June 29, 2006
Last weekend, we decided to escape from the heat and run away to the “land of the snow,” Himachal Pradesh. Through some combination of overnight train, taxi, bus, and rickshaw, we arrived at Mcleodganj, home to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Tibetan government in exile, refugees, and European hippies looking for enlightenment. Taking the train was an amazing experience; however, if you want to experience misery, spend three and a half hours with the rats at the New Delhi railway station. But once we got started in our air-conditioned car, the journey improved. Thank God I didn’t voice my initial idea that traveling in an unreserved car to be “with the people” would be fun—I had had enough of the people by then. We went to sleep with the rocking of the train and awoke to the agricultural fields of rural Punjab. From Punjab, the drive to the Khangra Valley, though bumpy, provided some spectacular views of tea gardens and the Himalayas. The military presence in these areas was very prominent due to our proximity to Kashmir. McLeodganj was teeming with pilgrims, monks and tourists, walking side-by-side along roads lined with handicrafts being sold by refugees. We ate Tibetan momos (steamed dumplings) at a restaurant that Pierce Brosnan had eaten dinner, drank tea at Richard Gere’s favorite cafe, and had dessert at a falafel joint with Hebrew signs. For a moment, it felt similar to California. But then I looked out the window at a group of snake charmers by the side of the road, and the feeling disappeared. Each part of India is so unique, and I hope I can keep coming back to visit them all.
June 23, 2006
New Office, New Direction
This week, the project that I am working with here at Humsafar transferred to the new office. Incidentally, this is also the office where my room is located. Now I don't even have to leave the house to go to work. This, of course, has its pros and cons. One big upside is that I now have the internet where I live.
As for a new direction, I've decided to shift the focus of my personal research here in Mumbai. Instead of looking at gay activism in Mumbai as a whole, which would be a very lofty and large task, I believe I'm going to instead focus just on Humsafar itself. I'm going to look at it and how it works and why it works the way it does. This will be done with a couple of interviews of the top people in the organization and with some field work and research. I think that it will provide me with a better experience as it is more centralized and focused than my previous plan.
Also, I now have a roommate! Apparantly one of Humsafar's outreach workers was either thrown out or lost the place where he was living (I'm not really sure which) and now he is staying here with me, as my room has bunk beds. So far it's been alright and we've been able to communicate surprisingly well considering the little English that he speaks.
June 21, 2006
Busy at work
Every Friday, mandatory staff meetings are held in the office. The first included a heated debate on reservations that was conducted in Hindi, and led by a well-known Hindi writer. I didn’t catch much of the translation that was whispered to us, a small group of interns huddled in a corner, but I gathered that the issue is a very controversial one.
The quota system has been in place for forty years in India, and the current debate is whether to apply it to graduate schools. Medical schools and doctors in particular are vehemently opposed to this, as they believe at least admission to medical schools should be merit based. Many argue that after forty years of reserving college seats, there still seems to be little change in the economic and social situation of the “backward classes” that quotas are supposed to benefit. While the debate about reserving seats in the post-graduate level rages, many people forget that 69% of girls and 42% of boys 15 to 17 years old are not in school. Maybe the government should focus on providing the poor with an elementary education and three meals a day before debating the merits of the quota system.
I unfortunately had to miss out on the second meeting because of an emergency discussion with the HIV unit about their publication, HIV and the Law. HRLN has organized a judges’ colloquium on July 22 to educate the judiciary about HIV. The colloquium will hopefully sensitize them to the human rights abuses the HIV positive face. However, the book must be ready by then so it can be printed So, it’s all hands on deck until the end of the month, when we can hopefully send it to be published.
I have had some time to visit Dilli Haat, an outdoor market with craftsmen and food from every corner of India, and Humayun’s Tomb. I also have yet to find an Internet café, and will upload my pictures as soon as I do. Sightseeing is being seriously inhibited by the weather. My clothes feel like they’ve just been ironed when I pull them out of the closet, and my mattress is hot when I go to sleep. When it’s not 44 degrees C, an andhi (dust storm) from the desert blows a thin layer of dust over absolutely everything. And sometimes, the rain is so severe that I have seen many huge trees uprooted.
Rahul Mahajan is still in the newspaper every day.
June 13, 2006
Sightseeing and the Such
This weekend I spent doing touristy type stuff with a couple of different people. It was good in that I got to see different parts of the city and it really made me realize truly how huge this city actually is. We went down to the Gateway of India and then into the Taj Mahal Palace, which is, by far, the most gorgeous hotel I've ever seen. We then spent some time walking around the area known as Colaba in the southern part of the city.
This week I should be starting my work here with Humsafar in earnest. I will be working with a research project whose primary aim is to study and understand the sexual and social networks of MSM(men who have sex with men) and transgendered individuals. This will then be used to understand how HIV prevention methods can best be implemented and disseminated.
As a side note, I've discovered something. This is the fact that there is no such thing as the "correct" clothing for this climate. I have found nothing that I can wear in which I will not continuously sweat and be hot beyond belief. Just thought you all should know.
June 09, 2006
My first week in Delhi
My first week in Delhi is coming to a close. I arrived last Friday night, and after waiting for about an hour for my bags to arrive (at least they did), I walked out into the Delhi madness. My arrival also brought a promising few days of rain, which had cooled the city considerably, but when I walked outside I was hit with such a heavy force of heat that made me realize that the hot airport was actually air conditioned inside. I am told it will only get worse.
