Monday, July 28, 2008

So, kan ya kumari or ar u ppukottai?

Culture shock. It takes two months in India to learn that:

1. I should always carry small food items on my person to give to beggars. I'd rather not give money, but don't mind so much if they are disabled or are begging with an alms bowl outside a temple. Seeing beggars is still painful, and this really made me think about the directions and implications of even my smallest, quietest actions towards other people.

2. If I want people to stop pestering me to sell me things, the easiest way is to tell them I have no money - works ten times better than telling them to bugger off.

In India, seemingly every shop on the street sells the same household items and bags and sandals. With shops perpetually full and nobody seeing to buy, I can't help but ask myself how they survive. An army of tea stands sells the same food and drinks ("No natural ingredients - 100% synthetic syrup!"), people at bus stands sell the same silly, tacky toys, Beggars sometimes come in families, and at the same time most construction is half finished, sanitation and hygiene are sorely lacking, the streets strewn with rubbish. Garnish with gaudy, glaring advertising, cell phones, jewelry and movies and music that scream luxury and materialism, and serve piping hot.

On top of that, there's a-whole-nother world of rural and water and agricultural issues I don't completely understand. Pardon me for seeing problems where you might see character, but it feels as if it would take just a bit of redirection and organisation to turn things around.

Of course, there is probably a mountain of inertia behind the current situation.

I think many of India's problems are definitely cultural / social. For example, it seems to me peoples' values and priorities disposes them to litter. Private before public, and convenience over consequence. All this means is that Indians are only as selfish as the rest of humanity. They just don't have trash bins and the public works to service them. A very small part of me pines that it mirrors global pollution, at a personal level.
>>Rant over

At the same time, tucked away in a corner of Auroville, a group of remarkable people sit around the only light on the farm at night, powered by a solar panel, having conversations that wander into the night, interrupted only by their brewing tea and singing a few songs to an excellent accompaniment of ukulele.

There was not really any other choice than to congregate. The (un)availability of electricity brought people together like moths to a candle. Solitude farm has by far the most efficient way I have ever seen people extract quality of life from the resources (social, a little natural, and almost no financial) available to them.
Pardon me for being so hippie dippie, but organic farm work, home cooked food and positive, productive human interaction sound like paradise to me.

4. You can paint and personalise a windmill as much as you can just about anything.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Make your own tea

Indian society is frustratingly patriarchal. Ironically, it seems equality is something I take for granted back in "the first world". I'm equally annoyed with many responsibilities being distinctly male or female (who should I seek?) and that it is directly against conventions for me to take on certain tasks ("don't you dare touch those dishes!").

Sometimes, the things I hear make me downright depressed ("this is a woman's work", "men don't come into the kitchen", "in my home,…").

These attitudes seem to be cultivated from the day children can walk. I took a trip out to rural villages, where most of the children crowing around me were boys, where I could see just down the street a young girl handling a goat, or carrying sand. The crowd around the communal water pump or tank is invariably female, some of them are only girls and some of them are still in their school uniforms.

Ouch. When a woman as old as my mother won't let me help her bring in the water or sweep the floor when I kick over my pail of nungu husk (I wrestle her for the broom and buckets), for some reason, it hurts. A man has never offered me tea, and I have seen perhaps one man at the pump and one more carrying a water jug. I did see a man milking a cow yesterday and it made me happy in a small, quiet way I can't exactly explain.

Even in the Organisation of Development Action and Maintenance, with activities in womens' organisation and empowerment, et cetera, this culture persists. Women are given manual or tedious jobs, none hold any executive positions. Ironically, this is India, one of the few countries that has had a woman prime minister (and the largest democracy in the world, to boot – although just how democratic, I think is moot).

This problem is deeper rooted yet. India is a country of arranged marriages and dowries, where three sons are a relief and three daughters all but leave a family in financial ruin. In rural India, people don't date. Sometimes people in urban India don't date either. Love marriages are rare, and I smile when I hear about them even though I don't believe in the institution.

