Monday, September 29, 2008

Little Dorrit

It was a classic summer for me, starting it with "War and Peace" and ending it with another hefty tome, Charles Dickens' "Little Dorrit," weighing in at a little over 800 pages.

Written in serial form from 1855 to 1857, "Little Dorrit" is one of Dickens' later - but less well-known - novels. The reason might be that as far as the story line goes, it's a bit of a turkey. The story is weak; some of the characters are two-dimensional; and the climax is a confusing jumble of loose ends hastily tied. "Little Dorrit" was not, however, the end of Dickens' great work; two of his best novels, "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Great Expectations," would follow.

"Little Dorrit," like "Bleak House," is satire and a scathing assault on British life. Government bureaucracy, particularly the patent office, is targeted, along with the ruling class and its obsession for "society" and financial speculation. Characters consist of a handful of decent, practical and honest people surrounded by a crowd of greedy, self-important, vain, pretentious, cold-hearted villains.

As weak as the story may be, Dickens' language is strong: at times hilarious, often sarcastic, and elevated by brilliant description.

What makes "Little Dorrit" worth reading today - more than 150 years after it was written - is its exposure of timeless human weakness. The social attitudes are eerily familiar, and the characters are uncannily similar to the people we know and deal with every day.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 20

Our journey swept through southern India like the hands of a clock: The early hours were spent on the tropical eastern coast, the later hours following the Cauvery River north through the ever-increasing heat. At midnight we were in Bangalore, now the epicenter of India's emerging economy and middle class, and finally in the wee hours back in Madras under a broiling February sun. "This is not bad," our Indian friends told us of the weather. "In April, it is damn hot. You could not live here. Surely, you would die." I didn't argue.

We were tired and irritable, having spent five weeks hopping from one Rotary club to another throughout Tamil Nadu, visiting the schools, clinics and institutions these clubs support because their government does not. Some of what we saw had a lasting effect on us – images like the serious faces of hundreds of young girls at an orphanage near Hosur (above). Later, I would become a Rotarian myself, and more than a decade after my visit there, our club would send a container with 14 tons of books to schools and libraries in Chennai and the coastal area hit by the tsunami.

You may wonder how I have managed to recall, with such an imperfect memory, direct quotations for this story after so long a time. Upon my return, I wrote a book about my experience in India and called it "Driving to the Center of the Universe." Much of what I wrote in this story was extracted from the book, which was never published. No one wanted to publish my book because it... well... stinks. You've read the best parts; the other 100,000 words aren't worth anyone's time. If I were reviewing this book, I would pan it mercilessly. Reading over passages now – long, whining complaints about travel inconveniences – I am appalled and keep asking myself, "Who cares!?"

Writing the book, howver, helped me sort out the mountain of information that had been crammed into my head. I can see that in this passage from its conclusion:

"...My mind flickered with images: of ravens and painted cows, dark eyes, white teeth and long braids, bindis and beedis, toe rings and nose jewelry, the aroma of curry and masala and of rotting vegetables and smoldering straw and sewage, the curling smoke of incense and the brilliance of winter light reflected in marble.
"We had journeyed to the Center of the Universe, and now we were headed back to the fringes on the edge of blackness. Or were we? I had stood on that spot in that ancient place in Chidambaram and considered the deities, and nothing had happened. It wasn't the place to stand, I realized, it was the act of standing. The Center of the Universe is, after all, not a place but a viewpoint, and I would always be there."


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Today's gripe

If you're wondering where the city cops are when you need them the most, why they are not out pounding the beat in neighborhoods crippled by crime, arresting drug dealers and copper thieves and prostitutes more often, take a look at the Police Beat in today's paper.

Seems a couple of middle school students at Washington Park School got into a fight and - Heavens! If you can imagine it! - struck each other. The police were called to break it up and charge the kids with disorderly conduct.

It used to be that the teachers would break up fights and send the kids to the principal's office, where they would get a dressing-down before their parents were called in. Punishment was decided, by the school and by the parents. The kids were made to shake hands and told that if they persisted in any more shenanigans, they'd be shipped off to Reform School.
Now, this is a problem for the police and the court system to handle.

Dancing With Shiva, Part 19

(One of many couples married at a mass wedding sponsored by the Rotary Club of Kumbakonam, India, in January 1995)

Nothing is quite so appalling to Western – particularly American - social sensibilities as the arranged marriage. And in India, the majority of marriages are arranged. Extraordinary matches are referred to as "love marriages."

I spent most nights in the homes of Rotarians, and all of my host couples had been wed by the arrangement of their parents. I talked with Madan and Monisha about theirs.
"Our parents arranged our marriage, perhaps when we were babies," Monisha said.
"You see, we are cousins," said Madan. "My mother and Monisha's mother are sisters."
No wonder they looked so much alike. "So you knew each other all your lives," I said.
"No, not at all," said Monisha. "We had never met. Our parents told us about the arrangement and we met, and we liked each other."

"We knew that we wanted to marry, but we were very young, and we wanted to wait awhile," Madan said. "I told my father, 'Yes, I will marry Monisha someday,' and he became very alarmed and said that we must marry right then. I said, 'we can't marry now, we're not old enough and we want to do some other things first,' and he said that was impossible, that all the arrangements for the wedding had been made and to wait would bring dishonor on the family."
"So, we had no choice," added Monisha. "We were just 20 years old and 19, too young, and we could not understand what all the rush was about. I asked my mother why, and she said, 'Why wait?' I was very upset, but now it's OK. Our marriage is good, and it has worked out. Still, I wish we could have waited.

