Sunday, July 31, 2005

Learning to aid I: problems and solutions

About a week ago, we at Asha Seattle had Ravi Kuchimanchi (who founded AID with his friends in 1991) come over for a chat. Ravi and his wife left the States in the mid nineties, and have been working in India with AID since then. He brought with him a plethora of experience from the ground. What makes him a delightful speaker is his ability to deeply understand complex socio-economic issues, and then explain them in a remarkably simple way, by just presenting situations and the facts.

I just thought I would share some of Ravi’s deep insights that we gained.


Ravi took us to a village where AID was working. This was somewhere along the Orissa-Andhra border, but could be anywhere in India. When AID first went there, a wizened old freedom fighter there took some of the AID volunteers around, pointing out a problem. He first pointed at a silted well (which still had water), and the volunteers didn’t realize what the problem was. Then he took them to a large tank, deeply silted, with reeds growing all around it, but still with water. The volunteers still didn’t get it, as they saw water there (something missing in many dry villages). Then they realized how badly silted the tank was, and what its consequences were.

So, they met the farmers in the village, and asked them about the tank. The villagers understood that the tank was silted, and worried about water. The older farmers said that the silt was actually rich in nutrients, and in the old days farmers would come by before every planting season, and take silt away from the tank on their bullock carts to use in their fields. That way, the tank would remain well maintained, while their fields would benefit. So, the volunteers asked why the practice no longer continued.

They discovered that the farmers were quite marginal, and over time they were unable to afford to keep bullock carts (though most had bullocks to plough their fields with). So, there were no carts in the village. The few large farmers that existed in the village (who had carts) had shifted to using fertilizers, and did not need silt. So, the tank was dying, and they now worried about future water sources.

Invariably, government or even some NGO “fact-finding” missions do not bother to involve villagers. They come. They see. They “understand all”. ”The problem: silted tank. The solution: de-silt the tank.” So, thousands of rupees are spent on desilting the tank, which is silted again by the next monsoon. Or else, some well-meaning person somewhere far away will come up with a brainwave like “lets give them a tractor. This will be modern and efficient, and we’ll be really helping them then.” And a tractor will be thrust upon the villagers.

But if they had involved the villagers, they would have heard the following questions from the villagers. You may desilt it this year, but what happens next year? Who would pay for the fuel that a tractor needs? What happens if the tractor broke down, how could they repair it? Spare parts were expensive and available only in distant larger villages. Fuel itself was available only in villages 15 km away. Who would maintain the tractor? Who would be responsible for the tractor?

Clearly, just desilting the tank is a stopgap effort, and a tractor would not be an effective solution. Instead it would create 6 new problems!

In this case, AID found that a bullock cart would effectively help solve the problem!

But, does it end there? Would just giving a bullock cart have solved this problem?

AID talked to the villagers further. It could have ended right there, if AID had just given a bullock cart and two bullocks to the village, thinking the problem was solved. But the villagers very quickly pointed out that that would not work. If two bullocks were given, it would be very likely that the bullocks would be beaten to death, or underfed, or ill treated, since belonging to everyone meant that they wouldn’t belong to anyone. So, if bullocks were given, they would need to hire some one to look after them as well, an added expense! So, the villagers themselves proposed to use their own bullocks, to the cart that would be provided.

But even this wasn’t the complete solution.

There is more than one type of bullock cart. The “modern” cart, popularized by various groups and government subsidies, is a cart with pneumatic tires. This is effective in improving mobility and reducing load on bullocks, but only on even, level roads. The villagers, who clearly knew much more about bullock carts than any city-slicker did, collectively and unanimously said that the modern “tire” carts would never work. This was because the axles for these carts were extremely low. The tank was in marshy ground, didn’t have a road leading to it, and in order to take the silt out effectively, the cart needed to be taken into the tank itself. The old-fashioned large wooden wheeled bullock cart was perfectly suited for this task, but the “tire” carts were hopelessly inadequate.

In addition, repairing a traditional cart was something any farmer could do, but the rocky roads and rough terrain would easily puncture the tires of the modern “tire” carts, and repairs would be tedious, difficult and costly.

So, incredibly, the best solution in this case proved to be an old fashioned, cheap bullock cart. And the villagers themselves came up with the solution.

There were more levels of effectiveness. If a cart had been given to the community, in all probability in a few years it would have been broken down and become useless. Instead, if the cart was given as a cooperative loan, with the promise that once the cost of the cart had been repaid the same money would be given back to the community for another new need, the villagers would feel a strong incentive to use the cart well, AND repay it, in order to gain new benefits.

Incentive and involvement. Two key aspects that AID understood came from talking to the villagers.

It is easy now to understand why so many million dollar top-down government or World Bank schemes have failed miserably. Schemes, especially those determined by some distant office, are very ineffective, and sometimes cause new problems.

