Journey Through India

“What can we do to help?”

Claudia, Nancy and Wendy asked “What can we do to help poverty in India?” A very thoughtful question! I think the first step is learning about your peers in India and around the world. When you know about the culture, history and context of another place, you are in a better position to help in ways that are meaningful and have impact. Here are some of the non-governmental organizations that we visited while in India that are working to help children and families in poor areas. I was very impressed and inspired by their work. Perhaps you could research these organizations, contact them and find out whether there is any way for you to help. I am sure they would welcome your interest and compassion!

Akanksha Foundation
Voltas House ‘C’
TB Kadam Marg
Chinchpokli, Mumbai 400 033 INDIA
(Hint: I think they have an office in the US which could be helpful in answering your question)

46 Institutional Area
D-Block, Janakpuri
New Delhi – 110058 INDIA

A-3 Sarvodaya Enclave
Sri Aurobindo Marg
New Delhi – 110017 INDIA

There are many more non-governmental organizations in India working towards common goals. Some of these include Pratham, the American India Foundation, Oracle Education Initiatives (which is affiliated with a large information technology company), the Aga Khan Foundation… and the list goes on! It gives me hope that there are so many people trying to address these problems, but given the size and scale that we’re talking about, more can always be done.



Marta here again. Roxy, Wendy, Eric, and Melissa asked what sports children in India play. Based on the schools we visited, I would say that Indian children play a lot of the same sports we play. At the Cathedral School, which you may remember is a very nice private school in Mumbai, they had all kinds of sports teams: soccer, gymnastics, tennis, and even cricket, which is like India's national sport. The students play for teams representing their "houses" as well as teams from other schools. At the less privileged schools, there were fewer sports teams but almost all have time to play outside at recess. At the Sassoon school, students are offered karate and yoga lessons, and at many of the schools we visited children learned traditional Indian dance.

Here are some of favorite photos from the Katha School we visited in a slum area of Delhi. They were doing yoga poses that they had taught themselves. Honestly, it looks a lot cooler than the downward facing dog pose I struggle with at my yoga class!

Yoga at Katha

About Indian Films

Bollywood posters 

Since I’m from a Bollywood family, let me tell you a little bit about Indian Film:

The Indian film industry, known to the world today as Bollywood, produces 800 films yearly and reaches nearly 3.6 billion people worldwide.  Countries in the Middle East, South and East Asia, Fiji Islands and the Caribbean are big followers of Indian Films. Also to be included, strangely enough, is Russia where in the 60s the Indian films became a big hit and people went to the extent of naming their children after a particular Indian film star.  In some of these countries Western films are banned yet Indian films are allowed to be screened.

The reason is that the Indian cinema censor board, to this day, despite being a bit relaxed recently, does not allow kissing on the screen yet scantily clad women are allowed, hinting towards Indian film’s time-capsule quality. 

For the population of India, movies offer an escape, especially to the poor, from the relative poverty and hardships they face. During festivals and certain occasions, it is quite common for people to celebrate together by pooling monies or getting a sponsor to support an event.  Food is distributed to the needy and neighborhoods come together and everyone looks to help others.

Indian and Western film progressed along a parallel path for sometime as Bollywood and
Hollywood began at essentially the same time.  Both industries began with multi-faceted stories fulfilling many different audience needs, yet a gulf emerged due to
India’s reluctance to change due to cultural expectations, illiteracy and the censor board’s application of censorship.

The subject matter of most films is particularly culturally oriented and Western audiences unknown of cultural nuances will not understand the meanings of certain things happening within the film.  All these factors have hindered Indian films from worldwide acceptance.

For the Indian population, many impoverished film goers looking forward to the escape of the cinema will save what meager funds they have for several movies weekly, often forgoing household necessities at times.

The films thus must encapsulate nearly every human emotion.  Musicals, dramas, love stories, comedies, tragedies and action scenes are all found within a single film with many archetypes and a set story formula. The hero, heroine, love story, a rain dance, the courtesan, etc. 

Colorful song sequences amidst exotic foreign locations as well as comic plots and subplots are all a must. It is thus common to witness melodrama and outlandishness played to the hilt.  The song sequences and melodrama relate to the public as an exaggerated expression of emotion and feelings.

Bollywood has glamorized the concept of courtesans in film.  It is fascinated by the tragic forbidden love, the decadence and the glamour of the Moghul era consorts.

During the time of the Moghuls, a regional duke, or Nawab, entertained themselves in the Kotas, upscale brothels often with the most beautiful courtesans, holding them in servitude.  Despite having illegitimate children, these women would never be granted full status in society.

The cult of personality of Bollywood Stars is prevalent, with the most famous actors in dozens of films yearly.  Their worship is sometimes the only subject of conversation between Indians of different social strata. 

Thus, Bollywood serves to unite the public and their escape from the harsher realities of life.

Next time, I will tell you the story of Dr. V. Shataram, my Grand-Uncle and one of the greatest film makers. We are a very close family, so I have always considered him my grandfather while growing up with my aunts and grandmothers, who were all starlets. 


India Trip Trivia: How many answers can you find?

How much do you know about India right now? How much can you learn about
India today?

If you don't know the answers already, all of the answers to these questions can be found on this blog. Try to find the answers by reading through the posts below. Don’t forget to click on the “comments” and the “previous entries” link at the bottom of the page to see more posts! (Hint: Try the “Mumbai” link at the top of the page if you can’t find some of these answers!)

  • If a cow sits down right in the middle of the street in India, what happens?
  • What is the world’s most populous democracy, the US or India?
  • What languages are spoken in Mumbai?
  • Who built the Taj Mahal and why? How much would it cost in today’s dollars?
  • Who is the Prime Minister of India?
  • How much does it cost to go to public school in India in rupees and dollars? What is the exchange rate between the rupee and the dollar?
  • What is the old name of Mumbai?
  • How many kilometers is it from New York to New Delhi?
  • Which country’s film industry produces more films: America (where the film industry is called Hollywood) or India (where the film industry is called Bollywood)?
  • How many people live on less than $1 a day in India?
  • What is an autorickshaw?
  • Was Mumbai ever a colony?
  • Why do people paint each other during the Holi festival in India?
  • What is the time difference between New York and New Delhi?



So, the film industry is in my blood. Here I am as
Krishna at an early age, preparing for a school play:


And here I am now, in my current film Sangam. It was well received at Sundance. The story of a fresh-off-the-boat Indian immigrant and a disillusioned Indian American, it is the collision of their worldviews. 

Sangam is a sacred pilgrimage site in India where 3 rivers, Ganga, Jamuna and the Mythical Saraswati, meet but their colors do not mix. It portrays the almost universal immigrant experience – everyone knows what it’s like the first months in a new place.

In the movie I play a character Raj, a recent immigrant with only $20. New immigrants will sympathize as I have, being an immigrant myself (albeit more fortunate terms). It addresses Social Issues in this country and India. Poverty can turn someone toward Blind Immigration – immigrants arrive without any connection / no money – no matter how rich/poor – the first times in a new land are always trying. Sangam had a Sundance Premiere and has been very well received, going to other film festivals.

My name is Hesh and I am writing to you from New York City. In the next few days, I will tell you about Indian movies and my family's story, which has a deep connection with the film industry in India.



Have you watched many international films? 

Have you watched films about an immigrant's experience? Was it a foreign film or was it an American film? Can you tell us what you liked about the movie? 

Do you have any questions for Hesh? 


Flowers and greetings


At several of the schools we’ve visited, we are greeted with elaborate flower designs laid out on the floor and along walkways. 

We have also been given small bouquets, or necklaces and bracelets made of flowers as a welcome gift.  I think partly this is because we are in a tropical climate and flowers of such vivid colors are readily available, but it also shows how important hospitality is in India.  We have also been marked on our foreheads with red pigment.


This is a greeting I am not completely familiar with, but it looks pretty. I need to ask some students what it means!



