Chennai Time Out



This blog marks a hiatus in dispatches from Chennai. My resilient father celebrated his 93rd birthday on February 03 with a mild stroke. He downplays the event and has stubbornly told his doctor not to share information with me, so I’m going to see for myself. As T. E. Lawrence explained when asked what he was doing in Arabia, “I’m here to appreciate the situation.”

I’m leaving you with photos of the people–one cow, and one dog–who make up our local community. They represent the neighborhood and embody everything that I have come to enjoy about the past two years in Valmiki Nagar, Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai.

I’ll let you know about my dad’s health status when I learn it, and resume posts when I return.

All the best.


One of many.


The banker who changes my big bills.


Postmaster, Valmiki Nagar


My coffee vendor.


Shankar, our favorite auto driver.


Muthu, the coffee man and assistants.


The ladies at Indane Gas.


The always-smiling kabadiwalla.


The small grocer a few steps from the house.


The tailor on our street.


The brothers at Chandamama groceries.


The always-smiling street sweepers.


Electrical supplies.


The cane juice man.


My cobbler.


The leaf plate maker.


The idly / dosa batter shop.


A lovely dog who I pass many times a day.


A neighbor and her wares.


The ladies who sweep their thresholds.


My barber, times 4.


Carom players.


The tea/coffee stand at 4:30 AM.


We shake hands every time we pass.


Walking meditation.




A passing parade.


Our maid having breakfast.


The apartment building’s gardner cutting the lawn.


Dosa master.


Milk men at 4:00 AM.


Road repair team.


More tailors.


Cashier at our veg market.


Government liquor store.


Veg market owner.


Phone recharge man.


Ladies selecting coconuts.


Askar Ali of Five Star Classic grocery.

A greeting and smile every day_128small

Very happy young neighbor who always has a smile.

Itinerant Knife Sharpener_130small

Itinerant knife sharpener.

Seven on a Bike 1_131small

Seven on a bike!

Ladies on Doorstep_132small

Ladies admiring their kolam.

Thoughtful Kid on Bike_133small

Thoughtful cyclist.


Joy on a bike.

Cricket in the Courtyard_136small

Daily cricket in our courtyard.

Mother and Child_137small

Mom and daughter.

Local Brahman.

Local Brahman.


Lord willing and the creek don’t rise: Dispatch from the Disaster Zone II



With my first dispatch from the Chennai disaster zone, I focused on the relatively minor dislocations caused by flooding and power outages in our neighbourhood. The pictures below show repair work (agonizingly slow) on a street near us where floodwaters mixed with raw sewage.









Media stories describe how city administrators are responsible for the rampant and unplanned development that resulted in the nightmare. And with regard to emergency response, our local paper declares, “As the Chennai floods showed, Indian cities are barely capable of dealing with emergencies at any scale, let alone disasters.”

When Bev returned to work at Customer Analytics, she learned that at least four members of the staff lost everything in the catastrophe. I interviewed one of her colleagues for this account. (Except for his picture, the accompanying photos were taken by Rahul.)

Rahul Siddharth and his wife Smritee moved from Bengaluru to Chennai about eight months ago. His father and mother, Siddhartha and Bhuvana, arrived in the last week of October, relocating from Madison, Wisconsin after his dad retired.


Rahul Siddharth

The extended family—including two birds and two dogs, a Rottweiler–Boxer cross, and a Labrador—shared a rented ground-story house (one floor only). It is located in Manapakkam, a neighborhood not far from the Customer Analytics offices. (Their home is near the MIOT hospital where 18 patients on respirators died when the main and then backup power was lost.)

On December 1, at about 10:30 PM, Rahul took his umbrella and went for a walk in the rain. There was no electrical power in the neighbourhood, but no flooding. He returned to his house and went to bed. At around 1:00 in the morning, his father wakes him and says neighbours with flashlights are talking outside. He asks Rahul to find out what’s happening.

I went out and my car tires were under water. So I thought it’s time to get our documents, certificates and other important papers and valuables and get out of there. But it took us about 45 minutes to collect everything, and by that time the bonnet (hood) was under water. We were stuck. With the dogs and birds, we can’t go anywhere on foot.


Tops of cars visible from the terrace.

The family and menagerie go to the terrace (roof). Fortunately, the owner of the house had built a small toilet on the terrace, where Rahul stowed the bags and supplies. He had also retrieved a tent from the rising water inside the house, and rigged it up as a tarp.


Bhuvana standing next to tent / tarp.

The first night was the scariest. It was raining hard; we’re holding umbrellas, the four of us—my mom, my dad, my wife and me. The dogs were under the tent.

We were all very frightened because the water just kept rising. For a while I could see my car, then it disappeared under the water. And there was only about a foot between the water and where we were standing. For four or five hours that night I just stood staring at the water, hoping it wouldn’t come up. If that happened, then God save us.

I can swim, but my mom and wife can’t. Dad is an OK swimmer, but not great. And although I can swim it would be precarious. The current was strong and there are walls and telephone and electric poles, and you don’t know what you’ll hit, or what part of your body you’re going to break.

So we just stood there all night, waiting for the sun to come up. Thankfully, at some point the water stopped rising, and we had survived.


The water finally stopped rising.

In the morning they could see their neighbours on the upper floors of their houses. Rahul’s family stayed where they were on the terrace and waited all day for rescue, but none came.

The night before, I had made calls to everybody I could think of, including my brother in Mumbai—he’s a lawyer on the Mumbai High Court. I called him and asked him to reach out to everybody possible. To my amazement I got a call from Australia—I think it was a call centre—and they were apparently organizing relief activities. They said ‘Hang in there, help is going to come.’ That was on the first night. But help never arrived in the four days we were stranded.


Siddhartha contemplates the murky water.

In the late afternoon a neighbour shouted to them, asking if they had eaten anything. They told him they their last meal was the night before. He replied that he had only two packets of biscuits (cookies), but he would give them one. He threw the packet to them and the four shared it. They were thankful that they had the presence of mind to bring food for the dogs, but had forgotten food for themselves.

At about 5:00 in the afternoon a small boat appeared. It was not from a neighbour, but possibly a fisherman doing search and rescue. I think it was a two-man boat, but it already had four guys in it. It was fiberglass or something and was very unsteady when you stood in it.


Smritee and dog watch the arrival of a small boat.

But by that time we had decided we were going to send my mom and my wife to the neighbour’s house. Before the flood we didn’t really know the family, but they readily agreed to take Smritee and Bhuvana in.

Somehow we got my wife and mom into the little boat and it took them about 10 metres across what used to be the road. They climbed into a window on the second floor of the house opposite ours. Mom found it very difficult.

Rahul and his father stayed on the terrace, along with the dogs and birds. Neighbours helped Smritee and Bhuvana string a rope to a second house and from there to Rahul on the terrace. In this way food could be delivered in plastic bags. Thus, one house was actually feeding people in three houses. That evening Rahul and his dad received their first hot meal in two days; cooked rice with sambar gravy. They shared some with the birds.

The second night it rained hard. Both Rahul and Siddharth were exhausted, but every time they dozed off, the rain would awaken them. This continued all night, and they stayed wet.

When it rained my dad and I would each hold a dog and we would huddle under the tent. During the night I remember a half hour when it stopped raining. The stars were out and I could see Orion. That was really nice, really pleasing.

On the third morning it was obvious that Siddhartha was suffering. He has a bad knee and hip, and he agreed with Rahul that he should join his wife at the neighbour’s house. The water had begun to recede and was only chest deep, allowing him to wade across the street. The dogs were too frightened to go into the water, so Rahul stayed with them on the terrace.

At about noon Rahul ate pongal (rice dish) that had arrived in a plastic bag. “One of the best pongal’s I have ever eaten,” he declared. Smritee came over to join him later that evening. Earlier, Rahul had retrieved a foldable cot from the house, thinking they might get some sleep; he had barely slept in two days. He set up the cot under the tent before she arrived.

