Monday, January 31, 2005

The Mothes!

Beauty addresses itself chiefly to sight; but there is a beauty for the hearing, too, as in certain combinations of words and in all kinds of music, for melodies and cadences are beautiful; and minds that lift themselves above the realm of sense to a higher order are aware of beauty in the conduct of life, in actions, in character, in the pursuits of the intellect; and there is the beauty of the virtues.
-- Plotinus

Aliyah arrived back in Northampton, in five days going from temperatures that reached 90 degrees Fahrenheit in Kuthur (after all, it was winter!) to minus 7 in Northampton. It was hard for her to re-adapt, as it has been for me, and not only because of the weather. She immediately began a course in medieval philosophy, and one of the first readings was in Plotinus, the 2nd Century BC philosopher who wrote in Greek (and was, it is said, familiar and influenced by Indian philosophy.)

Coming back from Kuthur, I think the great culture shock for both of us is not so much from seeing "the horrors of the tsunami" (as horrible as they were), but from us being so keenly aware, on a daily basis, of the beauty of all kinds delineated by Plotinus. Yes, there is the beauty of sight, especially those of us who love the lushness of the tropics; and the music of the birds and the bees (even if not of the Ayyappa music at 4 a.m.!), but mostly of the minds "that lift themselves to a higher order in the conduct of life". Yes, it is too bad that it takes an event like a tsunami, and in a land so far away, to be aware of it. It’s about as far from "Desperate Housewives" (the latest piece of salacious trash on American tv) or "The Bachelorette" as one can possible imagine.

But if one looks hard enough, and gets beyond the humdrum of one’s daily life, one can find it at home as well. It’s just that translating what we have heard, and seen, and tasted, and smelled, and BEEN is difficult to explain. I’m about to do my third presentation on the tsunami/LAFTI tomorrow, and it is so difficult to pick out what is really important, and what can really be communicated!

I have been helped along by the kids, and people who really care. There is a group of homeschooled teenagers in Georgia who raised money through a hot-dog fundraiser. I don’t think there are any Tamil proverbs about funds raised from frankfurters, but we thank you all the same (and maybe more so!)

Last evening, my wife and I drove to Seattle for the CD debut of a new rock band "The Mothes", featuring a group of young people ages 10-14, and led by a 13-year-old homeschooler. They performed as a benefit for LAFTI’s housing program. It was so moving just to meet people – YOUNG people – so ready to pitch in, and so ready to train themselves to that greater beauty that is part of their, and our, inner nature. Yes, the funds are nice to have (and I am looking forward to sending a good-sized check to Amma tomorrow, and hope you are, too, hint, hint…), but more important is the business of going about becoming the men and women we are really meant to be.

So…with apologies to Aliyah, who will probably end up having to write a paper about these things, I want to quote some more Plotinus:

Therefore the Soul must be trained to the habit of remarking, first, all noble pursuits, then the works of beauty produced not by the labor of the arts but by the virtue of men known for their goodness; lastly, you must search the souls of those that have shaped these beautiful forms. But how are you to see into a virtuous soul and know its loveliness? Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statute that is to be made more beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also: cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiseling your statue, until there should shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you shall see the perfect goodness surely established in the stainless shrine.

Gotta run! I’ve got a pot of sambar bubbling on the stove. I’ll let you all know how it turns out.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Just a Translator

I am pleased to announce that I’ve found someone to continue this blog! Donatella Baggio, a long-time friend of Amma and Appa, is headed for Kuthur. She is due to arrive around February 5th. For myself, I’m so excited, because I and waiting with baited breath for day-to-day accounts of the Army of Compassion.

I expect to keep writing here from time to time, as well Aliyah (especially when she returns in June.) But nothing can replace having someone so close to the action.

I’ve asked Donatella to introduce herself, and her post is below. (P.S. I can vouch for Florentine spinach and tomatoes in Krishnammal’s vegetable garden.)


I wish to introduce myself with the same words I was introduced -- at a meeting I attended with Krishnammal in 1992 in Tamil Nadu. On that rather formal occasion, everyone’s name - wonderful and mysteriously fascinating to me with its many musical syllables – was preceded by some title or qualification or description of professional position, but when it came to me the white-clad officer in charge of introductions cut it short by saying, in a rather more pragmatic than dismissive way: "She’s just a translator!" and gently swung his head to confirm, approve, tease a bit maybe ?! who knows?

Just a translator, no more no less, that’s what I am: born and bred in Italy, with a passion for travelling and an even greater passion for travelling to Asia and India. Working as a free-lance interpreter, I’ve always tried and often managed to take time off in winter to fly to my beloved continent and spend some time not only in a different climate but in a different world and culture, leading for a while a different but totally possible, both simpler, harder and more enjoyable kind of life…

And translating has indeed to do with the most special encounter I’ve made so far in my life. It was December ’91 and I was translating at a Conference on Nonviolent Movements here in Florence….. while day-dreaming of my imminent trip to India. As a matter of fact, I was looking for something to do or to give to a country that had given me so much , with its superb beauty and incredible horror, the intriguing gazes of dark Indian eyes, the smiles, the deep emotions, the endless circus that seems to be going on anywhere, anytime, anyway in Mother India.

Krishnammal and Jagannathan were among the guests of the Conference and their speech, telling of their amazing lives and the story of LAFTI, went straight to my heart and soul. It was love at first sight, I could say. Jagannathan, tall and smart in his hand-spun Khadi clothes, and lively Krishnammal, in her lovely, simple cotton saree, stood out among the crowd of gray Europeans. During the coffee-break, I went straight to meet them and talk to such an extraordinary couple. And when I told Krishnammal about my trip to India, not really knowing where to and what for, she took my hand and in her deep, warm voice said to me: " You come and stay with me, I’ll talke care of you like a mother!" She smiled and swung her head, encouragingly.

Her words, as any word she says, were absolutely true.

She took care of me like a mother during the month I spent with her and the wonderful people I met at LAFTI. I moved from one village to another, attended meetings and ceremonies, planted vegetables and sang with school children, watched sunsets and sunrises in the clear sky of the touchingly beautiful countryside of Tamil Nadu. It was one of the most profound and enriching experiences in my life. I wasn’t supposed to work or do anything special. My presence, my simple presence there, as a witness to their activities, as a spoiled Westerner who appreciates and is ready and happy to share the simple life of Tamil Nadu farmers was enough to encourage them to go on, to work and improve their living conditions by themselves and for themselves . This is what Krishnammal told me whenever I felt confused and doubted about my "use" there, apart from my personal enjoyment and spiritual enrichment.

Since then. I’ve been in touch with Amma and Appa, I’ve organised small-scale fund-raising campaigns and charity markets to help them in buying cows and starting the brick-furnace. I met Amma in Italy and helped as a translator when she met students and people in Florence.Last year I went back to Kuthir with my boy-friend as I wanted him to meet such extraordinary people. We spent a few days at the new LAFTI guesthouse and left full of hope and inner light!

In the aftermath of the tsunami, I felt sad and confused, not knowing where to go and what to do. Then one day Amma’s urgent appeal appeared on my computer screen and I immediately felt it was the right place to go, although I really don’t know whether my presence there will be of any help for the ysunami victims.

I’m just a translator but I’ll keep my eyes, ears, soul. and heart wide open to capture what’s going on around Amma and Appa (and I’m sure it’s going to be a lot) and put it down in writing to honour their generous work and let more people know about it.


Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Sambar! (and WHY LAFTI>)

We arrived home safely, though felt miserable after eating food at the Seoul Airport. It’s not that we dislike Korean food (on the contrary, I can easily get addicted to kimchi), but that we missed our sambar!

So when we got home, we broke open one of the two bags of "Maharani Krishnammal’s Sambar Finest", got out some vegetables, and cooked up a batch. Tasted fine, but…it was missing a little something.

So we e-mailed Amma and she sent us back a recipe:

"Regarding Sambar: first, we have to boil the dhal. When it is half boiled, add vegetables and onions and put little salt; when the dhal and vegetables are well cooked add tomato. 5 tomatoes are enough. Of course, we have to add water for boiling the whole thing. Lastly, the whole thing is to be seasoned with little oil and onion. This is Sambar. When we use tomato, no need of tamarind."

Got that? I especially like the part about measurements and proportions, and particularly the directions as to how much sambar powder to use. But then that’s probably as close to directions as I’m ever going to get. Krishnammal has likely never cooked only two liters of sambar in her entire life – the question is always whether to feed 60 or 100. Meanwhile, she reports distributing rice (and sambar), bed sheets, and vessels to 700 families yesterday.

Amma says that the army of compassion is now proposing to build a total of 514 houses. Of course, I know that she has nowhere close to the resources they need to do this, but she writes, "Hope in week’s time it will materialize…Achayapatra is getting larger and larger everyday." Now I’ve never heard of the achayapatra (the magic vessel) multiplying exponentially, but here is your chance. We continue to receive unexpected checks from all quarters. A rock band put together by a 13-year-old homeschooler, and which just released a CD, is holding a benefit this Sunday, and I hope to attend.

Aliyah has returned to Smith. First flight was cancelled due to the big snowstorm, but she was one of the few who managed to fly into the northeast U.S. on Sunday night, and was picked up by an old LAFTI friend. A little chilly, I would think, after Kuthur.
Folks often ask me why they should specifically contribute to LAFTI when thinking about tsunami relief. Of course, my own reasons are that they are family, and that they need the money! And, of course, all the previous blogs should provide reason enough. But many of you – LAFTI supporters – probably get asked the same thing, so I thought I’d organize a "canned" response for you.

