Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Fixing things

I don't think anyone can "fix" anything in India, or "help" in some way that is simple and satisfying and efficient. We can take little steps here and there, and plant seeds of ideas and give some encouragement here and there. It's not that change is not possible, or that good people aren't doing good things. There are millions of good ideas. But it's always quite complicated. It's like a large derelict castle that needs fixing, a castle with inner holds and villages next to it within the caste walls, within the moats, and all of it in shambles; not just a quick reno job on an old house.

I was in Prince Edward Island last year with Mehdi, and there was a huge cathedral-like Catholic church for sale. It was only $60,000. It recently had had a $60,000 roof repair. The facade needed a $100,000 face lift and the whole building needed perhaps $1,000,000 to make it in good condition. But in good condition for what? There were not enough parishioners for a congregation - that's why it was being sold. I wanted to buy it but didn't have that kind of money. Even if I wanted to fix it while living in that section behind the altar, a sort of half circle bowl shaped room, I wouldn't know where to begin fixing things. If I fixed one thing, it would look great for a little while and then the next thing would look ridiculous next to that. My idea of fixing it as majestic as it used to be is a vain and silly notion. But somehow I couldn't stop dreaming about fixing up that beautiful old church, as homage to what it once was. That church serves no function anymore, and no financially accountable developer would turn it into condos as it is just too far out in the countryside, away from the marketable oceanfront. Its time as a beautiful church has come and gone.

There are many such things in India that are not worth fixing. I am not talking about buildings only, but those too. So many mechanisms, structures, social and personal, are no longer of any use here. They get left behind readily by Indians looking for a better life. Why hang on to some old custom or tradition if it no longer serves a purpose? Why be sentimental? No one wants to be a rice and corn farmer, slogging and toiling in the fields and at home, threshing corn and leading cows from one place to another, and barely be able to eat at the end of the day. No one wants to adhere to cumbersome rituals and work in order to make pretty photos for academics and tourists to show off.  Well not no one. Some do, but given a chance, most of us would trade that life, restricted by taboos and traditions and superstitions, for an easier one, trading in difficulty for ease. We would not be interested in maintaining a culture for its own sake anymore than we would spend our money and our children's money to renovate a majestic church for esthetic reasons. Much in India simply doesn't work and has to be thrown out. Much can simply not be renovated and is not worth renovating. Archaic religious customs that don't deliver what they promise, hopelessly lazy bureaucracies, mindless schooling systems, corrupt policing organizations, mind numbing political rhetoric. As an evolutionary process, tihngs change, they always do, and as I honour that which has been, I also release my attachment to it so that it may disappear happily, making room for new rituals and ceremonies. Some institutions will resist change, but it si futile. The tighter it hangs on, the harder it falls. India will be reborn, again and again, but not according to the plans of politicians or intellectuals or fundamentalists of any stripe. India will be reborn as it sees fits, in ways that are inscrutable to any of us. This may mean that the structure and form of the old, that which we are attached to, has to crumble in its entirety or perhaps only partly, maybe keeping a facade or an aspect or two, and then take on a form that is useful, affordable and hopefully still esthetically pleasing and uplifting for our spirits.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Rice and Nutrition

Please don't accuse me of being a spoil sport. I know you all love Indian food and the taste of it. It is the most delicious food in the world. My concerns are around nutrition. I believe today's Indian food is severely lacking in nutrition. In the old days everything was organic, and things were eaten in balance. Chapatis were made of whole wheat, people ate sugar only occasionally and heavy meals were not taken more than once a day and that was only if you were lucky. Rice is a staple here as many of you know.

All rice eaten is white rice. White rice is brown rice with the outside polished off. I am not sure what the process is exactly. But it is fair to say that the lion's share of nutrition is lost when rice becomes white. Like in Europe in early last century, only rich people ate white bread and the poor people ate brown bread. Guess who was healthier? Then poor people, wanting to imitate the rich, started eating white bread when they could afford to do so with their new found middle class wealth. And then it became the staple. I remember back in the seventies, when you would get treated like a real weirdo for asking for brown bread in restaurants in Canada. It is like that here, if I ask for brown rice. Nix that. I don't really ask for it. I mention it and no one has any idea what I am talking about. Except for a few brave souls who have figured out how healthy it is. If India would switch to brown rice, overnight nutrition would improve drastically for 8-900 million people. That's a lot of people. Most of you readers know the benefits of whole grain foods. In North America, it is poor people who eat white bread now and those with bigger budgets eat brown bread and its many cousins. This is what is going to happen here. Poor people will continue to eat white rice while middle class people will be eating brown organic Basmati rice and exporters will be thrilled to have found a domestic market much larger than the export one. The only ones negatively affected will be rice polishers. Let's hope they find something else to work on. I'm sure it will happen very soon.

Thursday, October 15, 2009


Status & Getting By

Indian people, by their own account, are deeply motivated by desire for social status. Status is everything. If a man or woman is broke, and they currently enjoy the status of say, bank clerk, they would not in a thousand years stoop to serving tea in a tea stall. Who I am seen with, what I wear, what shop I buy my things in all count. What really counts is where I live. It doens't matter if it's humble, it's the address that counts. If I present an address at a bank or post office or optician that is considered a premium location (such as the address of the friend whose flat I have been living in) I immediately get respect and admiration.  This is rooted in the feudal caste system, among other things, so in today's economic climate it becomes a matter of both caste and class. It's an incredibly deep snare to get caught in.

Keeping up appearances is paramount. To do so, it is quite acceptable to lie, at least in amounts so that no one can check up on you. People lie so that they can save face and appear successful and happy. It doesn't matter much whether they are happy or successful... e.g. they could have a job in a prestigious firm, but it would never do to share with anyone that your boss humiliated you daily. To say that you have drunk a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label gives status as opposed to some cheap Indian scotch. I will be traveling by train soon. I took 2nd class AC (air conditioned) because that's all I could book on short notice, would have settled for the 3rd class especially if my kids were here as we would have saved a lot of money, but I get a lot of approval because I am taking a higher class. It would not do for a "lady" of my status to go share a berth with the common folk. I have of course done so all my life, especially our 2006 trip.

I can't get used to it. I have lived too long in the west to get used to the idea that these stratifications are a must. I look in people's eyes for signs of life, signs of commonality, understanding, signs of recognition and connecdtion that transcend all this status stuff. It happens from time to time. Looking in people's eyes for too long, especially into the eyes of men is not a good idea as it might seem to be a come on. But I get off the hook to a large extent because I have grey hair,. and am not a likely candidate for sex object. When I can, I like looking into people's eyes. I often smile, and that breaks the tension.  I make that connection briefly, politely, without  being intrusive. That's how I can be here and not distance myself from everyone based on my clothes and foreigner look. My foreignness is itself a status symbol. I have come from the west and the ultimate power that I have in status world is my ability to leave this place which is impossible to live in sanely and impossible to leave; for most people here.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


Cell phones aka mobiles

Everyone except for perhaps the rag pickers, who are really the advance guard of manual recyclers, have cell phones. Rickshaw wallas and peanut sellers, the unemployed, the old and the very young all have mobile phones. This makes sense to me as we need to communicate so desperately with each other. We need to be in touch and just a bit of timely information can save time, speed up transactions and make lots of things more safe and efficient.

Similarly, as human beings we need to actually listen to each other, talk to each other, and feel heard. That is the next generation of communication. To really hear each other. To sit and listen without judgment, without giving advice, with compassion and with respect.

Communication is precious.

Monday, October 12, 2009


Difficult things

I came to India to learn more about my father's life. I discovered that the way to do that was to talk about my own life. It is difficult to ask someone to share things that are intimate about themselves or their family. My father's aged sister, who looks so much like him, is not used to disclosing or discussing such things. Like most other people, she prefers to only share the Disney version of the story of my father.

Tonight I told her about my life. It was not easy, but it was good. I shared the real version and I felt lighter.

Saturday, October 10, 2009


In the heat of it - Thanksgiving so to speak.

Like so many other cultures, people in India tend to say that "the past is the past" meaning we should not talk about it because it is done and irreversible. Yet, at a moment's notice, with just a little question or comment they will throw themselves into the details of some event that really hurt their feelings. They have a story to tell, a grievance to air. How shall I listen to this? It is easy to get wrapped up in the details of the story for me, as if it's a family member then I usually I know some detail as well. But I don't want to get wrapped up in the story as it is not helpful. I have heard of lies, distortions, trickery, cheating, stealing on subtle levels and not-so-subtle levels. People are dismissed, marginalized, disrespected and humiliated. The pain does not go away. It eats away at people, and when it is too much the only relief is from taking it out on a hapless victim, usually a child or a spouse. Alcohol and consumerism is also a popular venue for letting off steam. But it doesn't really help. And then when it comes time for the proverbial Thanksgiving Dinner (Canada) or Durga Puja (India) then we are all expected to put on appearances, act like one big happy family to keep some senior member of the family happy with a fake presentation of family unity. Act like all is fine, while people are seething with rage and disappointment. And often hate.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009


Beast of Burden

I've been sick with a terrible cold, so was unable to get out and blog and upload etc.etc. but it was a wonderful respite in that I was able to catch up on some reading. Rana, whose flat I am staying in, had Kushwant Singh's book Burial at Sea, which was a fine light story that touched on some key elements of how India functioned in the last century. Now I am reading some essays by Salman Rushdie, and I must say I have an intellectual crush on him. I left the book here 3 years ago finding it too heavy, but now it's just perfect. I learn so much about India from these writers. It all fits together. And, I am feeling much better now thanks for water, rest, grapefruit seed extract and fruit.

People often say someone or something is "strong" when they mean that it has stamina. India has stamina. It just keeps going despite all kinds of pitfalls, insane hurdles, road blocks, savage interventions, amazing acts of everyday cruelty, basic disrespect, stifling authoritarianism, strangely warped sidewalks, rule books no one gives a damn about, ethics you can navigate a spaceship through, insults, ignobilities, humiliation, all these and more are heaped on people and institutions every day. The beast of burden carries on.

I suppose it is a kind of strength. I respect stamina. I do. Stamina is a very useful thing when we use it to pursue well thought out plans, plans that are helpful to people, plans that have designed into them some degree of efficiency or intelligence. But to waste the precious resource of stamina by grunting forwards with a burden and load of bad ideas towards an unknown direction  is a true folly.

Yes, there are many good things. Beautiful babies, stunning women, great food, but I am quite certain we don't have to accept that as a balance. We can have all those things that are good and noble and beautiful and also work on doing away with all that is bad and base and ugly. It's not good enough to say  "that's the way it is". Of course many activists etc. are working hard, that's not the point; the vast majority of people are quite resigned to the way things are. Sometimes I give gentle and friendly and laughing feedback to cafe, restaurant and shop employees. We chat. They see I am not hostile. They lament and when I commiserate, we have a good laugh together. It's good to laugh. What else do you do when the beast of burden has a momentum that makes it unstoppable - in this moment?

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