Tuesday, February 28, 2006


Spencer Plaza, Madras, Tamil Nadu

What are all these white people doing here?

I'm serious, where do they all come from? And why are they all wearing baseball hats? Really,
back in the good old days three years ago, India used to be like that Richard Pryor joke about white tourists in Africa (total strangers waving desperately at each other from across the road). Now honkies are becoming commonplace (and dressed so poorly I am ashamed to consort with their likes). I think most of them are Christian missionaries. That would explain the lousy clothes.

Then again, missionary women are usually dutifully covered up in chaste churidars with chunni round their necks, as well they should be, particularly if they want to do any serious work here. Who are these lard-laden people in tank tops and tight-fitting shorts, trundling their shopping bags up and down the escaltors, shoulders red with sunburn? I suspect German tourists, but they look as though they came from a time tunnel straight from central Iowa. Well, the more there are of them, the less I will be hounded by rickshaw-bandits and touts ("Meddem! Meddem! Looking is free" - really? yeah well, looking is ALWAYS free) - they will head for less Indian looking victims.

There goes the neighborhood! (tsk)

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Not necessarily the news

Excuses, excuses, excuses
Mylapore, Madras, Tamil Nadu

Fatigued, behind schedule and plagued with menstrual cramps. Again! didn't that just happen last month?? (impatient hands on hips). Time to ring up the team of ghost, er that's GUEST, writers...(then again, the Comments Posters have been pretty busy in my absence).

How to Prevent Household Monks
Random Salad
It looks innocent enough, but what exactly is in the bowl? Ramen. But the other dude’s gonna shank you!
While monks may work and pray diligently for the sanctity of mankind, they can cause problems for homeowners. Whether they’re chanting in your pantry, worshipping in your family room, or repenting in the garage, an infestation of monks can seriously jeopardize your health, home, and property.
These are some of the more common dangers and health risks associated with various types of household monks:

1-Monks spend a lot of time hanging around lepers and others who are otherwise unclean and can bring these conditions with them into your home.

2-Children witnessing monks in the ecstasy of self-flagellation have been known to “experiment” by whipping themselves and others mercilessly.

3-Nonstop chanting can be noisy or, ironically, could lull you into unconsciousness in the tub, causing a drowning risk

4-Residue from monks’ porridge is difficult to scrub off the sides of aluminum pots.

5-Monks’ robes shedded during spring and summer could pile up and be tripped over.

6-Ascetics’ shirts woven from itchy human hair are a smelly fire hazard.

7-Monks who have taken a vow of silence but not learned sign language will point emphatically until the other monks figure out what he wants. It gets annoying.

Conducive Conditions
While the treatment of monks should generally be left to professionals, there are a few basics to monk prevention that every homeowner should know. Understanding and eliminating elements that attract monks is key to prevention. The following three elements are essential to monk survival, so they should be minimized or eliminated entirely in your home...
full story here

Friday, February 24, 2006

Public Relations

For me? Really??

An increasing - alarming, even - number of otherwise unaffiliated Blogs are linking me- including one bona fide famous writer.
So I am returning the favour here -
Blogshares, the fantasy Blog stock market,
has given me some kind of rating. I don't know what this means, if anything.
and of course my loyal friends, who still haven't disowned me, for some reason -

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Varanasi: Very Nasty

While I lay in my hotel room cramping, my friend Gary writes stream-of-UNconsciousness poetry from Varanasi. Bill Burroughs, eat your heart out.

Joy saw a dog playing with a human skull

roomboys deliver dirty platters sticky with old baked beans

narrow alleys dark after midnight full of cow mountains

drupad festival sublime despite crackly speakers

puppy half eaten by rats reclines in alley

books, darjeeling tea, snake charmer flute, bodhi leaves

still traveling light in dust

memsab memsab not this way

from jail cell student cafeteria at BHU

after the paintings of mystic eurolady

dreadlock white sadhu couples who
argue about 2 paise extra charge on the internet



Tuesday, February 21, 2006

In the stars

My horoscope for this week

My mouse hand is on strike - suffering from severe overwork. So I'm copping out today and posting someone else's work. (I am a Western astrological Scorpio, but a Vedic astrological Libran - so I get the worst of both worlds.)

Libra Horoscope for week of February 23, 2006
Rob Brezsny's Free Will Astrology

If you have been experiencing some form of injustice, it's an excellent time to stage a protest, strike, or boycott. The astrological omens don't necessarily guarantee you'll get all your demands met, but they do make it likely you'll be able to harness your anger with maximum lucidity. For best results, don't just fight for your own rights, but for the rights of others as well. You should also make sure that in fighting the disrespect you've suffered that you yourself don't disrespect anyone.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Mr Robert's Neighborhood

More updates on the world famous Street Kids of Madras
Triplicane, Madras, Tamil Nadu

Dear Robert:
Poor Ramu. He keeps trying to get my attention. I feel pulled, each time I step out onto the broken pavement of Triplicane, as though I am in a three ring circus, and Ramu - a fairly quiet, older rickshaw driver with a chipped front tooth - nearly always loses out as the beggars and baby dramas compete for Madam's attention. He asked if he could have your email, the magic link to prosperity (so it seems) . He says he has an incorrect addressl for you.

Mari seems to be in Triplicane all the time, showing off her latest baby (one of 2) and looking quite happy, proud, and well dressed (by the standards of her socioeconomic strata) in her "big Lady" sari (albeit a polyester one - very popular). (Explanation for foreigners: Indian women do not wear sari, generally, till they are married. Particularly in the lower castes, they wear sari exclusively after marriage. Dress codes of all types are more liberal among the affluent.)

Same for Mumtaz. I see both of them making the rounds, baby in tow, nearly every day. I think they enjoy their Lady status now. Whatever they tell you otherwise, they are not desperate for anything.

I asked everyone I interviewed whether they had a message for Mr Robert. Mumtaz wants money so they can purchase the "house" they now live in (two tiny rooms of brick and plaster, with a corrugated tin roof and ceilings so low only a Tamil could stand erect without hitting the ceiling fan. No running water. Toilet around the corner shared with hundreds of others). Mari owns the house, but wants money for repairs - just paint and plaster, cosmetic stuff, nothing crucial. Someone should tell her that exposed brick is very chic now among the rich Americans. Vela and Nagamma want money for new dresses, undoubtedly so they can sell them immediately for drug money.

