August 8, 2009

Hare Baba!

Brazil makes me incredibly happy. It also makes me sad. You can't have the ecstacy without the agony, can you? Because then it wouldn't be life. It wouldn't be real. And Brazil is life. It is real. More than real. And here, in this land of passion and pain, i find myself swaying in the narrow space between the two...

The warmth of the people, their affection, and their ability to live life to the fullest is what keeps my soul singing. The vibrance, the love, and the music make my spirit smile. But there is much suffering here. Much violence. Much heartbreak. Like everywhere else. But here it's different. Everything seems more intense. The joy and the grief. Because Brazil is intense. Brazilians are intense. And all my experiences here are intense too.

Deep in my heart there's an alegria, an intense joy. But a deep feeling of saudade too.... How do i explain saudade in English? I can't. It has no translation. It's more than missing something or someone.... It's longing, love, memory, ecstatic joy and grief at the same time... And when i'm away from Brazil the saudades only get stronger and linger in every space within me.

Brazil is contradiction. Like India. The richest and the poorest. The penthouses and the favelas. The homeless and the helicopters. In Rio and São Paulo, it's not uncommon to see helicopters circling above high rise buildings. Many apartment terraces have helipads where their residents land and take off. Inequalities are among the highest in the world. Violence is on the rise. Armed assaults and random theft. I even saw a bus being hijacked.

Brazil is music and passion. Despite the pain and suffering people heal themselves with beautiful music and dance, and of course cerveja (beer) and cachaça. Brazil is drama. Not as much as Bollywood, but Brazilians are dramatic - in their speech, in their gestures, and in their lives! That's why i love them!

Neoliberalism still underlies the policies of the Left government. Social movements are disillusioned. Change is not in the direction the poor dreamed it would be. Land is still owned by a small minority. The landless are still struggling for land rights, still occupying unproductive land, still building homes on hope. But the road is long and the end seems distant.

Mechanised agriculture, intensive industrialisation, and rising monocultures dramatically shift socio-economic-political relationships, cultures and lifestyles. Brazil prides itself, like India, on not being as adversely affected by the global financial crisis but there is evidence of rising unemployment and poverty.

And here in this land of mystery and misery, joy and suffering, intensity and passion, this indiana finds herself far from home but almost at home.... And in this era in Brazil where the most popular television soap opera (telenovela) is a part Indian fantasy, i find myself even more in demand, more in intrigue, more in vogue - than ever before. India has always held this magical allure in Brazil. Whenever i say i'm from India, i'm met with exclamations - "Eeenjeeaa? Mesma?" (India? Really?)... And then once the excitement dies down, the barrage of questions begins.... The first one always, predictably, unfailingly is: Você assistiu a novela? O que acha? (Have you watched the soap opera? And what do you think?)

What do i think? It's hysterical! It's amusing. It's exaggerated. It's not real. It's a bit ridiculous. It's Ekta Kapoor gone nuts in a Brazilian way. But it's struggling to be authentic. And what do you have? Brazilians pretending to be Indians, living in lavish havelis in Jaipur, decked to the hilt in sherwanis and trendy blouses and saris, dancing to Bollywood beats, making chai, but speaking Portuguese with a liberal smattering of strangely accented Hindi words: thik hai thik hai, chalo chalo, dekko, acha, Lord Ganesha, baguan kile. What was the last one? I had to turn on the subtitles on the television to figure that out - Bhagwan ke liye (for God's sake)!

The soap opera is based in Rio de Janeiro, Dubai and Jaipur. But the name is Caminho das Indias (pathway to India) and the obsession, obviously, is with India. With the clothes, the music, the dances, the traffic, the chaos, the cows on the street, the autorickshaws, the caste system, the class structure, the language...

This is Brazil chasing India with a passion that could only be Brazilian!

India is hot. Saris are cool. Everything Indian is a la mode.... Indian cosmetic jewellery is sold at street fairs, people want chai, young girls wear bindis, people are humming "Beedi jalayle jigar se piya" (the title song of the serial - from the movie Omkara), Bollywood music blares from roadside boomboxes and can be heard in stores and restaurants, and Indian names are gaining popularity (though Ravi and Rajesh become Brazilised to Havi and Hajesh)!

Curiosity is high. The images are partially distorted. The romance with India is obsessive. And the questions don't stop! So i have to watch a few more episodes of this soap opera in order to be able to respond! Someone on the street in Ouro Preto asks me, "Você é dalichee ou brahme" (are you a dalit or brahmin)? A Cearan in an Amazonian restaurant tries to be funny and asks me if Indian women have multiple hands as the goddesses shown in the novela! People want me to translate the song beedi and ask me to teach them Indian dance moves. I could become rich selling Indian goods and giving dance classes.

The kids in a primary school in a favela in Heliopolis in São Paulo greet me with a unanimous namaste the minute the teacher tells them i'm from India. The host of a community radio show, after asking me about slums, social problems, and poverty in India, wants to know what i think of the novela too!

Well, all of us are not ultra conservative, don't live in Rajasthani havelis, consult pandits for everything, and dance all day (including in cinema halls)! Nor do we say Haré Baba all the time!

Yes that's the most used phrase in the novela. They probably mean arre baba (almost akin to oh gosh!), but say Haré Baba! That's Brazilian Hindi! If you listen attentively to people speaking around you on the streets in Brazil, you might just hear someone exclaiming Hare Baba in the course of the conversation! It's even found its way into text messages. So the next time you feel like exclaiming in a different way, try Hare Baba! If not in India, everyone in Brazil will definitely know what you mean!

To see more on the novela, including clips and images, check out: