Have you been high today?

"Benny Lava" is really "white moon" but "Benny Lava" makes just as much sense as "white moon". The English transliteration is no worse than the actual Tamil words.

Saturday Night in Helsinki

Tomorrow morning, I have to go pick up the wife at the airport, so I went for a walk to find the place. It was 10.45pm when I left but it was still light out and there were a few people on the streets. The ferries were plying. The one in the photo was just coming in.

I found the place to get the bus at the city center. There were lots of young people milling around, drinking, smoking, laughing. Rock music was leaking out of a roof-top bar. The place looked like it was hopping, so I decided to hang around.

You know how Americans are supposed to be obese and Europeans ever so fit? If this Saturday night scene in Helsinki is any indication, European college-age kids are just a pudgy as their American cousins. Or maybe it's the fat people who go out.

There was a street food vendor making hashbrowns and sausage. It should be safe to eat street food in Europe, right? The piping hot plate on a rainy day was wonderful. It cost 4 euros ($6, with the weak dollar), and maybe in order to justify the price, it was way too much. No wonder all these kids are fat.

As I was struggling with the last few pieces, a rather drunk fellow came up to me and said something in Finnish about what I was eating. I think he was saying something about how when you see someone eat a French fry, you are tempted to grab one off the plate (at least, I'm tempted to do that). So, I proffered him my fork. He ignored the fork and went for a piece with his fingers. He looked up at me. I smiled at him to go on. And so the stranger finished up the plate for me. Later, telling the story to friends who live here, in Helsinki, I learn that both the drunkenness and the grabbing of food are common occurrences.

By this time, it was after midnight. It had just gotten dark. The lines to enter the popular bars snaked around for nearly a block. I reluctantly went back to my hotel and to bed.

Helsinski's Prison Hotel

The hotel we're staying in used to be a prison. They've combined a few prison cells into comfortable hotel rooms while keeping as much they can of the original architecture of the prison. Very interesting decor.

Calm and crisp

From the chaos and grime of India to the crisp coolness of Scandinavia. Headed to the hotel in the airport taxi, I realize the eerie feeling I have is because it's so calm and quiet on the road.

Rainy in Helsinki?

Saw a thunderstorm through the airplane's window as I was coming in. The weather in Helsinki is probably going to be rainy.

Rural India pictures

A couple of pictures of rural India before I head off to Finland.

A man on a bicycle buying flowers in the market.
Fishing in low-lying areas that got flooded due to rain.Grandmother and child walking on an unpaved, rural road.Protecting a rarely used scooter

Why the gridlock?

It took an hour and a half to get from Bangalore's central business district to the new airport 40 kilometers (22 miles) away. The road itself was quite good and the traffic is no worse than Western cities. The gridlock in Indian metros is, instead, because of people like this truck driver. Notice how he has managed to block 3 lanes of traffic because he wanted to beat the signal.

Not so fast

My initial reaction to the Supreme Court's decision to ban the death penalty for child rape was exactly this guy's:
To me, there are certain criminal acts that have to send the perpetrator(s) to the other side quick, fast, and in a hurry. And child rape is one of them. I'm terribly disappointed in the Supreme Court's decision. Terribly and completely disappointed.
But after that gut reaction moment passed, I started to recall all the difficulties of child-rape trials.  If you take out the obvious instances such as the Austrian monster who fathered multiple children by his daughter, it's extremely hard to prove child rape.  Children lie.  Children can be manipulated into making false accusations. The trials are often conducted years after the fact. The crime is so heinous that many jury members will go with their gut reaction, rather than consider the evidence. Now consider all the problems that the death penalty has.  It's irrevocable.  The system is stacked against minority defendants.  There have been numerous scandals involving child abuse prosecutions and death penalty cases.  Combining the error rates of both would have been disaster.
The Supreme Court made the right decision here. It's a pity that neither Obama nor McCain could muster the courage to do the right thing and explain it to the country.

Bangalore: boom town

Before this, the last time I was in Bangalore was more than 20 years ago. Bangalore used to be a sleepy cantonment town with a wonderful climate. The outsourcing, backoffice and offshoring booms brought lots of technology jobs to Bangalore and the place has just boomed. In the photo below, the trees on the right belong to the still-active army base (this is what all of Bangalore used to look like) and the housing on the left reflects what Bangalore has become.
Another thing you see in Bangalore is a lot of granite. Granite in India is not as expensive as it in the United States, but it is still quite expensive. However, companies and newly affluent Bangaloreans seem to use granite every where. Whole floors are laid in granite. To satisfy the demand, you see small storefronts with stacks of granite slabs. Cash-and-carry granite slabs.