Four reasons "Why LAFTI":

LAFTI is local, and most of the assistance is integrated with self-help – As you’ve read, most of the aid agencies are quickly disappearing. For over three decades, LAFTI has built relationships and sprouted strong roots in local communities, and they are not going to disappear. Most of the material assistance being offered – from petticoats to sambar powder to the actual bricks and cinderblocks for the new houses – is actually being manufactured by local folks themselves. This also makes for much greater efficiencies. There is no overhead to speak of, and little needs to be brought in from the outside. LAFTI utilizes its own headquarters to provide housing and meals for volunteer relief teams coming in from elsewhere (mostly from within India itself), and provides transportation and orientation to the relief areas with very little in the way of extra expense. A little goes a LONG way.

LAFTI addresses social injustice at the same time it provides relief – More than 90% of LAFTI’s own staff are dalits ("untouchables"), and most of its aid is directed at dalit communities, both those affected by floods and by the tsunami. Many of the aid agencies ended up providing assistance to those communities which were already politically well-organized, or highly visible. The housing effort is directed at tsunami-affected dalit communities, or communities previously assisted through land-reform efforts over the past 30 years. In addition, the housing effort provides a "food-for-work" option for extremely low-income communities to receive food assistance even as they build permanent housing to replace the mud huts.

LAFTI address global economic inequities at the same time it provides relief – The near-starvation found in landless dalit communities before the tsunami, and the degree of damage in fishing communities as a result of the tsunami are closely linked to multinational interests, and the drain of resources from the poor of the Third World to the restaurants and banquet tables in the First. If people ask what they can do to help folks in India suffering from the effects of the tsunami but want to do something besides sending money, tell them to stop buying shrimp!

LAFTI addresses issues of environmental sustainability at the same it provides relief – Much of the damage caused by the tsunami was exacerbated by the destruction of the natural habitat, mangrove forests, and the greenbelt that had once existed on the coast. Moreover, the ability of the coastal communities to recover from the effects of the tsunami are highly impaired by the inability of the land and of fish breeding grounds to regenerate themselves. LAFTI has been addressing the need for environmental sustainability for more than a decade, and now has scheduled a series of consciousness-raising marches even as the housing and other efforts continue apace. This time, government officials and community leaders may actually be prepared to listen.

Hope that helps. The magic vessel is open and waiting….

Friday, January 21, 2005

Lord of the Six Directions

Before leaving Chennai, Bhoomikumar took us to visit a famous temple located right in his neighborhood, sacred to the god Muruga. Bhoomi knows that Muruga is one of my favorites, and I even wear a little Muruga medallion around my neck.

Muruga is the half-brother of Ganesh, the elephant-headed God. There are various traditions surrounding Muruga, who, it turns out, is much more popular in South India than in the North (where he is usually known as Kartikeya.) In South India, he is always depicted as having two wives (and Ganesh is a bachelor) – there are famous depictions of Muruga with his two wives on one of the temple towers at the Thanjavur Temple. In the North, Muruga is the bachelor, and Ganesh has two wives.

It’s pretty interesting that he has two wives for, you see, Muruga, who is also known as the Lord of Six Faces and the Six Directions (inside and out complementing the usual ones), is always depicted as an 11 or 12 year old, who rides around on a peacock carrying a spear. Muruga is the god of social justice, of fairness, of equity, and like an 11-year-old, is deeply offended when he sees injustice. He will upset the total social applecart, destroying what he needs to (he is, after all, a son of Shiva the destroyer) in order to make things right again. He is the god of the poor and of the dalits (the untouchables), though in Tamil Nadu, he is also popular as a vent for nationalist sentiments. He looks in the six directions, seeing what needs to be done to make amends for any unjust state of affairs.

Occasionally, I fall into a reverie regarding what might happen if our state and global institutions were ruled by Muruga. Having watched for years as projects funded by the World Bank here have destroyed communities, indigenous peoples, land, water, and air, all in the name of development and "free trade" (which is, of course, coerced trade, or for those at the bottom of the multinational foodchain, no trade at all), it would be tempting to set up an altar to Muruga in World Bank offices. It might result in some interesting decisions:

Since unhealthy people are unproductive people, loans will only made to countries that promote universal health care to all its citizens;

Since hungry folks cannot be said to engage in "free" trade, first priority goes to local food self-sufficiency;

Since the Bank intends to foster democracy, local communities have the right to decide for themselves on a democratic basis whether projects to be funded by loans are acceptable;

Free trade includes the right not to trade; certain goods can be declared by communities to be off-limits to trade. In India, cows used to be a symbol of this. There might have been profits to be made in beef for some. But the value of milk and manure might offset whatever short-term profits are to be found. Let’s bring back the ban on sales of any foodstuff that is white!

Since land, water, and air are not created by humans, they cannot be owned by humans.
Above all, all economic policies must be guided by a careful look at what might result in all six directions, starting with what happens inside.

Just a reverie, of course. Frankly, I am more keenly interested in Krishnammal’s meta-economics than in that of the World Bank. (Bhoomi says he carried around an essay I wrote in 1981 on meta-economics for a decade, sharing it with friends, and I don’t even remember what was in it!) But I think it is a matter of duty that we all take a little more interest in such matters, whether we like it or not.

Bhoomikumar takes us to the McDonald’s of India, one of a chain of vegetarian restaurants called Hotel Saravana. (In India, restaurants are called "hotels".) Aliyah and I order idiappam, also known as "hoppers" or string hoppers". These are quite popular in Sri Lanka and Kerala – little cakes of rice vermicelli eaten with extremely hot and spicy vegetable curry. We are very pleased!

We finish our gift shopping – both of us hate to shop, but we found a stall with the actual handicraft makers of Gujarati "katcheri" puppets. Aliyah buys a pair as potential mascots for her house at Smith, and I add one – playing some kind of Indian bagpipe -- for my office, to hang from my doorway to ward off evil visitors. We are already missing the magic of Kuthur, the human scale of everything, the adventure of not knowing what will turn up on our doorstep next.

I am not always sure what good we have accomplished on our visit. Over the 27 years of my visits, this is not a new thought. I used to complain to Bhoomikumar that I am not a doctor, or a well-digger, or an agricultural specialist, or the representative of any other guild or occupation that might serve some immediately useful purpose. Bhoomikumar caught me up short. "You are here like a good-luck charm, or an itinerant priest, and are here to witness. You are much more valuable that way. And what you contribute cannot be bought or sold, but is simply given as a gift. This makes it even more priceless."

I come away chastened, ready to roll up my sleeves and go to work. That is much of what this blog has been all about.

Thursday, January 20, 2005


In Pukar, our town,
Waves pull down our sand houses. And women,
Tears welling up from spearlike eyes,
Long wounds fresh on moon-faces,
Scoop sand by the handful to fill the sea.
The Cilappatikaram, 7:30

Dear Friends,

I’m home now, after a long but uneventful flight, trying to get back to a normal routine and pack to go back to school. (Despite his complaints of being overfed, David found that he had not, in fact, gained any weight.) On the plane, I read a translation of the Cilappatikaram, a Tamil epic poem, the story of which Krishnammal told me. (The translation by R. Parthasarathy, is wonderful, and is available on Amazon.) The first part of the epic takes place in Pukar, also known as Poompuhar, an ancient city very close to Nagapattinam. The story tells of how, because of a single unjust act by its king, the great city of Madurai was burned to the ground, but the innocent people were spared. There seems to be a folk tradition that the untouchable (dalit) areas of the town were not reached by the fire. The poem, the title of which translates as "the tale of an anklet" is full of an incredible richness of detail, found in no other epic I have read. It is as intricately told as the finely cut and sculptured walls of a Tamil temple.

Memories of my trip are crowded in my mind. My mind’s eye sees a single firefly flying above the office at Kuthur. It sees brick kilns and broken houses, prawn farms and paddy fields, chilies drying in the sun, petticoats, crowded roads, and cremation grounds. I can hear Jagannathan’s question:,"why did the children die?" and I don’t know if it was rhetorical or not. He probably has his own answer, but that is an age-old question that is up to everyone to find his or her own explanation. My own answer is not clear, but I have never been one to look for morality in nature. Human beings, when they listen to and act on their own consciences, are God’s tools far more than any unthinking phenomena, or so I believe. Coming from natural processes deep within the earth, the tsunami was millions of years in the making. This view of the world is not comforting, but I will not worship a God who will kill innocent people, and, despite my mostly rational mind, I cannot keep from believing in a divine power within living things, and within nature as well, though it will not interfere with the rules of the earth. I feel this power with a part of me far deeper than my reason, and far broader than my emotion.

My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation,
I hear the real, though far-off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Above the tumult and the strife
I hear its music ringing.
It sounds an echo in my soul;
How can I keep from singing?

I will continue to sing, and to hope.