Prabhu was the only one that thought for just a split second, then silently shook his head No. As though, no, why would I need anything from Mr Robert?

I printed some of the best of the photos to give one each to Mumtaz, Mari, Prabhu, Jennifer and some to VP and family. VP's grandmother in law is my favourite, though I can't speak a word to her except "Vannakam." She is more than 85 years old, only 23 kgs and still working in a garment factory. She married at age 12 to a 25 year old man she had never even seen a photo of. Muniamman -a very old fashioned Tamil name, no one gives that anymore) is originally from Kancheepuram (an historic temple town, steeped in tradition, just south of Madras) and says she had three children.

I questioned VP more closely - in her day, it was common to have far more children, and also common for them to not all live. In fact, it turned out she had given birth to six children and only 3 survived. Muniamman is tiny, with giant round glasses that overwhelm her face and one jagged tooth that sticks out from her otherwise empty mouth. Her skin is nearly the exact colour of her dark brown nylon sari. She wears one enormous gold nosering. In her day it would have been common to wear 2, and I ask about it. Muniamman reports that she sadly had to sell one of the matching pair for money. She had been wearing the pair most of her life. They were probably part of her marriage dowry.

Muniamman, Jennifer, and VP are my favourite people in Triplicane. They are a nice reminder that once you get off the main drag with all the beggars and rickshaw bandits, there are normal families just making ends meet in their modest fashion.

I have a lot of work to do before leaving Triplicane area - I want to spend a day with Jennifer, investigate the child Zardozi labourers in the sweatshops next door, and interview and photograph the many Muslims in the neighborhood. Many Indian Muslim neighborhoods are far off the foreigners' beaten path but this one is smack in the middle. That means they are accustomed to seeing us and speaking with us, so it may be easier to get to know them than usual. And of course, I have to check out the drug rehab program for Nagamma.

More later,

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Adhesives and their adherents

Bonding experience
Triplicane, Madras, Tamil Nadu

At 7.45 in the morning, I saw Nagamma buying rubber cement-glue from the corner shop (I was just on my way to breakfast - no intention of spying).

She immediately insisted that the glue was to fix her foot (!??). Sure, everyone applies commercial strength rubber cement to the soles of their feet. Then she immediately asked for a cash refund from the shop man.

By now, I know that these kids are professional liars and con artists. I no longer expect any truth from them. But what's really amazing is that the shop guy, who is probably a college student, then very self-righteously said, "These are bad children, do not help them." I said in fact I do not give them cash at all, but for him to please NOT sell them the glue, for god's sake. He repeated his sermon like a robot, seemingly completely oblivious to his own role. "Do not help them, they are very bad." Well, do not help SELL them the freaking glue, then.

Sometimes I think this is a country of 12 year olds in which absolutely no one can assume any responsibility for their own actions. "What to do?" Grow a spine, maybe? The man is not going to go bankrupt by refusing to sell glue to teenagers.

Sorry for my anger. I have railed before against giving to beggars and this is a perfect example of what happens when you do. In the tourist ghettos I see well-meaning new arrivals to India (who still have loads of money since they haven't been ripped off by everyone yet) very proudly giving handouts to children. You can see the role ego plays in this for the tourists: I am such a big-hearted, generous person; I feel SO good about myself now. Nagamma and Vela go straight to the bookstore and buy glue with your money, even before food. Nagamma had not even washed her face; her eyes were still encrusted with sleep. She had not eaten any breakfast yet, but had to have the glue.

This is what happens to the money tourists give the cute beggar kids, so that they (the tourists) can go away with self-satisfied stories about how they "helped" the poor kids. If you want to give these kids something, give them your time.

I related all this to "MeestaRobett. " He replied that he would pay $100 for Vela's funeral and $100 for Nagamma's.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Where the sidewalk ends

The Pavement Dwellers

Well, I'm finally here. Madras, the biggest city in South India, heart of Tamil culture, center of south Indian classical music and dance. You can smell it (Madras) a mile away because of the Cooum River. No less than 10 autorickshaw drivers and honorary autorickshaw drivers (guys who just kind of hang out around the train station hoping to insinuate themselves into some tips) fought over my arrival, though I headed straight for the prepaid stand (where they charge a fixed, government price - 38Rs, or nearly $1.00US).

Whoo hoo. When does the party start? Balloons? Confetti? Nadaswaram combo?

Please excuse me. Having dinner with a couple of teenage glue sniffing addicts will make you cynical. I would say that Vela and Nagamma live on the sidewalk, except that Triplicane really has no sidewalk (called here a "footpath") to speak of. In most places it is crumbling concrete shards, in some places totally just sandy dirt - as though they said, "well if we make a proper sidewalk, MORE people will come and sleep on it so let's just keep it broken up and unwalkable." This has the result of pushing pedestrians out into the path of the constant, kamikazi traffic. Gone are the idyllic wandering cows, leisurely bike rides and gaily painted cycle rickshaws of Brodipet. Triplicane traffic is dirty, fast and relentless.

Vela and Nagamma are two of the Madras Street Kids made semi-famous by my friend (and their sponsor) "MeestaRobbett," who wrote extensively about their lives for five years on this website. Because they live in Triplicane, the backpacker's ghetto (code for neighborhood with cheap hotels) of Madras, they constantly interact with foreigners. We have seen Nagamma and Vela grow up for the past five years. The last time I saw them, Vela (now 18) was experimenting with drugs and Nagamma was attempting to still attend school (she was 14), in between being beaten by her family and sometimes forced to work. The photos on this page are from 3 years ago, till I get the new ones uploaded.

Now, Vela and Nagamma are running partners in their new job: begging money from foreigners for their glue-sniffing habits. The glue is a commercial rubber cement called FeviBond, available for 15Rs (about 35 cents) at any shop. They each use about 4 tubes a day.

I bought them dinner (noodles with scrambled egg bits) at the fast food joint and discussed their situation with them. Vela maintains that she wants to enter drug rehab, but she has always lied in the past. Now she says, "In the past, I lied and stole from MeestaRobbett many times. This was wrong." But she has made such confessions before. Nagamma just kind of goes along with anything Vela says.