In Hosur, I met Chitra, a tall, elegant and somewhat sullen 20-year-old. I asked her if her parents would arrange a marriage for her. "Yes, of course, thank God," she answered. I was a little shocked at her reasons. She said that it was stupid for young people to marry based solely on their sexual attraction to each other, that this was what animals do. She abhorred the idea of dating, all the trouble and hassle to remain attractive all the time, the anxiety and desperation of trying to find someone to love.
Chitra said it was so much easier for her to relax and enjoy her youth, leaving the work and worry of finding a husband to her parents. And she trusted her parents implicitly to find a good match, a sensible man who could provide for her and whom she could grow to love.

At this time, in 1995, I had a son in college and a daughter in high school. The more I heard about arranged marriages, the more I liked the idea. Somehow, though, I didn't think "Relax, Daughter, and let me find you a good husband" would go over to well at home.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 18

We have squirrels and chipmunks. India has monkeys. Lots of them.

I snapped this photo on the ascent from Salem to Yercaud, a mountain station. Our driver pulled off the side of the road for a moment for us to enjoy the view, but when the monkeys approached, he took off. "They can be very forward," he warned.
The acceleration and the braking, the squealing of the tires as we rounded countless switchbacks on our way up the mountain made me sick. We stopped to rest and walk through a forest; I fell behind the others, leaned against a tree and rejected my breakfast.

I was pale and sweating by the time we arrived at a coffee plantation to meet the owners and share lunch with them. I declined lunch but took in the conversation, which was about leopards and bison, and monkeys.
"They are such awful pests, said Dayalan, the proprietor. "We don't want any monkeys here. They can destroy an entire coffee crop. We shoot them, you know. And when we do, we hang them from their tails in the trees. That seems to scare most of them away."

We spent that night and another at the top of the mountain in a hotel on many levels descending a cliff. "Oh, look!" exclaimed Jill one of our team members. "Way down there. See them walking? It's a family of monkeys! I have a bag of peanuts in my room. Let's throw them down to them.
Bad idea.

The peanuts peppered the rocks below. The monkeys stopped in their tracks and scanned the hotel. They began to race up the cliff, not bothering with the scattered nuts but aiming for the source. Primates began to appear everywhere below us. There had been just five or six monkeys in the family group, and now there were 20 or 30 of them in a semicircle just below the hotel, intently eyeing us. Another handful of peanuts was thrown, and within a minute no less than 60, perhaps 80 monkeys were clambering up the lowest levels of the hotel, jumping on roofs, flying from roof to roof. One thumped on the roof above us, then swung down and perched on the railing of our balcony. Then another, and we retreated to our rooms and slammed the doors. They studied us through the windows of our rooms with businesslike, expressionless faces.
When they lost interest and moved on, we crept from our rooms back to the balcony. On a path below us, a security guard nodded to us and shook his head. "Now you silly people have learned your lesson!" he yelled to us.
"Don't leave your doors or windows open," someone else warned us later. "They will go into your rooms and take your things. They will come right up to you and snatch the eyeglasses right off your face and run away with them."

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 17

Had I not been to the temple in Chidambaram, and had not done my little mental dance with Shiva, I might have elevated my disgust of the child labor I witnessed to the level of conviction, citing it as another example of how backward India is. But I was newly aware that the world is far more complicated than I had imagined, and that we enlightened Westerners do not have the exclusive franchise to ALL THAT IS RIGHT.
I pumped our Rotarian guide for information.

"It is not lawful to employ children in India," he said. "The factory manager knows this. If the government inspectors come, they will shut him down. But you see, the village you have just visited, it is all a factory, and all around here are villages just like this one."

The odds of being inspected were slim and worth the gamble, he said. Some of the factories were family operations, in which parents and children all work together. But in most cases, parents essentially sell their children into servitude. They receive a lump sum from the factory manager in exchange for "apprenticeship" of the children, who do not attend school and work eight hours a day, six days a week. Some receive clothing and food, but for others, knowledge of the trade is the only compensation.

I asked our guide how people could tolerate such exploitation. He patiently explained that this was not how the arrangement was viewed in India.
"The factory manager is being a very good man. He is having much respect and is giving to the parents money, and to the child he is giving a trade. With no factories, the life of the people would be terrible, terrible."
The cottage industries would not exist at all if managers were compelled to pay workers the wages and benefits mandated by the government, he said. There would be no textile industry around Salem, and 100,000 people would face starvation. "You see, the people here are having much happiness."

This was difficult to absorb: children deprived of their childhood, forced into factory labor, doomed to illiteracy – and these were the lucky ones. These were the kids who would not starve, who would know a trade, who would get jobs in the big textile mills, who might earn enough money so that their own children might attend school. It was what they hoped, anyway, and hope was in no short supply in the village I visited.

It is easy for us, the pampered and overfed, to condemn the Third World for its exploitation of workers, to call for boycotts, to insist that these poor laborers would be much better off without their jobs. We cannot imagine a life in which survival is a daily walk on the wire, with no net to catch us if we fall.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 16

Our cars entered the small factory village just after noon, running a slalom course through granite pillars used by the villagers for the manufacture of saris. We crept slowly through the back streets of stone and dust, barely wider than our vehicles, while pedestrians flattened themselves against the walls of houses and ducked into convenient doorways to allow us to pass. We stopped in front of what appeared to be an ordinary residence, no different than any other house on the street, a kolam design still visible before the threshold.

