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Archive for January, 2008


January 25, 2008 By: admin Category: Health, India, The Film


I survived. The Fever. No, no, no, NOT BIRD FLU!!!! Good heavens, I’d probably be dead…. No, there’s been another nagging flu-like thing going around. Sore throat, wracking coughing, aches, and mild to high fever. I got the “HIGH” fever. Molly covered me in cold, wet towels and shoved broth, noodles and oranges for hours. Finally, last night it broke. I woke up in a cold, thick wet sweat. I mean DRENCHED. The nagging cough is still here, but it’s not near as bad as it was for Molly or Bryan or Nandini. And the throats isn’t as bad as Megumi.

Oh yes. ALL of them have had this. Alison is next. She told me this morning: “On Sunday, the moment you guys leave is when I’ll come down with it.”

We just now received some bad news… A great friend of Molly’s has died. We just managed to change our return flights from Feb 2 to Jan 29 to be there for the memorial service. For myself I am sick at Molly’s sadness, but so glad we’re going home early. Ive been ready to leave since Tuesday–our last day of shooting–and I think Molly was ready to leave earlier than that, even though she truly enjoys her tabla and voice lessons.

That’s enough for now. I’m going back to bed for a nap. It’s the only way to battle this thing. Eat & sleep.

Down But Not Out

January 23, 2008 By: admin Category: Health, India, The Film

Sunset in Kerala

Last night I finally succumbed to The Plague that’s been knocking everyone around me down for several days. I, thankfully, only had a horribly sore throat and some chills last night, but as soon as Molly got home from the Dover Lane Music Conf. my mild fever broke and I slept like a baby. I couldn’t talk much this morning until I had food, but now, after a big breakfast I feel I’m getting back on my feet. That said, I’ve canceled my activities for the day. Molly will go alone with David to New Market to buy shawls and spices. I’m not too keen on New Market anyway–it’s smelly as hell–and Molly is more than capable of picking me out a nice shawl. :)

So, it’s me and Mark Tully today. I bought two of his latest books yesterday as research for the film. He is a Westerner who has such a heart for India that I think it’ll be good for me to get his words and feelings into my head while I go through transcripts and log the tapes.

Tonight we go to an exhibit of portraits of lady boxers from Kolkata. I’m sure it’ll be as weird as it sounds. Sadly, there’s no images on the web so I can’t link you to anything to give you an idea, but I’ll do my best to report back in detail. I’m hoping the boxing girls from Soma Home will be there. It would be so wonderful to see Puja Roy and Lata one more time before we leave the city. They don’t know that I’m going to this event tonight, so if they’re there they’ll be pleasantly surprised to see me. :)

I’m still not ready to write about my experience shooting this film. Like Nandini said, we’ll have to let it simmer. I don’t think I’ll even go to log the tapes until March. I’ll take February to simmer, mull, cry and remember. I’ll also be running around L.A. looking for the perfect first gifts to send to the Soma Girls as soon as I get back…

A La Prochaine

January 23, 2008 By: admin Category: India, The Film

We had to say goodbye to the Soma Girls yesterday. It was awful. Lots of tears. It was so awful, in fact, that I’m going to take a couple of days to let it sink in. I’ll leave you with a photo of the beautiful and tenderly powerful Puja Roy…


What. The. Fuck.

January 22, 2008 By: admin Category: India, The Film


The myths and legends surrounding the goddess Kali of Hindu worship are pretty cool. The messages her worship sends are clear common sense–be good, kill your ego, and more… That’s why our afternoon at the Kali Temple was so shocking…

So, here’s a tip: as a woman, if you want to absolutely be sexually harassed–and by that I mean you don’t want there to be just THE POSSIBILITY, but you want it to ACTUALLY HAPPEN–the best place to go is…. The Kali Temple!!!! YAY!!!!!