Change will come slowly and perhaps painfully, but I have every hope that it will one day be acceptable for women to be educated, take on skilled jobs, not be married (or choose their husbands), not have children, maybe even for men not to have moustaches. Change is in the air already, perhaps. The ratio of little uniformed boys and girls going to school looks even. Some girls even ride bicycles to school.

The key (and the difference between India and say, the States), I believe, is education – free, liberal pursuit of knowledge, the distribution of human capital. That's the glimmer of hope here.

One evening, I watched a powerful woman - a district officer of the government's Women Development Corporation, sent to advise the NGO's woman programs, like Self-Help-Groups they formed under government ideas and initiatives. She was an expert negotiator, well spoken, strong presence, using rhetorical questions and undisputable information to draw support, get the agreement of men, and instructed, interrupted, even challenged them. I don't speak Tamil and didn't understand an eighth of what happened, but I enjoyed watching her draw sweat from the men around her.

She spoke forcefully to me when she answered my questions. I was a little caught off balance, but I was not surprised her guard was up. In any case, I was too busy being impressed by her electric charisma.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Low ebb

One night, I was riding a bicycle through the village. I had just turned a swift corner, cool breeze on my face, when the power went out and the ground beneath me fell away and disappeared.

My stomach sprang back to its rightful place, and I began calmly ringing the bell, weaving through the shadows that materialised in the air around me. My body merged with the bicycle to form a single and complete unit, following the undulation of the road as they resonated through the wheels, frame, into my fingertips and up my spine.

I got my bucket and walked to the centre of the village. Strangely enough, collecting the sugar cane juice man's waste pressings was the one thing I felt too bashful to do under public scrutiny.

As I shoveled the fibres into my bucket by the armful, the man shouted at me from the inky depths of his shop. He expressed his incredulity that I wanted to take his waste (you foreigners are all so strange), and I left sheepishly with a brimming bucket, minutes later. Damn.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Where there is no government

Alright, so India does have a government. The problem that India faces is one of too much politics and too little government.

(I reserve judgment on two party politics, and billion-dollar campaigns)

India has eight national parties, forty five state parties and literally hundreds of small registered parties, all vying for votes. I believe in diversity, and in the difference of ideas that such a system would encourage. Free thought and speech and freedom to form and elect leadership sound like a good way forward for effective government. It sounds like perfect logic but-

I attended a talk by a prominent economist Paul Romer in May, during the (awesome) Millennium Campus Conference. In a style he acknowledged as uncharacteristic of economists, he introduced a differential equation – stunningly simple and cutting – which I’ll explain without algebra. Paul Romer asserts that:

1. When human capital is high, increasing democracy brings increasing social good

2. When human capital is low, increasing democracy does not bring increasing social good.

This is precisely India’s problem.

This area is at a cusp of development. The village that I live in is not wrestling with poverty, and neither is it surviving hand-to-mouth. There are problems with finances, but those are caused by another equally insidious breed of social problems. Public works and services are a little shaky, and living conditions are not five-star, but there is enough to eat and drink and most people sleep with roofs over their heads.

Families and communities are looking for the next step. Village folk are putting their children on buses and bicycles to send them to school. Sometimes, I’m filled with optimism when I think about the potential for development, and filled with joy when I take the five thirty bus from the lab, half full of children in their tan-and-brown school uniforms, or walk past the bus stop by the temple, a sea of students.

And then, I heard that some minister was visiting a neighbouring village to distribute free televisions and my gall bladder jumped into my throat. First, these people do not need televisions as much as they need more schools with reliable teachers, drains that are not filled with waste water so foul mosquitoes refuse to breed in them. They need shoes on their feet. They need clean streets and the information and interest not to litter, or let their children and cows use the street as their toilet. They need electricity that does not come and go as it damn well pleases.

Fat lot of good a TV does if you can’t watch it.