Indian newspaper ads

A couple of newspaper ads that caught my eye in the last week ...

The copy for "Lucifer Lights" reads "no harmful gases emitted". I suppose that with a name like Lucifer lights, they have to address the whole heat-and-fume thing ... This not being a Christian country, they probably picked the name because it sounded nice.

How bad is the electricity shortage in India? Enough that they advertise portable generators that are powerful enough to run an A/C unit. But in a Gandhian society, you can't really advertise that your generator is better because you can keep your A/C going. So, they'll make it all about the children:

A sucker born every decade

Indian tycoons and movie companies are moving into Hollywood:
After several good years, entertainment companies in India are finding that they have plenty of money but not enough places to spend it.
When the Japanese real-estate market was getting frothy, Japanese companies also decided that they had too much money.  They bought marquee real-estate and Hollywood movie studios. It ended quite badly for the Japanese; last seen, Japan was still in the throes of stagflation.  It's the Indians' turn now, I guess, to lose their money speculating on American glamor.

What social cohesion?

This article prompted me to think about how well we know out neighbors. We know the neighbors to our South quite well.  Our kids play together on the street, we carpool them to taekwondo class and we have dinner occasionally.  The neighbors to our north? We barely know their names; we wave to them when we pass each other on the street. The neighbors to our East are going to have a daughter (we know because we saw the pink balloons for the baby shower) but we haven't even gone and talked to them about it.  The neighbor to our West glowered when the then-five-year-old hit a ball over the fence and went to ask for it back, so we've not talked too much to them.  So, that would make it what?  25%?

In the India of my parents' generation, neighbors become friends.  My parents are still in touch with many of the neighbors they've had over decades of itinerant jobs. When a son of a family who were our neighbors 30 years ago came to Dallas on a job-related trip, he visited us in Norman.  A couple of other neighbors showed up at the wedding of one of my cousins, simply because the cousin had spent a year living with my parents ...

Talking to my people of my generation though, the low-social-cohesion of the US lifestyle is becoming the norm in India too.  My friend in Bangalore knew the names and occupations of his neighbors, but not much else.


Friday, I flew from Delhi to Chennai and then needed to take a
long-distance bus to my parents' town. A friend in Chennai had bought
the bus ticket for me; he told me where I needed to get on. But he
got it wrong. I needed to get on at T. Nagar, but he thought it was
Koyambedu (the normal place where long distance buses to the boondocks
depart). Unfortunately, there was a bus by the same company to
exactly the same destination, departing at exactly the same time from
Koyambedu and my seat -- 27 -- was open. I got on and settled in for
the overnight journey.

An hour-and-later, the bus stopped to pick up another passenger and he
had my seat. "This is not your bus," I was told by the driver, and I
had to get off.

So there I was, at 10.30pm 1.5 hours from Chennai, standing by the
side of a highway with my bags. It was like a bad Tamil movie.

I called the bus company (I got my mobile phone unlocked when I left
Oklahoma, and bought a sim card on arrival in India, so at least I
could do that). "Your bus has already taken the Chennai bypass," said
the fellow on the other end, "it won't come where you are standing.
You voided the ticket when you didn't show up"

"Isn't there anything else you can do for me?"

"No, try to stop a passing vehicle. Nothing I can do."

The reluctance to help was not much of a surprise, but I had been
hoping that the circumstances -- stranded on a highway late at night
-- would prompt some pity. Customer service is still a bit of an alien
concept in India. The biggest cultural hurdle at all the offshore
call centers sprouting up here is teaching the recruits how to deal
with customers, since they've rarely encountered what would be
considered minimally acceptable service.

A Kind Stranger who was waiting to get on a bus tapped me on the
shoulder. "The only buses that stop here are those that have
passengers with reservations getting on. This is Friday and you won't
find an open seat on any bus. They'll all get filled up by Tambaram.
Let me talk to the guy"

A long 15-minute conversation followed with the Kind Stranger
suggesting all kinds of options -- he seemed to know every highway out
of Chennai and which buses took which routes -- and the bus company
guy shooting them down one-by-one. Finally, he hit on one that would
work. There was a bus that had just left, it would essentially take
the route of my bus and it had several open seats.

