Sunday, January 16, 2005

Nothing is impossible

Just some odd assorted factoids:
The U.S. or Italian market price of 39 kilograms of tiger prawns from the illegal prawn farms in Tamil Nadu could build an excellent permanent house for a family in LAFTI’s housebuilding progam.
The salary and benefits paid per year to the two highest officials of the American Red Cross could fund all of LAFTI’s current operations for the rest of my natural life.
The cost of a single series of Superbowl ads, including production, etc., could fund LAFTI’s operations virtually in perpetuity.
The cost of a single U.S. postage stamp could feed an entire family in the flood-affected areas of Tamil Nadu for a day.
Today is our last day in Nagai District. Krishnammal has asked me to address the first 200 enlistees in her army of compassion. Believe it or not, I am struggling about what to wear. Currently, I am dressed as a Tamil, complete in white dhoti, and Appa’s shirt. I am very, very comfortable in it. But the all-white get-up, and the way I wear it, will immediately marks me as a Gandhian, which I don’t mind, or as a high-caste Brahmin, which I do, as my audience will be all dalits. They have enough difficulty making sense of this strange American (so do I, when I can’t avoid thinking about it, so I usually dodge the identity crises when I can help it.) If I were to wear a colored lunghi and a polyester shirt (neither of which I have with me), I will fit in with the dalit landless laborers, but that would be even more of a fiction. I may compromise, and keep the shirt, but put on a pair of trousers. Aliyah’s immediate response is to keep the dhoti, though she is having difficulty expressing exactly why. "Definitely keep the shirt," she says. I think I will raise the difficulty as part of my speech.
It’s probably a bigger difficulty for me than it is likely to be for anyone else. After all, in this, by far the largest Hindu-majority country in the world, the Prime Minister is a mild-mannered and very gentle Sikh economist, complete with turban and ritual knife, the President is a very mild-mannered Muslim scientist, and the head of the ruling party is an Italian who studiously dresses in such a way so as to emulate her dead mother-in-law (Indira Gandhi, who, it should be emphasized, was not in the least way related to either the Gandhi who is the father of the nation, or the Gandhi who is Krishnammal’s administrative secretary – and nephew – at whose house we had dinner two nights ago.)
Again, I wish to express thanks for the outpouring of support – from the storytellers’ group in Arizona that is planning a benefit storytelling event, to the folks throwing a "Friends of LAFTI Tsunami Relief Benefit Party" in Kobe, Japan. My holding out my hand has resulted in at least two inquiries from film journalists – nothing firm yet, so the hand is still extended, and plans for visits from two people on whom I am depending to maintain communications – one an Italian-English translator from Florence, the other a retired Iranian public health professor from London (and who has started the barebones of a LAFTI website – ). We have new relief teams from Karnataka, a Danish SERVAS visitor, friends from ASHA – a service group of Indian students in the United States who are particularly concerned about the psychological needs of children, and members of a dalit improvement working group, who have just awarded Krishnammal their highest award, named for a female folk goddess who fights for social justice against the higher castes. This is all going on under one roof in Krishnammal’s Kremlin!
We still need more (sigh!) LAFTI’s total fundraising during the tsunami period has likely been under $60,000 U.S., less than the cost of the bread which I found out was flown in on a jet and is rotting in the Chennai Airport, or the massive (and unconscionable) administrative overhead of most of the international aid agencies (many of which, it should be acknowledged, did excellent work under difficult conditions.) But for the people who live here, which I hope past blogs have helped to explain, the tsunami is an everyday occurrence, and lives in empty bellies and in cycles of hopelessness. South Indians on the whole are an extremely gentle people, easily touched by the cry of a child, or even the wounding of a baby goat by a passing vehicle. But they are slow to respond to the grinding poverty at the bottom of the multinational foodchain, even as other Indians as well as foreign investors profit greatly at their expense. They are appalled by the poisoning of individuals drinking methanol-adulterated illicit liquor, but slower to respond to the slurry of chemical waste and destruction of the water table at local CocaCola bottling operations.
Still, Krishnammal’s army will march. She is pleased that I continue to encourage her, even though as Appa justly notes, the needed resources haven’t arrived (YET!) I joke with Gandhi (the nephew, rather than the founder of the nation) that if it doesn’t work, he’ll end up unemployed. He smiles – he knows Amma, and things have their way of working out.
And I told Amma my dream – the army of 1,001 volunteers turns into 5,001, and the mud huts really begin to disappear. She smiles – "Nothing is impossible," she remind us.
You, too.


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