In the Light,


Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The Meeting

Amma’s meeting went well. There were about 175 volunteers, representing as many as 40 villages, some ravished by floods, others by the tsunami, and still others being destroyed slowly from the seepage from the now-ruined prawn farms. First there were songs – new ones about the tsunami, older ones about the plight of the landless. These were accompanied by a tavil, a large two-headed drum, played with a stick and two fingers on one side, and on the other with five fingers with what appeared to be thick porcelain rings upon them (I imagine these were originally made of rhinoceros horn). There was also clarinet, very old, with a sticker of Jesus with an open heart on the bell. Between sets, the clarinetist, with the assistance of the tavil player, applied a thick coat of glue to the reed – I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he had been using the same reed for a decade. Appa gave a speech on how the villages must all take a vow to work together through thick and thin. I gave my speech, beginning with the difficulties of my clothing choices (I went with the shirt and dhoti), my scolding of Amma for not teaching me proper Tamil, and how I discovered I was a Tamil 27 years, just one who happened to be born in America. (Applause line.) I related the tale of how I first met Amma and Appa, and why my nickname is "rice-and-rasam man", and how Aliyah first met Appa for the first time when she was 3, and he in the Madras City Jail. And then I launched into my main theme (prompted by Krishhnammal) about how no one can give another social justice – you have to take it. I related Amma’s dream – an end to the mud huts of the poor. I ended with an apology for any mistakes in my mother’s translation, which caused great laughter, and the speech was well received.
Later, the army met to plan. Each village leader stood up and described what difficulties there might be in rebuilding the village houses. Some were ready to begin, only needing to get the brickmaking operations going, and to bring in Amma’s masons and carpenters. Still others would have to negotiate with the higher castes to be allowed to build on higher ground, as the current locations wouldn’t sustain a foundation, and it would be washed out in a flood. A few, with the help of the Collector, would need to move their villages entirely. All were suffering the effects of hunger primarily brought on by the pre-tsnumani floods, wiping out both employment, and harvests from their own fields.
The village leader of Papakovil was there. Papakovil is the dalit settlement built right on the beach in Nagapattinam next to the higher caste fisherfolk of Akkarapethi. They took the full brunt of the tsunami, perhaps more than any other village in the area, and yet had received no aid from anyone whatsoever, and were unlikely included in any of the official accounts of the dead or missing. Now the collector and the aid agencies were proposing to move the remaining folks to one of the relief camps.
The leader of Papakovil is a courageous man, and the strain showed clearly on his face when he spoke. From what I could make out, after long deliberations the village has refused to move to the temporary relief camps set up by the government and the relief agencies, or to accept outside aid except for what is absolutely necessary. Instead, he came to the meeting to ask for help in moving his entire village. He sees the writing on the wall – if they move to the "temporary" relief camps, they may never get out. Their traditional employment -- not as fisherman, but as carriers and helpers -- will likely never be regenerated. So he wants to resettle his people, have them build their own permanent housing with Krishnammal’s army, and, above all, to build a school. The dalits have been treated badly in the local schools south of Nagapattinam even before the tsunami, and he sees that only in educating the children do they have a future. The adults may all be unemployed for a long time to come (perhaps forever?), but at least they will be building a new existence for themselves. His address was very moving, and I was extremely sorry for my lack of Tamil. The villagers from the flood plain – already with virtually nothing to their names -- extended a warm welcome to him, and pledged to help. Krishnammal is going to see the Collector about finding land for the new permanent homes for the people of Papakovil.
Tsunami relief brings into strong "relief" the fissures and fault lines in both local and global social orders. On the global scale, the international relief agencies claim for themselves the right to go virtually wherever they wish, set up camps where they like, dole out aid as they decide, and, in some cases, feed the adoption mills of the West. The Indian government agencies are thankful for the assistance, but they openly wonder what would happen if they acted similarly when there are earthquakes in, say, the United States. Could Indian adoption agencies send their agents to Santa Cruz, California, to arrange the adoption of migrant Hispanic laborers hit hard in the earthquake of 1989? How would they be received if an Indian aid agency sent over a plane load filled with chappaties and sambar, and hired trucks to distribute them? Or dropped sarees or cookware by the side of the road without talking with anyone they expected to receive them?
Then there is the fissure between the rich and the poor. Who gets the assistance – the owner of the house, or the tenants? What happens in the case where the owner occupies the house with five other tenant families? And what about food? Some of the poor residents of the temporary shelters in Chennai were quoted in the paper as saying they had never eaten so well in their lives, so well in fact that it was playing havoc with their digestive tracts, and physicians had to be called in. Was the tsunami the answer to their prayers for something to eat? Or was it to receive a set of old encyclopedias, published in English, as was found in one relief bundle?
What is the proper role of insurance? You can insure a fishing boat, or a prawn farm, or beachfront hotel, but what about a mud hut, or income generated by small-scale tidal fishing, or basketweaving based on a continuing supply of marsh weeds?
The man from ASHA was amazed by what he saw. "I came to find out what could be done to aid in tsunami relief," he said, "and now I see there is a tsunami in this area all the time." I explained to him in detail how thin the lines actually are between the tsunami victims, the flood victims, and the prawn farm victims (the victims of "free trade"), and made arrangements for him to visit the lands left barren by the prawn farms himself. The irony is that, in supporting the World Bank plans, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization backed the prawn farms as a way of providing "protein" to the poor. In South India, a kilogram of export prawns costs approximately 400 rupees ($9 U.S.) or 33% more than the 300 rupees per month Krishnammal is paying her army in her food-for-work program. I asked the villagers whether anyone had ever eaten a tiger prawn, and they looked at me as if I’d come from Mars!
Meanwhile, Krishnammal has taken to providing at least temporary employment to the weavers of the fishing baskets. "I don’t need to go to meetings when I can help directly," she says, "I just call up the Collector, and make sure the NGOs don’t get in way." She already has a plan for marketing.
Today, a new relief team arrived from Uttar Pradesh in northerm India. They are apparently quite experienced, having worked previously after the last earthquake in the Gulf of Kutch in western India. Jorgen our Danish friend went out with them, cleaning and sweeping streets and ditches, and came back all sun-reddened and a changed man. "I expected to stay on one more day," he says, "but now I will stay five." Local residents, still in shock, came out to help the clean-up team. Jorgen was particularly moved by the sight of hundreds of cassette tapes, with the tapes unraveled like tangled nets, on the roadway. "I can’t get out of my mind what might have been on those tapes," he says, "a child’s favorite music? Or someone’s memoirs? We clean up all we can, but like the tapes, we know that nothing will ever be the same again." I remind him what I told him when he arrived on his first day – he had come for a reason, though it was yet to be discovered what that reason is. "Yes, you were right," he says in a broad Danish accent. I make it a point to teach him the two words that can always ensure one’s survival in Tamil Nadu, "vallaipallam" (virtually unpronounceable, at least by me, but which means "banana") and "podum" (with which Jorgen has trouble, meaning "enough", as in "don’t put anymore on my plate or I will burst!") We send him to take a shower – it is likely that he has been working among raw sewage, as we had at the schools. Several of the workers had become sick, and required antibiotics. I expect Jorgen will be staying longer 10 days, if we can rope him into the army of compassion. He is employed as a primary school teacher, but is a skilled carpenter, having built two homes for his family, and I can picture up among the rafters as the new homes in Aathur go up.
That evening, we take a tearful farewell, with Aliyah promising to return this summer. There is more work for her to do, and I exact a promise from Krishnammal that she will teach Aliyah proper Tamil! When we get off the overnight train in Chengelput, who should we find but one of LAFTI’s drivers Muttukumar? It turns out that Krishnammal has been stockpiling relief supplies – mostly food and medicine, but also more cloth for petticoats – at 12 different locations in the Madras area, and Muttukumar has been gathering them up to ship to Kuthur, on the theory that when the relief agencies are gone, and the government loses interest (one already senses some of this in the newspaper), the people will still have access to what they need.

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.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Bricks 2