My wife told me to sleep and she would stay up for a bit. But she also fell asleep and it suddenly started raining. My big dog, the Rottweiler, got really scared by the lightening and thunder, so he just pushed my wife off the cot and slept next to me.

I should also mention that on the third night had no drinking water. So we covered a water bottle with a kerchief and caught rainwater. We had that to drink.

On the fourth day most of the water had receded, so Rahul’s parents decided to go to a cousin’s house and see if accommodations could be organized for the family for the next few days. They left at about 8:00 in the morning, but Rahul heard nothing from them during the day.

Worried, he set out on foot hoping to find some means of contacting them. But phones were not working. He also discovered that prices had suddenly skyrocketed for essentials. A 2-litre bottle of water was being sold at five times its usual price. The same for biscuits.

I had about 100 bucks (slang for rupees) in my pocket, and of course, none of the ATMs were working. So I bought a packet of biscuits and saved my last 50 bucks. I didn’t know if my parents were going to come back that day, and I wanted to save that 50 bucks in case I needed it for the next day, so I would at least have something to eat.


Debris left by the receding water.

Happily, at 5:00 PM his parents returned and announced that it was all set up, they can take the dogs and stay at the cousin’s house. So they all bundle into two auto rickshaws—four people, two dogs and two birds—and leave their flooded home behind.

Two days later Rahul and his wife go back to collect salvageable clothes. They find that the water had reached the ceiling. Strewn about are dead snakes, fish and frogs, and spoiled food. And everywhere is the stench of raw sewage. But most painfully, their personal effects are gone or ruined—photographs, letters and keepsakes, their history and their memories. They aren’t sure if they will move back into the house.


Possessions afloat on the rising water.

I don’t know what makes more sense financially, to move back in or get a new place. I’ve checked out a few houses for rent but the rates in Chennai have gone up so much in the last week…. If you look for a first-floor house the landlord says it is safe from flooding and is charging more for it. Meanwhile, all of the ground-floor houses are ruined, and you can’t even check them out.

Are they comfortable moving back into a house on the ground floor?

Well, I’m alright, but my wife is scared. She wants to leave the city. But it’s not only about the rains. It’s about the government not taking the right action. They are the people to be blamed for this. If they had sent out SMS alerts at the time they opened the dam, a lot of lives could have been saved. [The Chembarambakkam reservoir is about two hours from the city. The sluice gates were opened to prevent overflowing of the reservoir. Citizens along the Adyar River received no warning.] Politicians send out SMS messages to the whole country, but this could have saved lives.

There’s going to be an election in March for the state government, but I’m sure they’re going to turn it around some time in January when Pongal (annual festival) comes, and the government I’m sure will distribute money and food and turn them around like nothing ever happened.

The time I cried was when I went back to the house. A truck was on the street and something was being distributed. I thought it would be food. People were running up to the truck, a big crowd gathered, maybe 100 people. The back door of the truck was closed and a guy was pushing people away. Then I saw he was distributing lungis (a sarong worn by men in hot weather). Fucking lungis! When we need food and shelter! Excuse me …. [Rahul sobs.].

Coda: Rahul has found a two-story house with three bedrooms. He and his family have begun to rebuild their lives. Good luck to them.

Dispatch from a Disaster Zone


December 5, 2015


This piece was written on our fourth day without electricity or phone service. It was written the old fashioned way, during daylight with pen and paper. Electricity has been restored and having regained the use of the computer I am able to post the news electronically. [Note: five newspaper photos are from The Hindu.]


Monsoon rains have crippled Chennai. You are right to wonder at this because monsoons are predictable and have been visiting Chennai for many decades, centuries I suppose. True, the rains exceeded recorded totals going back 100 years, but still…. Total collapse. Electricity knocked out. Transport shut down. Phone service unavailable. Mayhem. Deaths. Drowning snakes. Blackness. And more rain.


The city has been declared an official disaster zone. Meanwhile, the Union Environment Minister blamed developing nations, linking the flooding to climate change for which India takes little if any responsibility.


Horribly, the disaster was predicted and avoidable. Warnings have been sounded for years about the inadequacy of the city’s infrastructure, especially the systems required to manage storm water. Rampant development without planning or regulation has put buildings in flood zones and on old lakebeds. River channels have been closed and built over. Slums accrete along existing rivers. And adequate drainage is absent from streets, buildings and even the Chennai International Airport, where planes sat grounded in two feet of water.


Disaster preparedness has similarly been neglected and the emergency response to this calamity has been woefully inadequate. Coordination, communications, equipment and trained personnel have all been conspicuous in their absence. Whole sections of the city appear to be officially abandoned to their fates, and must somehow manage with self-help alone. Many, many citizens have risen to the occasion, with countless examples of rescue and cooperative assistance.


Tragically, no help was available for 18 patients in a hospital that lost electrical power and its emergency generators flooded. The patients died when their ventilator support was lost. Government officials were quick to assign blame to the hospital—anxious I am sure about their own liabilities in mismanaging preparations for the disaster—and as usual “ordered a probe.”


Luckily, we are on the third floor of our building, located in a neighbourhood with only pockets of flooded streets. The worst is a two-block section near our apartment complex.

Neighborhood Street

We are dry and with the seasonally cooler temperatures (25°–29° C) we don’t need fans or air conditioning. We have suffered the relatively mild inconveniences of no electricity and periodic lack of tap water (which requires pumping to the tanks on the roof). Tap water is delivered by tanker trucks and we have been fortunate to have had continuous service. Our brief interruptions of service when the roof tanks are drained mean that we can’t rinse kitchen utensils, flush toilets, or wash our hands.

Man Wading

The absence of electricity is a discomforting reminder or our dependence upon it. Without it we have cold showers, no lights, no computers, no electrical appliances in the kitchen, and no fridge. The picture below is of the charging station set up in our apartment complex with diesel-generated electrical power.

Apt. Recharging Station

Electricity has been slow to be restored because wires are underground and the local Utility is fearful of electrocutions. The state of the electrical infrastructure makes that a valid concern.

Wading Woman

Like everyone in our building we have a battery that supplies power during the regular but intermittent outages during the day (continuously throughout the year). During prolonged blackouts however the battery will drain and we are literally in the dark. Luckily, we have LPG gas in the kitchen and can cook a meal and boil water in a pot for tea and coffee.

Trash 3Trash 4

At five o clock in the evening we are in darkness and require candles or flashlights for navigation. Forgetting where you put something requires a laborious search in very dim light. Reading by candlelight is a vivid illustration of what our forebears endured, with wax dotting the page and eyes ruined with the strain. Gaslight must have been a joyous invention and the electric light bulb a miracle.

Filling Water Vessels 2

The parking garage in our basement flooded and the cars are now parked on the street. Ominously (dare I say imprudently?), the electrical panels for the building are also in the garage, and the rising water threatened to immerse them. This would have caused damage and prevented us from receiving electricity when it is eventually delivered from the substation. A diesel-powered pump worked around the clock, and water tankers were enlisted to suck out the floodwaters. The efforts succeeded and power was restored late in the day.

New Beach Road

The northeast monsoons continue to bring heavy rains to the city, but the storms are becoming fewer and shorter in duration. I now wish we had brought golf umbrellas, good rain gear and rubber boots.

People Out After The Rain

Yesterday we ventured out on a reconnaissance mission lasting a couple of hours. We saw people lining up at pumps or at the back of water trucks with their vessels. Uncollected garbage was abundant and rotting. Without electricity, most shops were closed. Many pharmacies were open, but operating without lights or functional cash registers. A few coffee and tea stalls were operating, and miraculously we found our favourite dosa shop functioning under generator power. We stopped in for an early lunch.