Ravi used a nice analogy to explain this. He asked us what Thakur Baldev Singh had told Jai and Veeru (in Sholay) when they asked him why he wanted them to catch Gabbar.

Remembering my Sholay lines well, I said ”Kyon ki loha lohe ko kaatha hain” (because steel cuts steel).

That beautifully sums up the situation.

The villagers did indeed represent the problems, but they represented the solutions as well.

Just as we do.

Update: The second part of this discussion can be found here, while the third and final part can be found here.

Friday, July 29, 2005

How low can a "newspaper" fall

"Marooned without TOI", screams the headline, informing pathetic readers that celebrities started their day without the Mumbai edition Times of India, the self-proclaimed "leading English Daily of the world". This, the day after half of Mumbai was drowned by 37 inches of pouring rain. This, when over 200 people had died due to the deluge. This, when rumours of a tsunami were spreading around the city, causing small stampedes.

Clearly, that was far less important than Kumaramangalam Birla and Akshay Kumar not getting their morning newspaper.

Read more about it in Uma's fantastic post, and Faderu's pithy post on DesiMedia, and a typically strong post from Suhail.

Read it all, and weep. This newspaper, decades ago the pride of the nation, and a bastion of upright news reporting, has become such a disgustingly pathetic rag.

addendum: Also, Arnab's post really hits the nail on the head. Other blogs pointing out to this issue: Charu, Reuben, Dilip, Aditya and Suman.

Meanwhile, here's Mumbai help, and Cloudburst Mumbai. What a great effort.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Ek boond

Rain is supposed to be light and refreshing, like it is here in Seattle. When we have an inch of rain in a single day, we think we've had a pretty rough day.

In Bangalore, 3 inches of rain uproots trees and blocks roads.

In Chennai, I was caught once when a massive depression hit the city, and dumped 8 inches of rain, bringing the city to a standstill. I thought that was horrible.

But 37 inches? What can people do when a great city like Mumbai faces the wrath of an angry Indra? When an entire region is devastated? How can you but admire the resilience and courage of such a city?

The people will rise again, mourn their losses and go on with their lives. But efficient government means issuing warnings when you know there is going to be massive amounts of rain. It means having relief and rescue teams coordinated before a tragedy strikes, not declaring a tragedy to be a tragedy. It means we should not rely only on the sheer courage and generosity of the citizens of the region.

But I'm just shocked, upset and overwhelmed by the force of nature. I cannot just blame the administration, but I have to blame someone.

I'll just hope that it never happens again to any place on earth. I'll (irrationally) hope that nature stops reminding us how small we are.

note: The title, Ek boond, means "one drop", and was the name of a Hindi poem we read years ago, about a drop of rain, written by Ayodhyasingh Upadhyay "Hariaudh" (thanks for reminding me Aditya)

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

I don't understand, Paatti

The past two weeks have been terrible for the world. First suicide bombers attacked the Ayodhya complex and were foiled. Then, there were the dastardly bomb blasts in Kashmir. At about the same time, London faced the devastating attack in the metro. Soon after, the resort in Egypt was blown away. Today, I read that the frightening Babbar Khalsa is alive and kicking, and serendipity averted what could have been tragic.

I was speaking to my eighty-something grandma, my Paatti, a couple of days ago on the telephone. She, in her own innocent way said she'd been watching the news recently, and was shocked by these tragedies.

"Iva yellarum ippidi yen pannara yenaku puriyave matengarathu", she said.

("I just cannot understand why these people are doing such things").

I tried to explain things to her. After all, I read news reports from experts and analysts, I hear "hardline" views on how this menace should be countered by force, "liberal" views on why most terrorists are just misguided, I read expert opinions of reasons and root causes for terrorism. I hear politicians, academics, scholars, religious leaders, the police, the general public, and Imran Khan give us reasons for and solutions to terrorism.

But, Paati, even after all this, I just cannot understand why these people are doing such things.

Monday, July 25, 2005


It was a fine Saturday morning, the day was clear and sunny, and I headed out to buy myself some cupcakes from the wonderful Cupcake Royale in Ballard. I was enjoying the bus ride and observing the menagerie of people populating the bus. There was a pleasant looking and garrulous middle-aged couple sitting behind me.

The bus stops along the way, and an old (make that really old) lady gets in. She is dressed in her Saturday finest, a spotless white shirt, and black trousers, a little red hat, a feather scarf around her neck, a walking stick in her hand and a smile on her face. She plodders up to the seat, and is going to sit down when she sees the middle-aged couple sitting behind me.

She looks at the lady, and suddenly yells excitedly;

"Beatrice! You're Beatrice!"

The lady smiles back at her, and says

"No sweetie, I'm not Beatrice. Do I look like Beatrice?"

The old lady continues, unable to control her excitement,

"You must be Beatrice. Well I never! She looks just like you. Do you have any sisters? A twin sister perhaps?"

