Archive for February, 2005

Water, Water

I’m ashamed to say that it has taken us no time to get back to our “normal” life in San Francisco.  I’m primarily referring to our use of water in general, and hot water in particular.  Just two days ago, in Chennai, I was quite proud of the fact that I was able to take a full “bath” (including washing my hair) with a third of a small bucket of water.

In most parts of Chennai, clear (clean?), municipal water is delivered one hour a day, usually early in the morning.  (Unless you live in the same area as the Chief Minister, in which case you get water 24 hours a day.)  In some areas, it is delivered via pipes.  In others, it is delivered by tankers – those who don’t have sumps or water storage tanks available (usually on the roof of their building) have to collect the water in jars and buckets.  Everyone buys drinking water.

During our first stay in Chennai, we stayed with Param, who lives in Poes Garden, behind the Chief Minister and at the other end of the same road as Rajnikanth, the biggest movie star in South India.  No water issues there.  We still made sure to take bucket baths, and cold ones at that (the only place we ever take warm baths is at Dinesh’s, in Bangalore).  I can usually bathe with 3/4 of a bucket of water.

At Smita’s house in Alwarpet, where we spent our last one and a half days in India, the water comes at 7am.  She usually collects the equivalent of 6 large buckets of water for the day, so with more of us staying there, I was extra careful of the amount of water I used.

Yesterday, I luxuriated in a long, hot shower after getting home from the airport, justifying it because I hadn’t bathed in over 24 hours, most of it spent on an airplane.  This morning, after briefly debating the need for a shower less than 24 hours after my last one, I again succumbed to the temptation.  Tomorrow, I hope I have the discipline to turn off the water while I shampoo and soap.

Should I get a petroleum-based plastic bucket and cup?

“It’s Like That Only”

Mark and I had a “quasi-Indian” two-wheeler experience this morning as we left Smita’s apartment in Pondicherry with all our luggage for the trip to Chennai.  One bag on the gas tank, full of books, CDs, and Mark’s clothes; Mark’s shoulder bag over one shoulder, and his travel guitar on the other; a pack on my back, with a stuff sack of clothes on one shoulder, and my purse on the other.  Not too bad, therefore the “quasi”.  In order for it to be a true Indian experience, we would have had to add two kids or other bags bulging from every side, taking the equivalent volume of five motorcycle widths.

A couple of days ago, we saw some firsts:  an almost full-grown calf on the lap of a passenger on a two-wheeler, it’s head mournfully, but passively hung a few inches off the ground; and a girl standing on the cross bar of a bicycle (presumably too tall to sit without blocking the rider’s view), her body supported by the left arm of the man riding the bicycle.  I wonder at the skill of these riders who carry impossibly long or wide loads as well as incredibly fragile cargo (babies, eggs…) on underpowered vehicles on impassable roads.

Full Moon Rising

February 24, 2005

Today, all the Hindu gods from the temples in Pondicherry, as well as nearby temples from as far as an hour north and south of Pondicherry, were brought down to the beach, where the worshipers took darshan and a ritual dip in the water. Starting early in the morning, the gods were carried on ox carts and farm machinery, framed in flowered wooden arches measuring the width of an ox cart and about 8 feet high. The carts were preceded by groups of worshipers drumming and dancing; and trailed by other worshipers carrying offerings and diyas (candles). Women wore their best saris. Small children were made to don silver or gold lame-covered hats. Food and souvenir stalls were set up by the beach.

As the full moon rose over the Indian Ocean, first red with the last light of the sun, then bright bright, Brij Kothari started his presentation of BookBox to honor all the people who helped in the development of these learning tools.

BookBox is a essentially a web-based jukebox of digital books in languages from around the world. It synchronizes the text, audio, and visual media to create an educational and entertaining reading experience for children and even adults who still have a child in them! Based on proven methods of Same Language Subtitling (SLS), BookBox aims to not only enhance children’s basic literacy, but also facilitate their proficiency in foreign languages.

