everyday saris

a look at everyday life in india through the eyes of an american girl, working with artisans throughout the country. join me as i work, explore, and try to be cool enough to rock a sari. it's an incredible journey; thanks for sharing it with me.
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i’m two weeks out of india.  how is that possible?

i’m currently in spain, with malaysia and paris behind me.  morocco and portugal still to come.  i’m fortunate to have this opportunity and even more so to spend the month with two friends from india.

natural beauty.  delicious food.  drinking from the tap. 

wearing jeans and tank tops.

life is good. 

but i have to say, i miss these faces:

(yep, that first photo is of the gypsies on skype: a multi-week project that was finally a success on my last night in india!)

i have five days left in india.  

i knew this time would come and, for awhile, i couldn’t wait until it did.  this country has a way of chewing you up, spitting you out, and still managing to kick you one last time. 

but, somehow, it grows on you.  in a messy, irrational, this-is-the-only-place-in-the-world-that-you-can-simultaneously-love-and-hate way…

yes, india grows on you.  deeply.   

you learn to appreciate the little things: an honest cab driver, the perfect steaming cup of chai, the friendly group of guards outside the apartment building (who are only asleep half the time), and the hilarious 90s pop music blasting through department stores….

the simplicity of everyday life,

the chaotic order that you somehow learn to navigate,

and the people who warm your heart.

and that’s where i find myself now: soaking in every moment i have left.  what will happen when these things are suddenly absent from my life?

the people…

the colors…

the chaos…

the beauty…

the quaintness…

the food…

the smiles…

the signs…

…and so much more.

here’s one of my favorite photos from the last two weeks :)

my mom and sister visited kolkata…

experienced my life,

whizzed through streets in auto rickshaws,

spent christmas eve volunteering at my friend’s medical clinic,

gorged on delicious curries and breads,

managed not to get sick (not even a little),

dressed as locals in kurtas and scarves,

and, of course, spent an entire day taking in the beauty of the taj mahal.

***

now i’m making my way through rajasthan with my friend, kayla.  more to come when i get back to kolkata on the 10th!

why is it, that just when you get comfortable,

when the weather is no longer suffocating, you’re feeling good about your local language skills, and christmas is just around the corner,

when life is rolling along relatively smoothly and you just, in general, feel at ease with your surroundings,

tragedy strikes and shakes you awake.  why?

in the past week, two tragic events have struck kolkata and been at the forefront of my mind: a hospital fire that took 89 lives, and a massive case of toxic alcohol poisoning that’s killed nearly 170.

my reaction is mixed but is overwhelmingly one of sympathy for the victims’ families.  one emotion that i do not feel, however, is surprise; and i don’t think that would have been the case 11 months ago. 

back then, the “why’s” and “how’s” of these events would have rushed through my mind…why did fire trucks take so long to get to the hospital?  how was this hospital licensed in the first place?  why in the world did so many people buy this bootleg alcohol? 

how have almost 300 people have died from easily preventable events?  

"poverty" is the easy answer. 

it can be the correct one, too, as both events involved a lack of resources, as well as behavior shaped by low income.  but poverty is more complex than that.  both events are marred by corruption and bribery, condoned illegal activity, lack of foresight, and a blase view of life and death.  people are expendable, and these things happen.  this is life in india.   

shouldn’t people want more for their country?  

one positive outcome from these events is that they’ve forced west bengal’s recently elected chief minister, mamata banerjee, to react quickly.  so far, her responses reflect the transparent, democratic ideals upon which she campaigned and was elected.  she has committed to full investigations, arrests, and prosecution against those responsible.  i hope that she not only follows through on these promises but also uses them as an opportunity to help prevent events like these from happening again.  

i know i’m harsh on india sometimes.  honestly, this country has a lot to offer.  but frustrations of everyday life have made me much more pragmatic - so much so that, for me, the real tragedy of these events are not that they happened but that i have no doubt that they’ll happen again. 

***

(all photos above are from the associated foreign press)

one of my favorite parts of india…and of my job…is that i’m constantly surrounded by beautiful art.  

so, my apartment doubles as a stock room?

just a perk of the job :)

i’ve spent the past three thanksgivings away from home. while i’ve missed my family at each occasion, i am also always grateful to spend the holiday with close friends, as well as complete strangers who - after a long day of cooking, eating, relaxing, and watching football together - inevitably leave a mark on my heart.

this year was no different :)

i spent the day with thirteen other foreigners, all living in kolkata: a family from washington, a couple from kentucky, my good friends from the south, two brits, and a few more.  we all come from different backgrounds and are living in the city for varying reasons, but as we chatted for hours and filled our bellies with our makeshift thanksgiving dishes, it was clear that our shared experiences as ex-pats in kolkata have profoundly shaped our definitions of gratitude.

many of the blessings i count are expected, though more important to me now than ever before:

*a comfortable place to live, when i am surrounded by people sleeping on a piece of cardboard on the sidewalk.