The lady is smiling now, and tells the old lady that she does not have any twin sisters, and asks "Who's Beatrice? Is she a friend of yours?"

The old lady says she used to teach Beatrice to play the piano years ago. Then she says

"Don't think I'm senile. I'm not senile. You DO look just like Beatrice. My mind is still ok. I can't hear too good, but I can still hear myself play the piano."

The lady and her companion reach their stop. The lady smiles at the old lady, shakes her frail and skeletal hand, and waves goodbye.

The old lady continued talking to herself "Well I never, that was Beatrice! I saw Beatrice!"

Old age.

When I was in school, I was in the NCC during my 7th, 8th and 9th grade years. Once a year, we would all go down to the "Little sisters of the poor- home for the aged" (right next to Baldwin Boys School, Bangalore), with pastries, presents, a song and dance show, and good humor, and talk to the inmates. Most of them would be in their seventies, but many were in their eighties, and even nineties. They would all be frail, but smiling, dressed in their Saturday finest. Their smiles would be tinged with a little sadness. They would always be delighted to see us, and loved to talk to us. They would talk about their children and grand children. Many hadn't seen their children in decades.

Next to most of their beds, there would be a photograph of their big, smiling, happy family. A distant happy memory.

Friday, July 22, 2005

We are like this only

I was having lunch with some colleagues yesterday, and somehow the conversation drifted towards the movies, and then “Bollywood”.

“I’ve seen one or two Bollywood movies”, she said. “They last for at least FOUR hours, with ten songs, some crazy dancing, and no story. I’ve seen this really awful movie called ‘Par-des’. Gawd, it was hilarious!”

“THREE hours”, I said, getting defensive, and gritting my teeth for a fight.

I wanted to say that there is more to “Bollywood” than the three-hour song and dance routine. I wanted to say that “Bollywood” was only about Hindi movies, and that movies were made in over a dozen other languages. I wanted to say that regional heavyweights like Tamil and Telugu cinema made nearly as many movies as Hollywood did. I wanted to say that a healthy alternative cinema (which we call “art films”) existed. I wanted to say that movies made by Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt, Govind Nihalani, Shyam Benegal and so many others were comparable to the “best” world cinema had to offer.

Then I wondered why I was getting defensive.

Sure, a lot of the movies really, really suck. But we still watch them. Hell, I watch so many movies; I’m practically supporting the video piracy industry (since Indian grocery stores have only pirated videos). I even saw the Bobby Deol non-starter ”Jurm", which arguably was the worst movie made in Hindi movie history.

I know the sight of Govinda and Karishma would make my colleagues burst out into peals of laughter, but I’ve watched their jhatkas as much as any one else.

I know King Khan is an unbearable ham, and I hate most of his movies (Swades being the exception), but I still end up watching most of them.

I do manage to boycott Salman Khan movies, but I’m not missing much there anyway.

I like the few good movies that come out of the Indian film industry. Those feel like rare gems that one has to search for. The quest for one of those gives me a high.

I like the stupid world of unreality and fantasy that most lousy Indian movies take us to.

I like using the fast forward button on the remote to forward Anu Malik’s songs.

I like Rajinikanth fights, where he can whip up a whirlwind by twirling his feet.

I laugh at the corny and loud “comedy”, sometimes through sheer exasperation.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Most of us do exactly this. I don’t need to be defensive.

We are like this only.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Kalinga tales II: In Ashoka's footsteps

If you decide to go beyond Orissa's obvious poverty, it is easily amongst India's most fascinating states (and every state is so fascinating!). We continue with the second and final post of some nuggets from travel in Orissa from a couple of years ago (you can read the first part here).


Speaking of Emperor Ashoka, this rather garish stupa is situated on Dauli hill overlooking, the Daya ("compassion") river. The stupa (called "Shanti stupa" or Stupa of peace) was built a few decades ago. Legend has it that the Daya river turned red with the blood of the Kalinga warriors, who died without surrendering to Ashoka's invading armies. Seeing this carnage, the monarch renounced war, and became Buddhist. Near the foot of the hill is one of his carved-rock edicts proclaiming peace, and lasting for posterity. From the hill, you can see miles of Orissa countryside, with a grid of tiny fields spreading across the horizon. The fields look much smaller than those you see in neighboring Andhra, and you can easily see how impossible it must be for a farmer who's entire holding is this tiny plot of land (some smaller than a 2400 square foot suburban housing plot) to survive.


My parents and I were eating at the restaurant of the resort we were staying in. It was off-season, and there were only a couple of other tables occupied, so the waiters were cheerful and relaxed. We started a conversation with this pleasant waiter, who (like many other Oriyas we met) was quite happy to start a conversation. This lead to that, and soon my mother was asking him about typical marriage expenses in Orissa.