We walked into a room packed with machinery roaring and clattering at such a loud level that our guide had to shout in our faces to be heard.
"MACHINE-WOVEN COTTON!" he screamed. When our eyes adjusted to the dimness, we saw scores of spools spinning like tops, their thread sucked down into the rapid and violent machinery. The room was hot, the air thick with lint and the odor of sweat and lubricating oil. We drifted through the room and into a courtyard, onto which opened several other buildings with clattering machinery. From this place we were able to watch the factory workers who fed the machines, who breathed the lint and secreted the perspiration. Most of them were children, some as young as 8 or 9 years old.

We had heard about child labor in India, of course; everybody had. Hollywood celebrities had been leading protests against companies that purchased clothing made in just this sort of factory. Here it was. I was dumbfounded but snapped photos rapidly, automatically. I expected the factory manager to object or become defensive, but instead he seemed honored that we showed so much interest. I kneeled on the concrete floor to photograph a child who was gathering empty and nearly empty spools from the ground and placing them in a basket. She squatted barefoot in a threadbare dress, her tiny hands snatching, moving as fast as sparrows. She chattered in Tamil to a boy of about 11 who tended a machine a few feet away. She ignored us. This was a Saturday afternoon, the end of a 48-hour workweek, and this little girl's mind was occupied with other thoughts. Her hair was loose and wild, brown and matted with the dirt of a childhood wasted in this hellish existence. Her arms were as thin as Cuban cigars.

In another room, three girls pretended to work diligently, all the while stealing glances at us, whispering and poking each other with their bony elbows. A boy of about 9 had wandered away from his post to stare at us. Presently, the boy's supervisor – a kid just a few years older – came up behind the child and slapped him on the side of the head and ordered him back to work, which did not even rate a pause in the factory manager's screamed explanations of the workings of the mill.

Agitated by all I had seen, I wandered out of the building and toward a square in the center of the village where the cars had been parked. I sat by a fountain, tucking under my thighs my hands, shaking with rage from this Dickensian experience. All around were children – the ones still not working in the village's factories – laughing and playing. The adults who crossed the square seemed as happy as the kids. Clearly, the town was in a party mood. As I looked around more carefully, I became more confused. How could people so impoverished, exploited and doomed to lives of hopeless struggle behave like families at Disney World, like chipper salesmen at a golf outing?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 15

Most of us have a tendency to be self-centered, to think of the moon and the sun and the stars revolving around the patch of earth on which we stand. Some boast about living in the greatest city, or in the greatest country, all other countries being mere satellites.

About 35 years ago, some sarcastic vandal climbed up one of the big green exit signs along Interstate 70 just south of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and spray-painted "CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE" beneath the words, "Arnold City." I'd smile every time I passed this graffiti for 15 years until the sign was replaced.

Chidambaram's claim, however, produced no chuckle. You would not find it so laughable, either, if you were plopped down on the other side of Earth in a strange and ancient temple; if you looked upon the figure of the dancing Shiva, felt taken in by his many arms, entranced by his casual beauty; if you touched his bronze skin, the color of the ocean under an overcast sky, made smooth by so many millions of caresses over a thousand years; if you felt its perpetual warmth for a thousand years of hot Indian days; if you sensed your own self-destructive tendencies in your mental dance with the sensuous Destroyer.

I said that I left that temple wiser than when I'd entered it. I went in thinking that I was living in the most important time, as part of the most advanced and enlightened civilization, living in the greatest country and under the greatest government the world has ever known. I came out thinking how old human history really is, and how many enlightened civilizations have risen and fallen, and how much power has been used and abused to subjugate people, how vast is the universe and how far from its center we must be, and how insignificant our existence is in the great march of Time.

I had walked in as a snob, touring a land I thought of as pitiful and backward. When I walked out, I would not see India that way again, nor view the world that way. I did not realize that at the time. It would not hit me until a few days later.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 14

The next morning, Annamalai took us to the Nataraja Temple, a 40-acre complex that dates to the fifth century, although most of the structures were built between the 12th and 16th centuries. According to Hindu tradition, this Chidambaram site is the center of the universe.
From the Footloose Guide:
"Chidambaram takes its name from two words – 'chid,' which, according to Saiva philosophy, means thinking consciousness, and 'ambaram,' the expanse of the skies or heaven. Thus the city believes itself to be the center from which all human knowledge expands."

After entering the east gate of this massive temple, Annamalai led us to a place where a small crowd had gathered in front of a stone building housing a statue of Shiva, the god often depicted dancing in a ring of fire on the back of a baby devil. Annamalai pushed people aside and entered the building and emerged with an aged holy man, whom we were asked to gather around. The priest held a stone dish, black and greasy and sprinkled with flower petals, and on the dish burned a pot of scented oil between piles of ash and scarlet powder. As instructed, I dipped my fingers into the ash and drew a line down the middle of my forehead to the bridge of my nose, then dabbed a bit of scarlet between my eyes. The ash is a reminder of our mortality, of what our bodies will soon become. The red signifies the immortality of God. (Contrary to popular belief, Hinduism is not a polytheistic religion. My Hindu friends insist that the "gods" that are worshiped are simply aspects of the one Creator.)

Annamalai took me by the elbow and led me to an area with a smooth marble floor inlaid with a star about four feet across.
"Stand here and look this way, you will see Shiva," Annamalai said. "Turn this way, you see Rama. Turn around again, you see Vishnu. This, this spot… center of universe!"

I stood on the star and waited for some sensation, for an epiphany, but there was nothing. As others took their turn on the star, I imagined how the architects of this temple felt when they raised these enormous columns and embedded this star. Here was Vishnu, the preserver. Here was Shiva, the destroyer. Preservation and destruction meeting at this point, in this place, which at the time it was built must have seemed to everyone in this part of the world the ultimate in human achievement.