Vela and Nagamma look clean; their hair is pulled back with acceptable neatness (and the requisite coconut oil). They wear matching, chipped and faded metallic burnt orange nail lacquer (wonder where they got that?). But the smell of glue from their bodies is at times overpowering.

Tomorrow I will get the phone number for the proposed drug rehab center and see if there is any point in enrolling Vela. I explained to her that it is like a prison, she cannot leave once she enters - and she will get very, very sick while she is there.

A few years ago, they were still kids, and cute enough to elicit sympathy and get more attention. Now they are lanky young ladies, no longer so endearing - they can even be a bit menacing in their begging . I'm afraid that their increasing addiction (and approaching adulthood) will leave them with nothing but prostitution to support their habits.

Later, Vela matter-of-factly showed me razor scars on her arm where she had self-mutilated a few months before.

More, and hopefully photos, tomorrow. -- Why are they running ads for chicken salad on my website? I don't support eating meat and I don't want to advertise this.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Sitting pretty

Soul Kitchen
Parimala is still here - she leaves for her new home in Mumbai on the 13th. Eventually I will leave for my new, temporary home in Madras, if I ever get out of the Malgudi Miasma. Every time I try to make photo CDs there's some kind of weird error. I missed the two big self-mutilation religious festivals of February - Thai Poosam, where guys pierce their tongues and chests for Lord Murugan, and Moharram, where Muslim men flagellate themselves bloody in memory of a martyr. No, I didn't get photos. This time.

At home (6th Lane, Brodipet) we eat on the cool, black slate flagstone floor off of banana leaves. The occasional mosquito hovers around the dark corners (Indian homes at first seem cavelike, dark and dim - then you realize it's intentional, to maintain precious coolness against the heat). I wonder how I ever sat at a kitchen table to eat. My mother always scolded me for sitting on my feet crosslegged even at the dining table; now I know that was proof that I really was, as my Oriya Swamiji in Nashville, Tenn., told me, Indian in my previous lifetimes.

There is a definite - even dogmatic - order to a South Indian meal - first, and foremost, rice. Then a curried vegetable (sometimes carrot, sometimes okra, or gourd, or bitter gourd, or pumpkin or green beans) and a small dollop of melted ghee (clarified butter - which has to be the most delicious thing in the world, transforming everything with which it comes into contact, mitigating the spicy curry and aiding digestion) .

Then more rice, to mix with the dal (lentils). Then more rice, to mix with the yogurt and a small heaping of salt ladled out with a demitasse spoon. About every five minutes, you get the question: "More rice?" "Curd" (yogurt), my favourite, is always last. Most of the curries are so spicy, I want to eat the curd along with everything - which seems to irritate or maybe amuse my hosts. Curd comes from a flimsy plastic bag from the shop, which has a tendency to fall over on the floor, spilling the curd. Finally, along with the curd, rice and dollop of salt you get pickle - my mouth waters just thinking of it. A tart, pungent pickle - lime, lemon, amla (Indian gooseberry), and mango are my favourites. These are homemade by my hosts' mother Krishnakumari. I tried explaining that "in my place" we also love pickles but they're only made of cucumbers, vinegar and salt.

We eat with our hands, or in my case, my fingers. I pick up the food and mash it together with my fingertips, but my hosts use their entire hands, including palms up to the heel of their hands, and thoroughly mix the food "till it is like paste," they instruct me. "It is best for digestion." Which makes sense, the more you mix it up on the front end the less work your stomach has to do. They seem very concerned that I am not mixing my food sufficiently (and don't have my hands thoroughly doused in food). Also, "you will not get good taste," they warn me.

In contrast to North Indian cuisine (what most of the world calls "Indian food"), south Indian style is very low calorie. The most fattening thing is white rice, which has little gluten and few calories. They don't use the heavy oils, or wheat-based tandoori breads and puri, of north Indian food. Looking around, I don't see many obese south Indians, even the wealthy ones - just a few older ladies who've had lots of kids. Also a contrast with the north!

Dinner is never served before 10pm, lunch, never before 1pm. I am especially comfortable in this cool, vintage (about 50-75 years old) limestone house because there are no servants. When Krishnakumari is away working in Amaravati, the menfolk can do everything themselves, and they do - cook, wash dishes, clean, sweep. This is quite a contrast to much of India.

Sorry I don't have any pics of bloodstained devotees to offer. I'll have to mark my calendar for next year.

Now photos are not uploading properly. We are not amused.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Girl Power, Indian Style

Drops in the Bucket

A couple weeks ago, I checked out the American Christian group that was doing faith healing here in Andhra Pradesh. This made me curious to visit some Christian missions run by local Indians doing charity work. Dr Madhusudana and I spent all day at the Good Shepherd Mission, a Catholic charity girls' home in neighboring Mangalagiri. The vast majority of these girls were found at the local railway station, having been abandoned in various ways by their parents. In some cases the girls intentionally ran away from home after severe scolding, enforced labor, or sexual abuse.

One by one, the girls come into the office and clamber onto the big chair. As they explained their symptoms to the doctor in Telugu, one of the sisters narrated their backgrounds to me in English. So many sad stories of children intentionally "lost" by their parents (especially little girls which are not considered desirable here), coereced into prostitution, and so on. One girl's mother was selling fruit on the street and gave the girl money to buy food. The tiny girl wandered off, got lost and couldn't find her way back to her mom. The mother never came to look for her, and she was too small to find her way home alone. After being found days later by GSH staff at the railway station, they went to the girl's home - only to find that the parents had pulled up stakes and left the area.

Another was hard at work begging, with her mother, on the long distance train. The mother went to another compartment and "lost" the girl, who ended up in Madras. She was found by the Madras GSH branch and returned here to Andhra (because she speaks Telugu, not Tamil).

I got tired (physically) after three hours of watching the doctor interview them. After seeing 36 girls and notating about 12 different sagas, I actually had to go and "take rest" for nearly 2 hours in the middle of the day. How many times a day can you have tears brought to your eyes and not just wear out?

The good news is that they are in very good hands now. The sisters really care for them, educate them and feed them well. Some will eventually go back home; most will not. The sisters even arranged a marriage for one 18 year old - of course, getting both parties' approval for the match. I photographed this girl and she is brimming with excitement about her upcoming wedding (this type of arrangement is a first for the GSH).