He said, "Umm......usually for typical middle class families like ours, a wedding banquet and celebrations would easily come up to 2 or 3 lakh rupees. Sometimes it's much more" (I lakh= 100,000)

Notice, he clearly thought of himself (earning around 6000 rupees a month, including tips) as solidly middle class, and he was right. Though many of us consider ourselves "middle class", we really are in the top 10% of the economic strata of Indian society, and he really was the middle-class! But middle class in India is definitely a mind-set, not an income bracket.

More strikingly, his statement showed how much people tend to spend in weddings. Three lakhs was five times his entire annual income. Imagine someone earning $70000 a year spending $300,000 for a wedding! Given this fact, it is easy to see why people start saving the moment their child is born, and why families go into debt or bankruptcy due to a wedding!

This wonderful waiter also complimented me on my Hindi. Given that these words were coming from an Oriya with an impossible accent and a complete confusion of gender usage (mixing up का and कि), I felt depressed.


We were at the Mukteshwar (Shiva) temple in Bhubaneshwar. This temple is much smaller than the Lingaraj temple, but you are blown away by the sheer beauty of the exquisite carvings and architecture.

I was standing and admiring a little Ganesha carved on the Eastern wall, when a dhothi clad gentleman (who I later learnt was a pilgrim from UP, on his way to Puri), and his teenaged son approached me. He walked up to me and asked;

"Kya aap videshi hain? Ham ne suna hai ke vahan ke log bhi Jaggannath bhagwan ko manthe hain" ("Are you a foreigner? I've heard that foreigners too believe in Lord Jaggannatha", probably thinking of the ISKON/Hare Krishna folks).

I was overwhelmed by acute embarrassment and shame. Mental reminder: the next time I visit temples in India, I'm going to stick to Indian wear.I can't survive this question again. I know the salubrious Pacific Northwest climate does nothing to help my tan, but this is embarrassing.


We're at the ancient Jain and Buddhist caves of Khandagiri and Udayagiri. These little cubby-holes were carved into the sandstone by the austere Samanas/Jains, and it's hard to even imagine how a monk could have lived in a hole 6 feet long, 3 feet wide, and 4 feet high. But then, the Jains weren't known to go easy on the austerities. This place is swarming with monkeys; the ubiquitous Hanuman langurs. They were (as usual) fearless since the devout fed them regularly, and one couldn't dream of harming them. Unfortunately, that didn't help me because I was munching away on my peanuts, and they decided that by right it should be theirs. It was theirs in about 2 minutes, the moment I saw them heading my way.

At the base of these hills there were plenty of wonderful roadside food stalls, and tea stalls. My parents and I decided it was high time for a cuppa, and we bought our tea. It was served in disposable plastic cups. I looked around, and didn't find any trash-cans, but plenty of plastic litter on the street. So I asked them if they had some kulhars (little clay-pots) which used to be traditionally used to serve tea. When I had passed Orissa 15 years ago, the only tea that was sold was in these kulhars. You finish the tea, and then toss the clay pot back into the earth where it came from.

The shopkeeper said no one used those "old fashioned things anymore.


I felt a thousand eyes were watching me as I carried our three plastic cups back on to the bus and back to our resort, to trash in to a garbage bin. It was probably in vain anyway. I suspect the resort was just dumping it's trash a few hundred yards from it's walls.


I'll leave you and my Orissa travel memories with this picture of a beautiful sculpture from the Sun Temple.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The great Mughal

"Lekin teer calate vakt tu khamosh kyu rahi?"

"Kaneez dekhna cahati thi ki afsaane hakeekat me kaise badalte hain."

("Why were you silent when the arrow was shot?"
"A humble maid servant, I wanted to see how fantasy is transformed in to reality")

After seeing Mughal-e-azam innumerable times in black and white, I finally saw the digitally colorized version last night. Fantasy had finally become real for me, and I loved what I saw in color. It was not what I had imagined it to be, it was better!

And who can forget the music, Naushad's pinnacle of achievement? The only time Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan would ever sing for Hindi cinema.

I'm going to spend the day listening to the soundtrack again. You can listen to it as well, here.

I wish the rerelease that came to cinemas in Seattle for a week, a couple of months ago (when I was buried in work) had come at another time.

"Parda nahin jub koye khudah se, bando se pardaa karna kya?
Jab pyar kiya to darna kya"

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Kalinga tales

Orissa is a remarkable land. Though one of the poorest states in India, it is embarrassingly rich with history, natural resources, and the finest coastline in India. Here are some vignettes from that land, from travel a couple of years ago.


The fried prawns definitely did smell good, and almost tempted my vegetarian soul (I did resist though). I took this picture on an island near the “"new mouth"” of lake Chilika, India'’s largest lagoon. I was astounded by the vibrancy of aquatic and avian life in this lagoon (one of the last homes of the Irrawaddy dolphin and a breeding ground for flamingoes, amongst other birds), and was equally distressed at the callousness of us humans to a region of such richness. Due to reduced flow of the rivers that feed the lagoon, and closure of the mouth due to excessive silting, the lake was dying due to the altered fresh/saltwater composition. But recent efforts have revived the lake (partly by dredging the ocean to create a narrow "“new mouth"”), and the fishermen were once again reporting bumper harvests (which had been depleted due to overfishing, and this is likely to happen again, soon).