Preservation and destruction meeting at one point. How strange that the center of the universe should be here, in the middle of the two. Strange for me, anyway, not being Hindu, not raised to think of all things around me, animate and inanimate, as being the fabric of my spirituality.

This temple visit did not make a Hindu of me, nor did it make me any less of a skeptic of religion in general. But I was a wiser person when I left it than when I entered, and I can credit the figure dancing in a ring of fire for that.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Comments and complaints

I received a call from a woman the other day who was concerned about the tone of comments on some of our blogs, particularly on Mike Kovak's "Varsity Letters." She noted that although some of the comments might not be obscene, they were mean-spirited and hurtful to the young athletes about which these comments are directed. She suggested that we be more discriminating in the comments we permit to be posted.

We do not edit comments posted on our blogs, but we do toss ones that are obscene, libelous or contain outrageously and obviously false information. It is certainly discouraging to read some of the comments that meet the guidelines yet seethe with anger and hatred, but, unfortunately, these are reflections of the feelings of many people in our community, and we do ourselves no good by ignoring them.

There are, on average, 40,000 individuals who visit O-R Online each week. A few of them spend a great deal of time at our site, as evidenced by the blog posts. The caller and I agreed that some of these people apparently have way to much free time on their hands. And for some of them, anonymity offers them the courage they need to choose enemies and lash out at them viciously.

I yearn for a more elevated level of discussion, but we can't reach that level by restricting the forum we have created to only the genteel. What guides us here at the O-R are the words of Thomas Jefferson, spoken during his first inaugural address in 1801, in a plea for civility among warring political factions and used as the slogan of this newspaper for many years:

"Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

From our Reader Survey, mailed back with subscription renewals...

C: Please!! Explain to Park Burrougs (sic) that the most important item in USA is the economy. Its his and the papers duty to publish daily stock market results. Of course he will probaly (sic) just hang up on you. - K.M.

A: Please!! This is the 21st century, and if any paper at all had a duty to publish complete stock market results, it would be the Wall Street Journal, but even that paper doesn't. Fact is that stock listings are available instantly to anyone on the Internet, and these days, very few people don't have that access. Stock listings have gone the was of hospital admissions and the Radio Log.

We dropped complete Sunday listings more than 10 years ago and hardly heard a whimper, because by Sunday morning, Friday's closing prices were old, old news. We still publish a daily market report with selected listings from the New York, American and Nasdaq exchanges, and that's more than you'll find in, say, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

If anyone were to call to complain about our stock listings, I would tell him this and not hang up on him. But the fact is I don't get calls about this because anyone who needs to follow the market closely has a much better way to do it than a newspaper.

Dancing With Shiva, Part 13

We came into Chidambaram at night, rain coming down hard, our taxi sliding through the muddy streets. In this dark city, images flashed in the glare of headlights like pieces of dreams: running limbs, the startled stare of a cow, bundles balanced on heads, the obscure shapes of goats rooting through garbage. We had been lulled into a false sense of familiarity during our stay in Pondicherry. Now, it seemed, we were in a different world.

Our Rotarian hosts met us at the Hotel Saradaram. All were men, dressed in dhotis – long, white cotton fabric wrapped around their waists like towels – and shirts with long, squared-off tails that ended in the middle of their thighs. Their skin was dark and most had gray ash smeared on their foreheads – evidence of their recent visit to the temple. Their English was rapid and incomprehensible. They divided us and took us away to their homes.

One of the men took me by my wrist and one of my team member's by the other and led us out of the hotel and into an unlit parking area, where we stumbled through ankle-deep muddy puddles. I thought, what a silly idea to be wearing socks.
It was hard to make out anything of Chidambaram from the car at night. I had read in one guidebook that it was a city of about 75,000 people. But a map and publication of the state of Tamil Nadu estimated the population at 200,000. I asked my host, Chinna Annamalai, hunched over the steering wheel and squinting at the crowded road ahead, which figure was correct.
"No one knows," Annamalai answered. We can only guess. We are having too many people here, this is what I know."

I think that's what he said, anyway, because I could understand barely half of his dialect of English. Our ride was punctuated by the jolt of the wheels of his Ambassador sedan falling into deep potholes.
"These roads… disgrace… fools in government… lying bastards!" I understood.
Annamalai's house was so close to the street that we stepped right from the car onto the threshold. As we did so, we were greeted by a trio of fawning servants – young men who had gone goofy at the sight of foreigners. Annamalai jumped from the car and ordered the servants to get the bags and take them upstairs. Then he commanded us through the door and ordered us to sit in chairs in an area of the house separated from the rest of it by folding screens.
"Rest!" he ordered, before flying up the steps to scold the servants for their clumsiness. Then he came flying down the steps. "So. Relax!" he demanded, then proceeded toward the kitchen, where we could hear him barking orders over the clatter of pots and pans and the chattering of female voices.

We sat erect in our chairs. Presently. We heard a commotion in the street: excited children running and laughing, music, the banging of drums and the blaring of horns, distant but coming closer. We stepped out the door and peered down the road. Annamalai appeared behind us and explained: "This is a god… bringing… the street. This is happening only once a year… this night… holy people… pulling a god through all the streets of the town."