My rationalist friends, or at least those who don’t know me very well, think I am a member of their tribe. I don’t go out of my way to disabuse them of the idea. I know how to marshall evidence, sustain an argument, am relatively skilled in the rhetorical arts, and I haven’t cut myself using Occam’s Razor any time recently. In fact, when I am in their company, I would probably be perceived as one of their leaders, full of myself and of data, seeming even to myself to be a no-nonsense kind of guy. I talk a good game.
I tend to wear my religion rather lightly in my day-to-day thinking – though heavier than I used to, perhaps as a sign of advancing age. I am inclined to look for rational explanations for natural phenomena when I can, and when these don’t work for me, I usually ascribe it to my lack of understanding and the slow pace of evolving scientific consensus rather than to supernatural forces. I don’t try to find God in the tsunami, and am troubled by explications of volcanoes and earthquakes and hurricanes as repayment for sin. It is nice once and awhile to imagine that evildoers get their come-uppance, but I have seen too many bodies of dead children, too many orphans and too much anguish on the face of the living to believe that a loving God could supply a punishment so disproportionate to these poor ones’ sins. I apologize to those I risk offending who might think otherwise, but it just doesn’t work for me. I see great beauty in nature, and great power, and great brutality, but I am no pantheist.
I look for the divine in the inner workings of the heart, and when I look hard enough, I am rarely disappointed. The trick is to remember to look! Or so has been my experience. I am quick, and am learning to be even quicker, at throwing rationalism aside when confronted with improbable acts of courage, selflessness, and conviction.
But I was not prepared for this.
Krishnammal took us this morning to the village of Aathur, some 10 kilometers from Kuthur, at the request of the village headman who came last night, and insisted she come to help them celebrate the most important of the four days of the Pongal holiday.
Aathur is a desperately poor village of 110 families, all dalits. There isn’t a temple in the village, or a shrine, or even an altar, for the people of Aathur are all atheists, and have been for several generations. The men wear either black neckclothes, signifying their membership in the Dravidian (DMK) political party, or red ones, for the Communist Party-India (CPI), both of which hold to atheism as central tenets of their political platforms.
After the path for the jeep wore out, we walked to a low-lying area at the edge of the village. There, stacked 12 feet high, perhaps 20 feet across and 80 feet-long, was a mountain of red bricks. Through the help of a translator, we came to know what had transpired. Krishnammal had invested 100,000 rupees, and all the villagers several weeks of labor, in making 150,000 bricks, in preparation for replacing the miserable mud, thatch, and burlap-bag huts with houses, once the January harvest had passed. When the bricks were piled high and ready for baking, a kiln was created -- the mound was surrounded and covered with wood that would need to burn for three days to allow the bricks to harden.
The village leader invited Krishnammal to light the flame at 10 o’clock in the morning, on October 1st, 2004. First, she stopped and gave the traditional prayer – "Arut Perum Jyothi" -- of her guru Ramalinga, he of the Divine Light in every living thing:
"Boundless benevolent shining light
God in-dwelling in that shining light
The light of compassion coming to rule the world."
Late that afternoon, several hours after the flames were lit, it started to rain. Heavily. So heavily in fact that all the roads were washed out. Krishnammal sent out a messenger, fearing that all the work had gone for naught. The messenger couldn’t reach the village, as it was surrounded by water waste deep.
Finally, three days later, Krishnammal was able to get to the village of Aathur, hoping to console the villagers. And then she saw something astonishing. The village was entirely covered with water on all sides. But the low-lying area, where the bricks were baked, was absolutely untouched by the rain, and even by the swirling floodwaters. Not a single brick was ruined.
Two hundred atheists – men, women, and children – gathered with us today to commemorate this miracle. They testified that the rains came on all sides, and the flooded fields in the area still testify to this fact. The last several months have been cruel to them – floods have meant no harvest, no harvest means no employment, no employment means little in the way of food. They are close to starving, but they have come to Amma, not for food, but to ask for her help in ridding themselves of the mud huts
The bricks are there. In February, Krishnammal’s army of compassion will descend on Aathur, institute a food-for-work program as the villagers purge themselves of the mud huts that have been their bane for centuries. In addition, through an unexpected opportunity, Krishnammal is about to be able to distribute 150 acres of land to the village of Aathur, to families who have been landless or bonded laborers for as long as they can remember.
A lot of them – while still wearing black or red neckclothes – told us they have taken to celebrating the Divine Light.
I have no way of making any rational sense of this – I have seen the bricks and surrounding area with my own eyes, and interviewed the villagers myself. I do know that much of what I see around Krishnammal is "impossible". Aliyah has taken to calling this "the place where the impossible happens". I do know that what I see continually here is the triumph of the human spirit. I leave the connection to the Divine to the theologians.
"How can you start up this army of compassion," asked Jagannathan this morning, scolding Krishnammal, "You don’t have enough food for them, or the necessary equipment, or enough money for brickmaking, or cement, or wood, or…."
Krishnammal laughs him off. "We can do it. We will do it," she says, "I know deep in my heart we will be provided for."
She could have been thinking of the Divine Light. But, dear friends, I believe she is referring to you.
The village headman says he no longer eats meat.

Friday, January 14, 2005

All I wanted was a banana

We spoke with a young woman, mother of three, who was squatting in the hot sun, with perhaps a hundred others, in the center of what is fast becoming a temporary relief for a large group of fisherfolk.
"They have given me 20 bedsheets. I now have enough bedsheets to last me all through this lifetime and into the next. And six blankets! It is much too hot here for blankets."
We discovered she was standing in line to receive her third set of stainless steel cookware. We assumed, of course, she would be trying to sell most of the extra "relief" materials.
"All I really wanted was a banana," she told us.
Across the road, they are building temporary shelters. All laid out in rows, one meter between each "house". Each unit is 8 feet by 8 feet, and covered in black polyvinyl chloride sheets. No windows. Dirt floor. Stinking of chemicals. When the temperature outside reaches 105 degrees in May, inside the temperature will reach 125 degrees. We are sure they will be abandoned long before then.
The fisherfolk didn’t ask for shelters. They asked for fishing nets. Or even the material for making fishing nets. But none seem to be on the way.
No one asked the fisherfolk about the design of the "houses" either. There is too much money at stake. Government officials told us that contractors were receiving 8,000 rupees (roughly $200 per house.) Two weeks ago, Krishnammal built a large mess hall, approximately 65 feet by 40 feet, with a tall peaked roof, covered in thatch, with a low, cement foundation, cool and inviting, for 15,000 rupees. There is profit to be made.
We see babies with sanitary napkins being used as diapers. Apparently, another aid agency came in and distributed sanitary napkins, not recognizing that Indian village women do not use them. Actually, I give the aid agency two points for thinking about this need. But they lose two points for never having asked whether they are in fact used.
I learned secondhand that there is a watertank truck trolling the streets of Nagapattinam. Printed on the side in small letters with a small red cross is ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross). In large letters covering most of the truck is "CocaCola". Apparently, Coke sees the tsunami as an advertising opportunity. None of the folks I spoke with, though, ever saw the tank dispense any water (which is largely supplied by UNICEF).
Sai Baba has sent a relief team with a lot of money behind it, his followers resplendent in bright yellow clothing and hats, with deep red scarves. Also the Church of Scientology, also in bright yellow.
The NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have not been immune from their share of charlatans either. There is one man, a would-be yogi from north India, who seems to have managed to have himself named chair of the "local industries relief committee." He has no organization, no projects, and no funding, but speaks a very precise Indian English, and spends most of the day on his cellphone. From what we can tell, he has never done an honest day’s labor in his life. But he seems to have at least some of the foreign NGOs bamboozled, and he is about as close "local participation in planning" as they are likely to get. .
Of course, the NGOs will be gone pretty soon, if they aren’t already, and before I take them to task for this, I should justly note that Aliyah and I will be as well.
Krishnammal rightly emphasizes that all are still in a state of shock – the affected people, yes, but also the government, relief organizations, and all those who have depended on the coastal areas for their livelihoods, and those who will never be able to bury (or cremate) their dead. "We are in graveyard mode," she says, "The time will come when we will act, but not yet," rebuffing Medha Patker’s appeal that LAFTI provide a more visual (and visceral) presence at the innumerable meetings. "The defects in government relief plans and the participation of the NGOs are not the big issues," she says, "The big issues are that people need food, they need work, and they need permanent houses, and I plan to provide all three."
Amma tells me that the first 100 enlistees in the "army of compassion" are coming to Vinoba Ashram tomorrow. I am supposed to speak to them (after a meal, I presume), and my Tamil isn’t anywhere close to being up to the task, a fact on which I play by blaming my mother for my lack of linguistic skill. I will make her repay for her failings by having her translate for me.
Today is the first day of Pongal. The ashram is almost totally empty, with workers gone off to join their families. The blind Muslim man comes by with his five-year-old niece, who wants to meet the foreigners. I hear a cricket game on the street in the distance, and maybe volleyball as well. Krishnammal presented most of the male workers with new shirts (it is traditional to give gifts of cloth on the first day of the four-day holiday.)
Aliyah and I have received very precious gifts as well, a gift of white cotton cloth spun by Jagannathan himself. Aliyah’s was made into a churi dal, a long slender Indian shirt with slits on the sides, usually worn over pajama pants (though Aliyah is planning on petticoats from the "Maharani Krishnammal Petticoat Production Unit." Sathya, who has come down from Chengelput, has strung a hundred purple and white flowers together, which Aliyah is now wearing in her hair. For me, a shirt in the traditional Tamil style. It will immediately become one of my most prized possessions