At this island, the fishermen would just throw their nets into the lagoon, and walk along the beach, dragging the net. They would then pull out the nets, and with it, a bunch of trapped tiger-prawns would emerge. You could select your favorite prawns, have them fried right in front of your very eyes, and enjoy a fabulous treat (I didn't eat any, but saw many people gorging themselves).

After finishing off this delight, you could quench your thirst with some tender coconut water (from the coconut trees in the beach, that the fishermen provide you with). After this, the plastic plate (or piece of newspaper), and plastic straw is usually carelessly discarded by the callous tourists (or the fishermen) either on the beach, or tossed in to the waters of the lagoon.

I'’m sure the birds and the dolphins appreciate the plastic.


The city of Bhubaneshwar (Bhuvan/Bhuban=earth, eshwar= lord of, Bhubaneshwar= lord of the earth, Siva) is literally overflowing with some superb examples of Orissa temple architecture from the 7th to the 14th century AD. The Lingaraja temple is one of the finest specimens, and is also an important pilgrimage center.

We were inside the temple, close to the sanctum. I was in a corner, getting away from the crowd, and observing the proceedings with great interest. I guess the camera strap hanging out of my pocket was a dead giveaway of me being a tourist. A rascal (in the form of a priest, a temple "panda") decided I was the perfect victim, and before I knew what was happening, I was clutching a bunch of petals and vermillion in my palms, with a garland of flowers around my neck, and "tilak" on my forehead.

The charlatan told me to repeat after him, and started off.....

Guru Brahmaa, guru Vishnuh, guru Devo Maheshwarah..., while I stared in utter disbelief. He finished his 2 minute chant, and then demanded a dakshina (monetary compensation for his services). I looked at him incredulously, with my mouth wide open, and then took out a five rupee coin from my trouser pocket (since I didn'’t want his services, I thought he had better accept whatever I gave him). This didn't amuse him much, and he started hurling colorful curses at me. In his words, if I didn'’t pay up (I believe the average rate there is Rs. 50- Rs. 100), I would never have kids, I would suffer from the plague, my fingers would drop off, and the curse of a devout brahmin such as himself would never go unfulfilled.

Luckily, my father (who had by then finished his prayers) spied me trembling like the proverbial leaf. He leaped to my rescue, took the garland off my neck, and thrust it (along with the flowers) right back into the charlatan's hands, yelled "“don'’t you dare say any more to my son" (looking all fiery and sadhu like, with his wispy grey hair flying around), and dragged me away from the scene, leaving the charlatan standing, chastized and shocked.

"You are a classic bakra (goat, sacrificial lamb),"” declared my dad, and I had to woefully agree with him.

The charlatan should have taken the Rs. 5 from me. At least he would have received something for his efforts.


The Sun Temple at Konark is amongst the most exquisite man made buildings I'’ve seen (as awe inspiring as the Taj Mahal, or St. Peter'’s Basilica, or the Collosseum, or the great Chola Temples). This sculpture is at the entrance to the monument, and is worn out by the elements.It is called nara-gaja-simha (man-elephant-lion).

The sculpture comprises of a frail man at the bottom, crushed by an elephant, which in turn is overwhelmed by the roaring lion. A tourist guide told me what it symbolized.

"The man represents us. We are born as free men, and roam the world. But then we acquire wealth (symbolized by the elephant). We soon obsess about the wealth, and this wealth crushes you.
Now as you get more wealth, you naturally obtain power (symbolized by the lion). This greed for power will consume your wealth, and finally crush and destroy you."”

I don't know if that is really the legend of the sculpture, or if he just made it up, but they certainly are words of great wisdom from a poor tourist guide.


I'll leave you with these two pictures. One is of sunrise (and a fisherman's boat) in Puri.

The other is of a fisherman, standing alone on the beach (I was the only other person there, and was a good 100 yards away) in the morning, untangling his nets.

The tranquility overwhelmed my senses.

postscript:The second part of my travel tales from Orissa is up here. You might also want to read Dilip's post that followed this.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Till dowry do us part

”Raju I hope, with our generation the evil of dowry will end”.

Bahadur was the quintessential Indian comic book hero, and the Indrajal comics (Phantom, Mandrake, Bahadur, Flash Gordon) were something I grew up with and still love. This picture is from an old Bahadur comic (courtesy The comic project). I must have read this particular issue “The seeds of poison” way back in 1985 or ’86, and even then it was at least 4-5 years old (handed down to me by a cousin).

