“India takes hold of your senses the moment you arrive and it never lets go.” – Oprah
I was thrilled when I heard that Oprah was traveling to India to film episodes of her weekly series Next Chapter on OWN, because I knew that she would bring the same reverence, precision, and evocative questioning that have been the hallmarks of her robust career to her exploration of India, its people, and its social structures.
I was also excited for Oprah to explore the paradox of India, the dichotomies of wealth and poverty, expansive urban populations and close-knit families, to unearth notions of its identity that are often eschewed in mainstream media in favour of rote categorizations. Oprah did not disappoint. In her first of two episodes in India, she revealed the paradox of India, shining a light onto stories, families, people, and experiences that otherwise would not have a voice. She shared not just one image but many ideas – complex, robust, changing, and magical. With over one billion people and a huge Diaspora worldwide, India is quite literally so many things to so many people.
The fact that Oprah was able, in such a short time, through Next Chapter – Part I, to capture pockets of insight into the many ways in which India comes alive in the world is truly remarkable. By using the analytic lenses of family and socio-economic status, Oprah’s work in this episode of Next Chapter was deeply insightful and highly revelatory in the lessons it unearthed about a) India and b) common linkages that connect us all to the human experience.
The Colaba District: Introducing Anchal
Oprah started her adventure by visiting the Colaba district in Mumbai, one of India’s largest and most heavily populated cities. The images of the slums, which many prefer to call “hutments”, are haunting, visceral and unforgettable.
In a particularly moving segment, Oprah met with a family of five who live in a small, one-room dwelling in the Colaba district where they all sleep in a row on the floor. Seated on the floor in the room, Oprah engaged the family in conversation about their life and dreams. The eldest daughter, Anchal, a bright student and joyful spirit, shared with Oprah her love of learning and dream of becoming a teacher. She expressed her sheer, unabashed joy of living her life with her family in their circumstances. In a moment of perfect you-can’t-pay-for-this-advertising, Anchal plugged Discovery TV as her favorite network.
Anchal’s father spoke movingly about his wish to have his children educated, recognizing, as Oprah has often said, that education is the pathway to freedom. He was moved to tears (and so was I) when he shared his fears and worries about his family’s future.
The segment was poignant in that, while it showed the impact of poverty in India, it also demonstrated that though viewers in Canada and the US may be separated geographically and financially from this family’s circumstances in India, we all shared a collective human experience in our longing for a better life for our families.
Furthermore, Anchal’s enthusiasm for life demonstrates the amazing capacity of children to teach us about what truly matters. She demonstrates an insight & understanding of the sacrifices her family has made for her education and is consciously, constantly grateful for the blessings in her life. That is the power of gratitude – turning seemingly unbearable circumstances into buoyant moments of warmth and possibility. Thank you Anchal for being an exceptional teacher. You are already living your dream.
The Samami Family and the Multi-Generational Family Experience: Arranged Marriage and Finger Foods
Oprah next visited the Samamis, a middle class family. There were four generations who all lived together in the same home. I watched with interest, because this is the story of my family in India as well. My grandmother lives with my aunt, my cousin, and my cousin’s daughter in one house. It is a four-generation matriarchy – the epitome of sister power.
Watching Oprah interact with the Samami family, it was interesting to see parallels to North American family life in the way the family gathers around the table at meal time. Plus, it allowed Oprah to experience her first traditional East Indian meal and eat with her hands, as is customary in India. [CONFESSION TIME: Growing up, eating with my hands was so normal that I could never eat with cutlery when my parents took me to restaurants as a child. I would fling food off the fork and onto myself before it reached my mouth.]
Over dinner, Oprah engaged the family in conversations about arranged marriage. It was fascinating to hear how love grew out of marriage instead of being the basis for marriage. These conversations resonated with me, because my own parents had an arranged marriage in 1972. They did not speak to one another until their wedding day and saw each other only once before, across a crowded room during their engagement ceremony, two weeks before they were married. After their wedding, my dad came back to Canada to continue work on his PhD and my mom joined him a year later. When she arrived in Canada, it was the middle of winter, and she had never before left India or her family. Imagine moving to a new land to meet your husband who you do not really know. I always marvel at their love story which flourished from and in their marriage. Next month marks their 40th wedding anniversary. 40 years strong in love.
Bollywood: Family and Celebrity
In this episode, Oprah also visited with Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan (son of famed Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachchan), film stars of Bollywood cinema, often referred to as the Brad and Angelina of India.
Abishek, Aishwarya and their new daughter live with Amitabh Bachchan and his wife Jaya, demonstrating that joint families are not borne of financial necessity but rooted instead in a collective love for deep family roots and a reverence for the daily support of extended family. In her visit with the family, Oprah rocked a sari and shared how the paparazzi frenzy surrounding the Bachchans was surreal, unlike anything she had ever seen before in her life.
For me, India has been a constant in my life. The birthplace of my history. The source of my family. The place where grandma lives. The geographic underpinning to my identity and core values.
India is found in my favorite foods, the music in my house, the curve of my nose, the fabric of my being.
Yet, at many levels, India has been a mystery to me – a veritable enigma wrapped in the cloak of the familiar. Being born and raised in Canada, visiting India once every few years, I have never fully grasped India in its many forms, in its beauty, complexity, and variety. During every visit, it still surprises me and manages to take my breath away.
Part I of Oprah’s Next Chapter in India painted a picture of India that is fluid, vibrant, textured, and beyond categorization, demonstrating that regardless of socio-economic status, history, or condition, everybody has a story and a voice that is worthy of respect and attention. Furthermore, the episode showed that though geography may separate us from India, shared experiences and common dreams unite us in a myriad of interesting, unexpected ways.
At the beginning of the episode, Oprah discusses how the greeting, Namaste, in India signifies an acknowledgment from the divine in you to the divine in others. We are all sparks of divinity. We all matter. The power of Namaste as a greeting and as a principle reminds me of the following verse from one of my favorite india.arie songs:
I wonder, I wonder if you really knew, that I see God in you
And I wonder if you can see, how much you mean to me
I know you cannot read my mind, but I hope you feel my vibe
I think it’s time I let you know that, I see the God in you
Thank you Oprah for the blessings of Next Chapter – Part I in India. We are so grateful to you, your team, and OWN TV for making such a long journey and for inviting us to see India through the eyes of the many people who call it home.