"Call the bus driver on his mobile and tell him to reserve one of the
seats for this fellow here," he suggested, "Don't fill up all the open
seats." This didn't get shot down.

"Thank you very much," I said to the Kind Stranger. But it felt
completely inadequate to what he had done.

An hour later, the bus stopped and picked me up.

Everyone I told the story to this morning had one of their own to
narrate. Apparently you haven't lived life to the fullest unless you
have been stranded on the road side late at night.

A Tomb, but not the Taj

Before the bureaucrats were the Brits and before the Brits were the Moghuls. Delhi's seen off many rulers. The Lodhi Kings ruled Delhi in the early 1500s and left behind their tomb. Their tomb melds both Hindu and Moslem influences, but the perfection of the Taj Mahal was still years away.

As with the art show I was raving about, it's interesting to see intimations of what would finally come together in a stupendous way. So, there's the dome over a square base, choreographed views through dark entryways and calligraphy-as-decoration. The garden setting of the Lodhi tomb is gorgeous, but it's no reflecting pool. And the dramatic contrast of black calligraphy over cool, white marble hadn't been thought of yet.

If you had not encountered the Taj Mahal, though, you'd be enthralled by the Lodhi tomb.

Paper and Peacocks

I snarked about the paper at IMD, so I'd like to point out the second thing I associate with IMD. Peacocks on the lawn.

The Art Gallery

I wandered into an art gallery today evening. It was a show of abstract art by Ravi Gill. The first painting that really got me was "Oceans Between". It seemed (to me) to be a reflection on the gulf between the rich and the poor in modern India. The top part of the painting seemed like "pucca" buildings, and was full of light, while the bottom part looked like a shanty-town, dark and dreary. The "ocean" that divided the two seemed quite intimate, almost a river. The overall effect of the painting was quite provocative:

Right next to "Oceans Between" was "Sleep Another Day". This was another moving painting, with what looked like skyscrapers bathed by a gloomy, setting sun. Almost as if night was a reprieve to a bustling population trying to make do.

The rest of the paintings seemed to be variations on the same basic shapes as Gill experimented with colors and placement. Some worked, some didn't until he achieved a radiant breakthrough in this set of three paintings hung side-by-side. It seemed to be a vision of a more happy future. From "Oceans Between" to "Sleep Another Day" to this three-fold melody of colors ... all created with the same basic shapes, yet evoking completely different emotions.

As I was standing, looking the triptych over, a bearded fellow came over and gave me a booklet. "I would like you to have this," he said. It turned out to be the artist himself. "And don't just look at the pictures," he advised, "read the words too."

Although the gallery had only the titles alongside the pictures, the book of paintings had little poems to a female muse alongside each poem.

"Oceans Between" had these words:
Ibeza's eyes remind me
of someone
I knew so very long ago ...
Pore by pore,
thread by thread
who slipped, drop by drop
into the oceans
that now separate us.

"Sleep Another Day" was similarly about the female muse:
I wake her gently
and unpack her
from my fresh dreams
into the day.
Left to me
I would rather
let her sleep
another day
tucked deep in ...
So, the paintings were not a social commentary at all. I had transferred my own reflections of India, its growth and its inequality onto his canvas. Still ... the five paintings moved me even if they moved me in ways the artist did not intend.

Name Drop While I Can

I was picked up at the Delhi airport by a government car. I made the official whose car it was visibly happy when I enquired whether he was IAS (Indian Administrative Service: entry to which is by very competitive examinations). He was very happy to inform me that he was, indeed, an IAS officer. We had a very pleasant conversation afterward.

Still, his self-satisfaction got under my skin a bit. I couldn't resist telling him that I got my undergraduate degree from IIT Madras. If I lived in India instead of Oklahoma, I would probably be name dropping my alumni institution into every conversation ...

But talking about IIT, the paper today reported that six more IITs have been approved. In 1989, there were only 5. Now there are something like 10. So, soon, there will be 16. And get this: the new IITs are so deficient in staff and infrastructure that one of the original IITs is supposed to be "mentor" each of the new ones. What are the chances that the value of an IIT degree will get totally debased?

I should probably get my name-dropping in when I can. In a few years, no one will be impressed.