Wishful words. It’s about 20 years since I read that comic. The generation (starting a few years before me) is now mostly married, and many even have children.

In 1994 there were nearly 6000 official deaths due to dowry related causes. The number for 2004 was an estimated 9000.

The numbers of women suffering from domestic violence due to dowry demands are many fold that number.

This chilling article talks about the need to import brides, because the female:male ration has dropped so much in Haryana that brides are hard to find.

Most of my Indian friends are the so-called “intellectual cream”, who went to top Engineering colleges (IIT, BITS, REC/NIT, Anna University) or Medical colleges, or Law Schools (like NLS) and B-schools. Many of them are studying or working in the States.

Many of them do not think about dowry, but a surprising number (small majority) do not think there is anything wrong with dowry. Here are some real responses to my queries (I sometimes bring up uncomfortable topics in dinner conversations) that some of these friends come up with.

“Taking dowry itself is not wrong, but if you abuse your wife, then it’s wrong”

“I’ll take dowry if I have an arranged marriage, and if my wife is less educated than I am and earns less. Why shouldn’t I? It’s a good investment for her anyway”

“I don’t want to change any customs, it’s been done for many years, so why should I change that?”

“I can’t say no if my parents ask the bride for dowry. Maybe I won’t ask dowry for my kids’ marriages.”

The ink that wrote those words of hope in that comic have been smudged and erased a long time ago.

The Adivasis of India are dubbed “backward” and “primitive” by many people (especially in the cities). In a majority of these Adivasi societies, women have the complete right to choose whom they marry. The man has to pay her family a dowry. She is considered an economic asset to the family.

She can leave a marriage whenever she wants to, and marry some one else. Marriages before girls reach puberty are almost unheard of. Couples can also live together before marriage if they so desire.

Primitive and backward?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Squirrel terrorism

I live in this beautiful (though relatively cheap) apartment, with a balcony and a view of the Cascade Mountains. When I moved in here last year, it was finally my opportunity to grow some plants in pots in the balcony, something I’ve wanted to do since coming to the States nearly 5 years ago. So, I bought some pots, potting soil, and got some plants. I have a begonia, some cacti, geraniums, spider plants, tomato plants, basically a small, nice patch of green. I was satisfied, but little did I know that this was the road to terror.

The street I live on abounds with squirrels. Fat, slow moving, overfed, aggressive squirrels that live by raiding the trashcans. And there is one of them, he who must not be named, who does much more. He (it must be a he to do such horrific acts) raids gardens, and devastates them. At first I thought he was just searching for or burying nuts, but nuts to that thought. He just likes to dig, and dig up. First he got to my geraniums, and when I entered the balcony, I found the plants lying shredded all over the balcony, with their roots torn out. In agony I repotted them, and I was just in time. A few moments more, and they would not have made it. The next day, it was the same story, but this time it was my begonia. The weeks passed by, and each time, a plant was savaged.

One day, I caught him in the act. He was in my flower flowerpots, on a rampage, and the leaves and soil were flying out of the pot. I saw him and screamed, a scream that would have chilled the heart of my enemies. He turned. I took two steps towards him, stick in hand. The place wasn’t big enough for both of us. He glared, and called my bluff. Instead of turning and running, he charged at me! I was momentarily stunned by this turn of events, but quickly gathered my wits, and ran for my life into my house. He followed me inside my house, and I leapt behind my lazy-boy and hid, cowering in fear. He stopped, eyed me, turned, and walked regally out through the balcony. My sweat had gone dry, and I was cold.

It was war.

I read about Japanese anemones. These hardy plants are resistant to fungi, and rodents hate them (or so the website said, and the web is never wrong, is it?). I promptly got some anemones, potted them, and surrounded my meager garden of eight plants with three of these. I hoped they would form in impregnable fortress to keep that menace away. The next morning I awoke. My anemones were lying sprayed across my balcony. Not one other plant was touched. And on the railing, eying me with steely hostility was the squirrel who must not be named.

Another friend of mine lives in the same apartment. I told him my woes, and he said this same squirrel was plaguing his life as well. He had resorted to drastic measures, only to fail. He had some nuts that he’d bought from Costco. A few days after he bought the nuts, Costco wrote to him saying his shipment was suspected to have salmonella contamination. My friend figured this was his chance to get rid of the squirrel permanently, and so he fed the squirrel the “infected nuts”. Nothing happened to the squirrel, but now, every morning, this menace is present on his balcony, scratching the door trying to enter his house and raid his kitchen!

Today was an especially sad day. I awoke to find that one of my ornamental succulents, which had evolved over the centuries to survive scorching summers and rainless months, had breathed its last. The squirrel had ripped it leaf from stalk.

I am devastated. Perhaps the famed squirrel hunters of Louisiana can help me. They are my final hope.