First, he showed an example of the work that led to BookBox, same-language subtitling of popular Hindu movie song videos, whose aim is to teach “early” literate (those that know the alphabet, but cannot read) and ill-literate people in India (about a third of the population – equivalent to the entire population of the United States) to read. Then he showed examples of some of the digital “books” that have been subtitled and read in different languages, sometimes with multiple subtitles. When Brij asked all the people who helped in this project to come up and be recognized for their contribution, over half the audience of over 60 people gathered on the roof terrace at Horizon, the Kothari family residence, got up. The artist who did most of the animation for the stories, the translators, the people who read the stories in their native languages… people from the Ashram, Auroville, and Pondicherry… an amazing collection of Mandarin, Bengali, French, Dutch, Tamil, etc. speakers. (Someone told Brij that in these three communities, there were native speakers of over 50 languages.)

Next, Brij would like to title and translate stories of social entrepreneurs and NGOs.

With the moon high and light, Mark and I said goodbye to the many friends we have made in our short time in Pondicherry.

The Palm Reader

Palm Reader

“Without children, eating food is like taking medicine.” Her eyes hold mine fast as she sets her mouth in disapproval – she has already told me that I don’t have any children. “Do you have anything else to ask me?” “No, I can’t think of anything.” Her mouth twists in disappointment and disbelief. “How long will I live?” I grope, more to appease her than out of any curiosity about my life expectancy.

I sit facing the space between her intensity and the reluctant, bemused, and slightly embarrassed Khartik, acting as my translator, sitting behind me; alternately twisting to face each of them as they speak. I really don’t have anything to ask this woman.

“You should ask this lady; you’ll see her soon – she’s a real character. Ask her if you should buy this place.” The palm reader is one of many people who inhabit Pichaya Manet’s world, coming and going through the kitchen door of his guest house, Villa Pondicherry. In a few minutes, she comes into the dining area where we have just finished lunch, and sits down on the floor. She has the lean, hard body cultivated by a lifetime of physical labor, and teeth completely stained by paan. She beckons to Mark with her free hand and pats the floor by her side. In her other hand, she clutches a foot-long scepter made of dark wood, interspersed with silver bands.

We are both a little stunned. After a long minute, Mark reluctantly goes and sits across from her. He has no choice. “Your right hand?” She asks. “Yes, my right hand.” “Very well.” She proceeds with a litany of modulated words, translated as: “You don’t have to pay any attention to what I just said, it is a prayer.” She strokes Mark’s hand with the scepter, and begins to speak, gesturing in a way that I have never seen before: stroking her upper lip with the side of her index finger, then tapping her upper arm with the same hand. “You had many problems with women in the past, but those problems are now over.” Sing-song, sing-song. “You own two houses.” Sing-song, sing-song. We both lose interest in this very soon, until she asks “Do you have anything to ask me?” At which point Mark says “Are we going to buy a house in Pondicherry?” – his obsession for the last two weeks. “When?” She takes out a handful of small cowrie shells from a wooden box and throws them on the floor. “In April.” Sing-song, sing-songв…

Suddenly, she is beckoning me. And I have no choice but to replace Mark on the floor. Enough of my friends have gone to fortune tellers and nadi readers that I no longer question their sanity, or reevaluate my judgment in having them as friends. But I never thought that I would be presenting my hand to a palm reader… She takes my left hand, and begins with the prayer. In retrospect, I wish I knew the words to her prayer. What gods does she invoke? Does she pray for me?

I only remember some of her pronouncements:

My body is healthy, but my mind is disturbed.
I never have to worry about my “husband”, he will never betray me.
I do not have a good relationship with my family, but I have very good friends.
Pichaya will help us, but will do so because of friendship and not money.
I am not happy where I am currently living, but will be happy in India.

By now, Khartik has lost interest in translating and is planning the menu for that evening’s program at L’E-space. And I’m dying for a post-lunch siesta.

Along the Way

Along the way, Bangalore to Thumkur, February 13, 2005
radish-sellerwp.jpgBicycle BuddiesBoyCoconut SellerThree Women SittingThree Women WalkingFamily on a Two-Wheeler

Reunion in Pondicherry

The last few days in Pondicherry have been magical. (Shades of the Celestine Prophesy in the way that we have been “running into” friends; shades of the Dark Arts in the way our cell phones have not been working.)