Dear Friends,
In ancient Egyptian cosmology, the crescent moon was a boat for the gods to sail on the sky-river. Here in India, I can understand this. Instead of left-to-right as in more northerly areas, the new moon’s horns point up, looking indeed like a luminous canoe.
Yesterday, Medha Patkar and her team showed up on our doorstep two days after she was scheduled to arrive. It was like a tornado whirling through and carrying us with it. Best known for her work attempting to prevent a huge dam being built on the Narmada River, at the confluence of three states – Gujarat, Maharastra, and Madhya Pradesh. After a 20-year struggle, it was finally ruled that the dam would be built, but only to a height of 110 metres, and not to be raised, until all three million displaced people, many of them tribal, were given new lands and "rehabilitated" (whatever that actually means.) In the past week, Medha and her entourage, representing the National Alliance of People’s Movements, has been traveling up and down the coast of Tamil Nadu, speaking to unorganized workers and dalits, whose problems have often been overlooked by the government and the NGOs.
After almost an hour’s meeting of Medha and her staff trying to decide what villages to visit, I went and found Krishnammal, who came in and said, "We will visit these places. Get in the bus." Before we could all fit in the bus, we had to remove four huge branches, each with about 40 bananas. We drove at a fairly reasonable speed along the road, but for some reason we had to stop at every village we passed that had any relationship with a people’s movement. We stopped at Kilvenmani, where, in 1968, 44 women and children were killed by landlords, starting Krishnammal’s long work in this area; at Valivalam, to see the girl’s hostel, and several other roadside places. Throughout the day, people were almost left behind as the bus started.
We again visited the flooded villages, including Vallankallimedu, the village that ran from the tsunami, which saddened me even more that it had before. The tsunami water had, in fact, reached the village (I had not understood this previously) but they were still refused aid, like most groups other than the fisherfolk themselves, and they had very little to eat
We then visited a village where the people – all dalits -- were all involved in making and selling baskets for the fishermen. The village was five or six kilometers from the sea, but bodies had floated up the tidal river into their area. The people had no way of making a living anymore. Their baskets were very strong and well-made, they fold into small packages, and a large one took only two hours to make, which I found incredible ( the techniques I know, a similarly sized basket would take at least ten hours.) I bought several baskets. Krishnammal now has a plan to buy baskets from the makers, put petticoats and sambar powder in them, and give them to women. I went into the shed to watch the women make the baskets, and was nearly left behind when the bus started again. I plan to use the baskets to collect money for Krishnammal’s houses.
By this point, Medha was a bit agitated about time. She wanted to get to the Collectorate by 4 p.m. for a press conference. She was a whirlwind of ideas and commentary and plans for new village industries, all of which she wanted put into practice immediately. She, unlike Krishnammal, is not rooted in the community, and does not hold with Krishnammal’s practice of waiting until people are "out of graveyard mode." I had gotten used to Krishnammal’s lax attitude about time, and Medha’s need for punctuality was beginning to aggravate me, an irritation compounded by a headache, the hot sun, and skipping lunch.
Medha’s great strength, however, is as a speaker. At the press conference, her speech on the necessity of livelihood rehabilitation and involving the local people was very powerful. This is not one of Krishnammal’s better skills. When asked to give a few remarks, her speech, as always, was rambling, and Medha soon took the microphone back. To understand Amma, you have to listen to her for at least a few hours.
We then took a bus to a distribution area for construction workers in Nagapattinam, all of whom are out of work since no one will rebuild anything until the 26th, for fear of another tsunami. By this time I am extremely tired and my head feels like it is being squeezed together, so after a few photos, Krishnammal, David and I take a jeep home, where I go to bed without even having dinner. Medha and her people did not get back until midnight, but backed off of their original plan of leaving at 3 a.m. for their next encounter.
In the Light,

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

An Army of Compassion

The poor and afflicted from the tsunami as well as the floods have begun to show up on Krishnammal’s doorstep. First there was the man who sold coconuts alongside the edge of the Nagapattinam fishmarket. He was swept up in the wave, a boat over his head, and carried headlong almost a mile inland, where he was dumped against the side of a house. Now without clothing, somehow he managed to stumble onto a bus that took him to Thiruvarar some 40 kilometers away, where he awoke three days later in the public hospital, seven stitches in the back of his head, and various injuries to his neck and shoulders. Miraculously, his wife and three children found him. But now is without any source of income, and since he lives 8 kilometers inland (close to Vinoba Ashram), and he lost no capital or housing, the government doesn’t consider him among the tsunami victims. Krishnammal sits him down for a meal (EVERYONE gets fed), gives him 10 kilograms of rice (with sambar powder!) and two bedsheets, and invites him to join her "army" in three weeks time.
Then there is a fish seller, an old woman, who daily would make the trip to the market, purchase fish, and sell them in the inland villages. She wasn’t there when the tsunami hit, but all her friends were killed, and there are no longer any fish to sell. She too is not considered a tsunami victim, but she and her three children are starving. Her husband is missing. Krishnammal feeds her as well.
A group of four men arrive in the early morning. They are dalits, and have made their living collecting trash weeds and weaving them into beautiful and highly functional baskets into which the fisherfolk would unload their catch. Few of them were in the market when the great wave hit, but they too are starving.
Krishnammal says the stream will become a river. "When they are turned away from government offices, and by the relief agencies, they will come to me," she says, and we will share what we have. If nothing else, we can always provide a good meal."
Meanwhile, LAFTI staff have now counted more than 2,000 individuals in the dalit communities, living close by to the fisherfolk and hardhit by the tsunami, but who have gone unserved by both the government and the international relief agencies. "We don’t even know how many of them died or are missing, as these are people the government often fails to count," she notes. LAFTI will feed them and provide some clothing in the interim, until LAFTI completes and submits its survey to the local government, who will then be charged with taking over.
Aliyah’s friend Mani, from Mumbai, has decided to stay on. She was married at the age of 15, and now, at age 41, both her children are grown. She is a scriptwriter from Mumbai, but has always wanted to devote herself to service work, and says she prefers hard physical labor. "My husband and I have always had an agreement," she says, "that we could go our separate ways when the children were grown. But I have never known where to go. Now I know." She is joining the army of compassion.
A large truck rolled up into the compound today, and unloaded 1,000 pounds of dried red chilies, which are now spread all over two tarps spread out for more drying. They were brought from 200 kilometers a way where, for some reason, chilies cost less than half what they do here. No, we won’t take them on airplanes as dangerous weapons – they are needed for the sambar powder. Lots of it, enough to feed the 1,001 volunteers.
In two days, some 500 people have enlisted. Most of them are dalits. Laborers, masons, carpenters, brickmakers, cooks. Krishnammal has promised, starting in February, to pay them 300 rupees (roughly $7) a month for three months. There will be doctors from abroad to accompany them. And others who will join the army of compassion. They are going to build houses (highest priority!), plant trees, start kitchen gardens, perhaps even help to restore the green belt. Krishnammal has no idea where she will get the money to pay them, but she is convinced it will come.
Last night she was wondering where she would get a lorry to carry all the supplies, the cement, the rice, the mats. Sure enough, this morning her e-mail contains the news of an unexpected check coming from Italy in an amount roughly equivalent to what the lorry will cost.
She also wondered where she was going to find all those bedsheets. (Indians often sleep on the ground, on mats, with a bedsheet on top and bottom). She was thinking of calling friends in Coimbatore, some 300 miles away. Last night at 11 p.m., as I was sleeping in the office, a man all in white came in and asked if he could sleep on the floor. No problem as far as I was concerned – plenty of room. What I didn’t tell him, and which I now think relevant, is that when Bhoomikumar sat down by the computer two hours earlier, he found a snake, which we removed from the premises. I now think getting rid of the snake so that this man could sleep safely was part of "The Plan". He curled up by the side of the computer. When Krishnammal and I came into to check her e-mails and work on her correspondence this morning, he was still stretched out there, in just the spot the snake had been. He woke up, and, it turns out, he is a lawyer from Coimbatore, a friend and follower of Krishnammal, who of course will (we assume) recruit his friends to provide the bed sheets.
So I am going to try this achayapatra thing myself. Several days ago, a crew from Rome TV turned up to interview Krishnammal, just as she was dreaming up her army of compassion. I think it was because they were sent this blog by Overseas, though I do not know for sure.
So I am stretching out my hand. My Partner has blessed me with the opportunity to be here at this time of crisis and trial, with my daughter, and with my Indian family, to bear witness to this unbelievable calamity, but also to begin to put a human face on extraordinary acts of hope, selflessness, and compassion. We leave to return to the U.S. on January 18th, but the army of compassion does not march until February 1st.
So I am stretching out my hand. We need a film journalist (or photo journalist, or just a journalist – I don’t know how much I am allowed to ask for), who can continue the little work Aliyah and I have started here, and can expand it to reach wider audiences who will be as touched and moved as we have been by what we have witnessed here.
If you are out there, you will know who you are.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Lotus Flower

Dear Friends,
I am starting this entry for the second time on a different computer, having just spilled tulasi tea on the keyboard of my laptop. Don’t worry, the computer is fine, but I’m giving it a few hours to recuperate. This is not the first time I’ve done this. Last time, it was a spill from a plant on a shelf above the computer. Bhoomi says my computer has "an herbal attraction." Maybe it comes from the fact that all of the passwords are different types of plants.
The past two days have been full of many different experiences. Two days ago, I went with Krishnammal to some of the flooded villages. On the way, we dropped off some workers who were doing a survey of people hit by the tsunami who were not receiving aid. The villages were in a very sad state. Children played outside government-built houses that were too unsafe to enter and corroded by the flood waters. The palm-leaf huts had holes in their roofs. We brought clothing and Krishnammal asked the villagers to join in her food for work program in which people build their own houses in exchange for food. We found at least two willing communities. At one village, the moment we arrived a man jumped into the village tank and brought out a beautiful dark pink lotus, which he presented to me.
After we visited the villages, we drove through Vellankani. The situation there was very different than Nagapattinam. Instead of a broad expanse of damaged buildings, there was a strip of land, once a thriving market, that was completely flattened, but past that there was little damage. The great church was just on the border.
The next day was the Oriyans’ last day in Tamil Nadu, and a new team had arrived. Bhoomi wanted the old team to show the new team the school that LAFTI is planning to fix up until it is better than before the tsunami, but the team members just wanted to go their own ways, and Bhoomi finally gave it up. I had not understood this, and was becoming very frustrated with the disorganization. It is at times like this that I wish I knew either Hindi or Tamil.
Nagapattinam looks far better than it did a week ago. Much of the garbage is gone, and the roads are leveled. There is even electricity. The crows that landed on the functioning wires were killed, and hang by their claws. Butterflies flutter through ruined houses. Some of the Oriyan students wanted to see "all the places that Jagannathanji had worked," and asked me to come along. I said that such a trip would take years, and that I had come to work. I don’t know what came of that, because I left with Mani to see if one of the schools needed any help. We carried benches for them from one school to another, holding them on our heads. The last table proved too heavy for both of us together, but just at that moment, a man with a bicycle trailer showed up, and offered to carry it for us.
A reporter from Associated Press came by and asked us for an interview. We asked him to come back after lunch. He turned out to be a friend of a friend of Mani’s, who is a scriptwriter in Bombay, and will be coming back to Tamil Nadu in a month to help Krishnammal.
When we returned from lunch, the headmaster of the school asked us to help with sorting papers, but we were more of a hindrance, as neither of us can read Tamil. We gathered up the garbage papers lying around, and made a fire. A group of very small girls, five or six years old, came to watch. We asked them to help us collect paper, but they kept bringing us plastic bags. The papers took a long time to burn, and while we were burning them, the Associated Press man arrived, nearly two hours late. He just wanted some pictures, our names, and where we were from, but I managed to get in the purpose of LAFTI, as Amma had asked me to. When the fire had burned out we returned to Kuthur, where the rest of the team had already gone.
In the Light,