Monday, July 11, 2005

When Caste hit me

Almost without exception, we want to see a caste free Indian society, where no one is born "superior". Surprisingly, for most of my early life, caste was never something that segregated people. My upbringing was perhaps very sheltered from deeper concepts of caste. I didn't know what caste most of my classmates belonged to, and it DID NOT matter to us what we were. This is slowly becoming true in some larger Indian cities, and it certainly was true then in my school in Bangalore. I knew (from my parents) that I was brahmin, but they (though religious) are very broadminded for their times, and always stressed that all people are equal. In their head, caste was only some ancient division of labor and duties, not a way to look down upon as inferior or look up to as superior. I grew up with those values.

But since those days of childhood, caste has hit me hard a few times.


The first time was after my 12th standard exams. We all had to write the common entrance examinations (for Engineering and Medical colleges), and I started filling out the Karnataka CET forms. I filled out my marks in the subjects, name, age, sex, and then reached this column called caste, which asked me to also refer to a booklet. With a little bit of unease, I filled "forward caste/FC", and looked at this booklet, which was some twenty pages thick. I flipped the pages and found that it had a few hundred sub castes listed in it.

Yes, most of us have seen something like this. A few hundred subcastes.

On seeing that endless list, I felt like I had been slapped in the face. In utter disgust, I scratched out the "forward caste" on the form, and wrote "unknown" for both caste and sub caste.


This was now in college, and I was in Chennai. Of course, I followed the tradition of being ragged by any senior who could catch hold of me (my ragging stories are worth a post in themselves). One day, as usual, a bunch of seniors caught me. After deducing that I was from Bangalore, their tone changed a little bit, they shifted to speaking in Tamil (from English), calling me a "Peter" (still mostly in good humor). One of them asked "Tamil theriyuma?"(Do you know Tamil)? I nodded, and said I was Tamil. So, they insisted that I spoke in Tamil, and I patiently and politely answered all their questions in the Tamil I spoke. My dialect gave me away easily. One of them suddenly changed from being a ragging senior to outright aggressive. He sneered at me, and then snarled "Yenna, Iyer a?" (Are you a brahmin)?

There was true menace in his voice, and I can still see his eyes glaring at me.

It felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I can still feel it when I think about that day.

Other friends and college mates have teased me many times over my dialect, and I laugh at the digs and Tambrahm jokes at my expense. But that one time, the viciousness that punched me still hurts.


The third time was also in college, during the first few weeks. I was chatting with a college mate (not in my major), and he was extremely curious to know every one's marks in the entrance exams and board exams. I told him mine, and conversation continued. Somewhere along the line, he pointed at someone in class and said "He's SC". "So what?" I asked. He continued, ignoring me, and randomly pointed to different people in class "He's BC, he's SC, he's MBC, he’s......”

This guy spent his time finding out people's "cut-off marks" (the marks obtained in the board exams and entrance exams). He knew what cut-off a person of a certain caste would need for admission for any specific major. He spent his time figuring out if a person was FC, BC, MBC, OBC, SC or ST. That was his "hobby" of sorts.

I felt sick. I felt like I had been hit on my solar plexus.


Three times, when caste hit me.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Odd ends; and a dilemma

I wrote a guest column for the "University Week", published by the University of Washington press, as something for the post 4th of July issue. It was a column on prejudice and racial abuse, and is an extended version of what I had written earlier. If you are interested in reading it, the article (along with an ugly mugshot) is available online here. Blogging might be slow as I'm currently overwhelmed by the response to the article, and am slowly responding to a flood of emails from faculty, staff and students.


Here is a hypothetical query, and some of you with a deeper understanding of human nature and people might be able to come up with some ideas or solutions.

Let's say there is a someone, say A, who founded, heads and drives an organization. This A is completely committed to the cause of the organization, and works incredibly hard at it. Now, over time, this organization has grown to take up a diverse number of issues/problems. Each of these issues requires a huge commitment of time and effort. This A is completely involved in ALL of the issues. This is clearly more work than one person can handle, and this work overload is causing a lot of stress, and also physically affecting A. In addition, issue X is also beginning to suffer, since new problems are constantly creeping in, and A cannot handle all the issues. Additionally, A is also not an expert in problem X, though A started working on the issue (for the organization) years ago, before it grew to the present size. Now, A is definitely the expert on another issue Y, which A is anyway currently looking into. Y also now requires more attention, since it has grown to a large size, and A's expertise and greater time commitment will do wonders for issue Y. However, there are some problems with trying to get A to focus more on issue Y and less on issue X.

1) Issue X was actually started by A, so there has been a tremendous amount of work and effort put into it by A.
2) If A's asked by some outside person (involved peripherally with the organization) to come out of issue X, and focus on issue Y, A feels her/his integrity and commitment is under question. This is clearly not the case, since integrity and commitment are of the highest order, and it is rare to find such dedicated individuals.
3) It has also been extremely hard for the organization to create a good second rung of leadership, mostly because such people haven't been found. So, A is scared of what might happen if he/she pulls out of one effort. The issue X cannot be allowed to flounder.