Bare-chested priests with painted faces beat skin drums and blew long thin, brass horns, performing what seemed like insane, free-form jazz. Behind them, a pair of bullocks pulled a float, a cart strung with electric bulbs, festooned with flowers and candles, and a great, colorful, gaudy display surrounding a small black idol.
The procession stopped directly in front of us, and a man who looked to be the head priest approached us and placed flower garlands around my neck, all the time wailing some incantation. A crowd had gathered, how large I could not tell. They pushed a jostled, and pressed closer and closer, maneuvering for a closer look at the pale foreigners with their trousers rolled up to their knees, exposing their long feet and legs as white as naked ducks.

Monday, September 15, 2008


My apologies to all who watched the video previously posted on Part 12 of Dancing With Shiva. I grabbed the wrong video this morning from YouTube - one that had been doctored with obscene subtitles.
I've since posted the CORRECT, unadulterated version.

- Your humbled G.O.E.

Dancing With Shiva, Part 12

We had come to India just in time to witness its shift from a Third World country to an emerging economic force, and at just that moment (at least it seemed to us) when ancient Indian customs and modern Western influences were in curious and perfect balance. Take the music, for example.

Ancient rhythms and traditional instruments blended with the lyrics and social influence of Europe and America in so many popular hits on radio and in Bollywood films.
One night in Pondicherry, attending a Rotary celebration, we watched as Indian women in saris abandoned dignity an modesty to dance with each other to the pounding beat of "Take It Easy Policy," a song from the hit movie "Khadalan," blaring from loudspeakers all around us.
Over that music and the laughter and the clatter of plates in the buffet line, I talked with Asha about raising children in general, and 14-year-old girls, in particular.

"She is not wanting to do as she is told, she will not dress properly, she thinks she knows everything, and then there is this Michael Jackson," Asha said.
"Michael Jackson?" I asked in disbelief. I told her I thought he was rather passé.
Asha was animated, her gold bracelets jangling, and she spoke with exaggerated outrage that was amusing and entertaining. "Here is this awful person who goes to bed with children and has all these surgeries to change his face and make himself white, and my daughter worships him as some kind of god."
Asha's carriage was so casual and sophisticated, and her attitudes seemed so modern and Western to me, but at the same time I realized that she was equally devoted Indian culture and tradition, and that she was most probably would arrange the marriages of her children.

Donna Vesely, our team leader, stayed in Asha's house, and a few years later, Asha's daughter became a Rotary exchange student and lived with Donna. She did not lose her rebellious streak in the intervening years, going home to Pondicherry after the school year with a tattoo.
But Asha would never have an opportunity to arrange the girl's marriage, because one night, on that terrible stretch of Highway 45 between Pondicherry and Madras, her daughter lost her life.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Comments and suggestions

C: What an awesome display of flags today along Jefferson Ave on Wash Hi property. What made it even more enjoyable was the ability to actually look closely at them (while sitting in the daily traffic jam) and reflect on what they were representing. This traffic jam going to and from work has been a major hassle but today the time was spent in remembrance of those whose lives were taken. Thanks to whoever was responsible for the flags. I hope you got some pictures of it. - P.F.

A: One photo was featured on our home page today and another is our front-page photo tomorrow.

Dancing With Shiva, Part 11

Her name was Mirra Alfassa, who was born in France in 1878 and came to Pondicherry in 1914 as a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. She became his closest associate, collaborating with him in his writings and taking over administration of the ashram from him in 1926.
Aurobindo died in 1950, but the ashram continued to thrive and grow under the leadership of The Mother, which she began to be called.
Alfassa died in 1973, setting off a long power struggle among her followers that became ugly and violent. But the ashram continues to be a dominating presence in the former French enclave.

When I visited in 1995, the ashram owned about 400 buildings in Pondicherry and was the area's major employer, operating its own farms, construction companies, oil and floor mills, a foundry, sheet-metal works, laundries, schools, hospitals, printers, paper-makers, and a whole range of arts and handicrafts manufacturing. All this economic activity makes the ashram a powerful force in the community, dictating pretty much how things will run, and not everyone in Pondicherry is happy about that.

As big as the operation is in the city, there's also a rural extension called Auroville. It was The Mother's dream that Auroville would become a community of 50,000 people from all over the world who would live and work in peace and harmony.
Auroville opened to grand ceremony in 1968, with representatives of 121 nations each depositing a sample of their earth in an urn that forms the centerpiece of the Matri Mandar monument (in photo above, shown during a long pause in its construction).
Melissa Shales wrote in the "Footloose Guide to Southern India":
"Money and volunteers poured in and construction began in earnest, but it all came to a grinding halt when The Mother died only five years later. Immediately, a power struggle blew up between the Sri Aurobindo Society (who run the ashram) and the community at Auroville, who wished to run their own affairs. Over the next 15 years, it literally became a battleground, the violence becoming so bad that police had to be called twice. Everyone lobbied furiously, claims of corruption, free sex and drug taking were bandied back and forth and local and national governments became involved. When in 1976, the Society tried to starve out the Aurovillians by withholding funds, France, Germany and the United States were drawn into the dispute, providing food parcels to stop their citizens from starving. In 1980, central government took charge and even nationalized the project… Things have now calmed down, and construction has begun again, but no one has yet managed to reach a settlement and it is all a far cry from The Mother's original concept."

When we visited Auroville in 1995, about 750 people lived there, most working on research projects for health, education and agriculture. Farming supplied the community with most of its food, and scattered through and around Auroville were Tamil villages hosting cottage industries and craftsmen.
Now, there are about 1,700 residents of Auroville, and the giant sphere is complete and a gleaming gold, but a deep division remains between the followers of the ashram and the Aurovillians, evidenced by recent charges and an investigation of child sexual abuse at the experimental community.

