Stories and People: Handle with Care

 

I’m crouched down on the edge of a North Kolkata slum, camera in hand, focusing the lens and making tiny adjustments to capture one of those little compositions of light and shape that just jumps out at you: water dripping on broken ceramic shards, rusting spokes of a bicycle tire edging in on the frame, splashes of faded red advertising paint on a cracked concrete wall.

What calloused hands held those pottery shards when they were whole, I wonder? What conversations, words, silences, passed between friends and neighbors over a cup of 3 rupee cha. Daily routine, it seems, is very important in Bengali culture. That tea is an affordable luxury, and the routines of old men sitting on cracked brick stoops and watching life go by is a moment of stability, rest, friendship and familiarity in the bustling city life.

The stories in the shards, the brick and the bike spokes are passing through my mind as I aim the camera. Then, just before I snap the photo, I hear the screech of tires behind me and a voice yelling in heavily accented English. “You must stop! What you are doing is very bad! You are taking pictures of bad things! You must take pictures only of good things!”

The speaker is an angry-looking Sikh, bearded and turbaned, eyes flashing and finger wagging furiously in the air from the safety of his car.

“What’s the problem brother?” I manage in Bangla, transitioning from confused to confrontational as I take stock of the situation.

The man yells and finger wags for a few moments more, until the surge of cars and auto-rickshaws and motorcycles blocked behind him builds up to a critical mass of loud horns and peer pressure and he finally moves on.

Its not the first time I’ve run across resistance to cameras or stories here. There’s definitely a sensitivity in India to how they are portrayed abroad. India is, perhaps understandably, tired of the world seeing primarily the bad things: the poverty of the slums, the inefficiencies, the injustice, and the ugliness. But in my mind, I wasn’t capturing a moment of something embarrassing, but something fascinating and full of story. Yet all this man saw in a snap judgment was a white man with a camera in a slum, exploiting and exposing something that embarrassed him and his country.

I’ve had my convictions on the how and why of storytelling challenged a great deal in the last month. India, and perhaps the justice community in Sonagachi in particular, has a way of doing that.

“We try to never take pictures of the women in a situation that we ourselves wouldn’t want to be photographed in,”  said one expat, who has experience working with the women of Sonagachi for years. And that can go furthers with the different rules that people set for themselves and others: No pictures with the women’s faces, change all the names, don’t take pictures or video at all, only tell stories with hope, broadcasting suffering is re-exploitation…. Most of it makes a lot of sense and is grounded in relationship-driven sensitivity to all that these women have gone through. Some of it seems extremely limiting in harnessing the the power of stories to fight for the dignity of these women. Can it be both?

Phil Kaye, in his Ted Talk “Why do we Tell Stories?” says:

“We like to think that we can plot our lives out, but there’s this big, deep unknowing out there, this deep chance. And I think maybe subconsciously that makes us feel vulnerable. It’s scary. And in the face of that great vulnerability, that’s where that impulse to tell stories comes from…. Story lets us carve our initials into the wet cement of this moment.

To write is, in one sense, to attempt to put a clear, linear narrative to a world that is far from clear and far from linear. To make sense of that “deep unknowing,” as Kaye put it.

As a writer in the non-profit sector, writing for me often functions as my means of making sense of a senseless world and bolstering up my attempts at understanding foreign cultures or complex or difficult situations with bulwarks of nouns and verbs. But I’ve also worked with the conviction that storytelling is more than just an alleviation of personal uncertainty, more than just some kind of creative outlet therapy for a big, scary world. Words can be powerful. Words can compel and move and change with their stories, their perspectives, the architecture of their construction and the music of their sound. To tell the story of a person forgotten or marginalized by the world in their poverty or oppression is to acknowledge their existence as individual created in the image of God. To declare that they and their story are worth being witnessed. To carve their initials into the wet pavement of the moment for a world that forgets and wants to look away.

But sometimes forgotten people want to be forgotten. Sometimes invisible people want to stay invisible and the voiceless don’t want to be heard. Maybe its shame, maybe just a desire for privacy. Telling someone else’s story is a deal with someone else’s vulnerability. It’s a privilege to tell those stories, and people have a right not to have have their story told as much as they do to have their story told.

How do I expose a largely oblivious western audience to the injustices I see here in the Gach, while preserving the dignity and privacy of the individuals being exploited? How do I use words as a weapon to fight the oppressor, while simultaneously loving and respecting the oppressed? How do I balance showing true hope with showing the equally true gritty and hard realities of this world?

