‘Slumdog’: Don’t just watch, do something

_45501962_slumdogkids_afp226bLong after the Oscar parties fade into tomorrow’s hangover, the reality of the suffering portrayed in “Slumdog Millionaire” will persist.  If the film moved you and you want to know, “Why isn’t anyone DOING anything about this horrible situation?” … well, maybe someone is. And maybe that someone could be you.  Read on for scenes from the movie, the corresponding reality, and what’s being done about it.


movie: Jamal rescues a pre-teen Latika from a brothel where she is forced to dance for older men.

reality: Hundreds of thousands of girls are trafficked into prostitution in India, with Mumbai’s red-light district being one of the largest and most brutal in the world.  I give to the Global Fund for Women, an amazing U.S.-based foundation that funds grassroots groups for girls and women around the world, with a special focus on trafficking issues.  The groups they fund work to free girls from prostitution; give them options for physical, emotional, and economic recovery; and prevent girls from being sold or kidnapped into the trade in the first place.  Learn more about traffickingdonate now or shop your values.


movie:  Poor children hustle to make ends meet, work for unscrupulous characters, and don’t go to school.

reality:  Elimination of child labor is tough organizing work that has to be done child by child, neighborhood by neighborhood, community by community.  Moving children from hustling, begging, and informal labour  into schools also requires empowering their caretakers through programs such as micro-loans supporting small-scale entrepreneurialism by women.  Hand in Hand is an India-based non-profit that works to end child labor in rural Tamil Nadu and “aims at building self-reliance of disadvantaged groups by alleviating poverty through sustained income generating programmes.”  Read a BBC article about the work of Hand in Hand or  visit the organization’s website.

movie:  Poop scene, women washing clothes in public pool.
reality: Yep, sewage and water are not sexy issues but they are huge.  Informal settlements such as Dharavi, though they are often referred to as slums, are larger than most cities in the world — yet basic services are lacking. Lack of access to clean water and sewage leads to poor health outcomes for children and adults.  The Society for Human and Environmental Development (SHED) works on these important issues in Dharavi; the writing on the website is a bit random and hard to wade through, but here’s a much better article on their work.

movie:  People climb on  garbage heaps, picking through refuse and living there.
reality:  Yes, this is how some of the poorest Indians eke out a living.  ACORN International’s Dharavi Project is working to organize rag pickers and waste collectors (those children climbing the garbage piles in the movie) in Dharavi.  The international wing of ACORN is affiliated with the U.S. ACORN “community organizers” who were subject of a manufactured controversy during the Obama campaign. Both ACORNs do amazing, from-the-ground-up community organizing that aims to empower the disempowered to advocate for their own rights and make needed changes in their own community, rather than take a top-down “charity” approach.

movie:  Children of the Dharavi slum go through all kinds of shit, no adults help them.

reality: yeah, children of Dharavi go through all kinds of shit.  The adults and organizations around them are severely under-funded to meet the need. Maybe that’s where we in the privileged West can make a contribution, if we educate ourselves a little bit. So in addition to the organizations above, here are few more groups and resources:

SNEHA, the Society of Nutrition, Education & Health Action, was formed in 1999 “by a group of concerned doctors and social workers to address the special needs of women and children in urban slums.” Here’s an article about their Kishori Project in Dharavi: “In Asia’s largest slum, the Kishori project is introducing young girls to reproductive healthcare, pregnancy care, HIV/AIDS and more. As added inducement, low cost trainings in computers and tailoring are drawing them to the centre for a chance to earn and save money.”
“Slumdog Millionaire” actor and Bollywood star Anil Kapoor has donated his entire fee from the movie to a children’s charity called Plan India.  Article here, Plan India website here.

Dharavi.org is a multimedia wiki website designed to gather information, images, and ideas on Dharavi in Mumbai. Specifically, it offers a space to discuss the Dharavi Redevelopment Project and its alternatives.


*DO YOU KNOW of an organization, site, or resource that should be on this list?  Please post a comment on the blog, or email me and I’ll update the list.

**PLEASE NOTE that this list is not vetted thoroughly; you should always check out organizations to your own satisfaction before transferring funds, especially internationally.

‘Slumdog’ non-millionaires

Thanks to Marian Yalini for pointing out today’s article on the compensation paid to the two stunning child stars of “Slumdog Millionaire”  (so far, less than $5000 total, for a movie that is making hundreds of millions of dollars).

