During Dehli’s Fashion Week last month, two of the child stars from “Slumdog Millionaire” (best picture of 2008) walked the runway. At the time, Rubina Ali (Latika) and Mohammed Azharuddin Ismail (Salim) were still living in the Mumbai slum where they were discovered by casting agents. After the success of the film, the Indian government made it known that they would be giving the families of Ali and Ismail free houses.
Last week, “Slumdog Millionaire,” was released on DVD, and, as I watched the film for the second time, I found myself thinking about a mischievous 8 year old I used to baby-sit named Tracey Brown.
Tracey is all grown up now, beautiful, talented, smart, kind, and funny. (Yes, it is possible for all of those traits to be found in one person.) During the past five years, she’s held the titles of Idaho’s Jr. Miss 2004, Miss Idaho 2006 (for the Miss America system), and Miss Idaho USA 2008, and she’s currently trying to decide where to go to law school in the fall; both Baylor and Pepperdine have offered her full ride scholarships.
Last year, Tracey traveled to India with the organization Something Worth Doing, in an effort to raise money to educate children in India’s untouchables caste, and was able to see firsthand the interplay of harsh reality and beauty depicted in “Slumdog Millionaire.”
When I asked Tracey how the film and her experience compared, she said, “The movie did a great job of showing the true India, not just the Taj Mahal postcard picture.”
Something Worth Doing was working in a village where people “are living on one glass of rice water a day,” Tracey said. “They boil down the rice into its starchy water so it can be distributed to more people.”
Before Tracey traveled to India, she had never been out of the United States. “Going to India made me realize that now that I have seen the reality of the world, I have an obligation to help out however I can.” She would like to go back to India next year, and after law school, plans to practice International Human Rights law for a non-profit organization like the International Justice Mission or Human Rights Watch.
This is the same girl who, during the nationally televised Miss USA pageant, strutted her stuff down a flight of stairs, wearing six-inch heels, a bikini, and a faux fur coat.
It’s easy to look at pageant contestants and dismiss them as beauty queens. All we see is a couple of hours of well-edited glitz. We don’t see what these young women do to prepare. We don’t see them going to the gym twice daily, or reading the newspaper cover to cover, or getting laws passed to help uninsured women get free mammograms.
We see sequins. We see bright colors and flowing fabric.
During the Miss America pageant, contestants spend three weeks going to charity events, dinners, and parties. Tracey says she made an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of when to wear each of her 42 outfits.
But in India, Tracey didn’t need a spreadsheet to get dressed. She needed help from the village women, who folded, tucked, and pinned Tracey into a sari, as excitedly as if they were dressing her to be married. (Typically, an unwed girl wears a “salwar kameez,” a straight dress over pants, but on a girl’s wedding day, the older women of the village dress her in her first sari.)
“I love the sari because it’s modest, looks great on everyone, and although they look similar to outsiders, women take great care in how they tie and wrap their saris; it’s a very individual process. They can also express themselves with color and embroidery.”
Regardless of villagers having so little to eat, one woman pulled Tracey into her hut, sat her on the bed, and went to a small, locked cabinet. Inside was a banana.
Nothing else. And the woman insisted that Tracey take it.
The more we toss around the cliché that the world is getting smaller, the more we excuse ourselves from acknowledging that we don’t keep single bananas under lock and key.
Mariel Howsepian digs black coffee, fairy tales and a man in coveralls. She lives in Santa Monica and can be reached at Mariel_Rodriguez@antiochla.edu.