It’s true, folks, the holiest site in the city of Kolkata is the place for guaranteed sickening ogling and objectification, and there’s a HUGE chance you’ll be groped. While the three of us–Nandini, Molly and I–avoided any groping, there was that moment where THE PRIEST shoved Molly’s head into a metal bar. Oh yes. He was pouring water over us aggressively, like we’d committed a crime–this was supposed to be “the blessing”–and was trying to get us both to, I think, bend all the way down to the floor, somehow wend our way under the bars that protected the icon of Kali, and do I’m not sure what–kiss the thing? In the process of these attempts I managed to wiggle free of his grasp because I was behind Molly and out of this asshole’s reach, but Molly got her head whacked into a pole. I didn’t see it or I would have caused a fucking riot. I was already hypersensitive to our surroundings and kept myself plastered to Molly’s back so she didn’t get her ass pinched, so if I’d seen anything there would have been a potentially dangerous situation as I would not have been able to control myself. Here, if you’re a woman, the best thing you can do is address the issue immediately and start screaming bloody murder that touching is not allowed. There were only men all around us. A LOT of men. Some were nice, but most saw us as trash. Thankfully, Nandini was in full control of her feminism and when the fuckhead priest yelled at her in Bengali telling her she had to make Molly and me each pay Rs. 2000, Nandini busted out her MOST KILLER Indian Gloria Steinem. Looking this fucker dead in the face and, pointing to the deity, said: “Don’t show your anger in front of her.” NOT what the priest expected or wanted to hear. He turned away, angry & clearly ashamed, gave Molly and me some flowers, and planted an orange dot on each of foreheads, pushing Nandini’s back hard. He also didn’t give her any flowers. Fuckhead.

So, the Kali temple was a shit experience, unfortunately. You just can’t be a woman in Kalighat.

The rest of the day was better. I got some terrific shots of the potters that work right behind New Light, on the stinking canal. They were warm and funny and so happy that I showed them the footage as I was filming. I caught what I think is a rare thing to catch: the potter and his wife snuggling lovingly.

Today is my last at Soma Home. I’ll see some of the girls at the exhibit of photos of women boxing on Thursday, but not all, so I’ll have to suck it up and prepare for tears…

The Awfulness of Imminence

January 21, 2008 By: admin Category: General, India, The Film

Today was our last big shoot. We filmed an interview with Urmi that filled in all of our blanks, added some needed color, and reminded us why we started this whole endeavor in the first place.

It’s almost 10pm here, on Monday night, and we’ve had a hard day which I think I’ll describe later. What’s happening now is that I’ve just come home from dinner by myself and am trying desperately not to come apart at the seams. When I think that it will be so long before I see Puja Roy, Anjali and Ruxana again, I choke with anguish. If any of you knew them, even for a minute, you’d feel the same. I’ll have picture soon. Nandini and I go for our last day of filming at Soma Home tomorrow. There’s nothing intense we need to get other than the interview with the counselor, so it’ll be nice to just hang out with the girls a bit.

Urmi told me today that I could go to Soma Home any time I wanted while I was still here. I gotta tell ya… I think I might go over every day until I leave. I also might follow the five dancers to Germany and Spain in Sept./Oct. I just can’t imagine being away from these girls for so goddamned long. I don’t really want to come back to India, but India is where the Soma girls are, so the game is pretty much played.

My friend Daniel just asked me over chat:

“So how’s it been different from your first trip?

wow… SOOOOOO different. last year we were buffered. babysat. we were picked up at our $350/night hotel every morning, and dropped off there every night. each day we visited prescribed places, and didn’t deviate. in other words, we didn’t see India. this time, India is all we’re seeing, and it’s breaking our hearts…”

Soma Girls Interviews, Round 2

January 20, 2008 By: admin Category: India, The Film

Lahki (pronounced “LOH-kee”) just MADE our movie. :) She gave one of the best interviews Nandini and I have ever heard. I didn’t understand most of it, but saw her face moving so expressively I knew we were getting great stuff. She would go on and on answering one question and was just so powerful and self-confident and sincere that we were blown away. “She’s our anchor,” Nandini said.

Puja Roy was feeling bad again. She woke up with another sore throat and throwing up again. She told us she’s had trouble with her sinuses, but that the doctor she saw only gave her some medicine and then sent her away. If her condition worsens I know Urmi will be on top of it, thank god…

Last night I said a little prayer thanking the universe for Urmi and everyone involved with New Light. As a Westerner, you see this stuff from afar, in a National Geographic special, so you don’t usually feel it. When you do feel it, when the pain of “how is this happening to people when I have so much…???” hits you, you wonder in anguish if anything is being done. Thankfully, for some, something is definitely being done. For the Soma Girls and all the kids at New Light and the Dalit shelter, the world will never be as it was. It will be better.

Other surprises during our second round of girls’ interviews were Payal, Simona and ANJALI!!!!! I never in a million years imagined that the distant Payal, pathologically self-conscious Simona, and cautious Anjali would ever sit down to talk to us, but they did. Payal was uncharacteristically still, Simona was uncharacteristically strong, and for Anjali to even be there–the girl who hates being the center of attention, was a miracle.