Dr Madhu is a homeopathic doctor who volunteers one day a month to go to Mangalagiri, and treat every one of the 62 girls in one afternoon. Glancing at the log book kept by one of the sisters, the #1 complaint seems to be "Itch" (scabies), then "headache." Lots of headaches seem to be reported - even in very small girls. I think this has got to be post-traumatic stress and pent-up emotions. Some have far more serious things like asthma, HIV, and disorders inherited from parents' venereal diseases. Madhu's grandfatherly manner, round glasses and big, toothy smile seem to comfort the girls, who have been through everything from plain abandonment to physical or sexual abuse, rape, enforced begging - and that's only what got through in translation.

Good Shepherd Homes is an internationally well-established chain of missions. The kids now have three good meals a day, clean bedding and clothes, a decent roof and education. They don't need a lot of outside financial help to keep going, though they could always use volunteers. The #1 thing these kids need is love, according to the sisters. They desperately want someone to hug them, to cling to, to feel they belong somewhere. One girl kept giving the sister a cell phone number and saying it was her family, begging her to call the number so her family would come fetch her. The number had been disconnected long ago but the girl clung to the number in some vain hope.

Sister Madeleine says they don't get a lot of international volunteers, but they would welcome such visitors. Mainly the girls need someone to love them, play with them, give them attention - and of course, English lessons and help with English homework is always very welcome. A volunteer here would not face undue physical hardship - there are decent buildings, bathrooms, running water, electricity and good food (the breakfast and lunch I got were delicious). This enables them to focus more on the educational and social needs of the girls. The setting is quite striking - palm and banana trees beneath the Krishna River Valley hills.

The sisters are Catholic but don't convert the girls, who come from many backgrounds. I noticed that many girls still wore their Hindu bindis and silver lockets depicting Hindu deities. They do have prayer service and Bible reading every night at 8pm. "Just to give them some God presence in their lives," said Sister Madeleine with a shrug. The educational curriculum is English, Telugu, Hindi, science, maths and social studies, every day from 9am till 4pm. At 4pm they do their washing in the outdoor dhobi-ghat, and at 5pm they have a rowdy recess on the front lawn.

GSH sponsors a child labour camp - with 85 boys and girls there. Once a month they have a Children's Parliament in which all the child labourers come from surrounding villages and discuss their problems and concerns. All this is sustained by GSH alone. Good Shepherd originated in France after the Revolution, when lots of women were homeless and at risk of exploitation. They have a tradition of looking after women, which is especially hard in India. In Bangkok and Phillipines they deal more with child prostitutes. Here, the problems are often just abandonment due to the dowry system (the tradition of the bride's family having to give dowry, or financial gifts, to the groom has made many Indians come to see girl children as a burden).

In one really heartbreaking case I saw, am 18-year-old girl was raped by a boy acquaintance as well as his friends. She was working a job when they befriended her and gained her trust. Then they invited her to go somewhere after work and attacked her. It's common here for the parents, rather than press charges, to then demand the boy marry the girl in such cases (!). His family refused, saying "He has already used her," as though she was a disposable paper cup, and are now arranging his marriage with another girl - one whose family can afford a big dowry.

This girl is taking refuge at GSH till the controversy in her village blows over. She can't even walk the streets there now. (I told the sister she was better off without this particular boy.)

Everything in India is so BIG because of the population, the enormity of every problem can just overwhelm you. At least some people are doing their drop in the bucket. If only the bucket were a bit smaller it would be filled much faster.

I'm looking forward to seeing the Children's Parliament. But I will not bring candy for them - it'll be for ME, to give me the extra energy needed for all those hugs. The sister said, "They are lucky to see you today." And here I was thinking I was the lucky one.

Scenes from a neighborhood

Photo Essay = excuse to stop talking for a minute....

It's a good thing that a picture is worth a thousand words...because I am plain tuckered out from my day at the Good Shepherd Home. And all I did was listen to their stories, notate them and take photos!

Back at the ranch, things go on at the usual leisurely pace...but it is getting hotter by the day. In March it will be in the mid-90s. The "winter" season sees an explosion of festivals, including Muslim Moharram, Thai Poosam (mentioned below), the Jain Mahamastabhishekham in Karnataka.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Divine Voice

The Good, the Bad, & the Idlis

Life is just a bit too easy here in small-town south India. The newsstand man now knows to keep aside a copy of Deccan Chronicle for me (you have to get to the newstand early to get an English newspaper - most of them are in Telugu. By 9am, the English papers are all gone). By now, the Auntie at the tiffin hotel knows my regular breakfast and doesn't even have to ask. She just hands me my idlis (steamed rice cakes) and special, double chai with a quiet smile and switches on the "Divine Voice" - an electronic box containing loops of 30 odd different Sanskrit mantras. Because it's morning, Auntie plays the mantra for Ganesha, the lord of beginnings.
Ommmmmmmm Sriiiiii Mahaaaaaaa GanaaaaaaaaaTiPathayaaaaaaaaaaaay

I stand at the counter under the fan, hovering over my "plate" (a banana leaf and a slice of old newsprint), and read horrible headlines that seem completely at odds with my surroundings. "Couple stoned to death in Bihar for marrying between castes." "Two commit suicide over financial difficulties." "BJP tortures Christians in Madhya Pradesh." These are sandwiched between feel-good , "lifestyle" pieces aimed at the growing Indian middle class - like "10 Items every urban male must have"(pair of black denims; black loafers; personal dig-assistant). They even use the word "metrosexual." Everywhere there are ads for self-improvement - spoken English, personality development, all manner of certificates and diplomas and private tuitions. India is a country on the way up and out. Everywhere I meet young people slaving over their exams and studies - the competition for seats in colleges, as well as jobs, is fierce.

Elbow-to-elbow with me are men in shirtsleeves on their way to office or school. I've never seen a woman patronize this (or any other "tiffin hotel") except to take home a "parcel" (Indian version of "take-away" or "to go"). One reason I like this place (besides the MantraBox) is Auntie's feminine presence - a rarity in a culture where women don't often work in direct contact with the public. This is changing, but to find a lady running a restaurant is still rare.