When I first saw the film and wrote about it here, I wondered what was up. The children made the film into the incredible success it is now; by comparison, the adult actors were far less compelling. But the huge power gap between the filmmakers and the children whose stories they were aiming to tell seemed like an obvious place to ask questions about exploitation, compensation, and the ethics of making art.

Now it looks like the media is catching up and asking questions about the story behind the magic curtain. Even assuming the filmmakers are trying their best to be fair, there is such a tragic gap between a liberal, First World idea of “fairness,” and a sense of actual equality.

So the filmmakers argue the pay was generous: for the two stars, 30 days of child labor was paid more than an annual wage for an adult from the same community (most do manual or domestic labor). Plus the kids are now enrolled in school, with a “lump sum” promised when they come of age, though their parents claim not to know how much money that involves. (No word on what the children playing minor roles, some of whom were incredible, were paid.)

But what about comparing these young actors’ pay with the wages of the people actually doing equivalent work — that is, the other actors in the film?  Typically the star of a major movie gets both “fixed” and “contingent” pay:  a certain amount up front, and a certain percentage if the film makes a lot of money.

Of course, that doesn’t happen just because the filmmakers feel like sharing their profits.  It happens when there’s a level playing field: when an actor, especially a child actor, is being represented by an agent who is skilled in negotiating his or her best interests.

That kind of fairness is a lot less likely to happen if the child is being represented by a parent who doesn’t speak English and is laying ill with tuberculosis under a plastic tarp in the middle of the world’s largest slum.

I feel uneasy about Hollywood and Bollywood for so many reasons, and I don’t quite know why but I’ve never been able to take movies as “all in good fun.” Maybe it’s that I lack the capacity to suspend my disbelief; I want to be able to believe what I’m seeing. It’s unsettling for an experience that seems so real to turn out to be false, not on a literal narrative level, but on an ethical one.

Today’s wee glimpse of the “Slumdog” backstory illuminates a truth about the grinding and relentless nature of systemic poverty in Mumbai and elsewhere, in a way that the film, with its glossy violence, only pretends to do.

Leaving India blurb by Chitra Divakaruni

I’m so delighted and grateful that Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, author of several books including most recently The Palace of Illusions, has sent in the following endorsement:

Minal Hajratwala’s Leaving India is a fascinating history that kept me up late into the night–and I suspect it will do the same for most readers. Filled with amazing and compelling family stories, it will strike a chord in anyone whose people have come from elsewhere–and today, in America, that’s most of us! I am filled with admiration at Minal’s honesty and the careful beauty of her language. I learned so much, through the story of this one family, about the tragedies and triumphs of the Indian diaspora.

Chitra is best known as a novelist now, and was one of the first South Asian American authors to draw a mainstream readership.  However, I first encountered her as a poet, through her books The Reason for NasturtiumsBlack Candle, and Leaving Yuba City.  I still return to those poems over and over, and feel that she is one of the writers from whom I learned the power of “the careful beauty” of language.  

For much of her early material she drew from her work as an activist and organizer.   I was inspired by the story of how she founded Maitri, one of the first organizations in the U.S. to serve South Asian women suffering from domestic violence, who often face culture-specific issues and are not well-served by mainstream d.v. organizations.
Chitra is also one of the most generous writers I know. I remember being just barely 25, with a couple of poems published in obscure literary journals to my credit, and somehow getting invited to a “book party” at her house. She invited everyone who came to bring their own books/journals/anthologies/zines/publications of any sort, and set them up all around the house.  It was a lovely validation for me as an emerging writer, and I still think of that event as a touchstone for me, a model for doing the work while remembering to celebrate and stay connected with a wider artistic community.
Thanks, Chitra!

First “Leaving India” review!

Today’s issue of Publishers Weekly has a nicely placed review of Leaving India.  It says, in part: 

Told with the probing detail of a reporter, the fluid voice of a poet and the inspired vision of a young woman who walks in many worlds, Hajratwala’s story offers an engaging account of what may be one of the fastest-growing diasporas in the world.

Here’s a link to the online review (scroll way down or search).  You can’t tell there, but in the print version, it’s packaged tastefully with a review of a book by another South Asian American journalist, The Music Room by Namita Devidayal, which I’ll be interested in checking out. My review is one long paragraph (their standard length) and contains an error, saying that I’m a journalist at the San Jose Mercury News (I did work there for eight years, but left in 2000).  Oh well.
More important than what the review says is that it has a little red star next to it.  Hoorah!  A “starred” review in PW is supposed to be like a little magic wand, making everyone starry-eyed over a book. (Ha. Luckily the sales aren’t riding on the quality of my a.m. blog puns.)  My publisher now gets to say “PW starred review” in everything they send out about the book, and supposedly the star increases our chances of media coverage and local bookstore sales. 
I think everyone should get to start their week with a little red star.