Simona’s interview was particularly tender. Whether we use it or not, it was clearly something she needed to do for herself. It was like she was conquering a fear, and it was beautiful to see her getting such encouragement from her good friend Lahki, who sat beside her the entire time. Simona was burned several years ago on her arm and chest. She was smaller then and still dancing kathak. As she grew older and her skin started to stretch, the pain caused her to have to stop dancing, among other things. Because the pain also kept her from doing certain tasks around the house her mother/stepmother (I can’t remember which) snapped at her endlessly, saying she was just living in the house eating all the food and not doing anything. Simona was removed to Soma Home because someone saw that this emotional abuse was wreaking havok on the little girl. So, again, for her to do this interview was H-U-G-E. She did a great job. :)

The other interview we did was the ever-sunny and playful Barsha. She’s only 8 or 9, so she isn’t aware of everything that’s going on, but is aware enough that she said “If my parents were still alive I would be happy.” Looking at this kid, you wouldn’t think for a minute that she was unhappy. As I prepped the camera for the interview she sat there and every once in a while grabbed the little wireless microphone I’d clipped to her shirt collar and yelled into it “HELLO!!!” She thought that my flinching from the explosive sound in my headphones was the funniest thing in the world. That shot may just open the movie…

One Potato, Blue Potato

January 20, 2008 By: admin Category: General, India

It was Alison’s 52nd birthday. Molly, Nandini, Megumi and I all went in to buy her this gorgeous painting of Krishna surrounded by lotus flowers. The colors are all “Alison” and she had been looking at this particular painting when we were all at Anokhi.

I haven’t written enough about Alison, and I realize it’s because she’s in my head so much. I feel I know her around the ideas we share and so I’ve forgotten to say more about her for all of you. Alison is a very deep, tender soul, which makes it doubly odd that she’s chosen to live in India, and Kolkata on top of it. There is no harder place emotionally, I don’t think, unless you live with refugees in an African camp where the beings dying in the dust aren’t puppies (Kolkata) but human babies. It’s unbelievably difficult here, as I think I’ve mentioned…;) Each day is about learning something new about yourself. This is definitely the place to come to find out who you are. If you suspect that you’re not all that good, don’t come to India. If you’d like a better view of the good in yourself, come to India. Contrasts. Always, always contrasts.

Anyway, so Alison has been here for almost ten years and it’s clearly wearing on her. It would wear on anyone. I can absolutely imagine being here longer than I should and just burning out on everything. It took me 20 years to burn out on

On Packing All The Wrong Clothes
So, after a day here you feel pretty out of place dressed in Western clothing. Thankfully, this is a problem easily solved by visiting Fab India, which we did within the first few days. We each Salwar Kameez outfits to last us the trip. Sdaly, this meant that I wouldn’t be wearing, you know, ALL THE CLOTHES I PACKED ever. Or, well, not until Bangalore, anyway. Tonight, while getting ready for Alison’s dinner, I went to my stack of clothes and realize I haven’t even worn 1/4 of what I brought, underwear not included.

Soma Girls Interviews, Round 1

January 19, 2008 By: admin Category: India, The Film

Just when I think I can’t be any more amazed by the Soma girls, I am more amazed by the Soma girls… Yesterday we did 2.5 interviews: Puja Bose, her little sister, Shibani (who accounts fro the “.5” as she was very quite and gave one-word answers cuz she’s 8…;), and Puja Roy.

Puja Bose is the light of the world. She is beautiful and so sunny you know she’ll make a huge difference in the world. She looks just like her beautiful mother, Anna Bose–an active sex worker, and one of the women we interviewed last year–and exhibits the joy and strength of someone who knows exactly where she is, what obstacles are in front of her, and that she can overcome them. She gave us a great, long, detailed interview that will surely be a centerpiece to this film…

Little Shibani, usually the group camera-hog and exhibitionist (along with 6 year old Shahana…), was like a deer in headlights. We filmed her in a 2-shot with her big sister Puja so she would feel more comfortable and so Puja could nudge her a bit to same something. Didn’t work, but the trying was very, very, very cute. :)

Lastly came Puja Roy, who we didn’t think we’d be able to interview at all. She was very cautious and closed-off when we first arrived–many of the girls were–which makes perfect sense. These girls have seen a lot of strangers come around and stare at them and talk to them about what they’re doing, film them, take photos, etc… Then they’ve seen these same people leave and never return, the way I’m assuming Nandini and I will too, I am ashamed to admit. I don’t have the stomach to be a social worker, or to see the difficulties of the lives of the people of Kolkata every day. That said, if anyone would bring me back, it would be Puja Roy.

