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

For Loulou

For Loulou Tenzing Boo Mr. Magoo Munkus Kebe Jacobs.
KidsWater BuffaloSheepMonkey with BabyMeenakshi the Temple Elephant, MaduraiSaki, Krishnans’ dog, Madurai


When Mark and I are apart, we don’t often check in with each other. I have gone six weeks on consulting trips overseas without speaking with him. We exchange the occasional email, usually for decisions that need to be made, such as “Would you live on a cool houseboat?” “Only if it is tied to the city sewer system and we can get DSL.” We’re both busy, and email access is usually difficult for one of us (me).

On the night of January 27, Mark dropped me off at the offices of Sharma Travels in Pondicherry so that I could catch the overnight sleeper bus to Bangalore. I was to attend Asia Source, an eight-day Free/Libre and Open Source Software (FLOSS) workshop just outside of Bangalore, and he was going to remain in Pondicherry, working with Manoj and others at Auroville on the tsunami information portal.

Before I continue with this story, I need to give you some background on our cell phone nightmare.

Mark purchased a used four-band GSM phone just before we left San Francisco so that we could use the phone both in India and when we returned to San Francisco – he lost his cell phone two weeks before our trip. In Chennai, Smita used her account with AirTel to get us a post paid SIM card (post paid supposedly being cheaper than prepaid). For various reasons, mostly having to do with the fact that Smita is a young, single woman living alone in Chennai, and had not brought her documentation (even though she already has an account with AirTel) to the AirTel office at the time she and Mark conducted this transaction, we do not get our service activated for two days. Many phone calls to the AirTel office later, the display on our cell phone dies five minutes before the service is activated. (Karmic retribution for Mark having called the AirTel service person a “skinny woman” instead of a “thin lady”.) So, we can receive and make phone calls (if we dial the number correctly), but cannot capture phone numbers, set the phone to vibrate mode, check messages, etc. – in short, we are basically “blind”.

On our first trip to Auroville, we discover that we can not get any reception using our AirTel service. We are told that cell reception is exceptionally poor in Auroville (all those trees!), and that only two services work: BSNL and AirCell. What we do not know, and find out later in Pondicherry is that AirTel has not activated our roaming service. Many email exchanges with Smita later, we are told to activate roaming using our phone. Well, since we have no display, we have no way of selecting channels, etc. This phone is dead to us. So, in Bangalore, we got a hand-me-down cell phone from Dinesh’s sister, whose family keeps the handset companies in business by upgrading to the latest model every two months, and gave up our phone to their trusty fix-it person. Long story short, when we return to Pondicherry, we abandon our AirTel SIM (there is very little service in Pondicherry, but an accounts person manages to get through to us to tell us that we are reaching our credit limit of Rs. 1,000, and could we please pay down our bill immediately), Mark switches to AirCell, which supposedly has better coverage in Tamil Nadu, after having waited in a BSNL line for over an hour to find out that because BSNL is a Government entity, and cell phones have been used in the past for terrorist activities, he could not get an account without proof of local residency.

We return to the story on Friday, the 28th, with Mark in Pondicherry (having purchased an AirCell SIM card, and gotten a new phone number) and me in Bangalore…

Visthar, where Asia Source is taking place, has similar cell phone coverage as Auroville, which for most people, is none. There is an STD phone booth on site, which is usually locked, but if you know where and when to find Bahudhurbhai, he will open it for you and collect the money after you’ve made your call. Mark sends us an email message giving us his new phone number, but those who tried calling (Dinesh and Pavi) kept getting messages that the phone number does not exist.

The next day, Saturday, with Manoj having left for Kerala to help out his parents over the weekend, Mark makes a day trip to Chennai, to pick up some things we’ve left behind at Param’s house, and to meet Smita’s parents before they go back to Delhi. He has lunch with Smita and her parents, does some quick shopping, and leaves to meet Snigda for dinner at Auroville. On Monday, we get an email message from Mark saying that he’s sick and can’t make it to “work” in Auroville, and was going back to bed immediately after sending the message. I don’t think much of it until I see Dinesh, who has come to the Asia Source workshop to give a Skillshare session on Pantoto, the open source knowledge management system that he and his company, Servelots, has created for NGOs. It turns out that he and Pavi have been trying to contact Mark, but no one has heard from him.

We hunt down Bahudhurbhai, and make a few phone calls to Pavi and Manoj. Mark has not shown up at the office, and it seems that according to the upstairs neighbor, who was contacted by Smita’s landlady (who was asked to check on Mark by Smita, Dinesh, and Pavi), no one was home at Smita’s corporate apartment in Pondicherry, where Mark was assumed to be staying. By then, it is evening, and because I usually assume that things are OK until I find out that they are not, I decide that it would be pointless for me to leave that evening and wander the streets of Pondicherry the next day when we had friends there that were looking out for him.

The next day, Tuesday, I go on one of two outings planned for the Asia Source participants to a school using computer-aided learning in a village off the Bangalore-Mysore Road. At the lunch stop, I spend most of my time at an STD booth calling first Manoj, then Dinesh, then Pavi. It turns out that no one has seen Mark since Saturday evening, when he had dinner with Snigda. Manoj got the address of Smita’s apartment, and was going to go look for him. So was Pavi. That afternoon, instead of going back to Visthar, I got off the bus in Bangalore and made my way to Dinesh’s, where I had telephone access, and from where I could catch an overnight bus to Pondicherry if necessary. That evening, Pavi reported that Mark had been located, and that they were having him come to the hospital at Aravind. She would have him call when he got there.

It turned out that Mark had been really, really sick. So sick that on Sunday, he found himself going in and out of consciousness on the bathroom floor. On Monday, he dragged himself to an Internet cafe to send the message that he was sick. By Tuesday, he was well enough to make his way to Aravind. And by the time I spoke with him, he felt about 90% recovered. I suggested that he come to Bangalore, where the weather would be less oppressive, and where he could get away from the daily routine and rest a bit.

Mark believes that his illness was a reaction to Larium, the malarial suppressants that we have been taking on this trip, and a medication that we have taken over the years with no side effects. At the time I spoke with him, I did not have the presence of mind to ask him to get tested for malaria, but after hanging up the phone, it occurred to me that his symptoms sounded very much like those of malaria. I assumed that he would get some sort of diagnosis at Aravind (even though it is an eye hospital), and possibly get tested. It turned out that he staged an escape from his locked hospital room the next morning, so he’ll have to get tested some time soon.

Dinesh asked me after Mark had been located on Tuesday if I had been worried. The answer was, not really. On the one hand, I never worry about Mark. (If I did, I’d probably be dead by now.) On the other hand, that business about the neighbor having checked for him and not having seen signs that he had spent the night at Smita’s… well, that gave me pause. His rented motorbike should have been parked by the house… unless he returned it when he went to Chennai, and did not rent a new one… In the end, I decided that he was probably at Smita’s, sleeping off his sickness, and that there wasn’t a need to worry too much. He’s strong, capable, and usually has good instincts. He’s also very lucky. As am I.


Brickmaking in Uttari, near Kagalipura, on Kanakapura Road, 20 km South of Bangalore.

Harvesting the ClayMaking the BricksCarrying Wet BricksSun Drying the BricksCarrying Dry BricksIn to the KilnBoy Amid the BricksLoading Fired Bricks


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