Tiny shoeless girls in school uniforms, eyes bright as buttons with their hair hanging in heavy, black braided loops, scamper up to get their tiffin packets before class, then scamper away like rabbits. A woman comes along with a shining silver bowl brimming with bright pink roses for sale. Dosa Auntie buys two. One for herself, and another for....? Auntie was quite a looker in her day, you can tell. She has broad, even features, a beautiful smile, and four Mangalagiri saris with matching blouses that she rotates. My favourite is grey with maroon border.

Everyone in the neighborhood wants their photo taken with my digital camera, which has its up and down sides, but it does keep me popular- and in demand. My hosts stay up late, and don't care if I do too. (Though the boys do keep the Hindi film music blaring constantly...the same 6 songs over and over and over... somehow, they never seem to tire of them.)

For some reason, contrary to the usual Indian customs, it seems to be okay for me, a single woman, to be staying in a house with 2 young men (21 and 24 years respectively) and their father with no other females around. Vijay says "they give respect to the foreigners." Or maybe they just figure foreigners are beyond all comprehension anyway?

I do have to wear my chunni nice and demurely, completely covering my bosom. But I like the way it floats along behind me when I walk, tassles trailing regally in the breeze.

Today, Vijay and I shot his Kungfu videos on the rooftop. My favourite is the one with the short staff - very cool. I finally got my Irfan View program, a working disk drive and my photo CDs all in one place at Subramanyam's. Madhusudana Uncle will have homemade carrot soup waiting for us. It's all quite idyllic, except fighting off the mosquitos at bedtime.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Nepalitics as usual

My small-town life pales in comparison to events northeast of here. (Okay, I am getting a bit fatigued and enjoying having Guest Ghostwriters). The newshound in me wishes I were on location to get a first-hand story.

Looks like the Maoists have called off their strike - for now.

Just before this happened, I received a letter from an American friend, a priest and academic who's lived in Nepal for 20 years and speaks most of the languages. His house was requisitioned as a polling place by the governement, it seems. Foreigners are no longer exempt from the threat of violence, if they ever were. In his own words:

I have received private reports that large numbers of Maoist cadres have gathered in villages on the edge of the valley, perhaps preparing for attacks on or after election day. Polling stations are expected to be targeted.

A few weeks ago this all became very personal when the election commission informed us that they wanted to use the GAA headquarters as a polling site. I live on the top floor of the GAA. We immediately replied that GAA would not be available since we have rented out the hall and parking lot to a third-party, and thus have no control over its use. We also reminded them that the GAA is private property, and there are plenty of nearby government owned facilities that would be more appropriate.

When we heard nothing further we assumed the matter was settled. We checked several days ago and were told that the local government school would be used.
Yesterday, at about 7 in the morning, election officials arrived with armed police back-up and slathered our walls with notices announcing us as a voting station. A few hours later an army squad came and took over the building. Our protests were useless. The best I could do was to get the commander to agree that my apartment is off-limits. Who knows whether this decision will be respected.

We hurriedly moved all of our electronic equipment from the GAA offices to my apartment. I then vacated the building, taking important documents (and the computer I'm using!) with me; I'm staying at the M. residence about a mile away.

My greatest fear is that the GAA building will be attacked or bombed today or tomorrow. Even if it isn't, we will still be at risk of Maoist retribution for at least several weeks. The attackers are likely to think they are damaging an empty office building, unaware that several people sleep there. At the same time, we cannot protest forcefully, or advertise our unwillingness to cooperate with the elections, without risking trouble from the Army.

Once the elections are over, we will be obliged to hire a number of professional security personnel to guard the property day and night. This is an expensive measure that our organization can barely afford. On balance the scenario is that I am personally safe at present. I continue taking precautions including not sleeping in my own house for at least a month. The situation otherwise is fairly tense. If, as expected, the king tries to validate sham election results - particularly if the winners are royalists there is sure to be a great upsurge in disruptive political protests. The Maoists are also likely to step up the number of bombings and political assassinations. They have already killed several election candidates and uncontested "winners"from areas outside the Kathmandu Valley.

If the situation deteriorates any further, to the point where there is open fighting in the streets between the security forces and Maoists, then I will be obliged to evacuate the Volunteers to India or Thailand.

There is a good chance that communication lines phone and e-mail will be cut off this evening and remain off for a few days, in connection with tomorrow's elections. No need for that communication break to alarm anyone. If there is a serious problem I will get word out via satellite phone.

Feel free to pass this letter on to friends of mine or to post it, where appropriate.
Please keep us in your prayers.
Father S.

By the way - the bright red garb of the Nepali women shown in these photos does NOT signify Communism or Maoism! Red is the traditional colour for Nepali women to wear. Red is the Nepali black or navy blue - the default colour. You know you've been in Nepal a while when the colour red matches everything (even pink, and brown)!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

This just in....

"I Know Cheap and Best"

While I recover slowly from my general achy-breaky, nameless malaise,
Vijay and I are here working late at Subramanyam's Sri Net Shoppe in the Indian Mayberry - that is, Brodipet, Guntur, Andhra Pradesh.

Subramanyam, the shoppe proprietor, is named after the Hindu god who is extremely popular here in South India. He (the proprietor, not the god) has the best net shoppe in the neighborhood because it's a fast connection and he charges only 10Rs an hour (about 24 cents). We type furiously on semi-sticky keyboards, listening to Hindu devotional music. It's a nice change from the hyper-active Hindi film scores. Technicolour images of Indian deities peer down benevolently from the walls, between posters of naive oil painting landscapes with slogans like "Only people can make a house into a home." My favourite is, "Things don't change...you change your way of looking, that's all." Or in Indian terminology, Adjust (pron. "Add-just").

Subramanyam's (the god, not the proprietor) major holiday is coming up on February 11 - Thai Poosam. It's famous for the ardent devotees who pierce their bodies, especially their tongues, with vel (long-handled spears) after going into trances. As far as I know Thai Poosam is celebrated only in South India (along with Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka and other places of Tamil immigration). Maybe I can witness this holiday in Tamil Nadu.

The ceiling fans disperse whiffs of incense from the evening arati (prayers offered at opening time and again around 6pm). In this case, Subramanyam offers arati to his Shirdi Sai Baba shrine - just a wooden shelf tacked up in the far corner, with a poster of the Marathi holy man. Baba needs some fresh flowers - the marigold garland someone gave him a few weeks ago is now dried into crispy potpourri.