Every day I walk past a house and watch a very young girl help her family collect water in the morning, wearing her school uniform and solemn face, and do housework in the evening (the only one I never see with an open book). She does not need a television. She needs time to do her homework.

Of course, (and absolutely to no fault of theirs) if these village folk were better educated, more aware and certain about the roles and responsibilities of government – if human capital was higher – they would have saw straight though this blatant appeasement and purchase of favour by distribution of a crack-good like television.

Yes, I’m biased against television, and I won’t argue that each household deserves to watch if they want to, but there are more pressing problems that TV only serves to distract them from, that can be identified without embarking on a philosophical debate about quality of life, and television.

--- Begin ramble proper:

I do believe that diversity in politics is a good thing because choice is important in government, but the way they are ruthlessly vying for popularity with a public that is not well equipped to choose will not lead this country anywhere. Not to mention plain bad policy: the glut of public ministries - sixty three of them. And the bloated civil service - 21 million out of 35 in the formal economy in the 450 million strong work force - (practically) none of which can be demoted or sacked under the constitution.

The methods these parties choose tend not to weed out weak and unsuitable ones but breed unproductive competition. In the cities, where people beg, and people do sleep in the streets, do live from hand to mouth, trying anything at all to make a rupee, every wall is plastered with political campaign propaganda.

What I'm trying to say is,

Take your TV back and s-

Friday, July 4, 2008

I scare babies

...Like it's my job.

Babies haven't really taken to me. When I smile at babies and small children on buses, the usually try to burrow as deep into their mothers' chests as they can, or simply look shyly at me and avoid proximity and eye contact. Their mothers, however, find this hilarious, and grin at me, whispering into their children's ears, asking them incredulously why they don't want me to take them away to China. On the bus back from Kochi, Kerala, one particularly bashful boy eventually fell asleep against my side. His mother was oblivious.

It's surprisingly easy to be foreign to Village-South-India. It's as easy to mind my own business as it is to interact with folks, whether it's a conversation about politics and local government or business and environmental policy and science issues, or a simple smile and head wag. My Indian head wag is so smooth, and sometimes I do it without even thinking. Smiles are a language unto themselves.

I walk in India with the ease of experience. After not a few months. I am an old hand at this woonzungu thing now - I no longer shoot glances over my shoulder to see who is talking about the vellai karan this time.

I'm completely comfortable to norms and conventions as I embark on a little project to make charcoal - like so - from waste which would otherwise simply be burned. Yes, I am the white boy (men have moustaches) gathering up all the leftover straw from millet, lentils and sugar cane, lashing it together and carrying it off on my shoulder, or if I want to show off, my head.

I'll talk to the farmer who laid his lentils on the road so that it could be shelled by passing buses and trucks, and ask him with English and hand gestures if I can take his straw. He'll reply to me in Tamil and hand gestures, and we'll seal the deal with smiles. I blow kisses over my shoulder at old men and young women who stare at me from the buses that ply the roads as I walk away with a bundle of straw on my head, this strange boy who works like a coolie or a woman, for reasons nobody understands. Yet.

The only times I have been (happily) forced to interact with people are when I walk past one of the village schools, and I am immediately swarmed with children, hanging off my arms like bunches of bananas, asking me my name, my village, laughing, shouting, smiling. Sometimes a toddler who can barely walk will spot me all the way down the street and charge over, shouting "vellai karan!" at the top of hisorher lungs. Heorshe will quickly grasp my hand and then run away screaming. Outside the school, some of the older boys are cocky and show off to the others how they remember my name and village, and the younger ones are convinced I'm a kung fu master. The older girls laugh and giggle and whisper amongst themselves when I smile at them, whilst the young ones are content to hold my hands and swing from my arms like little monkeys.

What do these children eat? I don't remember elementary school children being so light. It's strange, I can't find in my mind any recollection of more beautiful human beings than these children. I've seen children so beautiful I wished they would take me home with them, or that I could melt and disappear completely.