While I was out

Despite a lingering cough and the need for frequent naps (ok, more frequent than usual), I think I’ve more or less recovered from my recent assorted ailments.  And during the weeks I was coughing / sneezing / sleeping, a lot of cool things have been happening around the book launch.  Here’s a roundup:

  • The most amazing thing is that Alice Walker (yes, THAT Alice Walker!) blurbed my book! Here’s what she has to say:

I love Minal Hajratwala’s book LEAVING INDIA. It is what I imagine India itself to be like: incomparable, sprawling, rich, surprising, very old and wise and forever capable of re-creating itself, no matter where pieces of it land. Minal Hajratwala is a fine daughter of the continent, bringing insight, intelligence and compassion to the lives and sojourns of her far-flung kin. For those of us who have needed to understand the presence of so many Indians in our various lands, this book is a wonderful primer.

If I were an engineer/electrician/sculptor, I’d wire this up in flashing lights and carry it around on my body and look at it every time I started to feel the slightest bit discouraged, or cranky, or anything less than completely grateful and excited to be alive and to be a writer.
I received the email about this blurb (incomparable!  sprawling!  rich!) when I was so very sick that I was spending about 20 of every 24 hours in bed. I printed it out, taped it up next to my pillow, then spent the next two days doing this: — blow nose — read Alice Walker quote — have coughing fit — read Alice Walker quote — try to sleep — get woken up by coughing — spit green phlegm and blood — read Alice Walker quote —
The green phlegm is gone, thank goodness, but the quote remains.  There’s still something very unreal about it for me. Alice Walker is one of my real heroes:  a writer who made me want to write, an activist who made me want to believe.  Her work has been a guiding beacon for me in terms of craft as well as integrity, story-telling, and spiritual depth.  For many years I had a larger-than-life framed photograph of her up in my writing space for inspiration and encouragement.  So I barely believe she’s real, let alone that she really read and commented on my work!  
In practical terms, this is way cool because it gives us something to put on the book jacket. Blurbs can help readers decide to take a chance and buy a book, even if they haven’t heard of the book’s author.  At least, that’s what publishers hope; so a fair amount of behind-the-scenes energy and strategizing goes into deciding which people to ask, how to approach them, etc. My editor asked me for a “wish list” of people I’d like to see endorse the book, and even though most of them were long shots, we sent out copies; and she responded.
We’re still working on getting other blurbs, of course, but for me, this one is more than enough — and I haven’t stopped being thrilled every time I read it.
  • Little things have been happening too, like pre-publication listings in Library News (which helps librarians figure out what books to order) as well online booksellers like Tower and Amazon (where you can even pre-order a copy!  same goes with your local independent bookstore).  By the way, for my fellow narcissists out there, Google Alerts is a great tool because instead of obsessively googling myself every day or hour, I can let Google do it for me, and get email notification whenever a new website has my name in it.  These listings make me appreciate what a vast machinery is in place to get books into the world, and how all kinds of people I’ll never meet have hand in getting my book out to readers. Hoorah for interdependence
  • The first readings have been set up, which is super-exciting!  Tentatively, I think I’ll be in New York and Washington DC in mid-March, and then come home for a reading at my awesome neighborhood bookstore, Booksmith on Haight Street, on March 26.  Then it’s down to Los Angeles for a gig at the L.A. Public Library.  Details to come…
  • We’ve been laying the groundwork for a publicity campaign, putting out the word to my friends and old journalism buddies as well as the media at large.  I’m working with a lovely and very smart publicity manager assigned to me by my publishing house, and despite all the horror stories one hears from authors about their publicists, so far so good for me!
  • I did my first magazine interview for the book last week, with a very patient reporter who put up with me being on codeine brain and talking verrrrry slowwwly. It’s interesting to be on the other side of the interview, trying to sum up many years of work in a few pithy yet authentic comments.  I think I’ll get better at it with practice. 
  • Having been a journalist for years, I don’t get too excited about just seeing my name in print, but seeing my baby’s, I mean my book’s, name in print is still exciting. So if you happen to be a reader of Buddhadharma magazine, you can see a teensy item on me in the Mahasangha News section in the back.  

  • So, that’s quite a bit…  It’s delightful that even as I’ve been at my most UNproductive, things continue to click along.  There is momentum, and my personal sweat-power is not as crucial at this moment to making it all happen … which is really very fabulous.