Filling Water Vessels

Isolated road flooding remains in our neighbourhood, which thankfully was never completely inundated. The adjoining neighbourhood to the south, which is where I took my daily walk, remains cut off with roads under 2 1/2 feet of water. I worry about the street dog I fed daily, now trapped behind a moat of fetid water.

Fixing an Auto

Our brief foray was the smelliest walk we have taken in Chennai. Cow dung, dog droppings and raw sewage join rotting garbage and organic waste in a foul rain-fed soup. The mud on the edge of large puddles is especially malodorous. Walking in floodwater is dangerous for a number of reasons (snakes, electrical shock) but the most significant is risk of disease. Returning from a walk we always wash our feet thoroughly and hope for the best.

Playfield and Court

The situation in other parts of the city is much worse than ours. Flooding in many areas reached the second and third floors of buildings. Slums along the rivers were deluged. Dwellings had to be abandoned, often with no chance to recover belongings. The poor suffer the most. Food and water has been slow to arrive (if ever), and citizens, NGOs, restaurants and bakeries have stepped up. Hotels and theatres opened their doors as shelters. Public schools have also become emergency shelters.


The collapse of transportation services has had especially unfortunate consequences. People trapped at the airport or at train stations are hungry and sleep on concrete floors without emergency rations or services. Without coordination, the situation for the elderly and families with young children is grim. Those trying to leave the city on trains and buses scramble desperately for seats. Meanwhile, no trains left a main station when it was discovered that track beds had washed away.

Veg Market In Operation

In the weeks to come, and as the monsoon rains finally abate, the city will return to a semblance of its unique version of normalcy. Blame will be assigned far and wide by feuding political parties; studies will be launched—resulting in lengthy reports that will be printed and shelved unread; inadequate and failing infrastructure will continue to deteriorate; and municipal staff will draw their salaries. Planning for a recurrence will cross no one’s mind.


In our home we keep calm and carry on. We are not shivering and we will not starve. Bev will soon enough be back at work when they drain the neighbourhood where her office is located.


We are now much more mindful of our good fortune, as well as our vulnerabilities. And we sleep a little longer in the mornings, enjoying the absence of the noisy crows that are hunkered down somewhere trying to stay dry.

A Walk in the Neighbourhood

A Walk in the Neighbourhood

A short photo essay.



Rooftop Deck

Rooftop Deck



Bus Shelter + Seating

Bus Shelter + Seating

Sleeping it Off

Sleeping it Off

Water Truck Shower

Water Truck Shower

Old and New Chennai

Chennai Old and New

Bank Front Door

Bank Front Door (Yes, We’re Open!)

Protected Dog

Protected Dog

Private Shrine

Private Shrine (Bricks with Dresses)

Smilin' Buddha

Smilin’ Buddha

No Wasted Space

No Wasted Space

Elaborate Gate + Dog

Elaborate Gate + Dog

Doctor's Office Clock

Doctor’s Office Clock (We Gamble With Your Health)

Highrise Construction

Highrise Construction

Construction Labourer

Construction Labourer

Mystery Structure in Park

Mystery Structure in Park (closed to public)

Walkability Chennai

Walkability Chennai

No Junk Just Art

No Junk, Just Art

Three-storey Flats

Three-storey Flats

"Arise and Shine"

“Arise ‘n Shine”

Taking it Easy

Taking it Easy

Public Urinal

Public Urinal

Contemplating the Buddha


Contemplating the Buddha

Smilin' Buddha

Last month I spent a week riding a bicycle in Sri Lanka. It was an organized tour that took a small group to five of Sri Lanka’s UNESCO World Heritage sites. If that sounds a bit academic and dry, I assure you it wasn’t. All our hotels were five-star, each with a pool and bar. Following a day’s ride and quick dip, we convened at the bar and proceeded to mix Elephant House Ginger Beer with Lion lager to make a shandy (or radler—Bavarian for cyclist). Delicious, refreshing and wet.


Hotel Pool 1 Hotel Pool

The official name of the country is the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, and despite this anachronistic moniker, it is a presidential parliamentary democracy. Sinhala translates to “lion people” and refers to the myths regarding the descent of the legendary founder of the Sinhalese people, the Prince Vijaya.  The former names of the country “Serendib”, “Seylan” and “Ceylon” all derived from the old name “Sinhale”.

The island was ceded to the British in 1796, became a crown colony in 1802, and was formally united under British rule in 1815. As Ceylon, it became independent in 1948, and its name was changed to Sri Lanka in 1972. The name means ‘resplendent island’ in Sinhalese.

Tensions between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists erupted into war in 1983, and it was 26 years before the Sri Lankan government could announce that its military had defeated the remnants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. An estimated 100,000 people died in the carnage. In February of this year, following an intense lobbying campaign by the country’s newly elected government, the United Nations Human Rights Council agreed to defer until September the release of a landmark inquiry into possible war crimes.

The area of the country is 65.5 thousand sq. km, which is slightly larger than West Virginia, and a bit smaller than Ireland. You could fit 14 Sri Lanka’s into the land area of British Columbia, although the Sri Lanakans wouldn’t like the climate.


The population of almost 22 million Sri Lankans is 75% ethnic Sinhalese, with Tamils and Moors making up the rest. The first Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka in the 6th century B.C.E., probably from northern India. Modern genetic investigations suggest that the Sinhalese are most closely related to the Bengali people.

The Sinhalese are predominantly Theravada Buddhists, although a small percentage follow branches of Christianity. Theravada, the oldest Buddhist school, is practiced mostly in Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and Thailand. Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any Buddhist nation, and there are some 6,000 Buddhist monasteries and more than 15,000 monks in the country.


Our bike tour took us to the following important Buddhist sites:

Sacred City of Kandy

Golden Temple of Dambulla

Ancient City of Sigiriya

Ancient City of Polonnaruwa

Sacred City of Anuradhapura

On our first day we rode from the airport city of Negombo, northward along the coast and then inland to the Sacred City of Kandy. Founded in the 14th century, Kandy was the last capital of the Sinhala kings, whose patronage enabled the Dinahala culture to flourish for more than 2,500 years until the occupation of Sri Lanka by the British in 1815. The city, along with Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura, and the interior sites at Dambulla and Sigiriya, comprise Sri Lanka’s ‘Cultural Triangle’.




Temple Interior

Kandy is the site of the Temple of the Tooth (Daladha Maligala), one of the most sacred Buddhist pilgrimage destinations. The Buddha’s left upper canine tooth–there was remarkably good record keeping back then–was reputedly stolen from the flames of his funeral pyre in 543 B.C.E.

For 800 years, the Tooth was kept at Dantapura in the State of Orissa (now Odisha), India, and smuggled into Sri Lanka during the 4th century C.E. This tooth relic is allegedly enshrined in the Temple of the Tooth.

Worshipping Tooth Relic Casket

Worshipping Tooth Relic Casket

I am providing some advice to pilgrims visiting the Tooth relic. The refreshingly candid notes on crowd control are consistent with my experience at most temples in India. Also note the reference to the civil war.

At the entrance, which consists of a bridge over the moat, is a large Kandyan style moonstone and on either side of the stairs are two stones carvings of elephants with their drivers. All this is recent, the originals having been completely destroyed in a terrorist bomb attack of 1998.

The Tooth itself is rarely displayed. If you wish to worship the Tooth close up it will be necessary to come at about 5 p.m. on any evening and stand in line. When the doors open you will pass quickly through two small rooms to the third room where the Tooth is kept. It is not usually possible to notice much, as the crowds are large and the attendants keep everyone moving. In a minute, you will be standing before the large golden stupa that enshrines the Tooth, and a minute later you will be out the side door.

The following day we headed north to Dambulla, where a few kilometres south is a Buddhist cave-temple complex established in the 3rd century B.C.E. The site has been in continuous use for over 22 centuries, starting when it was occupied by a Buddhist monastic establishment following the arrival of Buddhism on the island.

Golden Temple Dumballa

Exterior of Golden Temple Caves

In the 12th century, King Nissankamalla had the lying, sitting and standing Buddha images in the largest cave gilded, naming it ‘Golden Rock Cave’. It was subsequently enlarged and five temples constructed. It is now known as the Golden Temple (referring to the entire complex) and is a sacred pilgrimage site.

Dambulla Buddha stupa Dambulla Cave Temple

The cave monastery, with its five sanctuaries, contains 157 statues and mural paintings covering an area of 2,100 sq. m. Most of the paintings were done in the 18th and early 19th century, while a few were painted in the early 20th century. The excavated shrine-caves, their painted surfaces, and statuary are considered unique in scale and degree of preservation.

DSCN0626 DSCN0630

Our next stop was the Ancient City of Sigiriya. It is an important archaeological site dominated by a massive rock nearly 200 metres high. As usual, the area was first a Buddhist monastic settlement dating to the 3rd century. Sigiriya was a Mahayana monastery and meant to suggest Mount Potala or an imitation of it. One ancient text calls the place the Lion Mountain (Sihagiri) but the earlier and probably original name was the Mountain of Remembrance (Sihigiri).


The top of the rock (the Lion Rock) has the ruins of an ancient citadel and palace built by King Kashyapa during the 5th century. He founded his capital here, but ruled for only eleven years. When this unsavory king left, Buddhist monastics settled in the area until about the 13th or 14th century.

DSCN0691 Sigirya Palace Site

Halfway up are rock paintings—The Maidens of the Clouds. The paintings have a close resemblance to paintings seen in the Ajanta caves in India. It is suggested that they represent Tara, the consort of Avalokitesvara, and her attendants. Tradition says that Avalokitesvara has 108 names, one of which is Natha and it is under this name that the bodhisattva is still worshipped in Sri Lanka.

Tara Rock Painting

For me the site had double significance. The site is considered one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning—very elaborate and imaginative—and it has one of the oldest landscaped gardens in the world, including water gardens, cave and boulder gardens, and terraced gardens.

The plan combined concepts of symmetry and asymmetry to intentionally interlock the man-made geometrical and natural forms of the surroundings. On the west side of the rock lies a park for the royals, laid out on a symmetrical plan; the park contains water-retaining structures, including sophisticated surface/subsurface hydraulic systems, some of which are working today. The moats and walls that surround the lower palace are exquisitely beautiful.

The next stop on the tour was Polonnaruwa, the second capital of Sri Lanka after the destruction of Anuradhapura in 993. The city reflects several civilizations, notably that of the conquering Cholas, disciples of Brahminism, and that of the Sinhalese sovereigns during the 12th and 13th centuries.

Polonnaruwa Vatadage Polonnaruwa Ruins

Polonnaruwa, like Sigiriya, also held special interest for me, comprising as it does the monuments built by the Cholas, and the extensive ruins of the remarkable garden-city created by Parakramabahu in the 12th century. The site is regarded as one of history’s most astonishing urban creations, both because of its unusual dimensions, and because of the very special relationship of its buildings with the setting and environment. It goes without saying that it is a shrine of Buddhism and of Sinhalese history.

DSCN0763 DSCN0771



Our last stop was the sacred city of Anuradhapura, established around a cutting from the ‘tree of enlightenment’, the Buddha’s fig tree, brought from Inida in the 3rd century B.C.E. by Sanghamitta, the founder of an order of Buddhist nuns. The Bodhi tree flourished and now spreads from a sanctuary near the Brazen Palace. The city was a political and religious capital that thrived for 1,300 years, but was abandoned after an invasion in 993. Hidden in dense jungle for many years, the impressive site, with its palaces, monasteries and monuments, is accessible once again.


Bodhi Tree

The city is one of the main shrines of Buddhism and holds many temples and stupa (literally “heap,”) a mound-like, hemispherical structure containing relics and used as a place of meditation.

DSCN0814 Great Stupa Anuradhapura Anuradhapura



Professor Robert Thurman, Uma’s dad, and co-founder with Richard Gere and Philip Glass of Tibet House U.S., elaborates on the definition:

Stupas… demonstrate the triumph of enlightenment’s wisdom over suffering’s ignorance. They are memorials… to the possibility of freedom from suffering for all beings. They signal the triumphal reality of a nature that enables beings to evolve to experience the ultimate fulfilment of perfect bliss, beyond death and unsatisfying life. Stupas stand as eloquent testimony to the higher purpose of life, beyond competing or struggling, getting or spending. Consciously or subliminally, they help turn people’s minds away from their frustrating obsessions and towards their own higher potential.
(From the foreword to Buddhist Stupas in Asia: the Shape of Perfection).

I vote we replace the ooky pyramid on the U.S. dollar bill with a stupa.

Mahachatiya, the Great Stupa in Anuradhapura is apparently the largest ever built, with a diameter of 294 feet at the base and a height of 300 feet. We just happened to be on-site when the new “robe” was carried to the stupa for ceremonial wrapping. Lay Buddhists were actively involved.


Lay Buddhists carrying the 294 foot “robe” for the stupa.


One startling revelation for me on this bike tour of Sri Lanka was Buddhism as a lived religion. Almost everyone I met was a Buddhist, including our riding guide and van driver, bartenders, hotel staff, street sweepers, and so on.

Growing up in Vancouver I had scant exposure to Buddhism. Of course, in the ’60s I was aware of self-immolating monks in Vietnam, and I was an avid reader of the Beat authors Jack Kerouac (Dharma Bums) and Gary Snyder (a poet and Buddhist scholar). I also read Alan Watts (The Way of Zen) and Shunryu Suzuki (Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind).

In 1980, my curiosity brought me to a lecture by the Dalai Lama, and a few years later, in a small church on the edge of Vancouver’s West End, I was awestruck by the chanting of Gyuto monks and the sound of their dungchen (Tibetan long trumpets).

Later still, at the Victoria Art Gallery I was transfixed by the 5-day creation of a sand mandala by monks, which when finished, was tossed into the ocean to symbolize the transitory nature of material life. And more recently, I visited the Deer Park Monastery near San Diego, a mindfulness practice center founded by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I had a nice lunch.

But among my friends there were no Buddhists and I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to become a practitioner. So I arrived in Sri Lanka burdened with several misconceptions that I suspect might be typical among Westerners: that Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion; that Buddhism is all about enlightenment and not day-to-day life; and, that the sophisticated meditative practices and philosophical insights found in the ancient texts provide a model for all Buddhists to follow.

As a corrective to my woeful ignorance, and to expand my knowledge of the variety of ways there are to “be” Buddhist, I undertook a bit of remedial study. One source summed it up nicely:

All religion must deal with people’s actual daily needs, and the needs of Buddhists do not differ from those of others: to be materially comfortable, to be healthy, to be surrounded by family and friends, to live a long life after which one goes to heaven.

OK, gotcha. Heaven here we come!

Several schools and sects of Buddhism exist, differing often on the nature of the Buddha, the extent to which enlightenment can be achieved—for one or for all, and by whom—religious orders or laity. I discovered that the basis of Buddhist life is morality; that until the modern period very few monks practiced meditation; that wisdom is progressive with meditation; and only when wisdom is perfected does enlightenment result.

Most Buddhists—past and present—have focused on the development of a sound moral foundation, one that may take numerous lifetimes to establish. Some texts are designed for those who are at the foundational stage (morality), others for those who have progressed beyond that (meditation).

In Buddhism, one achieves a moral foundation through the accumulation of merit. The merit is acquired by individuals and brings pragmatic and religious benefit to them, but it also benefits society through the redistribution of wealth and merit to family and friends, transfer of merit and rituals performed, and donations to religious specialists. This is the religious path followed by most Buddhists.

A historically and sociologically informed overview of how Buddhism is lived in individual lives falls into four interlocking tracks of legitimate Buddhist striving: 1) pragmatic wellbeing, via rituals and merit-making; 2) moral cultivation, via donations, pure conduct, and compassionate acts; 3) better rebirth (human or in a heaven), via merit-making and merit transfer; 4) seeking nirvana, via meditation.

That seems clear enough.

So against this background, what in Buddha’s name is going on in Myanmar?

The answer to that question is my second revelation arising from a pleasant holiday trip in Sri Lanka— Buddhism is being corrupted. Buddhist fundamentalism is spreading in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand, and the media increasingly report violent attacks on religious minorities–mostly Muslims.

In Sri Lanka, the resurgence of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism began after the end of the final phase of the military’s war against Tamil Tigers in 2009, which had resulted in the death of tens of thousands of civilians. The military victory led to contemplation on the nation’s identity, allowing the regime to promote ethno-religious nationalism to gain legitimacy for actions that were otherwise contrary to democracy and international law. (See note above about UN report on war crimes.) The war was portrayed as a struggle against Tamil nationalism and the victory as a triumph for Buddhism.

Ashin Wirathu is an ultranationalist Buddhist monk, and the spiritual leader of the anti-Muslim movement in Myanmar. He is a textbook demagogue, and describes himself as the “bin Laden” of Buddhism. Time Magazine put his picture on their cover in 2013.


For almost three decades, Wirathu has espoused his belief that the Muslims have a “master plan” to convert the predominantly Buddhist Myanmar to Islam. He has been held responsible by critics and human rights groups for the Rohingya boat people crisis.

The Rohingya are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. They are mostly Muslims living in Myanmar and other parts of South Asia and Southeast Asia, but the Myanmar government refuses to recognize them as citizens. Many are denied basic rights and access to welfare services. There are an estimated 1.3 million Rohingyas living in the country’s Rakhine State.

In 2012, Wirathu led a rally of monks to promote President Thein Sein’s controversial plan to send Rohingya Muslims to a third country. According to the Myanmar authorities, the violence, between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, left 78 people dead, 87 injured, and up to 140,000 people displaced. A number of monks’ organisations have also taken measures to boycott NGOs which they believe helped only Rohingyas in the past decades.

In 2015, to escape systemic violence and persecution from the Myanmar government, thousands of Rohingyas migrated from the country. Collectively dubbed as ‘boat people’ by international media they sailed to Southeast Asian countries including Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand in rickety boats. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates about 25,000 people have taken to boats from January to March 2015. The exodus of the Rohingyas from Myanmar in crowded fishing boats is the latest in the chapter of the brutal history of a community victimized by the government of the country they lived in for generations.

It goes without saying that the portrayal of a threat to the majority religion and the linking of Buddhism to the national identity, are both against true Buddhist principles. Yet Buddhist extremist groups are now seeking to form an international alliance of “likeminded” organizations to address their “concerns,” such as blasphemy against Buddhism. Does the project sound familiar?

These unprecedented developments raise many concerns, not least among them continuing attacks on Muslim minorities, threats to international security and tarnishing of the reputation of Buddhism as a religion of peace.

The turning away of refugees in boats in Southeast Asia and Europe is one of the more unfortunate patterns of nations. Forget the language of “we’re in a global boat together”, when faced with immigrants fleeing persecution, economic devastation, and hunger, there are many reasons to say no. We forget the disgraceful episodes in the past, whether the Komagata Maru in 1914 or the MS St. Louis in 1939 (The Voyage of the Damned), and now countries in Europe denying entry to the Mediterranean boat people.

We have conveniently forgotten a shameful discussion at the Hotel Royal in Évian les Bains on Lake Geneva in July, 1938. It was there that 31 nations met to discuss the plight of the Jews of Germany and Austria, and although many delegations voiced ‘eloquent dismay’ over the torment experienced by the Jews, those sentiments were rhetorical only. The outcome of the meeting was a polite but blank denial of reality. Neither Europe, nor the United States, nor Canada nor Australia would accept the refugees in any meaningful number.

Today, many countries are in what Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, calls moral default.

 Must we not ask ourselves, therefore, what will be our future, if we succumb to a thinness of mind, to a fanatic populism, where our fears are so easily stirred, our reasoning so easily subdued? If all states, in due course, mimic the most anti-immigrant of countries, and garrison their foreign policy with barbed wire, machinegun nests, and naval vessels; impenetrable to the suffering of the wretched who flee war and persecution—what will be our common destination then? To what address will humanity go?

The power to choose between good and evil is within reach for all of us, as Origen says. Moral blankness—an indifference to the fate of others—is a choice. We may understand it, but we must resist it. When people retract into blankness about the fate of others, this may stem from fear. It may be a partial blankness—”our” group is important, “their” group is not fully equal, fully deserving of human rights. The need for the sense of belonging—we matter, but they do not—is a powerful tug. But the path of moral blankness and discrimination leads to hatred, and to the world of war. Unchecked, it threatens us all.

Buddhist fundamentalists and rabid nationalists have chosen moral blankness, a very surprising revelation for me. They make no merit, they renounce moral cultivation and any hope of a better rebirth, and they have abandoned the path to nirvana. What a bizarre turn of events and what a wretched shame.



By The Numbers


As sceptical as I generally am about group identities, I think we should celebrate Ireland’s historic popular vote to approve same-sex marriage, an act that the NY Times calls “a stand for love, common sense and justice.” Indeed.


And as a Canadian only by accident of birth, and deeply suspicious of nationalism, I confess pride at the impending 10th anniversary of the day (July 20, 2005) when we became the fourth country in the world—and the first country outside Europe—to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. (Technically, the decision by the Ontario government to recognize a marriage that took place in Toronto on January 14, 2001, retroactively makes Canada the first country in the world to have a government-legitimized same-sex marriage.)


If rooting for the home team is to be done at all, Canada is a worthy choice.To whit:

  •  The Canadian healthcare system provides public coverage for a combination of public and private delivery, and all provinces offer universal health insurance. Unlike other single-payer health systems in the world, Canada is unusual in banning the purchase of private insurance or care for any listed healthcare service—an intervention meant to prevent a two-tier system that would allow the rich to jump the queue.
  • Kids In The Hall will make people laugh for many centuries.
  • Capital punishment was abolished in 1976.
  • Canada is one of only a few nations globally with no legal restrictions on abortion—since 1969, it has been entirely a decision made by a woman with her doctor.
  • Frozen lakes and rivers in winter provide time-saving shortcuts between home and work.
  • High quality public elementary and secondary education is provided nationwide at nominal cost, and both the federal and provincial governments subsidize post-secondary schooling. The most recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) ranking of students’ abilities in core academic subjects places Canada 15th on the list of 65 OECD countries and regions.
  •  And of 162 countries, the Institute for Economics and Peace ranks Canada the 7th most peaceful nation on earth. It is behind Iceland, Denmark, Austria, New Zealand, Switzerland and Finland, but far ahead of the United States (ranked 101) and India (ranked 143). The indicators are revealing, and include militarization, domestic and internal conflict and national cost of violence. In the latter category, the amount in 2014 for the United States was estimated at $1.7 trillion, for India $177 billion, and for Canada $32 billion.











On the subject of statistics, Bev is soon to be 49 and we just celebrated our 28th wedding anniversary. These increments of time have some meaning, but we’re not sure exactly what. As the top half of the hourglass drains time; the bottom half accumulates experiences, thoughts, emotions, achievements, knowledge, perhaps wisdom… none of which can close that distant hole above.













Still, we measure and count. Age reached, milestones achieved, years worked, rungs climbed, letters appended, accolades received, awards won, money earned, people friended, land owned, square feet occupied, miles travelled, places visited, sites seen, pounds gained, ounces lost, stuff acquired, grandchildren produced, guests attended, costs accounted, values deducted, benefits listed, and on and on.












Speaking of India and numbers, it is hot at this time of year. It is 40° Celsius today (104° Fahrenheit). But I musn’t complain, as it got to 45° C in Lucknow. You do the math and swoon.




It reached 41.1° C last week in Chennai and the paper declared that it was hot. I thank them for making it official. You sit around in a stupefied daze, and when you move ever so slowly, you immediately begin to drip sweat from head to toe. A ten-minute shuffle to the grocery will require a shower and a complete change of clothes, including underwear. Even the locals can only grin and bear it, and mad dogs and Englishmen are a rare sight.




I’m going abroad (the term here is “out of station”) to Sri Lanka tomorrow for a five-day bicycle ride. It is an organized tour and will visit five of the eight UNESCO World Heritage sites of the country. I’ve been in training for a month, attempting to lose weight and get my legs in some kind of shape for the trip. Because of the heat and traffic, I go for 20 km rides in the morning at 4:00am.

And on a final numerical note, India must be in the top rank of countries in the category of colors applied to a single house. How many can you count?

Back By Popular Demand


Happy Tamil New Year! It was yesterday, April 14.

I apologize for having been delinquent in my blog posts, but I’m back with pen in hand. This post is a hodge-podge by way of catching up.

I spent the past four months as a volunteer tutor of English at an elite private school—grades 9-12. Ostensibly I was polishing the written English of proficient students. I met with small groups every day, 8:30 am–noon, five days a week.

The students were having the usual problems: organizing their time and ideas in exams; punctuation; unnecessary words; complicated words when simple would do; never re-reading their work; goofy Indo-British locutions, and so forth.

But I threw in the towel because most of the students were less than fully engaged. They never did any homework, which would have allowed me to see and correct their writing. I was cast in the role of a deaf piano teacher or a blind tennis coach. Or perhaps a cow with a horn going the wrong way.

Cow with Twisted Horn

Near the end, a real shock for me was asking my students to write a short paragraph explaining effective communication and why it matters. To my astonishment the question drew a complete blank. The kids didn’t have a clue. Some of them bravely guessed that it had something to do with appearing smart. Others suggested it enabled you to manipulate others. Uh huh.

I now know the subject is not taught, and it makes me sad. It’s either “God help us all,” or, “Krishna wept.” Should I tweet that?

In late January we attended our first northern wedding.

Bev and the Bride

Wedding Picture

It was in Rajasthan and we visited Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaipur.


Udaipur Hotel

Udaipur, the Venice of India

Blue Jodhpur


  Colourful dress, impressive forts and palaces, great food.

Mandore Gardens, Jodhpur


Pepper Vendor Horse Colorful Clothes Autorickshaw Jodhpur Colorful Saris

The Market

Market, Udaipur

Commemorative Tomb Jodhpur

Washing on the Ghat


City Palace, Udaipur

Palace to Taj Hotel, Jaipur

Garlic Man









Along the way I picked up and enjoyed A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Maharini of Jaipur by Gayatri Devi. I highly recommend it. Here’s an excerpt:

From England we went on to America [1948], the first time either of us had visited the United States. As we started to go about New York, I was charmed by the friendliness of everyone. I loved being called ‘Honey’ or ‘Dear’ by salesgirls. Once a taxi-driver asked me if I came from Puerto Rico, and when I said , “No, from India,” he started to tell me all the things I could do and see in New York without spending any money. [At the time she was one of the wealthiest women in the world.] “It’s free,” he kept repeating as he listed Central Park and the zoo, various museums and a number of other things. I suppose he assumed that anyone from India had to be poor. I wondered whether I looked like a refugee.

To our surprise we discovered that there is a significant Indian community in Dublin and one of the relatives of the bride at the wedding in Jaipur is a prominent member of that group. Who knew? We now have a standing invitation to Dublin as the guests of Babu Yadav and family.

When I first arrived in India I did some necessary reading. Here is a short list:  Gandhi’s autobiography The Story of My Experiments with Truth; Nehru’s Autobiography and his Glimpses of World History; The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, by Louis Fischer; Tagore’s Selected Essays; a number of books by Ramachandra Guha, the most notable being Patriots and Partisans; The Argumentative Indian by Amartya Sen; and The Untold Charminar: Writings on Hyderabad, edited by Syeda Imam.

More recently I’ve supplemented my readings in political and social history of India with cultural fare such as: A Southern Music, by TM Krishna (we’ve heard him in concert), Prashad: Cooking with Indian Masters; the novel One Part Woman, by Perumal Murugan (recently hounded by religious zealots into professional silence); Signature: Patterns in Gond Art; and, Between Memory and Museum: A Dialogue with Folk and Tribal Artists.

The real gem however is the National Cyclopaedia 1923: A Manual of Useful Information. A neighbor lent this to me, and how I wish I had a full collection of them.

National Cyclopaedia Lady Non-Cooperators

Here are some excerpts:

“Edited by P. T. Chandra with a forward by Marmaduke Pickthall. (The name Marmaduke must be resurrected immediately.)


In view of the paucity of Reference books in this country, the publishers have ventured to bring out this handy volume.

Brevity is the necessity of the compilation, but practically all the important subjects, including the affairs of women, have been included.

The publishers are, of course, fully conscious of several omissions and imperfections in the present volume, but these have been more or less unavoidable. It is hoped, however, that as this fledgling grows in years and puts on fresh feathers, improvements will be marked and many.

The price of the book has been kept very low so that it may suit all pockets. It is to be hoped that this book, issued after great labour and cost, will receive from the generous public the indulgence that it is due.


 Administration of India: Ancient Republics (p. 2)

It may be here observed that the conception of the King as the servant of the State was one of the basic principle of political thought in Ancient India. The Sukranti says, “(Brahma) created the King to be the servant of his subjects.” Again if the king is an enemy of virtue, morality and power, and is unrighteous in conduct, the people should expel him as a destroyer of the State.

(For contemporary context to such wacky ideas, see John Burns’ reflections on a career as foreign correspondent for the New York Times, The Things I Carried Back).

Dictionary of Events [selections]

  • 1757 – Clive draws up fictitious treaty to deceive Omichand; Battle of Plassey, beginning of British Empire in India; Enormous sums exacted from Mir Jafar [first Nawab of Bengal under Company rule in India] by the British.
  • 1764 – Sepoy mutiny in English camp, twenty-four ringleaders blown from guns.
  • 1771 –  Bengal desolated by famine.
  • 1813 –  New Charter of East India Company; Company compelled to spend one lakh (100,000) of rupees a year on encouraging indigenous learning and Western science; Indian cotton manufacturers subjected to burdensome duties in England.
  • 1858 –  India transferred to the Crown; Queen Victoria’s Proclamation published at Allahabad; Indian navy abolished.
  • 1865 – Terrible famine in Orissa, resulting in the death of about 10 lakhs of people.
  • 1866 – Severe famine in Madras; Commercial crisis in Bombay.
  • 1873 – Famine in Behar; Fall of stones from sky at Jhung and Khairpur.
  • 1876 – Terrible famine.
  • 1877 – Queen Victoria proclaimed Empress; Famine deaths estimated at 5 ¼ million.
  • 1896 – Appearance of famine and bubonic plague.
  • 1898 – Plague at Calcutta; Sections 124A, 153A and 108 of Criminal Procedure Code passed, further infringing liberty of people.
  • 1899 – Lord Curzon appointed Viceroy; Famine in Marwar, one million men immigrate.
  • 1900 – Famine visitation.
  • 1902 – Plague riots at Patiala
  • 1903 – King Edward VII proclaimed Emperor; Coronation Durbar at Delhi, magnificent pageant organized involving heavy expenditure in face of protests of people who were already suffering from famine and poverty.
  • 1908 – Repressive Legislation.
  • 1910 – Press Act passed, further repressing the liberty of the press.
  • 1913 – Tagore awarded Noble [sic] Prize for Literature.
  • 1914 – Budge Budge riot among Sikh immigrants returning from Canada (on the ship Komagata Maru).
  • 1919 – People adopt Satyagraha; Mahatma Gandhi arrested; Disturbances at several places; Punjab placed under Martial Law; Jallianwalla Qatal [slaughter]; Sir Sankaran Nair resigns Membership of Executive Council as protest against Government action in Punjab; Tagore gives up Knighthood.
  • 1920 – Punjab Disturbances Committee’s Report published, whitewashing the perpetrators; People disappointed and sore; Special Congress meets at Calcutta, Non-cooperation resolved upon.”


For those who might not know, in the late afternoon of April 13, 1919, Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer entered the Jallianwalla Bagh (garden) where a man on a raised platform was addressing a large crowd. The occasion was Punjabi New Year and the harvest festival Vaisakhi.

Without warning Dyer ordered his 50 Gurkha and Baluchi soldiers to fire on the crowd, which they did for about ten minutes. 1,650 rounds were fired, killing 379 and wounding 1,137. Women and children were among the victims.

Several days after the bloodbath, General Dyer published his “crawling order” that required anyone passing the street where the headmistress of a girl’s school in Amritsar–who had been previously assaulted by a mob and rescued–would have to go on all fours. Dyer erected a whipping post on the site of her attack.

“I thought I would be doing a jolly lot of good.” Dyer said of his actions. Many Englishmen were ashamed of his behaviour, but many defended him. He died in retirement in 1927. India achieved independence twenty years later.

On that somber note, and with India struggling to emerge from the dark shadow of the Raj (serial famines, plagues, grinding poverty, stones falling from the sky, Empress Victoria and Emperor Edward, Dyer et al) and 63 massacres–mostly Hindu vs Muslim–since independence in 1947. Once again, happy new year.


Happy New Year


Every morning here in Tamil Nadu, millions of women draw kolams on the ground with white rice flour. A kolam is a geometrical line drawing composed of curved loops, drawn around a grid pattern of dots. It is widely practiced by female Hindu family members in front of their houses as a sign of invitation to welcome all into the home, not the least of whom is Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth.


Kolams were originally drawn in coarse rice flour, so the ants would not have to walk too far or too long for a meal. The rice powder also invited birds and other small creatures to eat it, thus welcoming other beings into one’s home and everyday life—a daily tribute to harmonious co-existence.

P1000805s P1000803s P1000800s P1000799s P1000798s P1000796s P1000795s P1000794s P1000793s

Folklore has evolved to mandate that the lines must be completed so as to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering the inside of the shapes, and thus are they prevented from entering the inside of the home. It used to be a matter of pride to be able to draw large complicated patterns without lifting the hand off the floor or standing up in between.

I hope your year is free of evil spirits and that you catch a glimpse of Lakshmi.


The Funny Papers


All material guaranteed verbatim from The Hindu newspaper. Photos by M. Lytton, not retouched.

 Orwell museum or satyagraha park first?

“We’re committed to opposing the construction of the Orwellian museum as the satyagraha park should be developed first.” [Some of the writing is truly Orwellian.]

Authentic Indian Restaurant

Jayaraman, chairperson of the erstwhile Tiruvotiyur municipality….[Erstwhile?]

Villagers perform elephants’ last rites.

21-day ritual observed for two pachyderms struck by lightning. At a time when every week men and elephants are storming each other’s bastions and many of the pachyderms are mowed down by moving trains, an entire village in south Bengal has come together to observe the last rites of two elephants killed by lightning. Two villagers shaved off their hair and observed the last rites following Hindu rituals. They even observed a 21-day ritual of having a full fruit and vegetable diet, so that the elephants rest in peace. [Cremated, or just tossed into the river?]

Cow in trouble

A cow fell into a deep trench being dug at Paradise-Tadbund road in Secunderabad on Saturday morning. It was rescued by municipal workers late in the evening. [Story was accompanied by heartbreaking photo.]

Super Sucker Machine

Indian agriculture is facing challenges such as shrinking natural resource base, dwindling profitability due to increasing input costs and the changing climate. Most important is the recent phenomenon: lack of interest among the youth in agriculture as an economic activity. [Hmmm. I wonder why the disinterest.]

A service that has grown in size every year

The EMRI 108 ambulance service stepped into its seventh year on Monday, marking a sea change in how people reach hospitals during emergencies. [Huh?] The concept of free ambulance service encouraged the State to introduce a free hearse service, Mr. Prabhudoss points out. [You can get ’em coming or going.]

Praying for rain

After his “God alone can save the State from the imminent power crisis” remark, Mr. Shivakumar plans to visit a temple in Chickmagalur district on Sunday to seek “divine intervention” to bail out the State from the present crisis. “I am going to Rishyashringa temple to pray for rain, so that we can heave a sigh of relief,” Mr. Shivakumar told a press conference here on Saturday. When asked if he was going there on a private visit or as a representative of the government, he replied: “Whatever I do is in my capacity as a government representative.” [D. K. Shivakumar is the Minister for Energy, State of Karnataka.]

Jesus Water Supply Agency

In Baprola, plans are to construct an open jail without bars with the objective of moulding the prisoners’ thinking towards positive activities by reposing trust in them to enable their re-socialisation in society after release from the prison. [Good luck with that.]

Dikshit’s house had 31 ACs, 14 heaters

When Sheila Dikshit was the Chief Minister of Delhi, her official residence on Motilal Nehru Marg had 31 air conditioners, 15 desert coolers, 16 air purifiers and 14 heaters installed on the premises. The bungalow has four bedrooms. [But no room for furniture.]

Technical snag shuts BSE for 3 hours

The Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) was closed from 9:42 a.m. till 12:45 p.m. on Thursday following a major technical glitch, halting trading on the premier bourse. Mr. Chauhan said “several users were logged out abruptly due to misbehaviour of some of the network components.” [Unruly components are the bane of computers.]

Dead Body Freezer Service

It’s in the genes: how Tibetans survive in high altitudes

In a ground-breaking discovery, researchers have found that Tibetans were able to adapt to high altitudes because of gene picked up when their ancestors mated with a species of humans they helped push to extinction. [Picked up? Like a cold?]

Illegally stocked crackers bring down the first floor of a house

Superintendent of Police S. Maheswaran said house owner R. Murugan, 45, had stealthily kept crackers bought from a fireworks unit at Sattur, with which he had a contract. “Aware of a raid on the unit, he transported excess crackers to his house only on Wednesday night to avoid penal action against the unit,” he said. An elderly woman in the neighbourhood said Sankareswari [victim’s daughter-in-law], who had undergone surgery on the skull for cancer, was battling her ill-health to educate her three sons. “Despite the fall in eyesight, she was involved in tailoring work to take care of her children,” the woman said. [A neighbour once tried to stealthily keep chickens in his back yard. Didn’t work.]

The new death traps

All four accidents reveal a whole gamut of violation of safety measures or lackadaisical attitude of fireworks manufacturers and workers, and negligence on the part of officials. In the first accident on June 23, failure to adopt minimum pre-caution while setting on fire waste materials at a cracker unit led to the death of a worker. While a friction during handling of chemicals is said to have caused the second accident at the fag end of working hours, the circumstances are still under probe. [Isn’t ‘fag’ a slang term for a cigarette? Is it a clue?]

Idiot Parking

Follow rules on crackers

In a press note, it said that people should refrain from bursting crackers that produced a sound above 125 dB such as atom, hydrogen and bullet bombs and joint crackers like 1,000 wallahs. [What did he say? I’m deaf in that ear.]

Chinks in the Crime Branch exposed

Narayana Kurup, Chairman, Kerala State Police Complaints Authority, told The Hindu that the police should bring in an attitudinal change in investigating crimes. Otherwise, it would result in the miscarriage of justice. “They should be taught to gather scientific evidence right from their training period,” he said. [Nonsense! Evidence just confuses a case.]

Man attempts to break into ATM, fails

A burglar made a futile attempt to break open the cash vault of an Automated Teller Machine on Besant Road in Ice House on Thursday. The suspect first cut the wires of the CCTV cameras, disabling them and later, broke the outer panel of the ATM kiosk, even as John Basha, a security guard on duty, was fast asleep. He attempted to open the cash vault, but failed and left the ATM. Once awake, the security guard alerted his senior colleagues.


Athlete branded a ‘witch’, attacked

Two persons were arrested on Thursday for allegedly branding a veteran woman athlete Debajani Bora (51) a “witch” and torturing her in a Naamghar traidtional prayer house in the Serekali village of central Assam’s Karbi Anglong district. Mugdhajyoti Mahanta, Superintendent of Police told The Hindu “The Naamghoria (priest) attacked Debajani Bora and pinned her to the ground as his accomplice threw a fishing net upon her. The victim wriggled out of their clutches and reached home.” [I caught a fish once, but it wriggled out of my clutches.]

ACP assaulted in road rage in Delhi

In yet another incident of road rage in the Capital, an Assistant Commissioner of Police was brutally assaulted by three persons—a woman, her minor son and her male friend—near Lodi Crematorium on Thursday evening. ACP Amit Singh…stopped the minor who was speeding. Police said the woman attacked Mr. Singh with a helmet and her friend used a stone to hit his head. [“We thought he was a warlock,” claimed the accused.]

Do Not Urinate

65-year-old leaps to death

A furniture dealer leapt to his death from his third-floor office on Kamaraja Nagar 1st Street in Choolaimedu on Friday while sleuths of the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence were carrying out a raid. [Sleuths? Why not gumshoes? And didn’t they notice him out there on the ledge?]

Non-renewable energy workshop organized

As a part of golden jubilee celebrations of D. G. Vaishnav College, its department of chemistry organized lectures and a workshop on ‘non-renewable energy resources-chem exploration’ last week. The lecture focused especially on petroleum. [Next week, a lecture on how to manufacture buggy whips.]


Clean India?


I got a letter from Prime Minister Modi the other day.

Modi Letter

Invoking Mahatma Gandhi, Mr. Modi wants to clean up India and he wants our help. Mission Swachh Bharat aspires to realize Gandhiji’s dream of a clean India by the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary in 2019, through ‘jan bhagidari’ (people’s participation).

I urge every one of you to devote at least hundred hours every year, that is two hours every week towards cleanliness. We can’t let India remain unclean any longer. On 2nd October I myself will set out with a broom and contribute towards this pious task. . . .Today, I appeal to everyone, particularly political and religious leadership, mayors, sarpanchs [head of the group of village decision makers] and captains of industry to plan and wholeheartedly engage in the task of cleaning your homes, work places, villages, cities and surroundings.

Linking cleanliness to tourism and global interest in India, Modi says that “world class levels of hygiene and cleanliness [are] required in India’s top 50 tourist destinations to bring about a paradigm shift in global perception.” He also articulates a vision of solid waste and wastewater management through public-private partnerships in 500 towns and cities across the country.

Mr. Modi’s project is noble and necessary, but I think he’s going to need more than a (symbolic) broom. Here are a few sobering facts:

  • Half of India’s population, or at least 620 million people, defecate outdoors.
  • Recent findings by the World Health Organization indicate that the four cities with the worst air pollution readings in the world are Delhi, Patna, Gwalior and Raipur. Delhi’s pollution is almost three times that of Beijing.
  • No Indian city has a comprehensive sewage treatment system, and most Indian rivers are open sewers as a result.
  • Between 300,000 to 400,000 people die of indoor air pollution and carbon monoxide poisoning in India because of biomass burning and use of inefficient cookstoves.
  • Stunting caused by poor sanitation affects 65 million Indian children under the age of 5, including a third of children from the country’s richest families. Ramanan Laxminarayan, vice president for research and policy at the Public Health Foundation of India says, “India’s stunting problem represents the largest loss of human potential in any country in history, and it affects 20 times more people in India alone than H.I.V./AIDS does around the world.”
  • In the next decade, urban India will generate some 920 million tons of municipal solid waste, which will threaten further deterioration of public health, air, water and land resources, and the quality of life in Indian cities.

Cleanliness doesn’t just mean litter, it encompasses indoor and ambient air pollution, sewage, water, noise, odors and visual blight. I will discuss these subjects in future blogs, but I want to begin with litter, one of the more unusual features of modern India. Litter is endemic and people toss trash to the ground without a second thought. With a population of around 1.27 billion, that’s a lot of gum wrappers and scraps of paper dropped wherever a person happens to be standing.

Empty lot / landfill site. Notice the discarded toilet.

Empty lot / landfill site. Notice the discarded toilet.

How this behavioral norm evolved is anyone’s guess. Certainly there is a general absence of public trash receptacles (other than large open bins), but there is a puzzling (to foreigners at least) lack of any apparent sense of personal or collective transgression in the act of littering. And I’m not talking about breaking whatever laws might be on the books in India about littering. It is a reflexive and unconscious behavior, provoking no shame, embarrassment or guilt at the contamination of public space.

Empty bin

Empty bin

Another empty bin.

Another empty bin.

In the West, the message that littering is “bad” is fixed at childhood, taught in the home and schools, on children’s educational television programs, and public service announcements. It’s not framed as a legal issue, but rather an issue of polluting the shared landscape (despoiling the commons), as well as imposing a burden on others for something that we, as individuals, are responsible for. As your mother would say, “It’s your mess, you clean it up!” or, “What do you think this is, a pig sty?”

There are obvious limits to how deeply such a sense of personal responsibility taught to children continues into adulthood—e.g., CEOs avoiding corporate responsibility for water or air pollution—but laws and informal citizen activism can have a powerful effect on public awareness, attitudes and behaviors. Dog waste and cigarette smoke are good examples.

Dog waste is a widespread pollutant and a serious health issue. The average dog produces almost 275 pounds of waste each year. A single gram of dog waste can contain 23 million fecal coliform bacteria, which are known to cause cramps, diarrhea, intestinal illness, and serious kidney disorders in humans. Disease from dog waste can spread to other dogs, children and adults.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) deemed pet waste a “nonpoint source of pollution” in 1991, and today it is the law nationwide (with few exceptions) that dog owners must clean up after their pets. Fines ranging from $20 to $10,000 are commonplace coast to coast in every state, city and township. But average citizens are the de facto enforcers of the law, haranguing and berating negligent pet owners to clean up after their animals. Ad hoc public pressure from irate individuals has worked miracles to help train pet owners to scoop the poop.

So too with second-hand cigarette smoke, the deadly pollutant once inflicted on nonsmokers in workplaces, planes and trains, restaurants and bars, sporting events and other public outdoor areas. As you know, second-hand smoke causes the same problems as direct smoking, including lung cancer, cardiovascular disease, and lung ailments such as emphysema, bronchitis, and asthma. Citizen pressure has helped create and ensure implementation of smoking bans and restrictions—Chandigarh became the first smoke-free city-state of India in July 2007, and the country banned smoking in public places in 2008—which in turn support an environment where smoking becomes increasingly more difficult and nudge social norms away from the acceptance of smoking in everyday life.

Can similar shifts in attitude and behavior happen in India with regard to litter, followed by animal waste, and eventually to public urination and defecation? I don’t think there is a choice. Evidence-based public health advocacy and enlightened self-interest demand that Indians confront the enormous disconnect between their private cleanliness and fastidiousness, and their daily acceptance of a smelly, unsightly, unsanitary and unhealthy public realm.