Till I fully recover, here's a word from
the US Embassy in Kathmandu:

The Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) bandh remains in effect until February 11, 2006. The seven-political party alliance has called for a "blackout" from 7:00 pm to 7:30 pm on Tuesday, February 7, 2006. During the blackout there is a risk that houses showing lights may be attacked with rocks or bricks. The Embassy has also received reports that telephones may be disconnected for 48 hours, starting sometime Tuesday, February 7, 2006.

...And now - a Special Guest Star! - "DalBhattTakari," a Nepali correspondent who writes under this name from Kathmandu, since criticism of His Majesty's Government is officially a crime punishable by law.

(Dal Bhatt Takari - aka lentils, rice and vegetables - is the name of the national dish of Nepal; 26 million Nepalis eat this twice a day.)

from DBT, our Man on the Street in Nepal:
It is 6.30 pm in Kathmandu. Because of the killing of a taxi driver last night in Patan I saw fewer taxis in the streets today. Life has been severely affected on the third day of the bandh (general strike). Still not many shops open today in the heart of Kathmandu. Most shops in the Thamel area have already closed down at 6 pm. Thamel looks dark and deserted at this time. Only a few restaurants are open (ed. note: Thamel is the center of tourism and always a lively hub of activity). The phone and Internet lines haven't been cut yet as an Indian website was reporting. The paranoid government will do anything to supress any opposition one day before the controversial municipality election. But on the other hand I don't think the phone lines are being cut off this time because the government's communication network with the district head quarters where elections are being held will be cut off. The common people are suffering because the prices of commodities especially fresh vegetables have gone up sharply in the last few days as the supply from outside the valley has been cut off.

The government's propaganda machinery is saying that life in Kathmandu has returned to normalcy today due to adequate security. I cannot agree. This evening there is a sense of tension in the city. When I was walking around I saw people rushing around buying fresh vegetables in the bazaars. From what I heard foreign embassies have advised their staff not to use any vehicles on Wednesday. They also requested people not to go near areas where polling stations (mostly schools) are located because of fear of Maoist attacks. I would suggest to the few tourists who are still in Nepal not to move around on Wednesday (Election Day) and not using any public transportation at all.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Unlucky Strike

News from Nepal
It has been only a few weeks since I left Nepal - December 13 to be exact - and I hope to return in a few months, so I worry about what's happening there - not to mention for the sake of my friends and acquaintances living and working in the Magical, sometimes Tragical Mountain Kingdom. Darn those Maoists, messing up my plans to trek to Everest Base Camp with my elder sister. Karen, if you are reading this - which you are supposed to be - don't worry, they just take money from tourists.

As you may have heard, Nepal is currently paralyzed by a strike, the result of Maoist demands that the entire population boycott the national elections, Or Else. Maoists and also the seven-party coalition claim the elections, sponsored by the Royal Government, are a ruse to restore a false democracy. The Maoists have threatened violence against anyone taking part in the elections, with the result that candidates have been murdered, disappeared or just withdrawn from the race. Thousands of Nepalis have fled across the border to India's Bihar state, as if they remain in Nepal, they may be forced to vote by federal security forces, and will experience Maoist reprisal if they do so.

DBT, a Nepali pen pal writes from Kathmandu:
Today, Sunday, is the first bandh (strike) day in Nepal. I was just in Durbar Marg, Kathmandu. Most shops there are open but I didn't see any shoppers. In New Road in the heart of the city every thing is closed. In Thamel there are very few shops and very few restaurants open. As usual, some shops, the supermarkets and more restaurants will open in the evening. There is no problems to get transportation. Lots of taxis in the streets. Some buses and mini buses are driving around the city. Lots of motorcycles and bicycles in the streets. I don't think the strike will last very long in Kathmandu. People are getting tired after one or two days and the they don't care whether there is a bandh or not.

However, on Monday I read that not only were the government forcing municipal employees to operate bus routes (risking their lives against the Maoist threats), but one taxi driver had been murdered, allegedly by Maoists, for defying the bandh. The rebels have also been known, in the past, to bomb such strike-defying vehicles.

All tourists are required to travel only in vehicles clearly marked TOURIST, for their own safety! If only the Nepalis had this option.

Sunday's Deccan Chronicle carried this story, among others:
Nepal grinds to a halt as Maoist strike takes effect
The UK Guardian is running
an ongoing Blog about the elections.
NewKerala reports that phone lines are to be cut during the election period (!).
Here's hoping that NEPAL will return to the meaning of its acronym (told to me by a young Nepali Muslim man): Never Ending Peace And Love.

(Besides, I still have luggage stored at my Kathmandu hotel!)

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Applied Cultural Anthropology

Dance, Satyrs, Dance!
Guntur, Andhra Pradesh

I have felt really crummy since Saturday, when I slept all day after the wedding reception. What I thought was just a stress-related muscular ache in my shoulders has spread throughout my body and now my back, neck, and all my joints are aching, and I'm incredibly fatigued. The fact that I've been bitten by a number of mosquitos this week isn't encouraging (all these are beginning signs of malaria, among other tropical diseases).

Parimala and family went off to Tirupati, the largest and most heavily visited pilgrimage site in all India (possibly the world) to offer thanks to Lord Venkateshwara for a successful marriage. Judging by the icons in their homes, Sri Vishnu (Venkateshwara, at left) is the primary deity of both families.

Phani is studying to take the placement exam for the MCA, Masters of Computer Applications. His undergraduate was Math. He goes to
prep classes about five hours a day, every day (and this is just to prepare for the entrance exam).

Vijay is working on getting his 3D animation stuff on the web. It will be at his new blogsite, www.dreamsplanet2u.blogspot.com
Vijay is encouraged by the fact that all the core
animation for the new Lion, the Witch & the Wardrobe was done here in India, in Mumbai. He's also a big fan of KungFu and other action movies. A good survival skill in India is to learn how to fall asleep on your straw floor mat, while your host family watches KungFu DVDs on the computer, as the overhead fan whirs furiously to keep mosquitos (mostly) at bay.

