Namaste, Hi, I’m from the Committee for a Hi-Fi Udaipur….”            

What would you do if someone started a conversation like this with you?

 

Every year, Udaipur hosts a fair called Hariali Amavas, in celebration of the rains and the greenery of the earth. Everything is in bloom, and it is said that many marriage matches are made at this time.

 

At one time, this was the reason for the fair: to bask in the beauty of the earth and enjoy the company of others. Now, it has become almost as commercialized as Christmas or Diwali. Everything from plastic toys made in China to mobile phones are sold; politicians campaigning, not to mention masses of garbage, are everywhere. This strange paradox — on one hand, a festival that celebrates nature’s greenery, on the other hand, man’s destruction of this very festival — suggests Hariali Amavas has remained hariali in name only.  In all regards, it has become more about the buying and selling of plastic goods, greasy food and shaky carnival rides than nature’s beauty. 

 

To draw attention to this paradox, the team at Shikshantar decided to stage a little satire play. Teams of about 4 or 5 people would interact with festival attendees.  They would claim that they were involved in a committee that was looking to change the name of Hariali Amavas, and would offer several choices: Plastic Amavas, Four-Lane Amavas, Chinese Amavas, etc. or the person could give their own suggestion. The reason given for changing the name?  So Udaipur could start becoming more ‘hi-fi’ like Bombay, Delhi or London. The more corporate and commercialized the festival got, the more money would come rolling in. Since this was a satire, we took it the extremes, telling people that we would cut down all the trees and replace them with plastic trees, and that oxygen would soon be sold in cafes like water is now being sold in bottles.

 

The teams were made to look fairly professional, holding clipboards and wearing nametags. We also used creative strategies, like ‘implanting’.  For example, two of us would walk up to a group of people, and begin the drama that we were from the Committee for a Hi-Fi Udaipur.  Once things got rolling, two other people from the team, pretending they were just there to enjoy the fair, would enter asking, “What’s going on?  What are they talking about?”  These ‘implants’ would start dialoguing with the Committee members, questioning the logic of a hi-fi Udaipur.  Their heated participation would fire up others, encouraging them to speak up, or at least think about what it was they were agreeing to.

 

The other strategy was ‘follow-up’.  Once the Committee members had finished talking and left, and the festival attendees were shaking their heads about the crazy people they had just encountered, another member of the team would come up and say something like, “What was going on over there? I just saw those people trying to get you to sign something. What was it?”  In this ‘follow-up’, the festival attendees would then launch into what had just happened. After first agreeing, our team member would say, “Sure, but what they were saying kind of makes sense, huh?” and then get into a conversation with them about it.  Both of these ways proved to be very effective to gauge responses.

 

At first, I had a hard time getting into the play because I felt like an idiot. Almost everyone looked at us like we were lepers, and I felt like any response they gave was just so they could be rid of us. It was also hard for some of our team members to remember to stay in character because saying things like, “Yeah, plastic trees are great!” or “Let’s make everything Chinese!” does not roll easily off our tongues — especially given Shikshantar’s commitment to organic farming and the local.

 

But once we got into the drama, we had some surprising reactions.

 

Many people did agree with the Committee, especially young people who would say, “Definitely. There should be changes.”  I kept thinking, “What’s going on!? Why are people agreeing?” They made the Committee’s job too easy, so in order to get a rise out of them, we would invent even more ridiculous lines. At times, it occurred to people, when we took their point to the extreme, that what they were suggesting was really crazy. When they started out saying things like, “Yea, change the name to Four-Lane Amavas…”, we would respond by saying, “Ok, but in order to do that we would have to cut down all the trees, but don’t worry we’ll put up fake ones and then we’ll give everyone an oxygen tank to wear on their backs…” At this point, they would look at us and say that would never happen, what you’re saying doesn’t make sense. The thing is, many things have sounded crazy at one point, but as time has gone on, they have become ‘normal’. For example, ten years ago, who would have thought that a small portable telephone would become a so-called necessity of life? Plastic trees might just be the next big thing. They were already selling plastic roses at the fair.

 

When some people disagreed with us, they would get really involved in the discussion and some became very impassioned about saving Indian culture and heritage. They did not want foreign goods or foreign ways. Others were at a loss for an argument, because they had only skimmed the surface.

 

Hariali Amavas is a two day fair, and the second day of the fair is reserved for women only. I saw that on the second day, the women were much more outspoken than on the first day we talked to them. It seemed that without the men around, they tended to speak their minds to the full extent. They would get very fierce about keeping traditions alive and keeping Indian values, and they would spend time talking to us, not seeming to be in a hurry to catch up to their fathers, brothers, or husbands.

 

A unique aspect of my own personal experience is the fact that I look like a foreigner. My skin is lighter than most Indians, so it was easy for me to tell everyone that I was a consultant for the Asian Development Bank.  I said that if the name of the mela changed, then I would be able to bring a lot more foreign investors to Udapuir. It seemed that people were much more likely to listen to me; they thought I knew what I was talking about. Why is that? Why did people think I cared about them or their city? Because I looked official? Because of my skin color?  Not that this is the first time this has happened in India’s history. Someone comes along and tells you, “You are inferior, but no fear!  We are here to help you.  We’ll fix you,” and people agree immediately.  But to experience it first hand was a little alarming.

 

Actually, the whole natak (drama) was alarming. I learned as much about myself as I did about others. I did not realize how much young people were aching to become ‘hi-fi’.  Or maybe I had, but this way of thinking in America is labeled as ‘ambitious’. Now it seems that this destructive pattern of ‘ambition’ is going to kill the earth and us with it.