Dominique Johnson from CSI made a very good point about realizing how lucky we are in the United States, given how difficult some of the schooling and living conditions in India are (Ashley A from CSI also pointed this out).  I learned that in Mumbai, somewhere around 40% of the population lives in slums (though these statistics are often fuzzy since people are constantly flowing into the city from rural areas and there’s no real way to survey the population in these dense slum cities).  By slum I mean dwellings built along roads and empty lots out of corrugated steel or tarps, with no running water, no steady source of electricity and generally bleak conditions.  Often, families of five or six live in areas as small as 10 by 15 feet. It’s hard not to see this poverty, as it is everywhere in plain sight, sometimes a few yards away from shiny new construction, people in nice cars talking on cell phones and other signs of economic growth.  It makes me want to better understand why it has to be this way and what can be done to help.

In an article in Newsweek magazine a few weeks ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote that India “might have several Silicon Valleys, but it also has three Nigerias within it, more than 300 million people living on less than a dollar a day.” 300 million people! That’s more than the entire population of the United States. Do you know India’s geography?  If you have a time, look up how large India is compared to the United State or to African countries.  Then take a look at its total population compared to that of the U.S.  How does that make you feel?  Can you imagine what the population density of most of India must be?

More good questions

    Autorickshaw driver
An autorickshaw and a view from inside.

Ruby Torres wants to know whether this is my first visit to India: it is indeed.  I live in New York City and work at the Asia Society.  I’ve traveled to Vietnam, and Australia and lots of different countries in Europe.  I’m originally from Michigan, and I have to say that India is quite different from suburban Detroit!  Ruby also asked if the little yellow truck in the picture was a school bus; that’s actually an autorickshaw—something between a motorcycle and a golfcart.  Autorickshaws fill the streets and buzz around the neighborhoods where we visited schools.  They are like taxis, and you can get a cheap ride within a reasonable distance by hopping in (provided you can communicate with the driver).

Jabari Ford wants to know how the food tastes in India: in general, Indian food is very flavorful made with a rich variety of herbs and spices.  Cooked stews are often served with basmati rice or different breads, but before I say too much, remember that Indian cuisine varies a great deal from region to region, and I’ve only tasted a small representation.  My Indian friends say that Indian street food is the best, like our pretzels or hot dogs, but I sadly haven’t had a chance to try any.

John Harden, a student at CSIHS said that he’s tried samosa, because his stepfather is Indian.  That brings up an interesting point: India has a very wide diaspora: a community of Indians who have settled around the world, many in the United States.  That means they contribute their talent and dreams to their new home countries and their children (or stepchildren!) grow up with rich heritage from both India and their new home.  It also means that you can probably find delicious Indian food near where you live.  So go out and try some!

Do before

Last night we arrived in Delhi.  Delhi is less hectic than Mumbai and the weather is more pleasant, less humid.  People seem to mind traffic laws better, but there’s still traffic everywhere.
Today we spent the morning visiting with officials from the Indian Ministry of Education.  We talked openly about India’s challenges and successes.   In general, they are concerned with raising the level of excellence for the very top students, while also bringing quality education to the millions of children.  After an informative morning session, we visited a government school (a school that primarily serves the children of government employees).  Here is a student poem that the delegates found in the school library and liked very much:
Do Before
Before you speak, listen!
Before you write, think
Before you spend, earn
Before you invest, investigate
Before you pray, forgive
Before you receive, save
Before you die, give


I noticed that in Mumbai there were stray dogs everywhere.

Dogs are not considered pets by most Indians and indeed the dogs I saw on the street were mutts, quite dirty, some underfed and often quite mean. They curl up and sleep on the sidewalks or sometimes even in the street. When a cab or autorickshaw comes careening towards them, honking loudly, they just get up and move to another spot, all nonchalant. I only saw dogs on leashes being walked in South Bombay, the wealthy part of the city. I never thought I’d say, “Look! A golden retriever and a basset hound!” with such awe, but it just isn’t typical to see purebred, domesticated dogs!