though some people say white people need to “shut the f* up,” I disagree. If one listens first, there is great power when someone with privilege gives it up and speaks out against it. If only people of color are speaking out against racism, we will not get very far in seeing it actually eradicated.

 

White Hinduism Case Study- Kumare the Movie

A fake or a genius? A skeptic of Eastern religion and Indian American, Vikram Gandhi takes on a social experiment by becoming a “fake guru” and builds a following (mostly of white Americans in Arizona) with made up teachings. He exposes blind adoption of fad religion, and cultural misappropriation, but somehow discovers true teachings and real relationships through it all.

His followers varied from yoga teachers, unemployed adults in transition, college students, recovered drug addicts, and working mothers. Vikram became Kumare by making up his own religion and passing it off as “spiritual teachings from the East.” He grew his following to about 15 people who took him to be a spiritual teacher from India, a rishi, a yogi, an enlightened person who was far from the troubles of an individualistic, capitalistic, Western society.

kumare_Hinduism_America

Vikram takes his teachings  to the extreme and builds a whole persona around Kumare, spending months giving teachings and advising his followers how to do different meditations and chants which he completely made up, pawning them off as ancient practices. People share their lives with him, share their problems, and ask his advice as they begin to trust him. Vikram begins to feel tension of his disguise as he builds authentic relationships with his followers.

The amazing part is that through the experience Kumare helps a number of people realize who they really are, and what they want to become in life. In the process Vikram (Kumare) changes as well, and actually becomes more and more like Kumare than his old self.

When Vikram exposes his American identity, something amazing happens. Instead of being angry, hurt, or feeling stupid, a few of the followers accept him wholeheartedly, and see it as all part of the teaching. They didn’t care if their “guru” was from Rishikesh or New York City. They were looking for peace, a friend, and someone they could trust, and they found all of that in Vikram/Kumare.

Those who were looking for a religious fad, a new meditative tactic that they could use in their own teachings, or something impressive to tell their friends, all rejected Vikram, and felt stupid for getting sucked into a scheme of this sorts. They threw his teachings out, and moved on looking for the next fad.

Those who were really searching, found what they were looking for, and didn’t care where it came from. In the end, these were the real disciples.

 

We are the 15%. Making a point with interracial marriage.

A few months ago, the Cheerios ad showing an interracial couple and their child sparked all kinds of ridiculous controversy which made thousands in our country hang their heads in shame. Reactions to this ad show a disgraceful state of backwards individuals that still exist in the USA today.

According to the 2008 census, 15% of new marriages are interracial. So, why does it feel weird to some to see an ad representing a normal consumer population on TV? The website We Are the 15 Percent aims to change that. This is one effort to show the real faces of interracial families. Hundreds of families have submitted their photos to show that interracial marriage isn’t all that strange anymore- but is a normal part of our society.

But there is one reaction to racism which makes me very uncomfortable.

Believe it or not, there are people out there who are determined to marry someone of a different race, just to make a point. 

Photo credit- This American Life
Photo credit- This American Life


Have you ever heard someone say “I like white girls” or “I am only attracted to black men” or “I fit better with desi guys.”

Isn’t this another form of objectifying someone for their race? Isn’t this classifying someone as part of a group which they may or may not fit into?

Something is wrong with a person who is attracted to someone just for their ethnic label.  A person’s race is only one quality that expresses who they are.  Putting an individual in a box is a dangerous game to play when considering about a lifelong relationship. If a person marries another primarily because of their race, they will be disappointed when that person surprises them by being an individual with a mind of their own.

I recently heard a story on This American Life about a white American man who only wanted to date Asian women. Eventually he got what he wanted, when he met a Chinese woman online and got married. He was really disappointed and surprised after a few months of marriage when she showed him that she had a unique personality and didn’t fit into his little box of what he thought an Asian woman was supposed to be.

Marriage is not a project. Marriage is not a label. Marriage isn’t something a person should do to prove anything to someone else. Marriage isn’t a statement.  A strong marriage is built on commonalities, interests, and shared values.  Marriage is a commitment to an individual (and their family.) Each person is different, and can not be defined just by their race. Human beings are complex, and each marriage is different, be it “interracial” or not.

Does Bollywood Portray Sex Slavery as Cute and Funny?

One of the hottest songs of 2012 “Fevicol” from Dabangg 2 shows item girl Kareena Kapoor Khan dancing with Salman Khan, in a neon lit Kanpur brothel. Available girls hang from every window and the clinking of payal can practically be heard as young girls follow Kareena in a seductive dance.  By-standing men throw wads of rupees in the air rejoicing. Kareena’s playful attitude and cute smile makes the whole scene innocent enough, but what is the underlying message that songs like this are sending?

The Chief Judicial Magistrate of Muzaffarpur, Bihar called attention to “Fevicol” as a harmful portrayal of women in an inappropriate sensual manner, as so many women fight sexual harassment and abuse in India.  The official claimed that this song was condoning overt sexuality at already troubling time for women, after the gang rape of a 23 year old in Delhi, which created a national uproar.

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But where do these ideas come from? Does Bollywood gloss over the sex trade and try to make it look ok? Films like Dabangg 2 show a funny, vibrant and even “innocent” side of prostitution. All the girls are middle aged, beautiful,  flirtatious and willing. What about the millions who aren’t there by choice- those who are trafficked? There are all kinds of prostitution that exist in India, including what they fantasize in the movies, but this does not portray the reality for a huge percentage of women, girls and boys and even men trapped in the sex trade.

Most “sex workers” in India are under-aged, poor, and not there by choice. Some a trapped by poverty, some by pimps, some by abusive relatives, and some by mere shame. If only Bollywood films were to show 3 year old boys being sold, AIDS orphans digging through garbage, and pregnant woman selling themselves to feed their other hungry children, we would have a more accurate picture of what the sex industry really looks like.

There are a few moves like “Agneepath” that show glimpses of the reality of human trafficking. Also films like “Devdas” and “Umraao Jaan” show the pain and suffering of a courtesan life, even in the midst of glamour and riches. But the vast majority of films still portray the glitz and glamour of item songs, and beautiful 20-something girls willingly available, while the reality is glaringly different.

When considering patronizing films like Dabangg 2, and others which are openly glorifying prostitution, lets remember the reality of the sex trade in India. Even though Kareena plays it off as cute and funny, it certainly is not.

Nomadic Professionalism and Living Cross Culturally