*substantial clothing, when i see children playing in the streets naked, or wearing clothes three sizes too big for them.

*healthy food, when so many can only afford a diet of rice and potatoes, leading to malnutrition and a variety of other health problems. 

*clean water, when millions around me can only access bacteria- and arsenic-laden water, if any at all. 

*access to medicine and good health care, when hundreds wait in line for hours to visit my friend’s bi-weekly health clinic. 

other blessings i count are ones that, a year ago, i didn’t value nearly as much as i do now:

*reliable electricity and water, now that i’ve lived with regular power and water cuts.

*modern technologies like a washing machine and dryer, now that i spent six months hand washing my clothes and the full ten months air drying them.

*literacy, now that i live in a country where i can’t read the language.

*my education, now that i interact each day with women my age who were married when i started sixth grade and who became mothers before i got my driver’s permit.

*the great amount of control i have in my life, now that i know so many who have little-to-no input on their career, spouse, and lifestyle. 

but, to end, i find myself abundantly grateful for the blessings that only india could have offered me:

*the understanding that everything i listed above is noticeable to me because of my background, but to millions of people, is a way of life that is neither unfulfilled nor insufficient. 

*the nest artisans, who continuously inspire me with their life stories, skill, and work ethic.  and who regularly make me laugh and make sure i am well fed :)

*my house helper, sujatha, who teaches me & makes me smile every day.

*the opportunity to do work that i love.

*a forever-altered world view, now that i’ve worked on-the-ground, been the minority (in many ways), engaged in difficult but eye-opening experiences and conversations, and learned to adapt to life far outside of my comfort zone.

*my family and friends, in india and around the world, who are my rock.

this list could really go on forever.  but, very simply, at the risk of sounding too cliche or sentimental, i’m overwhelmingly grateful for each day i’ve lived here.  this experience has, in so many ways, changed my life.  if i’ve made one-tenth of the difference in india that india has made on me - well, i would be extremely grateful.

the happiest of thanksgiving wishes to all of you :)

one year ago today, i began this india journey.

and what a year it has been!

people i didn’t know 12 months ago have changed the ways i think, process, and react.  they’ve changed the way i see the world.

this job…experience…has solidified my belief that the most powerful development solutions are ones that:

empower individuals, by treating them with dignity and as intelligent, key players in a program’s overall and lasting success,

invest in local skill,

bring good ideas to market,

truly understand, respect, and work in tandem with a community’s culture and traditions,

and

insist on ethical principles, from all parties involved.

what a difference a year can make. 

artisan:

noun;

a worker who practices a trade or handicraft;

producing something in limited quantities, using traditional techniques;

from the old italian, artigiano;

the latin artitus.

a craftsperson;

increasingly overused in today’s marketing efforts (seemingly due to its connotations of high quality, refinement, and nostalgia);

a skilled manual worker, whether involved in practical craftsmanship,

food,

or, simply, beautiful pieces;

an integral member of society, particularly in the context of trade, economic development, and technology;

the difference between an artist and an artisan?  not much, but

…(i realize not all may agree with this)…

it seems to me that an artisan employs a time-honored craft - perhaps the only skill he / she has - passed down through generations,

and fused with contemporary culture and demand,

to preserve a rich past + make a living today.

have you heard? 

india has some great street food

salty, sweet, cheap. 

potentially a bit risky for foreigners…but sometimes worth the risk, in my opinion :)

when it’s not, the concoctions are usually easy enough to whip up at home.

ingredients:

2 1/2 cups chopped tomato

2 1/2 cups chopped cucumber

2 big aloo (potatoes)

1/2 cup chopped dhaniya patta (coriander / cilantro)

2 cups channa (chickpeas / garbanzo beans)

dressing:

2 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp pepper

juice of 3 lemons (about 1 tbsp)

chili flakes, to taste

directions:

1. boil potatoes on high until soft.  while potatoes are cooking, combine chopped tomato and cucumber, cilantro, and chickpeas in a large bowl.

(extra steps for readers in india: wash all the produce with filtered water and potassium permanganate; soak dry channa overnight and boil with potatoes until soft.)

2. when potatoes are cooked, peel off the skins and let cool for about 10 minutes.