Peace and harmony are indeed elusive.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 10

A bicycle nearly rammed the side of the car in which I was a passenger, and the driver, Ajay Virmani, my host in Pondicherry, chuckled at my flinching reaction and beeped his horn, almost as an afterthought.
"Aren't there any stop signs here?" I asked. "These four-way intersection – no lights, no signs, how do you keep from being killed?"
"We simply sound the horn and keep watch. And we trust in God."

We entered a wide boulevard that dead-ended at the ocean. Ajay, a thin, suave Bengali bachelor in his early 40s, parked the car on the sidewalk in front of the Rendezvous restaurant. There were no other cars on the street for blocks. I wondered about parking on the sidewalk when the entire street was free. "We just park anywhere," Ajay said. "There is never any problem."
We ate sausages and bacon and omelets with mushrooms and French fries and drank strong, black coffee – not common fare in southern India – and then he took me to his house, where I'd be staying for the better part of a week.

My room was on the third floor, as high as just about any building in Pondy, and too high for the lazy mosquitoes to reach, Ajay told me. It was a bare room – just a mattress on the floor and a couple of lawn chairs, and an enormous framed photo of an old woman. Coming up from the first floor, I had noticed photos all through the house of the same woman and some guru. I had asked Ajay who she was; he said she was the mother. "Your mother?" I asked. "No, THE Mother," he responded.

When he left me to rest and he to return to his office, I opened my Footloose guidebook to research the old woman and the guru. Pondicherry is home to a famous ashram, and all those posters around Ajay's house had something to do with this quasi-religion.
"Ashram" means "retreat," and there are many in India. The one in Pondicherry was founded by Sri Aurobindo, the seer, poet and Indian nationalist who developed a philosophy of salvation through spiritual evolution. Born Aurobindo Ghose in Calcutta in 1872, he was educated in Christian schools and at Cambridge, but returned to India in 1892 and became interested in native culture, yoga, Indian languages and classical Sanskrit.
Aurobindo bcame a revolutionary, bent on helping India free itself from the British raj. The British jailed him in 1908, and two years later he fled to refuge in French-held Pondicherry. He devoted the rest of his life there to his philosophy, founding an ashram that would be a cultural center for spiritual development, attracting people from all over the world.

Aurobindo wrote volume after volume of nearly incomprehensible explanation of his philosophy, which eventually attracted throngs of hippies to the ashram, not for the logic of his thought, but for the romance. But long before the beaded and barefoot Westerners trooped into Pondy, someone else came to town who would change the ashram to something Aurobindo could never have conceived in his most far-out dreams: The Mother.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 9

A couple of months ago, I got a call from India. The caller wished to know if my company was interested in outsourcing any of its work to his company. I silently chuckled during his sales pitch, imagining how someone in India might write an account of, say, a North Franklin Township meeting for our newspaper.
I told the caller that I couldn't foresee any possibility of a working relationship, given the nature of our business (although a newspaper in California, the Pasadena Star-News, has done exactly that). I asked him from where he was calling.
"Pondicherry," was his answer.
"Ah, Pondy," I said. Tell me, is that restaurant, Rendezvous, still operating down by the sea?"
Taken aback by my familiarity with his city, the caller seemed at a loss for words, but he recovered and told me that Rendezvous was a place he frequented and enjoyed. "How do you know Pondy?" he asked.
I know it well enough for it to be my favorite place in all of India, I told him.

The British were not the only Europeans to colonize India. The French and Portuguese also claimed parts of it for themselves. Pondicherry was built by the French, who withdrew in 1954. It is laid out in a grid of wide streets. The architecture is European, the atmosphere tropically decadent.
The French government abandoned Pondy many years ago, but French culture proved to be more difficult to uproot than its bureaucracy. Pondicherry is actually a separate state with its own government, even though it is tiny and divided into three enclaves: the area of the city, another area about 100 kilometers down the coast, and another one on the west coast. French is still spoken in Pondy, and many Indian residents born before 1954 hold French citizenship.

Where Bombay and Madras were assaults on the senses, the blinding colors, the constant noise, the rub of human flesh in crowds, Pondicherry was everything different: muted pastels, sleepy, shaded and uncrowded streets beyond which could be heard the thump of waves upon sand. Here, too, we would uncover aspects of India other than the visually sensual: the entrepreneurial, the intellectual, the affluent and, more than anything, the spiritual.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Today's gripes

I haven't owned a motorcycle for something like 38 years now, and there's a reason for that: It's because of all the car-driving idiots who don't acknowledge the existence of motorcycles (or bicycles) on the road.

Several times a week in this kind of bike-riding weather, I witness the driver of a car turning left across traffic, oblivious to the motorcycle approaching, despite blazing headlamp and usually roaring engine. Quite a few area bikers have been injured, and some killed this year in precisely this manner.

The car-drivers who do this should lose their licenses, permanently.

Dancing With Shiva, Part 8

(Krishnan, center, with his cousins)

The boats for fishing just off the shore at Mahabalipuram are really no more than dugouts or logs lashed together with rope made from coconut fiber. Except for the addition of outboard motors to some of these rafts, fishing has been done here, perhaps for millennia, in these crude crafts.

We were examining some of these boats pulled up onto the sand when we met Kimathivanansio Krishnan. "This is my cousin's boat," the boy said. All of my family are fishermen. We all live in this village."

Dark-skinned, slight and strong, Krishnan, 18, wore a faded, long-sleeved shirt and a lungi pulled up to his knees and tucked in at his waist. His hair, thick and wavy, was coal black, as were his eyes. His smile revealed a perfect set of white teeth.
"Please come to my house," and we followed him into a maze of tiny concrete buildings covered with corrugated steel or thatched roofs. Kolam designs that had been painstakingly made early that morning with brightly colored powders were still visible in the dusty paths outside the front doors of the houses. We entered Krishnan's home, a few small rooms lit by bare lightbulbs hanging from the roof, and a fourth room with an earthen floor and blackened ceiling surrounding an opening to the sky.
"This is where we do our cooking when the rains come," Krishnan explained. Outside in the back, one of the boy's younger sisters was washing stainless steel pots, her long skirt and red silk blouse soaked in the effort. "She does the housework while our mother is away," Krishnan explained.

Krishnan ignored our questions about the whereabouts of his mother, but we guessed it had something to do with a superstition some Tamil people have about October being a terrible month in which to be born. To be born in October is an invitation to evil, some believe, and to prevent such births, many women move out of their homes and in with relatives in January, to be away from their husbands and to avoid temptation.

The main rooms in Krishnan's house were vacant of any furnishings, save for a cardboard box filled with books. "These are my school texts," said Krishnan. He said that he hoped to go to university the following year and to someday become and engineer.

We promised to keep in touch with Krishnan, maybe even to help him in some way to pay for his education, but after those few days, we never heard from him. I do not know what happened to him, or to his sister or his mother or to the fishermen who were his cousins, or to his village. It's not something I like to think about, because 10 years after our visit there, on Dec. 26, 2004, an earthquake beneath the Bay of Bengal a few hundred miles away caused a tsunami that became the deadliest natural disaster in human history; a tsunami that struck that very beach with all its force.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 7

Early in the morning, the sun was a burning spot behind the haze of a silver-plated sea. I walked on a path through pines, their needles sparkling with jewels of dew, to a wide beach of reddish sand. I looked at the green surf, the waves crashing on the shore, looked up and down the coast and was startled at how much it resembled the Carolinas. We had been going to beaches there every summer for many years, and this beach seemed eerily familiar.
I walked down onto the hard sand and let the water splash up past my ankles, and it was the same temperature as the surf at Emerald Isle in August. But turning around, all was different. Here was beachfront property totally undeveloped. Stand anywhere in the surf in North Carolina and look back toward America and what you'll see is a continuous row of $600,000 duplexes, owned by Raleigh doctors who rent to middle-aged newspaper editors from Pennsylvania. But at Mahabalipuram, on India's southeastern coast, no buildings crowd the beach. The only structures in sight are the gray, weathered wrecks of fishing boats and a few thatch-roofed shacks.

The beach is not a place where Indians go to spend their leisure time; it's a place for work, and a place where they go in the morning to defecate. As I took in more of the scene that morning, I saw up and down the shore, every hundred yards or so, men squatting in the sand, their lungis hiked up around their waists. When they were done, they waddled down to the water's edge to wash off in the surf.

I had been staring in wonder at undeveloped real estate. I then turned my gaze to my bare feet, sniffed suspiciously, and in the sand in the immediate vicinity saw the fresh piles that made this certainly no jogger's beach.

I mentioned work. The work being done in a village just up the beach was fascinating, mostly because it was being done in the same way it had been done there a thousand years ago, or perhaps two or three thousand years ago. Time in India, we were learning, does not follow the clock, and often it moves not at all.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Complaints and comments

C: Interesting. A day after a historic speech by the second woman VP
candidate in US history, your newspaper chooses to headline your news
article on her speech as " Palin mocks Obama in convention speech." Not
sure if you thought that headline up all on your own or just continued w/
the AP distortion line.
At any rate I thought wordsmith's like yourselves would be interested in
the English definition of "mock". "1. Treat with contempt; "The new constitution mocks all democratic principles"; 2. Imitate (a person, a manner, etc.), esp. for satirical effect; 3. Imitate with mockery and derision; "The children mocked their handicapped classmate".
I guess you are hanging your hat at the " treat with contempt" definition
of the word. Did not see that behavior on her part. On the contrary she
spoke of her opponents experience and positions--not a personal "mockery"
that she has been exposed to for the last 5 days by the news media and
components of the Obama campaign.
I guess this may be beyond your desire, no perhaps ability, but please
in the future do the citizens of Washington and Greene counties a favor.
Please present the news on the front page. Do so in an even hand and leave
the editorials to the second page. We deserve better. - J.M.

A: Our readers expect to see news on the front page of their morning newspaper. Sorry, but "Palin is second woman to be nominated for vice president" would not have been much of a headline because that fact was not news, or at least it was very old news. Our duty was to tell all of our readers who didn't stay up late enough to watch the speech themselves what she spoke about in her acceptance speech. That she mocked Obama for having less experience than she has was the most notable element of her speech.
"Mock" was the correct word, given the tone of her speech.

Dancing With Shiva, Part 6

Chennai is what it's called now, but in 1995, that city baking on the Bay of Bengal was Madras. From the moment we stepped off the plane and onto the tarmac, we knew that this was a very different place than Bombay; flat and green, a place of hot sand and coconut palms. In the days that followed, we would see a city of low buildings protected from the street by thick walls, gleaming headache white in stark sunlight. And everywhere we looked the streets were choked with living beings. The city was an ant hill kicked apart; every street just like a shopping mall the week before Christmas, every hour of every day of the year.