For the first few days we visited the girls, she stayed back. Then, on the third or fourth day of shooting, she stepped in front of the camera when we asked the girls if they would dance for us. These girls LOVE dancing! Everyone called out to Puja and pushed her to the “dancefloor.” Another 2 set up a boombox, and that was it–Puja Roy was off and running. She danced beautifully to some favorite Bollywood tunes and clearly has a gift. It’s no surprise that she will be one of the girls going on the Spain/Germany dancing trip. :)

Anyway, even though she’d consented to us filming her dancing, we thought that was all we were going to get of her. Then I spent the night at Soma Home and Puja Roy came out of her shell. When Nandini left me at boxing with the girls, Puja Roy took me under her wing on the walk home, taking my hand and making sure I was safe as I crossed the street. She’s 16 and taking care of a 40-year-old Western woman. We talked and talked as we made our way and for the first time, I saw her smile. The armor cracked and there, inside, was a strong, funny, independent, intelligent, ambitious person.

The next morning she was sick. Vomiting. It was cold and so I went and held her, rubbed her back as she puked. I got her some water and then she went back to bed. When Nandini and I showed up yesterday, it was her voice I heard calling out: “Alek-she-ah!” from the window as we got out of our car. We reconnected, I asked her if she was feeling better, and she basically stayed near me the entire day. Something funny was that this was also the first time that M came with us…

Now, M is pretty shy, and therefore, fairly quiet. Puja Roy kept asking me what was wrong with her, why she was so quite and I kept telling her M was just shy. I also told Puja to nudge M a bit, bring her out of her shell. This task Puja took on with a vengeance, bringing M hither and thither throughout the house, and even nuzzling up next to her when the two had a quick nap on the sunny roof while Nandini and I filmed Puja Bose’s interview.

As we prepared for Puja Bose’s interview, we hustled all the other girls out of the room so Puja would have some privacy. But Puja Roy hid behind a wall and winked at me as if to say “Don’t tell!” Once the door was shut, Nandini and Puja Bose noticed her and everyone laughed and allowed her to stay. It was odd… For some reason all three of us, Puja Bose, Nandini and I all realized that it was important for Puja Roy to stay and watch the interview. Obviously, it was that that gave her the confidence to say that she wanted to be interviewed as well.

Pujay Roy’s interview was amazing. I think. I can only catch inflections and facial expressions so I know she was comfortable and speaking confidently. I feel good that I asked Nandini to add two less conventional questions for my friend: “As a strong woman, how do feel about the importance of women to be strong in India?”, and “Do you see yourself as a role model to the little ones?” She went on and on, and then we were interrupted, so we’ll pick it all back up today. It’s clear that Puja Roy has a lot to say and that she trusts us, so today could be great…

Throughout the day, Lata hung back. I kept checking in with her so she knew I wasn’t forgetting her as I buzzed around getting ready to film interviews, but all the same she looked a bit sad. It’s always sad to watch her while the other older girls are dancing. She used to love to dance, and now she doesn’t do it ever. There is a great likelihood that she was abused in a dance environment and, as she loved it, might associate it with letting go and then getting hurt. So, instead, she guards herself all the time. I’m SO PSYCHED I filmed her reciting that Tagore poem. She is instrumental to the film–her energy is amazing–and so if she doesn’t consent to an interview, at least we’ll have that.

As we were leaving, I asked her if she would talk to us tomorrow. I wanted her to know that she was important to the film. She said yes, but I’ll ask again very gently and have Nandini translate that all we’re interested in hearing about is whatever she wants to tell us abut her life at Soma Home. We don’t want to take her anywhere she doesn’t want to go.

These interviews are… how can I explain this…are like a souffle: beautiful, but as fragile as anything you can imagine. A tanker truck teetering on the edge of a precipice. It’s taken these girls A LONG, LONG TIME to get themselves to the place where they feel comfortable doing such a thing, and so we will guard their words with our very lives. Everything they have said to us has huge value, and so we must be as careful as a doctor a doctor prescribing medicine: we cannot make the wrong decision.