Any wise heads out there with ideas?

Thursday, July 07, 2005

All in a name

I have a large number of very good Malayali friends, even though I've never lived in Kerala (nor have I really lived in a Persian Gulf country), and it must be said that some of them have the most imaginative (or bizarre) firstnames that baffle and amuse the rest of us Indians.

Of course, there are plenty of commonplace Ajays and Vinays and Krishnans, and plenty of motley Johns and Georges, but every now and then a Kurian or a Chandy or a Varghese (a Syrian-Christian name, which actually is George) peeps out, unique to Malluland. But these are the unfortunate Mallus christened without unique names. The rest of them have names unheard of anywhere else!

Take my friend Bobbilikumar for instance. Yes, Bobbilikumar! He used to come for cricket coaching/practice to the same place as me, and aspired to be a fast bowler. In practice matches, the batsman would ask the wicketkeeper what the bowler's name was, would hear the reply, watch poor Bobbili charge in, and get out purely due to weakness from laughing. I sometimes wonder why Kuruvilla didn't have the same effect in the Indian team. Or did he? And then, there were these two kids in my school, who always came with shoddy uniforms, only to be hauled up by me (during my prefect days). They were called Biju and Jiju, with Biju being a year older. Now, I'm willing to stretch my imagination and concede that Biju might be a name, but what on earth does Jiju mean? I mean, even names like Pinky mean something!

One of the reigning superstars of Malayalam cinema is called Mammooty. Does anyone wonder why, for all his superb acting skills, he never made it big in any other regional cinema? Even in Tamil cinema, he could never be the lead actor, because directors couldn't bear to see a name like that publicized.

While on a summer research project, I roomed with this delightful Mallu called Pradeep, and so got to meet his friends. One of them was this swarthy, bearded, macho individual who believed in chain smoking and hard drinking. He was called Saji. Now, honestly tell me, how do you inspire masculine awe with a name like that? Here I also met another gentleman called Modman. With a name like that, you know it's inevitably going to be reduced by everyone to Madman, don't you? And then there's this story I was telling my wife, about some trip my classmates and I had made in college. Somewhere in that story, the name of one of my classmates, Sheijoo, popped up. "Sheiju", said my wife. "I have a friend called Sheiju also. He used to work with me." Great! Only, my friend Sheijoo was a girl! Causes some confusion, what?

I'm not even going to get into the names of some Malayali literary giants (I've had the pleasure of reading a tiny number of some of their books in translation) like Kunnikuttan Tampuran, or Appan Tampuran, or the unpronounceable Tunchattu Ramanuja Ezhuttachchan! You can almost be sure to be entertained by names while in Kerala, but I guess you've got to name your kids something, and these names work!

I hope though that if my friends chance upon this blog they take this in good humor, and continue to supply me with delicious appams and ada pradhaman when I visit them.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005


Amar Mohile, the music/background score composer of the Ram Gopal Varma flick "Sarkar", please have mercy on us.

Instead of composing soundtracks for movies, why dont you go to the Rajajinagar (Bangalore) ISKON temple and chant "Govinda, govinda, govinda...." You might even get some blessings for that!

And speaking of gangsters, take a look at what this gangster has to say.

post script: Kay Kay is brilliant in Sarkar, and overshadows both the Big and the little B. Some potential here.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Putting in a word: word tag

"Word tag" seems to be the latest meme to hit the blogosphere, and I've been tagged by none other than the Greatbong himself. We all have our "favorite" words, words we enjoy using, or which conjures up something in our minds. Here are some of mine!

1) erudite: learned.
Many people know I just love that word. It just comes with this feeling of knowledge and learning, a heavy, meaningful word. When you say "erudite scholar", it comes with a world of meaning behind it.

2) pithy: precisely meaningful. Period.

3) phantasmagoria: Fantastic imagery.
I came across this word years ago, while reading some Edgar Allen Poe. And who better to use the word than Poe himself? This word forces the mind to create images.

4) panache: dazzling style!

5) unctuous: Characterized by affected, exaggerated, or insincere earnestness.
This word just oozes slime, and creates the image of a slick haired, puffy faced, artificially-smiling sycophant (qualification for an Indian political party worker?).

6) Supercalifragilistic- expialidocious: OK, I know that's not a real word. But, when I was around 7 years old, I saw "Mary Poppins", thought it was a real word, and went around for days singing the song (driving my parents nuts). Strangely, this imaginary word got me interested in words and I haven't stopped learning about words and their origins since. It also made me discover ridiculous real words like antidisestablishmentarianism.

I'm not going to word-tag any body, because there are too many magnificent word smiths out there. But I invite any of my readers to take up this new meme, and spread the "good word".

Have a fantastic 4th of July weekend (if you're in the States), and I'll be back later next week.