(readers in india: if you’re cooking channa with potatoes, let channa cool too.)


3. in separate bowl, combine olive oil, salt, sugar, pepper, lemon juice, and chili flakes.  whisk well.

4. when cool, cut potatoes into 1/2 inch cubes and mix into the rest of the salad.  pour dressing over salad and mix thoroughly. 

(me with sujatha, our amazing house helper and the chef).

make sure you read this for an explanation of these events :)

you know how the united states gets during december? 

glittery…

bustling…

full of decadent treats and extended family…

with that energy and excitement in the air?

(and, you know how it’s not really just december, but more like mid-november through new years?  ok, you’re right.  halloween through new years.)

well, that’s what kolkata is like for the eight long weeks of september and october. 

it’s festival season.

since kolkata has a relatively large muslim population (due to its close proximity to bangladesh), the festivities begin with the end of ramadan fasting, eid al-fitr (on august 30th this year), and ends with eid al-adha (november 6th this year).

yep, you’re right: two months in, and we’re still not finished.  in fact, i assure you, we’re going strong :)

between these bookends you’ll find dozens of hindu holidays, most of which involve “puja,” the worship of a specific deity:  

ganesh puja,

durga puja,

lakshmi puja,

kali puja,

and many, many more.  

worship involves prayer, sacrifice, offerings, etc.  it commences, though, by building an idol of the particular deity and decorating and adorning it with flowers, jewels, and other ornamentation. 

now, hindus throughout the world celebrate these pujas, depending on which deities they choose to worship.  but in kolkata, durga puja reigns supreme.  i mean, it’s a big ol’ deal.

this city goes on steroids.  the core festivities last for four days in october, but just as americans decorate for christmas several weeks before the actual holiday, durga puja begins in september, when thousands of indian men begin constructing pandals.

pandals are temporary structures made of wood and rope, with colorful fabric pulled tightly over them.  each pandal houses the deity durga, along with her accompanying deities.  the bigger the pandal, the bigger the deities inside.  deities are all made of clay and bamboo pieces, carefully and methodically constructed by master bengali craftsmen.

every neighborhood or apartment complex or other cluster of buildings has a pandal, which represents and is funded by the area’s residents.  furthermore, each individual house has a small pandal.  that means that here are THOUSANDS, of all shapes and sizes, throughout the city. 

and, they take weeks and weeks to construct.  so, for the entire month of september, kolkata looks as though it’s undergoing a massive infrastructural upgrade.  (i may or may not have initially thought this was, in fact, what was going on.)

with the pandals completed and deities constructed, we finally enter the durga puja festival, during which: 

the population swells, as hindus from all over india journey to this already over-populated city, 

everything - buildings, rickshaws, trees, and everything in between - is decorated with lights and streamers and glitter,

drums.  drums.  the drums never stop,

markets are filled with people, shopping for new clothes and presents for friends and family,

and the smell of incense wafts through every window.

during the core four days people “pandal hop,” making their way (usually by foot, due to the massive, never-ending traffic jams) from pandal to pandal in order to not only worship the durga deity but also to observe the beautiful craftsmanship and unique beauty of each pandal.  the city awards prizes and cash for the best pandals, so the competition is intense.  

i saw one pandal made entirely of burlap,

another made entirely of tin cooking bowls and utensils, and 

i even saw one with a ferris wheel, which looked like it was missing a few bolts and screws but was impressive nonetheless.

at the end of the festival, every idol in the city is immersed in the hooghly river, which runs into the ganges.  there are thousands of deities to immerse - from every pandal, in addition to the idols in every hindu household.  

the journey to the hooghly is as exciting as the immersion itself.  families and neighbors rent trucks and pile into them, along with the durga idol and a drummer.  the drive to the river is full of drumming, dancing, firecrackers, and overall celebration. 

and it doesn’t end at the river. 

all the men (who are prepared in comfortable lungis and turban-esque headgear) lower the idol from the truck bed, carefully carry it down the muddy, slippery river banks, and, in coordination, immerse it in the water.  remember that these idols are big and heavy, so some of them require twenty or so men to complete this task. 

all the while, people are yelling and singing, several drummers are drumming away, and thousands of people are crowding around to get a glimpse of anything. 

