Monday, January 03, 2005


Gandhigram -

I awoke this morning to the symphony of crows, millions
of them, a rhapsody of song!
We took the overnight train last night to Gandhigram, the center 
of Tamil Nadu, and my second home. Train tickets 
miraculously appeared. Appa (my father) has a "freedom fighter's 
card" which allows him and Amma to travel anywhere for free. 
They have been trying to take his card away from him for years, 
claiming that it was meant for old men to go visit temples and 
the like, not to lead protests in New Delhi or wherever else he 
manages to turn up. "You are living on the train," they say, but 
they don't dare touch his privileges, for fear that he will do 
something that will cause him to be arrested, which makes for very 
bad press.

Three years ago, Appa turned down the PadmaShri (the "Holy Lotus"), India's highest civilian award. "You give me the PadmaShri but do nothing to help the condition of the rural poor," he announced in press interviews all over the country. He never misses a beat. Amma had won the PadmaShri years earlier, and accepted, accompanied by my sister. Appa refused to attend the ceremonies.

To me, Gandhigram remains the most beautiful place on earth. It is in the rainshadow of the Sirumalai mountains, world famous for medicinal plants (studying the plants was the original purpose of Aliyah's journey here), and the Sirumalai banana, a tiny 2 1/2 inch variety of magnificent taste and texture. Bourgainvilla in bright pink and orange flower adorn the front of our house.

But here there is drought. Outside my window, where there would normally be rice paddies this time of year, there are unplowed fields. The well, 120 feet deep (and for which I raised funds some years ago) is currently dry. Water is a big issue - we are carrying for 56 children here - 40 boys and 16 girls - and we have to feed and clothe them, and we can't do it without water. Old-fashion "tragedy of the commons" here. As the surrounding Gandhigram Rural University expands, it puts increasing strain on freshwater sources. They dig deeper, and draw water away from those without the resources to dig deep as well. My father and brother have planted 100 new trees - oranges, mangoes, and neem (the leaves are used in medicine, soapmaking, and have a mild antiseptic quality).

The house is magnificent, though the roof is starting to give, and there are holes in various places. "What to do?" says Amma, "there are greater needs elsewhere." She reminds me of an old Tamil saying that when there is a hole in the bottom of the pot, you must use the sides. She jokes to me about how she has given up the use of towels. "If I have to wear this 6-meter sari, I should at least get the full use of it." So she uses the hem. She is affronted by the idea that anything can be wasted. Bhoomi (my brother) tried to push us off to be housed in the university Vice Chancellor's guesthouse a hundred yards away (where there is a real live shower), but Aliyah and I would hear nothing of it. This is our house, too, and we can make use of the cold water spigot like everyone else. "We have freshwater at all," we remind him, which is more than can now be said for so many.

Had lunch yesterday with Appa and a famous Tamil journalist named "Solai" - he is hoping to serialize "The Color of Freedom" in a Tamil newspaper. We took the obligatory photograph of the three of us. Two friends from the charitable group "Overseas" - which has supported our work for years - arrive from Italy. Our language is a very colorful mix of English, Italian, and Tamil, and Aliyah's Italian from Smith is beginning to be used in good stead. She will have friends all over Italy when she goes on Smith's Junior Year Abroad (it is amazing how things in our lives sometimes knit together) - some of my mother's biggest supporters are in Florence and Modena, and we have already hatched an idea for benefit concerts for my mother's organization to be given by my younger daughter Meera, who is fast becoming a fine concert pianist, and who in the past two years has performed benefits for the Israeli-Palestinian Families of the Bereaved Forum for Peace and the African Great Lakes Initiative's (AGLI) Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Program in Rwanda-Burundi. She will be performing a benefit for AGLI in Philadelphia in April.

Amma is hatching plans - it will take some time for us to understand them fully, and from experience I know they may change hourly. I know I am being sent off this morning to purchase sheets - the temperature is unseasonably cool (maybe hit 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and this makes conditions more difficult. Appa is sitting on the ground spinning his cotton thread, which can still do. He has spun the thread for every item of clothing he has worn for the past 60 years, and he is not about to stop now.

I am home!

Plan has just changed - we are headed off to Nagai District (the center of the tsunami damage) at 6 a.m. tomorrow!


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