Monday, January 10, 2005

Teach a man to fish

There is an old saying, the gist of which (I am terrible at remembering such things) is that if you give a hungry man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach a hungry man to fish you feed him for a lifetime. It’s a nice thought, and fits in well with our Protestant work ethic.
It is also profoundly wrongheaded. Before teaching a man to fish, you have to be pretty darn sure that there are fish in the river, that the river isn’t polluted, that the fish are fit for eating, that the breeding grounds for the fish are protected so that it is environmentally and economically sustainable, and that too many people aren’t fishing the same river, with the result that there is not enough for anyone. Without the necessary efforts to ensure the social and environmental conditions for fishing, what you have done by teaching the man to fish is ensure that the man will remain hungry for a lifetime, as will his children, and his children’s children. If you teach a man to fish under such conditions, you take away his self-respect, his drive to better his condition, and his will to teach his children that they can better themselves as well. And he will never trust you again. The man would be much better simply given the fish.
The Oriyans leave today. Bhoomikumar and I went out and bought blue and green towels (neck clothes) to present to each of them. A new all-India team, based out of Madhya Pradesh in the middle of the country, is replacing them. Yesterday, they went out to clean up another school, still filled with sand and muck three-and-a-half feet high, where they found an astonishing sight. On top of the muck, the villagers had placed a blanket, on top of which they placed all the clothing they had received from the international relief agencies. "We are fisherfolk," said a village elder, "We don’t wear trousers, or fancy clothes or all these things. So we are planning to resell them if we can." At the other end of the school, again on top of the sand and mud, were hundreds and hundreds of loaves of bread. They’d been there for days, and were already an unusually bright moldy green color. (Not likely to be resold.) We are certain that some relief agency, surely from outside the area, and likely from outside the country, thought they were doing "a good thing". Fisherfolk don’t eat bread. So on top of our usual burdens, the volunteers had to dispose of the moldy bread. (And in India, this is no small thing – it’s not like there is a municipal garbage pick-up. The goats might eat the bread, though they can be finicky too, and the non-biodegradable plastic bags in which the bread came will likely hang around the village for months or even years, a reminder of the good intentions of some international aid agency.) These people already know how to fish, but the environmental and social conditions under which they can get back to feeding themselves may never exist again without a radical reversal in social and environmental policy. The government thinks that repairing a few boats, and buying a few fishing nets will do it. The local fisherfolk will tell you otherwise. Meanwhile, temporary structures, with tin roofs, under which the people will bake in the hot sun, are being erected.
Over dinner, Krishnammal tells us a story from the time of her mother. It seems that, among all communities, even as late as the 1930s in her area, it was forbidden to sell any food stuff that was white. Milk, yoghurt, rice (millet being the usual staple) were all outside the market system. At one time, her family had four water buffaloes, and they provided so much milk, that after work and feeding the family, her mother would stand by the roadside giving it away. And these were very, very poor people.
Krishnnammal’s favorite saying from her spiritual forefather is that "Everything is possible."
We shall have to see.