My host family are really lot of fun. The mother is a spritely 43-year-old pixie with insanely crooked teeth, which keeps her from smiling openly in photos, and a great, goofy sense of humour - always horsing around. She is the leader of a women's self-help group - a group of women who join together to save money, perhaps 100 Rs each per month. With this money as collateral the government gives them small business loans to start a businesss. They spend the first five years paying back the loan with interest. Her group did that long ago and now they are making money. "She is doing this hard work only for our education," Phani said proudly. In her role as leader of the DWRC group, Krishnakumari has travelled expenses-paid to Delhi, Vijayawada, and many other Andhra Pradesh cities.

The dad, Madhusudana, is a homeopathic doctor. He had patients coming in and out of the house all day long. Dad spent about 2 hours showing me his reference book - you look up a symptom ("sweating," "menses - delayed" and so on) and the book suggests a number of homeopathic rememdies. Under the heading "Delusions," the book has entries like "Satyrs: Has visions of them dancing," "Turtles: sees turtles all around," and "Hippopotamus: Fear of self becoming one" (I am not making this up). This is along with other, more ordinary delusions like "that one is being followed." I wondered silently why anyone lucky enough to have visions of Satyrs dancing about would ever want to remedy such an affliction.

Guess who's coming to dinner?

Sunday I was again trotted out (this time with no warning) by my host as the star attraction to all his school masters. I have a feeling this was in response to the teachers' demands ("introduce us to the American journalist"). Great, here I am wearing a face pack and doing laundry - all my good outfits were dripping wet - and suddenly the sitting room is full of his school teachers, all of whom want to shake my wet hand. Two of them were very cool, and one even offered me suggestions for story ideas in Andhra.

Later that afternoon I was confronted by - I am sorry to say- a classic Indiot. The Indiot is not uneducated - far from it. In fact, they probably have more education than anything else (including life experience, tact, timing, and respect for boundaries). No, this person is extremely educated - but far from intelligent. A typical member of this sub-species has saved up all his aggression against America (God knows what we've ever done to India to deserve this, yet, the Indiot really resents America, and all Americans, though they've rarely met any) - AHEM, anyway, this guy has saved up all this seething, inarticulate rage at not being the master of the universe he so clearly believes himself destined to be, and takes it out on - Guess Who? The one American he is likely to ever meet in close quarters (since he lives in Bubbenapalli, Whatever Pradesh).

I feel somewhat vindicated that the Dalai Lama, as well as his senior Rinpoche, also encountered Indiots during their visit here. The Indiot idea of demonstrating intelligence is to put others down - or rather, attempt to, since they're rarely successful. Then they get all flustered when they're beaten at their own childish game. Buddhists are supposed to be compassionate at all times, but even the DL and Rinpoche ended up taking the mickey out of these guys so I felt in good company in doing so, in my own half-joking way.

"Madam what is family life opinion in US?"

-Pardon? (All this is being asked to me the minute I put a handful of food in my mouth.)

"Family in US, what is it?"

-I don't know how to be any more polite about this, but, you're not making any sense, I'm sorry. I don't understand your question. Probably because I am a stupid American.

Then he resigns himself to having to compose a complete sentence. It's obviously a great deal of effort for him. All this time - he has been dreaming for years of getting an American on the spot like this - he has prided himself on how good his English is; perhaps even envisioned how he'll tell those Americans what-for! Now when it's actually put to the test and found lacking, it's quite irritating to him. Almost as irritating as it is to me. This in addition to the fact that others are watching and he will lose face. After all, that is the most important thing- far more important than accuracy.

If I sound resentful, even angry, it's because this is far from the first (or last) time I have had this particular, very predictable, encounter. Having had this experience, I do my best to turn the conversation humourous. It never works. The inquisitors are determined to put an American, any American, on the spot and make me personally answer for all the sins of "my" government, not to mention my culture.

"In America, what is the difference between married life?"

-....and...? ...married life in India, I guess you mean? I try to get out of this one diplomatically. Well, I really don't know, because I'm not married! Ha ha ha.

"Why are you not married?"

-Because no man could possibly ever tolerate me. (And vice versa. Can I eat now?)

"But in USA, how is the married life different?"

-(deep sigh as food grows colder by the minute) Well, we don't have arranged marriages; as you know; we have only love marriages in the West. We have more personal freedom and make more individual decisions without consulting the family. Also, at one time, we married quite young and had more children; now people are marrying much later and having few children, maybe one or two.

"And what about the divorce?"

Now we get to his real point - criticism of the west.

-What about it?

"Why are people doing this divorce?"

-Well, as I said, I can't tell you because I have never been married. (Thinks to self: maybe because they married someone like you?) However, since you're not going to leave me alone, I will make up something plausible: Divorce is much easier to do in the west, and more accepted.

"Easier, and more common!"

-Yes, it's very common. Many people have two marriages, one in their 20s, another later in life. However, not everyone divorces; at this point in time it's about 50%. This has only happened in the most recent generation. My own parents, for instance, have been happily married for 52 years.

"Fifty-two years!"

-That's what I said....

"Why Americans are doing divorce like that?"

-Because they are stupid Americans, with no morals and no hearts. They have no affection for one another and care only for money and sex. I guess that's why they don't ask for any dowry when they marry....?

Also, they have horns growing out of strange places on their bodies. They are really part animal, part two-legged money machine. That explains why they are so stupid and don't recognize that, in fact, they are not fit to run the world. India would obviously be far more suitable as a world power, since in India, marriages last forever, whether you want them to or not.

Now, can I EAT MY LUNCH PLEASE??!?!?!!??!?

A moment of silence. Then, "I think American peoples are very arrogant."

-Have you ever met any?

"What madam?"

-I mean, what is that statement based on? What has happened to you in your exchanges with Americans that you find them to be so arrogant?

More silence, because of course, he's never met any at all, unless you count the one's he's met on TV.

"The Americans are telling other countries what to do. They are always bossing other countries."

-Oh I see - the American government is arrogant! Now we can agree on something. Yes, the American government certainly dominates other countries and has done so for a long time. For a minute there I thought you were talking about American individuals! After all, you certainly wouldn't want to go abroad and be judged by people who've never met you, nor any of your countrymen, on the basis of all your government's actions. You wouldn't want to be held personally responsible for your Prime Minister and President.

Now would you?

