Lost in Translation

Women and children picking through trash isn’t an unusual sight in India.  Delhi doesn’t have city trash trucks that regularly collect garbage.  Instead, neighborhoods sell their trash to rag-pickers, who sift through the waste and resell the recyclables.   It’s an exceptionally efficient and green segment of the local, “unorganized” economy – jobs born of necessity and not regulated by the state.    However, rag-picking is still a dirty job,  and it’s reserved for  “dalits” or members of the lowest caste, formerly called the “untouchables”.

I barely noticed three rag pickers outside of the building where I work the other day – until the security guard yelled at them.

The women were picking through bags of trash lined along the driveway.  The bags contained a mixture of refuse:  bits of plaster, wood, paper cups, newspapers, food wrappers and other yucky garbage.   The women each grabbed a bag and walked away.  That’s when the security guard yelled at them in Hindi.  He didn’t want the women stealing the trash, which was probably promised to another collector.

I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but one didn’t need to speak Hindi to know that he was mad, that he was bullying the women, and that this wasn’t going to end well.

I protectively stood by the women and shooed them down the driveway with their bags – and they seemed relieved by my effort.

However as they walked away, the security guard lunged at one of the women, pushed her forward , grabbed her arm and yanked her around.  Then he grabbed her trash bag and dumped it upside down, emptying the contents all over the driveway.

I was livid.

I yelled at him, and did whatever it is I do when I’m mad.  Situations like this are too heated and too fast to remember in detail.

I was dramatic enough for my driver to notice as he was pulling away after dropping me off.  He quickly came to protect me.

I didn’t need protecting, but I did need him to translate for me.  I wanted my histrionics clearly understood by the little man who saw no wrong in roughing-up women.  Poor women.  Women driven by poverty to pick through trash.

Sadly, there’s more than language that bars us from understanding each other.

The guard believes that he was doing his job – protecting the trash and the property.

I saw abuse.

I saw an economy that normalizes trash picking.

I saw a security guard who believes people are only worthy of the life they inherit.

Later that day I told Jim about the incident and as he so often does, he smiled knowingly at yet another story of my hot-headedness.  He, too, was appalled by the guard’s aggression.  But he’s the thinker in the family and he tried to put the incident into perspective  by giving me a sweet lesson on the “economy of scarcity”  in India.

Intellectually I know, I know, I know that India is rising – growing through layers of complicated history and culture.

But my heart won’t let my feet walk away when I see that kind of violence.

Some things are too awful to ignore.


We don’t see much of Maya now that we have moved.  Sadly, the last time I saw her, she showed me a festering wound behind her ear.  It looked as though someone had burned her – though I could be wrong.  The wound was bad enough for me to return to her street corner with a tube of antibiotic ointment.   It was a Sunday and I took the kids.  Maybe I shouldn’t have.  We’ve always had a car door between us and our beggar friends.

We sat on a curb and I cleaned her wound and dabbed it with bacitracin.  It wasn’t long before a crowd surrounded us.  The kids didn’t like the attention.

Sitting next to Maya, I could her see her filth.  Dirt I hadn’t noticed from my car.   Her situation seemed sadder, more depressing.  It was all disheartening, really.

But again, some things are too awful to ignore.


Anyone care to apply?  (Bahrisons is one of the better book stores in town….)

Jim introducing Thomas Friedman and Nandan Nilekani at the kickoff of India Ink, the Nyt’s new India blog:

And me hosting a speaker at work:

They fight in the morning, they fight at noon, they fight at night, they fight getting out of the taxi:

This is the third (and sadly last) year the three of us have posed together at the school’s annual Halloween fest:

Lala in the school play:

This is a story I took my students to cover.  The people in the background are protesting the government’s flawed efforts to distribute subsidized food to India’s needy.  I couldn’t resist this woman, sitting on her haunches, seemingly oblivious to the activity:

Every day this tricycle hauls away my garbage.  The collector didn’t want me to photograph him.


Back to Regal Rajasthan

We went to the western edge of India, on the Pakistan border again.  This time, the desolate sands of the Thar Desert separated us from seeing the other side.

I have promised Jim not to write too much of our adventures.  He’s brewing a travel piece of his own and since his writing keeps this family fat and happy and mine is mere indulgence, I won’t over-do it here.

Instead, I have exercised my newly acquired Final Cut Pro skills and put together a little look-see for you.  It’s full of imperfections, but I will fiddle no more…   When I fix one problem, everything shifts slightly and I end-up with six other problems.  The cruel joke with this amazing editing program is that one can fiddle forever!  It’s like checking into the Hotel California…

Enjoy the journey below.  It starts on the overnight train out of Delhi:


Other updates:

Lala:   She can’t stop growing.  She wears my clothes, my shoes;  she uses my make-up, cream, perfume;  and now, she reads my books!  I was a few chapters into “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” when it disappeared.   My mother called me “fingers” because I couldn’t keep my hands off her things.  The apple isn’t falling far from this tree.

The boys:  Smelly, Dirty, Loud, Exhausting.  Need I say more?

Jim:  Facing final. final. final. final. edits on Brave Dragons.  It releases Valentines Day and this is my first of many plugs:  It’s an AWESOME read.  The book tour is late February/March, and many of you will get to see him (and maybe me).  Stay tuned.

Work:  Crazy fun.  I never know if there will be electricity or Internet, or whether the toilet will flush.   There’s no AC.  But I do have a hard-ass boss who keeps the doors of the school open in this country that prefers to see them closed, and brilliant students who meet the challenges I throw at them.  On the sidelines we have mafia goons who control electricity to the building, transvestite eunuchs who insist we pay them to avoid bad omens, and uneducated construction workers who carelessly shower bricks on the street  two-stories below when they build a window.    It’s never a dull day at World Media Academy, delhi!  Check out the school’s website if you have a moment:  http://worldmediaacademy.com/