Before anything else happens, I want to make sure I say something that’s important to me… I want to thank the Soma Girls, their house staff, and everyone at New Light for allowing us into their lives. These small glimpses of their lives have already made mine so much richer.

“You Choose The Shape of My Paratha”

January 19, 2008 By: admin Category: India, The Film


Two nights ago we went out to dinner with Alison, Bryan and Sunil, Alison’s self-appointed “son.” :) Sunil is an adorable deaf and slightly retarded boy who lives in David’s amazing group home for boys with disabilities, called Shuktara. A lot of the boys are deaf, but some suffer from cerebral palsey and brain damage. The two boys with CP–the incomparably cute Raju, and the beautiful and charming Ashok–also speak the best English. Ashok doesn’t actually speak as his CP is severe, but he can get around by himself, and his brain is 100% intact. You can absolutely carry on a conversation with this kid. I was particularly taken with him for his wit and, for lack of a better term, gentlemanliness. When he was out of the room at one point Molly and I told David how gorgeous we thought he was, then David told him. As we were leaving Ashok walked us to our car and opened and closed the door for us. Yet another group of incredible kids we’ll have to go back and visit often…

Anyway, we were there to SHOP. David has his amazing blankets in the boys’ home and so Molly and I went over there to snag some much-needed classic luxury items for ourselves–because we’re selfish pigs–as well as some gifts for friends and family. That’s as much as I can say about that as you people reading my blog are the likely recipients of this bounty.

Next, we went out to dinner at Tamarind–a truly yummy South Indian restaurant and, basically, ate too much. I did stop myself when I knew I’d had too much spice, but the damage was–how you say…–DONE, and yesterday morning I woke up and had a bit of an “episode.” See, we haven’t been having fruit for the last three days–everyone’s been too busy to run to the market–so I haven’t been having my usual daily “cleansing.” Yesterday’s cleansing was a bit violent, and came three hours before I had to film the first ’round of Soma girls interviews, but all was well once the “bad medicine” got out of my system. 😉

By the way, the above quote comes from Molly. At dinner she was given the choice of whether she wanted her paratha (an Indian bread I’m sure all of you have had) shaped one way or another…

Side note: a man just came to clean the bird cage. Alison and Bryan aren’t here so I called and they said to give him 20 rupees. The exchange rate of rupees to the dollar is currently 39 to 1. The man got roughly 75 cents to clean the bird cage. Imagine if Bryan and Alison weren’t here or hadn’t hired him to clean their birdcage. What does that 20 rupees mean to this man’s life.

Bird Flu

January 17, 2008 By: admin Category: Health, India, M Photos, The Album


Well, the news isn’t good. As many of you may know, an outbreak of bird flu has emerged here in West Bengal. It is making it’s way to Kolkata and I would imagine that it will be here–we will start seeing cases of dead chickens–within the week. Now, while this is very, very scary, I want to point out a few comforting things:

#1, M and I aren’t eating any chicken. Period. We are eating eggs, but only after cooking them ALL THE WAY THROUGH. H5N1 dies at 70 degrees, so we can control the eggs. What we can’t control is how someone else cooks either eggs or chicken (sometimes chicken isn’t cooked all the way through), so we’re not having chicken or eggs if we go out. For myself, I’m staying closer to a vegetarian diet than I ever have…

#2, there are no human cases yet. Of course, you can’t believe much of what you hear in terms of reports here because there are a lot of economic fears associated with losing 300,000 chickens. Just this morning I saw a headline that read that chickens had been smuggled out of the infected areas. That’s because farmers are terrified of going broke from all of their chickens getting killed.

#3, M and I will be leaving Kolkata/West Bengal on the 27th. The disease can’t possibly spread to a human population in time for us to be affected before we leave, and Bangalore is too far for it to spread with the amount of defenses that are being mounted to quarantine it. That said–to reiterate–we are being very, very careful and not eating or handling anything related to chicken, and won’t be visiting any open markets.

The best way to keep up to date on the outbreak is the Times Of India. They’re doing a lot of reporting. Next, our phone number at Alison & Bryan’s house is: 2466-1704. Not sure what you have to do to call India, West Bengal, but y’all have the internet…;)

All-in-all, I’m nervous, but cautious. What M and I are each doing here doesn’t take us to places where there are chickens, so don’t fret. And check this blog. I’ll be updating everything. :)