(oh, and i am getting in everyone’s way trying to get a photo.)

with thousands of deities to immerse, you can imagine that this whole process takes about two days, and, for those two days, the roads to and from the river are packed.  parking lots.  as in, it would probably…no, definitely…be faster to carry the goddess by foot.  but i guess that would involve convincing those men to do that, and something tells me they’re not jumping at the opportunity. 

anyway, it’s fine to wait.  durga puja was, like most things in india, a sensory overload.  at times, i just stood…

watching the vendors and colors and children running around,

listening to the drums and languages and songs, 

just taking everything in and, occasionally, pinching myself to make sure i really am here, in the midst of this fascinating culture. 

i’ll post photos tomorrow :) 

so, it’s been a month…over a month…nearly two, i’m afraid…goodness.   i feel awful. 

forgive me? 

it’s been one of those spans of time when one thing hits right after another.  (“welcome to life,” you’re thinking, right?  i know, i know.)

the past eight weeks have been a whirlwind of change.  it’s fascinating, really.  you know how i’ve written before about how slowly time passes in india, how menial tasks take days to accomplish?  well, the past two months could have fooled even me. 

so, what’s been happening?

*i moved.  goodbye to my old apartment, hello to the new.  my friend, and now flat mate, the lovely julianne from ireland, had an extra bedroom in her apartment, so here i am! 

and, this new life is quite different from the life i’ve lived in the last seven months.  my last apartment was in a fully bengali, lower-middle class neighborhood; very few people spoke english, i lived on the second floor of my small apartment building, and each morning and evening, i could smell burning incense from the temple outside my balcony.  and for two hours every morning, i tried to drown out the sound of the trash collector blowing his whistle outside of every home in a half-mile radius.   

my new place is more modern, in a tall high-rise, and much more centrally-located.  my building has an elevator, 24-hour guards, and a gym and swimming pool (don’t get too excited, i’ll come back to this later).  i’m blessed with an incredible house helper named sujatha, who comes each day to clean, cook, etc.  she’s teaching me to cook, so expect some recipes posted soon!

*the gypsies completed their biggest order to date!  check this out: http://www.yaladesigns.com/free-soul-collection. 

amazing and beautiful, right?!  this order has been remarkable for the gypsies.  it’s the largest single order they’ve completed to date, and it’s been so influential in supplementing their regular income.  they brought new women into the cooperative to help complete the order, and these women are great additions to the group. 

this order is also especially meaningful to me because it’s the first one i’ve seen from beginning to end.  the yala ladies came to kolkata and designed these products, and six months later – after perfecting the products, developing the packaging, and gathering the women’s stories and photos for marketing – it’s truly amazing to see the final result on their website :) 

*nest announced some big changes.  if you’re on nest’s email list or have visited the website in the past few weeks, you know that nest is now two organizations: (1) a non-profit organization that will retain the name nest, and (2) a for-profit ethical sourcing company called the collaborative group.  

nest will now be able to completely focus on programs: assessing our artisans’ needs, honing in on them, and really equipping and training the communities to become independent, sustainable production partners for companies (like yala).  furthermore, nest will be the sole non-profit partner to maiyet, a company dedicated to creating a brand of luxury, artisan-made products.  think gucci or prada – but inspired and produced by artisans in the developing world.  the new nest, in partnership with maiyet, launched in paris in september.       

the collaborative group will connect artisan communities with for-profit companies, like yala, trina turk, FEED – all companies that nest has worked with throughout the past year, as we’ve slowly but surely moved towards this model of “ethical sourcing.”   

my work, from now on, will be with the collaborative group.   


so there you have it!  a move, an order, an organizational overhaul…

…what could i have in store for part 2?

i’m in trichy again!

…as usual, with limited internet.

…not as usual, with a nest designer!  marcella has been in india for a week, working with nest’s groups in kolkata and trichy to design a new line of products. 

the final collections are amazing.  i promise you’ll want to buy them. 

is that enough of a hook? 

more to come soon.

check out these beautiful photos from the curriculum graduation in trichy :)

i could write several paragraphs about why this is a particularly significant accomplishment for these women.  i could explain how, in the gypsy culture, days are quite fluid and unstructured.  how people come and go as they please, when they please.  how calendars and planners and schedules are virtually nonexistent. 

i could explain how these women have little formal education. how they could have spent those classroom hours making beads to sell instead.  how several of the other artisans, in fact, took that route.

i could tell you that the women were diligently working on a huge jewelry order, worried about meeting the deadline, and that they could have easily decided to continue production instead of stopping each day to attend these business trainings.  with kids running in and out and all around the classroom. 

i could explain how the discrimination these women have received their whole lives might have been a hindrance to them valuing their own time or potential.  or how, in india, the education process tends to favor simple repetition and memorization, rather than independent and critical thought - and how this curriculum pushed them to exercise the latter.  

yes, i could explain all of this. 

but i think their smiles speak volumes on their own :)