These are questions I expect to have to continue working through, not to suddenly develop all-sufficient answers for. Stories have power. That’s not disputed, or the issue. The dilemma is how to wisely handle the enormous responsibility that comes with the power of stories.

Stories belong to people, and stories, like people, must be handled with care.


 

As my role here in India takes shape, I’m focusing in on working with the Team blog rather than my own personal blog (though I’ll still be writing here). In any case, check out the Love God Love Neighbor Blog and you’ll be able to read some really great blog posts from all my teammates.

 

Cheers!

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Kolkata Blur

I can feel the pollution in the back of my throat and lungs when I breathe, stinging in my eyes, blackening my nostrils. The smog settles low and heavy over Kolkata, an ever-present smudge on the City of Joy that matches the rot and blurs the beauty.

I was juggling a soccer ball with her brother when a little Bengali girl in the railroad slum gave me a flower and a smile. I think that’s almost all she had in the world.  I have a lot to learn from the generosity of the poor.

It’s those images and memories that stick – floating fog in the Kolkata haze and the blend and blur of sounds and smells and faces.

Back during the time of the British Raj, Kolkata (then called Calcutta) was the capital of India – the City of Joy, the City of Palaces, a major trade center, port, political hub, and artistic mecca for the subcontinent. After Independence in 1947 the capital was moved to New Dehli. Kolkata was forgotten and left to rot. Garish Park, the area of the city nearby Sonagacchi in which justice groups like Freeset and Sari Bari work, looks like it was once a high class neighborhood. The buildings are fading shadows of former glory. Ornate columns and intricately constructed balconies decay, paint peels and facades crumble to reveal the cracking bricks beneath. Peek inside through the gratings and doorways and you’ll see marble floors in some buildings, an ancient piano crumbling in the hall, children playing cricket in the alleys.

Life is happening in the decay, around every corner. People scrub in suds and bathe in the water pipes pouring perpetual water onto the streets. A man with a ferocious beard and a massive blue turban sells cha in tiny ceramic cups the size of an espresso cup for the equivalent of 10 cents. Drink down that hot, sweet, milky glory and smash the cup on the cobblestones.

Down the stone steps at the far end of the bridge, bright orange and yellow flowers are piled high, sold by the bushel or handful or strung together to throw at the feet of the gods. Stalls are packed with baskets full of spices: turmeric and curries and masalas, black pepper and red chilis and ginger. Colors and aromas and sounds all crowd for attention.

The flower market ducks under the bridge. The bright colors gradually fade to dull greys and shadows, familiar piles of trash, decay. Look to the left, two rows, facing each other, of wire cages, raised on blocks. We’re near the railway line. Perhaps these are stock pens, abandoned by the British Raj. Material artifacts testify that people live in the pens – a few clothes, kettles, makeshift shelves and bedding. A family is gathered around a small cooking fire in a corner.

I watch the flames of the dead in the plaza of the riverside crematorium. A group of four men walks by carrying a heavy load between them in a square bit of cloth. Down the steps to the river bank, and they release the ashes into the current.

I stand crammed between walls in the inner section of the Temple of Kali in Kalighat. Mere feet in front of me a mob of Bengalis push and shove and scream and throw chaos and elbows and coins and flowers into the inner sanctum of the temple where Kali, the goddess of death and destruction, the goddess of Kolkata, stands in all her stony terror. In the outer area parents pin their infants to the trunk of gnarled sacred tree and splash red liquid on their foreheads. As recently as 50 or 60 years ago child sacrifices still happened on a daily basis in Kali’s temple. Some say it still happens in secret, dark corners of Kalighat today.

The savagery of man isn’t a relic of the past. It’s here now. I’ve seen it. Women lined up to be sold like cattle, withered men with foam on their lips left to die on the street, the suffering and the sheer unfairness of poverty, caste, injustice.

The City crumbles, decays, breaks hearts and souls.  Sonagacchi is a totem declaring man’s indifference to man, an edifice of human suffering built brick by brick with the broken souls of 10,000 women and children. The city is like the buildings of Garish Park. The façade is peeling, and beneath the cracking mask one can see the rot that lies beneath.