Late morning on the 15th of February, after having taken a nap following our sleepless overnight “sleeper” bus ride from Bangalore to Pondy, we rent a two-wheeler (what we would call a motorcycle; a “motorcycle” here refers to what we would call a scooter; an “auto” is not a car, but a three-wheeled auto-rickshaw…) and head towards an iWay Internet cafe, near the Ashram buildings at the corner of J. Nehru and Rue St. Louis in French (or White) Pondy. As Mark is locking the two-wheeler, I look up Nehru Street and see a tall, sari-clad woman with an open black umbrella round the corner and begin walking towards us. “Is that Pavi?” She is a block away, and my over-40 eyes are not so great, so I ask Mark to confirm. “Yes it is… No… ” At which point I have decided that it is, indeed, Pavi, and walk up to meet her, because she is, as usual, deep in thought. Well there we are. We’d planned on meeting somewhere in Pondy, but hadn’t specified a time or place. Our cell phones, for different reasons, can’t receive calls (hers because she’s somehow turned the phone off and can’t figure out how to turn it back on; and ours because our service provider is going belly-up and put itself up for sale and taken on subscribers but hasn’t invested in the infrastructure necessary to support them… don’t get me started…), so we’d just made our way into town believing that we would somehow be able to get in touch with each other.

On our way to find a place to eat lunch, we run into a smiling young man on a motorcycle (scooter), who turns out to be the guy whose bag Mark and I watched while he went to the restroom at Sharma Transport before getting on the bus in Bangalore. He is a teacher and administrator at the Ashram school, teaching 15-17 year olds, even though he doesn’t look much over 17 himself. Devdip gave us his phone number and asked us to call him anytime for a tour of the school, which we’d already heard a little bit about – an incredible learning environment with an integrated curriculum, no exams, and something like 31 subjects. A block later, we run into Mike Gilbert, who was getting a package stitched for mailing. He and his father Tim (who was at an Internet Cafe) had finished their bicycle trip throughout Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala and were waiting for his mom, Suzanne, to join them for a few days in Pondy before she headed off to Madurai, New Delhi, Kathmandu, and a few other places I can’t remember.

Around 3pm the next day, we take our bag to the Park Guest House (we thought it would be easier for all of us to be more centrally located for Viral’s short visit), and once again, as Mark is parking the two-wheeler, I see Viral walking ahead of us accompanied by a Guest House staff person, heading to our room. Viral had not had a chance to check his email, didn’t have Smita’s number, didn’t know he was supposed to go to her house in Chennai and come to Pondy with her. Instead, he made his way from the airport to the bus station in Chennai and got on a bus to Pondy. Once he’d arrived here, he couldn’t get through to us, so he finally managed to get in touch with Pavi at the hospital, who told him to go to the Park Guest House.

These fortuitous, unplanned meetings continue to take place over the next day and a half. Pavi showing up at the Guest House after we’d gotten back from a meal. Smita turning up from Chennai at the Guest House as we were getting ready to leave for breakfast. Running into Mike (again) and Tim, who tell us that Rahul Brown just got into Pondy, and was also staying at the Guest House, in Room #8. Viral and I checking Rahul’s room later that evening, to find it dark, and walking back to the reception area to leave Rahul a message when Rahul comes walking towards his room. Viral, Smita, Mark and I coming across the store where Jayeshbhai and Anarben of Manav Sadhna, in Ahmedabad, had gotten Viral and Nipun khadi kurtas when they were here working on tsunami relief. All of us running into Puru, Maya and Bhupi, of the Golden Chain, who were about to shop for relief supplies and invited us to a distribution on Sunday at a village near Mahabalipurum…

Hanging out with Pavi, Viral, Smita, and Rahul; running errands; meeting interesting people, like Vijaybhai of the Sri Aurobindo Society, Terry and Teresa of IT Power India, Ajit of INTACH; attending a Western chamber music concert at the Hotel d’Orient… trying to squeeze as much into our days as we can before we leave for Chennai and then San Francisco.


Ragi is a type of millet that is grown and eaten in Karnataka State. (Has anyone had ragi balls?). It grows to the height of rice plants, and is harvested in much the same way. The seeds are threshed with a bullock-drawn grinding stone, then winnowed by hand: one person releasing the grain and husks from above the head, another brushing away the husks that fall lee-ward.

Ragi harvesting along the long way to Thumkur, February 13, 2005.
Ragi HarvestingThreshing with BullsPreparing to WinnowWinnowingSweeping the HusksWinnowed Grain


Blog Stats

  • 239,384 hits