Stacks of Paper

I'm in Delhi today, visiting the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD). Coming from entrepreneurial, tech-jargon-laden Bangalore to Delhi's government organizations is like traveling back in time to colonial India.

What's an Indian government office without paper? This stack consists of weather charts, each of which is about four feet wide. The stack is nearly my height. The corridors of IMD are full of such stacks.


My last post must have put a jinx on Bangalore. Yesterday, the
Eastern suburb I was staying in went 11-hours without electricity.
Eleven hours! And it turns out that the water that flowed out of the
tap was not the city's doing but merely a function of a high water
table and a powerful motor at my friend's house.

I take back everything nice I said about Bangalore's governance.

The India that's rising

I came this weekend to Bangalore to visit an old friend. He manages an offshore unit of a multinational. He pointed out for me the complex where he works. Besides Sony, Vodaphone, etc. that you see listed on the building in the photograph, the complex also hosts IBM, ANZ, Fidelity and Yahoo. This, of course, is the India that is competing with American skilled workers on price.

In my parents' rural corner of India, there are 4 hours of power cuts everyday. The roads are unpaved, potholed or dumped with stones. Mosquitoes and open sewers are everywhere. Schools are horrible and the state of business seems to be no different from what it was 15 years ago.

Bangalore (from what I see) doesn't suffer from power cuts. Water flows out of taps. Homes have solar panels on the roofs to heat their water. There's a nice clean lake in the center of the city. Schools are good, business is booming.

If rural India ever gets the kind of governance Bangalore gets, watch out.

The Freedom Fighter

The photograph on the left occupies pride of place in my parents' neighbor's home. The fellow wearing the white cap is, of course, Jawaharlal Nehru (India's first prime minister).

I asked who the fellow receiving the award from Nehru was.

"My father," replied our 70-year old neighbor proudly, "he was a great freedom fighter in his young days and the first thyagi (someone who sacrificed a lot) in Devakottai." So this must have been in the 1920s around the time that Gandhi was taking over India's freedom movement and orienting it towards a non-violent struggle.

"What did your father do to get jailed?," I asked.

"He burned down a theater," I was told, "he was quite the radical."

So not non-violent then.

The name of our septuagenarian neighbor is Mohan. I'd never made the connection between his name and Gandhi's first name (Mohandas). The young man in the photo was one of those whose radicalism had been channeled by Gandhi into more peaceful means. He'd even named his son after Gandhi.

Ganeshas in Trees

Remember the hullabaloo when a grilled cheese sandwich was found to look like the Virgin Mary? India is chock full of those. This is an example from our village ... an arasa ("king") tree part of whose trunk, people say, has started to resemble the elephant god Ganesha:
It's now become an impromptu temple, as can be seen by the small concrete snake at the base of the Ganesha on the tree.

And continuing my last post about the size of trees in India, that tree trunk is more than 6 feet in diameter. The tree is probably only 50 years old.

The bus in the background? It's a daily bus that goes to Bangalore. I'm taking it tomorrow, to go visit a close friend (and distant relative) from my high school days.

Getting Safely Out of Here

The major worry we had when planning this trip was the kids' health. Would they be able to get through 2 months in India without falling sick? They've been drinking only bottled water, and never get to eat anything that has not been boiled. Not even a soda.

And wouldn't you know it? I'm the one who falls sick. Mainly due to my fondness for jackfruit. I had eaten it safely several times before but this time, the knife the vendor used must have been infected ... I ended up with severe stomach cramps, going to the clinic at 3am and getting an IV infusion. I'm all through it, but the doc put me on a cocktail of antibiotics for the next two weeks.

"To get you safely out of here", the doctor said when I remarked that the amount of medicine seemed to be a bit extreme.

The Indian view of the American election

American liberals were allies to India's independence movement. And John K. Galbraith, the economist, used to be the American ambassador to India; he is still beloved here. So, at one level, it's no surprise that a column titled "McCain vs Obama: Who's better for India" would come down plumb in favor of Obama. But the thing is ... with Indian-Americans being the wealthiest minority in the US, the group tends Republican and that has been seeping into the home country's media as well. Plus, the Bush administration has actually been good for India, not getting in the way of the offshoring boom, proposing a nuclear deal and accepting India's views of Islamic terrorism. So, it should really have been a toss up with good arguments for both candidates.