The city dazzles, shines, sings,  bursts with flavors and smells and laughter. Vines and flowers climb and spring through the cracks in the skeletons of the Raj. Between the cracks the joy and the beauty and courage can’t help but spring up and demand life. Little girls give flowers and smiles and colors burst the barricades of the dark and oppression that looms over the city like a hangman.

Kolkata, that maze of alleyways and chipping paint and Tandori Chicken and muddy rivers and piles of garbage and color and wonder, breaks my heart, and fascinates me, and can’t be erased from my mind or soul or heart.

There’s a Factory in the Heart of Kolkata

There is a factory in the heart of Kolkata – one more building in a city of fifteen million souls, one more wall in the unending labyrinth of twists and turns.

The main drag of Sonagacchi, the biggest red light district in Kolkata, the City of Joy, is just a few streets away. Within the space of a few square miles, 10,000 women and girls, daughters and grandmothers, sell their bodies on a daily basis to men with evil in their eyes – strung out, high, drunk, lurching from the central bar and into the all-enveloping darkness of the doorways. Out of the maze and into the belly of the beast.

Many of the women are trapped, enslaved in an oppressive system and shunned by their society. Women trafficked over borders from Nepal or Thailand, impoverished girls sold into slavery by their starving families in the villages of India, they form lines and crowd the doorways of Sonagacchi and call out to their customers, wear smiles pasted on for their oppressors.

But there is a factory in the heart of Kolkata where the sound of hope sings faint amid the humming of the sewing machines and the clacking of gears and generators, and where justice is not a cliché, but an ever present reality.

The factory is owned and operated by Freeset, a business that exists with the sole purpose of offering an employment alternative to women and vulnerable girls in the Sonagacchi brothels. They live incarnationally amongst the women, live in their neighborhoods, work down the street, and offer them training in sewing and jobs making t-shirts and bags out of jute (think burlap) and used saris.

Steve, a burly Kiwi who bears a faint resemblance to Patrick Swayze, has been working for Freeset for years. Before this job, he had a gig taking New Zealanders on short term mission trips around the world, at one point doing a series of visits on multiple continents to different anti-human trafficking efforts.

“Freeset was the best and most effective model I saw,” he says. “So I came back, and here I am.”

I step inside the building in Garish Park towards the end of the morning devotions; they’re optional, but most of the women seemed to have turned up. A man stands and speaks Bengali to over a hundred women, the factory workers, those who have managed to leave the lines. They smile and laugh and hold their heads high. Here, they earn twice the rate they would earn at a comparable job elsewhere in Kolkata. Here they have worth. Here they have dignity.

The building is arranged in an open square: rooms, staircases and open balconies on the sides, and an open space to the roof in the middle. Jute is bound in rolls against the basement floor wall, used saris hang to dry from the railings three stories up. They flap in the wind and the colors explode.

The factory floors buzz with activity. Steep, narrow staircases wind up from the corners and we move from floor to floor, peeking our heads through the doorways of the rooms where colorfully dressed Bengali women bend over their sewing machines, men cut fabric into patterns, boxes are carefully packed and stacked and moved for shipment, supplies placed in baskets and lowered three floors down with a makeshift “sari dumbwaiter.”

On the top floor machines print trendy designs with Indian patterns onto bags and T-shirts. Cogs and wheels spin and whir, a heating mechanism that appears to operate in the same manner as a giant easy-bake oven carries material through to quickly dry the paint. In one corner, up on a raised ledge, a group of women performs the final checks: snipping loose threads, attaching tags, hammering buttons. These are the women who have been unable to learn to sew, typically prevented by age, disease, or mental disability.

“We operate with the belief that ‘every woman has a job,’” says our Kiwi guide. “This work gives these women dignity.”

There is a factory in the heart of Kolkata, where hearts are mended with the stitching of bags, where hope is manufactured and distributed in the streets and the brothels of the City of Joy, where freedom fighters stand tall shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed and stare down the darkness.

The chains are real. But so is the hope.

“Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free…”

– Isaiah 58:6

Introduction

Hello world,

   this blog will chronicle the adventures, writings, thoughts, arguments, ramblings, photographs, wanderings, joys, sorrows, anger, wonder, confusion, thirst for justice and love of truth of a writer caught between continents and latitude lines. After a year of writing and working in Africa, I am now stateside, in the process of raising financial support to work with an organization fighting human trafficking in Kolkata, India. Here’s some thoughts and stories picked up along the way. Read. Enjoy. Think. Comment.