The Reluctant Diplomat
Maybe the all-over aching muscles aren't malaria after all - just overexposure. As a minority here, I really feel what Black American writers and filmmakers have called "the burden of representation." Everything I do and say is seen as representing my country and even my culture as a whole. Certainly not a job I volunteered for, and I don't recall having been elected. It's a lot to handle unprepared, over a humble lunch on Auntie's floor mats. I think we were all glad when it was over, the requisite photos were taken as proof of contact with extra-terrestrial life forms, and the unannounced guests left me alone again with the family. "Athai" returned to horsing around, pretending her hand was a spider crawling up my leg as I smacked it away repeatedly. Asha came over with her girlfriend Sireesha and we had an impromptu Mehendi party. Now all our hands are decorated with rusty lacework. Phani took photos and we uploaded them to the computer to have a slideshow. I was part of the family once again.

Now if I could just rid my vision of these dancing satyrs....

Thursday, February 02, 2006

The Late Night Report

...from a very tired Siren

It's now a quarter to eleven, and I am tuckered out from a whole day and night of being the star attraction... all but stealing the show from the bride. (Totally not my "Wish and will" but, "What to do?" in Indglish.) I spent last night from about 10 pm and all day (and I mean all day, from 5.30 am onward) with the family, and only left the wedding hall at 6 pm. Then I was presented as the main attraction at yet another Indian household for a special Satyanarayana puja they were having. Of course, everyone wanted their photo taken with me, or taken with my magical digital camera, or both, and I thrilled all by handing out business - or "visiting" cards, in local parlance - right and left. I had them printed up, 100 cards for 25Rs. This was before my Blogsite. Next I will get a batch made with only my blog address. Then they will all tune in for the promise of seeing their own photo on the American girl's blog!

Finding Prince Charming
Some people have asked me how the parents found the right boy for Parimala.The boy's father was a friend, a former colleague, of Parimala's grandfather. He suggested to the grandfather that perhaps the boy (Pramod)might be suitable for Parimala. Since the grandfather knew the boy's father for a long time, that helped things along (he was not a total stranger from the newspaper matrimonial ads - a very common method).

Back in November, the boy's parents came (sans boy) to "view" Parimala at her house. Actually, the boy lost his mother about a year back, so this was the boy's father and some assorted female and male relatives who came. At that time they took Parimala's photo. Remember, she had not yet seen a photo of Pramod. Additionally, the Vedic astrological charts of the two young people were compared for compatibility. I need to get the whole chronology straight. She told me last night at about 10pm but it got confusing. I will find out more at the reception party tomorrow.

In case I did not mention this before, Parimala is Phuni's classmate from Hindu College here in Guntur, a prestigious university. They both have just recently graduated with degrees - BA - in Mathematics. The boy's family are Telugu, originally from this district, but have"shifted" to Mumbai some 40 years ago for work. As you probably know, there are Telugu, Tamil, Malayam etc. communities in all major cities because they have moved there for work.

Parimala was a good choice for me to work with because she is a very easygoing, confident, grounded girl. She is attractive without being glamourous or image-conscious, and intelligent without being pretentious. Also, her family (all 10 of them) accepted me with just a smile and a wave of the hand when they were told "Ameddicanjurnliss studying Indian traditions." Very, very laid back. No stress about having a foreigner sleeping on the floor next to them.

I was impressed by the young man, Pramod. Not only is he good looking, but he has an intelligent face and a quiet, dignified manner. His younger brother, Arun, is a team manager at a major Mumbai call center, IC2. Now I have an open invite to go and study the lives and dreams and hopes of the call centre kids of Mumbai. Arun had mastered all the American catchphrases taught by the accent trainer "and stuff like that, you know."

I took nearly 200 photos today alone. Tomorrow Vijay, my "production assistant" and I will continue doing my photo essay. I am teaching Vijay, the multimedia student, how to take a good photo. What makes a good photo? A photo that tells the story.

They are closing the net place, more later.

P.S. Once again, I am buying a train ticket to Chennai.
Let's see if it works this time. (!!)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Bride in a Basket

Night before the wedding
Guntur, Andhra Pradesh

Today, I went over to Parimala's house. She's getting married tomorrow to a boy her parents picked out for her. Since the wedding is tomorrow, her friend Asha came over and decorated Parimala's hands with mehendi (henna) in beautiful, intricate patterns. She held her hands up to my face so I could smell the earthy, herbal odor of the henna. It looks like exquisite, lacey chocolate cake icing all over her hands and wrists. Two hours later she washed it off to reveal the deep-russet designs.

Parimala just met the boy in question for the first time in November - after his and her parents had sealed the deal. Until then, she hadn't even seen a photo of him, and doesn't even have a photo of him now. She is amazingly stress-free and easygoing for a new bride-to-be, considering that she really doesn't know what her life will be like in a few days. She doesn't even know the groom's profession - "I think he's an accountant," she says with a shrug. Indian kids like this completely trust their parents in all things - it's been left to the parents to choose the right guy, and having chosen, Parimala trusts that they made the right decision. In a few days, she will go to live with the boy's family in Mumbai (Bombay). There are four family members in her new house. Yet she maintains, "after marriage, I want to be an individual." I wonder how she will manage. Perhaps this family is a liberal one and will give her a bit of space.

Parimala's grandmother was there and talked (in Telugu) about how different things were in her day. Grandmother was married at age 11. Her husband was only 15 years old. She went directly to live with her husband's family - there were eight members in one household - and had her first baby (one of three) at age 14. All this took place in a small village outside Guntur. Grandmother is glad that Parimala (who's 21 years old) finished her college education before marriage.

The bride-to-be showed me the basket she will be carried in. It's a Telugu tradition that the bride be carried in a wicker basket into the ceremony by her uncles - to the raucous tune of loud nadeswaram music. Nadeswaram (sometimes called nagaswaram, or "notes of snakes" - actually I don't know whether it's "nadeswaram" -- sounds & notes, or "nageswaram") is a South Indian classical music with a kind of Indian clarinet, drums, and a funky beat that reminds me of New Orleans Mardi Gras. I will try to get some video of this event so I need to go download today's photos. Then I will go spend the night with Parimala's family at their house, so I can be up with them at 6am, when they start to decorate the bride in all her finery! Myself, I will be wearing a cotton sari, burgundy and dark green, with gold border. I think Grandmother will have to help me put it on "properly."