Untouchability 1

First of all, Aliyah and I wish to thank all of our friends in Italy. Apparently, this blog is being spread far and wide there, and we feel privileged to share our thoughts and experiences with you. As previously noted, Aliyah is planning to spend a year in Italy beginning in September 2006 at the Smith College program in Florence, and it is comforting to know that she will already have developed a large friendship network, even if at this distance.
Secondly, thanks to the doctors who have volunteered to come work with LAFTI. As you know individually, we have put you off, asking you to come, but only beginning at the end of January. The Orissa medical team had its busiest day yesterday, and virtually exhausted all their available pharmaceutical resources. The most common complaints are coughs, dysentery, and skin diseases, and the first cases of malaria have now appeared. We expect these will likely get worse in the next several months. As the international aid agencies disappear (there are fewer photo-ops, and we saw very few of them in Nagapattinam yesterday - with the exception of World Vision, and the German, Italian, French, and Irish medical teams), resources will be increasingly taxed. Krishnammal is planning to work on coordinating medical resources with the local government, once the aid agencies have left the field.
Thirdly, we were pleased to see the LAFTI volunteers’ work featured in "Asian Age", and it is expected it will be picked up by "The Times of India". What apparently made the greatest impression was their highly respectful arrangement and cremation of the dead bodies found. I can say from personal experience that this respect for the dead is also apparent in their respect and care for the living. Yesterday, they worked tirelessly, not only in cleaning out another school filled with four feet of muck and sand, but then going house to house, clearing the houses of mud and debris, making some basic repairs, and referring on those who are sick to the medical team. I am honored to be a part of them, and their leader has now asked me to share our daily blogs with them.
Krishnammal "Amma" comes from an untouchable family. The commonly used term today is "dalit". Only rarely now does one hear the Gandhian term "harijan" – children of God – as it is thought to be patronizing. What she is considered now, being married to a man of higher caste, and given her work, is anyone’s guess, though I do know that her lowest class "patois" allows her to converse across all class lines, making everyone feel embraced and comfortable.
People often make the mistake from reading western accounts that the dalit community is without culture. This is far from the truth. Krishnammal shares the story of her grandfather, a literate man who, in the mid-to-late 19th century, traveled (on foot) to 108 different temples. While he was not admitted to any of them, he wrote a poem about each. The poems were preserved on palm leaves and saved by Krishnammal, though, sadly, they were destroyed when her mother’s house burned to the ground while Krishnammal was away at college. As Amma tells the story, the travel to the 108 temples was in preparation for a bull fighting competition, in which the winner was to receive three acres of land. Her grandfather won, and later divided the land among his three sons.
Her father remained illiterate, however, for which he forever blamed his grandfather, and soon the land was gone as a result of his own alcoholism. Nonetheless, every day after school, his children were forbidden from going out to play, but were required to stay inside and read to him from the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the two great Indian epics (and if they stopped, they were beaten). He also apparently forbid any of the children from helping with work on the land, insisting that his children would not grow up to be landless laborers. And then he beat them further when they were not first in their school classes. This abusive childhood was not without results. Among the 12 children, six of them later brought up by a destitute mother after the death of their father (the other six having died in childhood), there was one advocate, a very wealthy doctor living in Chennai, a government worker, and Krishnammal. Of the two others (younger, I believe), one was mentally handicapped, and the other, uneducated, ended up among the landless poor.
More than 90% of LAFTI’s 70-strong staff, and virtually her entire "army" of masons and carpenters, seamstresses and nursery school teachers – her army of compassion - are dalits. They regularly work 15-hour days, from 7 in the morning until 10 at night, and I have never seen them take a day off. Krishnammal tells me that, with the exception of her top administrative staff, she refuses to make "classes of appointments", and instead pays them all the same, though she provides extra for those with difficult home situations. Once hired, they almost never leave.
These are the lucky ones. While the term "untouchable" does not correctly describe the dalits, especially those in the cities (they may now be "touched" without "pollution"), for the most part they are still confined to the most menial occupations – sweeping, tanning, and, above all, agricultural labor. Their villages are often far away from the towns where the "caste people" live, and from the fields. In a good year in this part of Tamil Nadu, a man can expect to earn 70 rupees (around $1.70) and a woman 50 rupees (approximately $1.10) per day. But they have work for only 3 ½ months a year. The rest of the time they have to scratch to get by.
Yesterday, we paid a visit to "Maharani Krishnammal’s Petticoat Production Unit". I gave a little speech, congratulating them on their important contribution to the relief effort, and noting that they are now internationally famous, word of their work having reached as far as Italy, where groups are taking up their support. We took the obligatory photos, when a man came and begged Amma to come visit his village one kilometer away. We drove there, past rice fields in ruins from the flood, to a dalit village of 60 families. It seems that in addition to their hunger (on account of their normal labor having been disrupted by the floods and destroyed harvest), their houses are falling down around them. The government had erected some houses – dark, airless places – but the contractor had been remiss in mixing cement and sand in improper proportions, and, having made a financial killing, left. The houses are now too unsafe for people to go into them, and the villagers won’t even allow their few cows and goats inside.
Krishnammal promised that, if they agreed, they would be the first village in her food-for-work housing scheme (see below). She explained that while the government did not place any value on their labor (the contractor having brought laborers from the outside), she knew how hard the dalits can work, and that they are likely to take more pride in houses they are able to build themselves. She also is sending rice (and sambar) in the interim until the work can be taken up, in February. "Normally," she says, "I would require the villagers to pay for the house foundations themselves, but this is clearly impossible here." She will bring her "1001" volunteers" and, together, they and the villagers will rebuild the entire village. And while the work is going on, there will be a common mess, and the volunteers and the villagers will eat together, something unheard of in a dalit community. "I am beginning this effort without any money for it," she says, but that is the way I always begin. My partner – God – in the form of all of our friends, will provide for us." I gulp - it will be a heavy burden. Aliyah promises to go back to Smith and raise money for a "Smith College House". (She is already trying to figure out ways to come back this summer, and continue the work that has been started.)
We wind our way back to the port and market area of Nagapattinam. The government has done a pretty good job of leveling the streets, and digging out the thousands of tons of debris. Now it looks like rather like Florida did after the last hurricane (a week ago, it was much, much worse.) Dusty, though, which is not helping my cough one bit.
The workers have thus far found 68 people – dalits - in the neighborhood of this fishing village who were overwhelmed by the tsunami but have received no aid whatsoever. They live only about 400 yards from the main village that has been adopted by World Vision, but for some reason, World Vision hasn’t "found" them. This morning, Krishnammal and part of her staff, with Aliyah in tow, have gone out to find others in the same position. "The government and the aid organizations can’t help them if they don’t know they are there. This is something we can do that they can’t."
Aliyah and I are dropped off at the orphanage we visited four days ago. I bought two cricket bats and a bunch of balls, some ring tosses. We bring some extra clothing, especially for the girls (they had complained they had no changes of clothing), and 30 of the petticoats. I make it clear I don’t want any photos, or presentation speeches, or thanks, and I don’t want to decide who gets what – the staff can decide that. They are extremely appreciative both of the gift, and the spirit in which it is presented – they have been assaulted by the media seeking "the horrible plight of the children affected by the tsunami" for days, and they need time to establish a routine free of the tv cameras. The children remember our last visit and are happy to see us. I suggest to the headmistress that the boy I spoke with last week – one Rajkumar – be explicitly asked to be in charge of ensuring the toys are shared. I had the impression that he might actually be rather forward and perhaps bully the other children, so rather than have him claim the toys for himself, he should be in charge of efforts to ensure fairness, She is delighted by the suggestion.
In front of the orphanage is an Indian man from Hyderabad who has spent the last 17 years in New Jersey, but who returned last year "to transform living conditions in India". He is much of a dreamer, without anything concrete to show for it. But he has now encamped in front of the orphanage, and when they need anything, he goes out and finds it, paying out of his own pocket, for needed drugs, or soap, or whatever. He even recruited a very fine teacher. "The government will provide these things, of course," he said, "but it will take three or four weeks. The children can’t wait."
The children can’t wait.
Below is Krishnammal’s appeal:
An Urgent Appeal from Amma
Dear friends,
I am of humble origins. I am very familiar here in India with the lives of people living in small squalid huts, their sufferings, and their struggle for survival. The oppression experienced by these poor people - and I was among them - was strongly impressed upon my mind even as a young child.
My mother lost her husband, my father, at the age of 32, leaving her and the children without land, or any other source of income. Hers became a desperate effort to maintain her family. Even today, I feel very close to her suffering.
The idea of serving the landless poor started at a very young age. My only prayer was to study, and equip myself to work for the uplift of the most downtrodden people. Fortunately, I became the first woman among the dalits ("untouchables") within my community to study at the local school. In those days, there was no local newspaper. I used to draw pictures of a small hut, and explain the suffering of the people, and send it to all educated youth throughout the entire district, hoping to awaken their minds and develop within them a commitment to service.
Throughout my life, I have been lucky. My prayers were answered. After graduation in 1952, I was privileged to be able to join Vinoba Bhave, as we walked from village to village in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, obtaining gifts of land for the landless.
But something remained burning in my heart. The wretched, airless mud huts were damaged every year by rain. Generally, the landless dalits live outside the village in low-lying areas. They have become so habituated to their suffering that they hardly pay attention anymore.
There was a woman living in a small hut near here that I couldn't get out of my mind. After heavy rains last year, I couldn't sleep, thinking of the awful conditions of the mud hut. In the early morning, I went to express my feelings to her. She laughed, and replied, "This is not much suffering. When the water comes in, I place vessels to collect the water as best I can. It is the best that can be expected."
I am now 78 years old, and have been working continuously to better the conditions of the poorest of the poor for more than half a century. But I am thirsty. So to try to satisfy my thirst, I select some huts every year and turn them into decent living quarters.
But it is not enough. My hunger and thirst is so great I must take up my housing program on a mass scale.
People around the world have been so kind to take part in supporting tsunami relief work. I feel like meeting each and every one of you who has helped to express my gratefulness for your kind hearts and solidarity with the suffering people.
The tsunami was a very tragic event. Many lives were washed away, leaving so many families in distress. We must be with them fully. At the same time, I want to appeal to you, my dear, dear friends, to take up the problem that is so disturbing to my mind and heart.
I wish to do something magical. I want to take paper and metal currency, from all over the world, and turn it into decent, living quarters, with tile roofs. Each house costs approximately $1,200 U.S. We would love for you to save up and contribute an entire house! But if not, perhaps a roof ($250). or just the tiles ($150), or the rafters ($100). a verandah ($50) door way ($35) , or a window ($25), or even, for the children, a single brick (5 cents). ,
I am planning to engage 1,001 volunteers to build the foundations, and with your contributions, we will begin to see an end to the squalid mud huts.
And I will sleep much better!
Sincerely yours,

Krishnammal Jagannathan (Amma)

(Contributions can be made through the usual channels: in the U.S. through Skylark Sings or the Gandhian Foundation; in Europe, through Overseas.)

Saturday, January 08, 2005

The Dance

We wake up every morning and, quite literally, we don’t know what plans are in store for us. We go where we are told, do as we are directed, and eat what is given. It is like being a VERY obedient six-year-old, and, with deep apologies for an unfortunate metaphor, we ride a great wave. It is very freeing in a way. I have lost track of the days of the week (Aliyah tells me she has as well, though it might be Saturday, she says semi-authoritatively).
Visitors turn up at odd hours, there is always food, and sometimes I direct them around, as we did the Swiss TV News team. I climb into jeeps that magically find their way through roadblocks, discover clothing disappearing from my room and mysteriously turning up cleaned (except when it gets lost, being mixed in with the Oriyans’ laundry), songs and stray Tamil words come to me at the proper moment, and I seem to contribute in ways that fit. I am part of the dance.
There is some intra-family discussion about plans for next week. Normally, we would all gather back at Gandhigram. Sathya is planning to come down from Chengleput. Aliyah and I and Bhoomikumar have left luggage there. There are trains that are semi-impossible to book, cars that need to be arranged. We have to fly out on the 18th from Chennai (Madras), Bhoomi has to meet medical colleagues there on the 17th, and wants us to take in the last days of the Madras Music Festival (the high point of the south Indian music festival year – normally, for me this would be bliss, but now….) The rice harvest festival – Pongal – is on the 15th (actually, it is four-day festival, but the second day is the one we celebrate; the third day is an animal holiday, and all the cows have their horns painted.) But Appa does not want to celebrate this year, and wishes to stay here in the eye of the continuing storm. It will all be figured out one way or another. We are part of the dance.
The fisherman’s village next to the school is now filled with rice and bedsheets and water, Bhoomikumar has discovered. But there is a colony of so-called "untouchables" right next door to them, who in normal times are the fisher folks’ helpers in the fish markets, and they are without food, and almost without shelter, and likely now permanently without employment. The aid agencies seem to have left them behind, or perhaps never even knew they were there at all. The fisherfolk, despite their huge losses, are at least well-organized politically, but this underclass has no one to represent their interests. Krishnamal has called together her staff and requested an immediate survey of the location of these suffering communities, and is sending out rice. They are part of the dance.
Meanwhile….rice has arrived, 300 bags or so, about six tons of it. It seems that while all this tsunami business is going on, the flood victims from the previous two months have fallen even further from view. They have come to Kuthur and appealed to Krishnammal for help. She has put her meta-economics to work. While the aid agencies have been providing rice, the price of rice in the marketplace has fallen (though this is somewhat mitigated by the poor harvest as a result of the floods). So she has purchased a huge amount of rice at 8 ½ rupees per kilo (the usual price being 13.) Total cost around $1,100. Her plan is that in February, she will go village by village, having the villagers themselves build homes from cinderblock (this is part of the housebuilding program that American homeschoolers have helped support), and in exchange for their labor, building their own homes, they will receive rice (and sambar powder!) Of course, this is the same time Appa is planning consciousness-raising marches about saving and rebuilding the greenbelt on the coast. How this will all play out is anyone’s guess. Knowing Amma, people will eat – the magic vessel, the achayapatra, will provide, somehow. This is part of the dance.
One of the Oriyan students – they have been working tremendously hard cleaning out homes, finding and burning bodies, refurbishing schools – tells Veerasami in his broken Oriyan English (Veerasami replying in broken Tamil English, there being virtually no similarity between the two), that they are so inspired by what they have seen here that they plan to stay longer. They will work for food (and raise more funds besides.) We are working for food, too. Hey, the food is good! All part of the dance.
All of you who are reading this are part of the dance as well.