However, the author is clearly taken with Obama's personal knowledge of the region (as opposed to McCain's knowledge of the subcontinent only through official visits):
But here's a trivial observation that suggests why Obama, because of his eclectic and unusual upbringing, may be different: He's the only American leader who has been heard to pronounce Gandhi and Pakistan correctly — just like it's pronounced in the subcontinent (Gaan-dhi, not Gain-dee; Paak-isthaan, not Pack-is-tan). In other conversations, Obama has also referred to Indian success in technology fields, and drawn comparisons between his father (who came to the US "without money, but with a student visa and a determination to succeed") and the experiences of Indian immigrants.

Such empathy and "connection" to immigrants from the subcontinent is only one part of Obama's plural multi-ethnic background and wide-ranging eclectic education (American, African, even part-Asian) that makes him arguably the most unusual and exciting presidential candidate in US history — more universalist than American.
Meanwhile, the case for McCain is more cerebral and less from the heart:
Conventional wisdom in Indian circles is that a McCain win will result in a broad continuation of Bush administration policies, including a possible revival of the US-India nuclear deal in the event of a favourable political alignment and atmosphere after the general elections.
and in the all-important (to India) issue of Islamic terrorism, McCain would be unreliable, whereas Obama may do the right thing:
Despite his abiding friendship with Pakistanis from his collegiate days, Obama appears to view a military-dominated Pakistan and the fundamentalist monarchy in Saudi Arabia with deep distrust (his Karachi visit happened during the Zia years). McCain, on the other hand, is the author of the long-running Republican coziness with the fundamentalists and militarists in Riyadh and Islamabad respectively, dispensations that India too has reservations about.

Why isn't Tamil Nadu more green?

The photo on the left is of a neem tree at my parents'. My mom planted it as a sapling seven years ago. Oklahoma trees that are comparable (in lifespan and cultural significance -- no one rhapsodizes about the Bradford pear in their yard when they were a child!) would be elms and oaks.

My mom's neem tree is now a foot in diameter and about 25 feet tall. A seven-year old elm in Oklahoma would be lucky to be 6" wide and 12 feet tall. It's not an accident that in American folklore, planting a tree is something you do for the next generation.

If trees here can grow so fast so well, why are there not more trees?

The Barber and Bush's wife

I went for a haircut today.  The kids wanted to tag along because I was going by moped.

Barbers are loquacious everywhere and this one was no exception.

"Where do you live?," he asked as soon as he'd shown me to my chair.

"Chennai," I said shortly, not wanting to get a whole conversation started.

A couple minutes later, he asked, "What language are your kids speaking? Is it Hindi?"

"No," I replied, "it's English".

"If you live in Chennai," he persisted, "why are they talking English?"


"We used in live in America," I said, backpedaling furiously.

"Where's your house here?," he asked.  I told him.  "It must be your cousin, then," he said, "who lives in America.  Your uncle comes to this shop. He's kind of short, you know"

"Oh, it's me," I told him, "I'm the one who lives in America."  We were going to have that conversation after all.

"It says in the paper," the barber said brightly, "that Bush's wife didn't get enough votes."

"Clinton's wife," I said, "Clinton's wife didn't get enough votes"

Jello in coconuts

More pictures from rural India ...

A pond for storing water. Most such ponds are walled in, and have underground canals that lead from all over the village to the common pond. This pond still provides the drinking water for the village. The Tamil word for these ponds, oorani, is a play on two meanings of the word "oor". The first meaning is "town" and the second meaning is "to seep". Describes both how the pond is formed and who owns it.

The man is selling "nongu" (fruits of a type of palm tree). The kids thought it was jello (it has that texture and translucent color) and wanted to know how the man got the jello into the coconut. The poor fellow would have been even more bewildered if he had understood the question.
This year, the rains were very good, so normally arid land has become a marsh. I see lots of folks fishing in land I remember dry and caked in mud. The sarong-like thing the guy is wearing is called a lungi and is likely an influence from South-east Asia.
This flower is called a "Nagalingam" flower. Naga means snake and a lingam is a phallus. Not sure why ... it looks neither like a snake nor like a phallus to me.

And to close, a photo that S1 (our six-year-old) took when we were briefly stopped by the side of the road. He wanted to take a picture of the "recycling stuff". I didn't have the heart to correct him.