The cacophony and the blinding color of Madras diminished as we made our way south on the coastal highway – a long, straight, bumpy stretch that is probably the most dangerous road in the world. Our view of the beaches and low jungle was constantly distracted by the wreckage we passed: crumpled burned corpses of cars and charred remains of minibuses wrapped around trees. An estimated 275 people die every day on India's roads, and the stretch between Madras and Pondicherry is the worst of them. It was the scene of what might be the world's most deadly traffic accident about 10 years ago, when an overloaded bus attempted to pass a truck packed with people coming from a wedding and collided head-on with a gasoline tanker, killing 256 people in all.
The growing number of vehicles, inadequate licensing and enforcement of traffic laws, alcohol and road conditions share the blame for the abysmal statistics.

In a climate with no freeze-thaw cycle, the roughness of the road puzzled me. Then, in Mahabalipuram, I learned the reason. We use machinery to build roads in the West. In India, where the enormous population makes labor cheap, they use people. Where we would use a diesel roller to flatten a bed of gravel, in India it is accomplished by hand, one piece of gravel at a time.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 5

(Vegetable vendors, Crawford Market)

Soonie was the friend of a friend who had arranged for her to escort our group around Bombay. Lively and talkative, her hair cut short and her slightly plump figure tucked into blue jeans, Soonie was studying fashion design in college. Her large, dark eyes were constantly springing open as if in surprise.

She led us around - our group of five Americans and Mahendra in tow - to shops and to Crawford Market, a complex built in 1867 that to this day is the center of Mumbai's trade in fruit, fish, fowl, spices and hundreds of other goods. All the while, we were followed by a train of beggars: the one-legged and the legless, the blind, the lepers, the old, shrunken women and children with babies hung around their necks. They were attracted by our utter whiteness, and by the dollar bills that one member of our group kept extracting from his wallet and pressing into one palm after another. A dollar was at that time worth 31 rupees, and a rupee was enough to feed a street person for a day. Eventually, the mob of the needy forced us indoors where they were not permitted.
"I cannot believe it," said Mahendra. "My parents were quite wealthy, but they gave away less money in their lifetimes than you people have given away in the last five minutes."

The beggars following us were professionals, Soonie warned us, advising that our generosity only encouraged them. We darted from shop to restaurant, and left our dusty entourage staring in the picture window.

During a leisurely lunch, Soonie was asked if she had a boyfriend.
"Oh, yes, but no one can know this, Soonie said, giggling and covering her mouth with her hand. "My sister is knowing him, but my parents would be killing me if they knew I was seeing him."
"Why?" one of us asked. "You're a big girl now."
Soonie shook her head and rolled her eyes. "He is from another city and my parents are not being acquainted with his parents. My boyfriend is saying that he will have his father speak to my father, but I am being very worried."
Was the boy's social circumstances or caste the concern?
"Oh, no, his family is quite wealthy, but you see it is my mum and dad's right to choose a husband for me, and they do not know his family. Still, I am hoping for the best."

The idea of arranged marriages seemed so bizarre and antiquated to us. It would seem less so by the end of our journey, which was just about to begin. The next day, we would leave civilized Bombay for Madras and points south, on a long road trip through what would seem like the strangest place on Earth.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Dancing With Shiva, Part 4

Two Indians led us through that vibrating mass of humanity that was Bombay: one by arrangement, the other by chance.
Mahendra Singhal had been a fellow passenger on our flight from Bombay and was also staying at our hotel. He had witnessed our frustrations at the airport concerning our lost luggage, eavesdropped on our conversations in the hotel restaurant, and eventually approached us and offered to help us get our bags back, or, failing that, at least show us around the city. "I have nothing better to do today. I must return to the U.S., but my flight does not leave until 3 a.m."

Mahendra had his own sorry tale to tell. He had lived abroad most of his adult life and returned to India infrequently on business. He didn't enjoy the trips to his native country because as an ex-patriot he was regarded with disdain by many Indians. And although he still had family in India, visiting them was out of the question.
"I studied the Hindu religion in university, but the more I studied, the more convinced I became of its irrelevancy," he said. Later, he converted to Christianity, an act his family considered unforgivable.
"I returned to India when my father died, but my brothers would not permit me to enter the house. So you see, I really have no more family here.

Mahendra continued his education in the U.S., eventually earning a Ph.D. in psychology. His business was running seminars in relaxation and stress management, which had brought him to Bombay.
"But I've come all the way from Chicago and must turn around and go home," he said cheerily. "The fellow who arranged the seminar I came to lead cannot be found. No one answers his telephone, and his address does not exist. I'm afraid I've been duped." His contact had apparently collected the seminar fee from a couple hundred people and skipped town. Now Mahendra was obliged to do the same.

We were grateful for Mahendra's help, and for his company and for his example, handling his own stress and adversity with such calm. We invited him to spend the day with us, even though his services as a guide were unnecessary. For that we had Soonie.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

C: Some time ago you reneged on your obligation to meet the wishes and needs of your customers when you stopped publishing the weekly television schedule. The daily schedule you publish is inadequate, insufficient and incomplete. - R.F.

A: Of course the daily TV schedule is incomplete. With upwards of 500 channels available to cable and satellite subscribers (the vast majority of TV viewers these days), no one can publish a complete guide. Even TV Guide gave up on that.

The problem is: Which 8 percent of the channels would you like us to list? Not a single reader will be satisfied with our selection.

As I have mentioned before, we would be happy to print a weekly guide if it were at all useful to subscribers and advertisers would support it, but as we learned years ago, that's not going to happen. And printing a guide and selling it separately won't work either. We could never recoup the cost of the data, the paper and the printing from the number of copies that could be sold.