I am staying across the Yamuna River in Indraprasta Extension, and on the way to work we cross a huge temple and the towering ruins of the hundreds of years old Indraprastha Fort, the foundations of which are said to have been built by the Pandavas, the heroes of the epic Mahabharatha. We also pass Humayun’s Tomb, which I look forward to visiting. The contrast between these ancient, crumbling monuments, which are quite close to the road, the children begging on the side of the road, and places like ‘Punjabi by Nature,’ a trendy club that serves vodka pani puris/golgappas, is stark.
My hosts here are wonderful. Upon my arrival, I presented them with Maize & Blue paraphernalia, and they in turn have provided me with food, shelter, an all-around good time, and a beautiful kurta from Lahore. Last weekend, they took me around for some preliminary sightseeing. We went to India Gate, a large, Arc-de-Triomphe-type structure commemorating Indians who died fighting for the British Empire during World War I. The bricks are inscribed with the names of the soldiers, and a traditionally dressed soldier with a huge rifle glares at the tourists from beneath it. At the end of the same street is the beautiful Rashtrapathi Bhavan, which was first built by the British as the Governor-General’s residence, now serves as the president’s estate. The prime minister holds most of India’s real executive powers, and the president, now Dr. Abdul Kalam (a nuclear scientist), is the ceremonial head of state.
For the past few days, The Times of India and all of the cable news has been obsessively covering a drug scandal involving Rahul Mahajan, the son of a BJP party leader who was recently murdered by his brother. The Delhi Times, a section of the main newspaper that comes every morning, is solely devoted to reporting the latest from both Bollywood and Hollywood. It is amazing to see so much energy put into gossip.
The HRLN offices are set amongst many flights of a steep staircase, and free chai that is made in a tree-side chai shop is provided to everyone after a quick phone call to Security. It is an exciting time to be working here. UNAIDS has just named India the country with the largest HIV-positive population in the world. There is an enormous amount of attention placed on the HIV unit, where I will be working, looking at HIV as a human right’s issue, a unique perspective for me. They are in the midst of working on a new publication, HIV and the Law, which will compile all HIV-related laws and court rulings from around the world. India, despite its millions of infected citizens, has no HIV law, and the lack of anti-discrimination or drug policies is sorely felt. A draft HIV bill, written with participation from the positive communities, NGOs, and NACO (National AIDS Control Organization), has just been sent for review by the government, but won’t be voted on in parliament for a long time. In absence of such a law, HRLN falls to the fundamental rights provided in the Indian Constitution. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, which is derived from international law, promises a Right to Life, under which falls the Right to Health. Some of HRLN’s work consists of filing Public Interest Litigation on behalf of the HIV-positive, trying to guarantee an access to treatment based on Article 21. They also represent positive people in cases that deal with the fallout from stigma and discrimination. 5.5 million Indians require drugs, but without a drug policy, India can’t claim lack of funds, when a country like Nigeria, with a lower GDP, can provide free Antiretroviral treatment (ARV) to its citizens.
HRLN has also set up a network of free legal aid centers all across India, where people have access to lawyers and the know-your-rights materials that are published here. Much of what needs to be done in India is education on health, HIV, being safe, and erasing the stigma associated with the infection. There are a lot of misconceptions about health here. I saw a billboard the other day advertising that “Diabetes can be fun!” and was shown a picture of a poster in a train station claiming that AIDS can be cured through meditation and Ayurveda (Indian herbal medicine). There are many ‘doctors’ with fake licenses and Witchdoctors, widely known as ‘quacks,’ that trick the poor into pouring what little money they have into fake treatments. There is a lot of work to do.
I spent the first few days here getting acquainted with the issues, and right now, I am doing research for a position paper on the Feminization of the HIV Epidemic in India. Hopefully, the time I put in here will make a small difference to the millions of people suffering with HIV/AIDS.
June 07, 2006
Here in Mumbai
I finally arrived in Mumbai late on Friday night. Unfortunately, Air France had lost my luggage and I wouldn't get it back until Sunday morning. I stayed Friday and Saturday nights at the home of one of the gracious employees of Humsafar Trust, as my accommodations were not yet ready.
On Saturday, I went shopping for some clothes, as all of my clothing was in the piece of luggage that was lost. After that, I was taken to Humsafar's main office and introduced to many of the employees. I spent Sunday exploring a couple of different parts of the city near where I would be living. It was good in that it helped me get a sense of the area so that I could navigate it on my own. That night I moved into my room at the new Humsafar office, which will start working next week. Not only will I be living there, but I will also be working there. Needless to say, I'll never be able to escape.
On Monday, I started at Humsafar. So far I've mainly been getting a sense of what the organization does and how it's set up. I will soon be deciding exactly how I want to go about my research.
My first impressions of Mumbai have been very interesting. There are many things that have shocked me, such as the traffic. Let's just say that I'm ever so thankful that I don't have to drive here, as I think I would go mad. I've also been intrigued by the side-by-side mixture of developed and developing. It's somewhat disorienting seeing slum right next to or actually in what would be considered a nice, respectable neighborhood. I can't to see what else this city has to offer.