Dear Friends,
Yesterday I worked for the UN. No, actually I worked for two members of the UN press corps from Switzerland, or so their credentials said, though actually they were working for the Swiss National TV News. They were directed by the Swiss press bureau to a friend of Krishnammal’s in Chennai, who, in turn, sent them to us here in Kuthur. They are supposed to be working on a story about "the horrible plight of children affected by the tsunami", a real tear-jerker. It is a terrible plight of course, but their singlemindedness is somewhat annoying, in that they can’t seem to even imagine placing "the horrible plight of children" in a larger context. My dad and I tried to get them interested in the prawn issue (and we were making progress!) We would have gotten them to visit one of the farms, but Krishnammal was too tired to take them there. She has a bit of a cold.
Anyway, it is a very good thing that these people had someone to take them around, because otherwise they would have been totally lost. I am positively sure they would never have found the children they wanted to meet, and I am not even sure they would have made it to the Nagapattinam port and fish market, where the damage, even now when a lot of it has been cleaned up, is far beyond anything else they had seen. They rented a car in Chennai, their driver spoke almost no English, and had started to take them around to tourist destinations.
We stopped at a government-run orphanage, where we are not allowed to go inside. The District Collector has forbidden entrance (probably a good thing, given the crush of the media, and the fact that we get inside the gates is a tribute to Amma's powers of persuasion. We finally get to talk to some of the children, and learn that many of the older girls have only one set of clothes. Amma says she will talk to the Collector about this (successfully, it later turns out.). The children, especially the boys, are smiling as my dad discusses cricket and football with them, but I get the feeling that they are only laughing because no one has actually talked or listened to them in a long time. I suggest to Krishnammal that she should send Bhoomikumar, a child psychiatrist, here. And the children ask for Amma - their grandmother - to please come back. We will be returning. The TV folks get their footage of "the horrible plight of children affected by the tsunami."
We continue on to Nagapattinam. Our "UN" friends stop often to film the destruction. I had no idea how much time TV filming takes, and all of this film will be edited down to five minutes. My dad shows them the fish market, explains the height of the wave (at 42 feet, it went over the top of the two-story buildings nearest to shore), and introduces them to the head of the fisher folk community. The Sarvodaya team has cleaned out yet another school in the morning - this one a secondary school, and they are meeting with the children inside. Bhoomikumar helped dig out this school in the morning, and he, as the only member of this group who speaks English, Tamil, and Hindi, is translator for all of us. As we are playing with the children outside, suddenly there is a false alarm of another tsunami. Within seconds, the courtyard is empty, and the girl that the reporters were going to interview has disappeared. But they got more than enough film.
We return to Kuthur, where I, very apologetic, ask the cooks for a 3 pm lunch. Our cameraman, Carl, has never been to India before, and has never eaten rice with his fingers. He asks for a spoon, but no spoon can be found. Karnagi and the rest of the kitchen staff run all around the ashram, and finally completely avoid us. The only spoons are used for serving! Carl finally eats with his hand. Brigit relates how she was trying to get dressed in the morning but people kept coming into the office she was sleeping in unannounced. It must be a great shock going from such a private culture as Switzerland to a very public one such as India. My dad says that instead of shepherding TV people around, he had planned to spend the day fundraising (after some time at digging out), but before Carl and Brigit leave, they empty their pockets and give Amma more than 400 dollars. My dad says this is a first in his experience, as he has never known professional newspeople, while working on a story, to be particularly charitable. But they certainly couldn’t have done the story without us, and they have been moved and touched by Krishnammal’s work. We are hoping they come back to see the prawn farms.
That evening, after the digging team arrives, I try to learn to make chapattis (small, flat wheat cakes), but they keep coming out very strangely shaped, while those of my teacher, Aneema, are perfectly round circles.
After dinner, I am reading (the Journal of John Woolman, an 18th Century Quaker and anti-slavery activist) when Appa calls me. He, after asking what I did today, tells me the entire prawn saga and his involvement in it. I already know most of it, but I have wanted to hear it from his mouth. He also tells me his view of the tsunami: "I am very saddened that these people died. But also I am glad because the prawn farms are shut down. The Government did not enforce the Supreme Court order, so nature did!" That afternoon, Veerasami had come back from court, where his case had been postponed yet again. All of the LAFTI leaders had been arrested last year, and all of them, including Jagannathan, had been charged with attacking the prawn farms with weapons. In a reasonable world, of course, that charge would have been thrown out as ridiculous. Jagannathan is a 91-year-old man who is blind, mostly deaf, and slow-moving. (But, this morning I watched him do the yoga exercise Surya Namaskaram, the Greeting to the Sun, the first time he had done it in several months, with more flexibility than I have, and I am not so sure anymore.)
I have fallen behind in posting again. .
In the Light,

False Alarm

Yesterday, I witnessed the most affecting moment of our entire trip. I am used to the pictures of the piled up bodies, the children laid out in a row like so much firewood, the tangles of fishnets and fishing tackle under which lay more bodies, the children in the orphanages and hostels, the boats crushed, or still lying incongruously half a mile from the shore.
The work party had just finished shoveling out the two school buildings, swept them clean, repaired what furniture could be salvaged, arranged things as best as possible. Krishnammal is buying new books and furniture, and is sending a painting team to whitewash the buildings. We gathered all the school children who were wandering around, and with their teachers, held a small celebration. My brother the child psychiatrist served as master of ceremonies, as he was the only one who could navigate the various languages. There were songs and games. I taught the children a funny game called "Elephant and Palm Tree". Aliyah sang a stirring version of the Quaker hymn, "How Can I Keep from Singing?"
"No storm shall shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging,
Since Love is Lord of heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?
Her voice (my, how it has grown!) brought the boisterousness of the crowd down to a dead silence. The leader of the Oriyans presented the head teacher with a cricket bat and ball, and a ring toss, and several other items that were much appreciated.
We went outside to play with the children. Watching the American attempting to look like he was playing cricket was a source of great amusement. Then someone came running, "A tsunami is coming!" The children, followed by the adults, ran to the house tops (I must admit that I didn’t, having done a quick calculation that a) it was 95% likely to be a rumor, and that with all the cellphones around, there was ample time for a warning if needed (one of the doctors connected to a tv station on his cellphone, and there was no news whatsoever), and b) at this distance, the last tsunami, which was 42 feet high at the point it hit the shore (you have to do some real imagining to find yourself below a 42-foot wave!) was only three feet high when it got to the school.
Eventually, I did climb one of the roofs just to see what all the scurrying in the surrounding area looked like. There on the roof was a small boy, no more than three-feet tall, who had been at the school gathering, and he burst trembling into tears. He had lost both his mother and father in the great wave, and now he believed the new wave was coming for him. I put my arm around his shoulder, and spoke softly to him in English, knowing that he wouldn’t understand a word, but I hoped that at least a little human contact might make a modicum of difference. Of course, I had the urge to take him with me, but that would serve my needs, not his. He needs to reconnect with what is left of his community, which is why he was hanging around the school to begin with.
We have received so many terrific offers of help, and I wish I could personally thank you all (and will when I get the opportunity): from a doctor in Bhutan trained in emergency relief, to a group of homeschooling moms making and selling natural child products. When Laura Coppo, the author of "The Color of Freedom" read of "Maharani (Queen) Krishnammal’s Petticoat Production Unit", she decided to contact the women of a national association of Italian wine producers – "The Women of Wine" – to specifically support this project. We are all extremely amused by this – Jagannathan has been repeatedly jailed in campaigns against alcohol. Krishnammal is much more open to this possibility. Immediately, out poured Tamil proverbs. Bhoomikumar contributed "Money obtained from selling a dog will not bark." We had breakfast with Krishnammal’s administrative director – Veerasami – who comes originally from a fishing community, and he contributed "The money obtained in selling dried fish will not stink." It sounds like one great "money-laundering" operation, but it will all be to good purpose. Krishnammal says the petticoats cost approximately $1 a piece to produce, and has already employed all 100 members of the tailoring unit (who all wear their own hand-made uniforms) stitching away. In fact, the tailoring unit has become so crowded, that she has decided to move some of the tailoring women right into the fishing villages to produce petticoats on demand. She is a like a great general (I hate military imagery!), mobilizing an army of compassion.
Jagannathan held a public meeting for the Oriyans, so they could ask him about his life and work, and he lecture them about prawn farm, mangrove forests, and the need for green belts. It turns out that the Tamil words for mangrove forests is "Alaiyathi Kadu", which translates as "trees that soothe the waves". Another "Ah-hah" moment – tsunamis and cyclones have hit Tamil Nadu before, and the people know the value of conservation practices and natural protections, and have literally incorporated it into their language. The government wants to build a giant concrete wall, a great boon for building contractors, and likely to be of virtually no use whatsoever against coastal flooding.
Jagannathan practiced his lecture on Aliyah last evening for about 90 minutes, in English, and then spoke to the workers in what Bhoomikumar says was flawless and excellent Hindi. (Where do these extraordinary language skills come from?) Then he showed them all how to spin on his Gandhian spinning wheel – the young people rarely see this nowadays, and they sang revolutionary songs from the 1970s, when Jagannathan was fighting and then imprisoned during Indira Gandhi’s suspension of civil liberties. He is in his element, and seems to have lost 20 years in a flash. Bhoomikumar notes that if this were a meeting led by Krishnammal, the songs would have more a folksy and quasi-religious cast.
Much more will follow. With thanks again for your prayers, thoughts, and contributions.