Monday, August 14, 2006

Hand Grenades

Bhoomikumar brought hand grenades on the plane from Cambodia. All right, they weren’t hand grenades, but ripe Cambodian mangoes. Equally banned. He brings them first through the Bangkok, and then the Chennai airports. Buried in his luggage, they show up on the x-rays. “What’s this?” airport security asks. “Mangoes for my 92-year-old father,” he says with a straight face. Thing is, airport security personnel are not agricultural inspectors, and they are so surprised by the answer that they always let him (and the mangoes) through.

Cambodian mangoes taste somewhat different than their Indian counterparts. Rather more like a cross between a mango and a papaya. They are quickly consumed. Jaganathan has left a small hill of chocolate in the storeroom; all visitors have been taught to bring chocolate for him, but he has stopped eating it! At the workshop with LAFTI’s staff, we distributed Belgian, German, and American chocolate as a gift from him. But Bhoomikumar also brings palm sugar (jaggery) from Cambodia, and that he still seems to love. There is irony here, in that his first post-Independence nonviolent protest in Tamil Nadu was against sugar mill owners who sponsored a law that all jaggery must be produced in registered factories (theirs!) rather than small-scale manufacture at home or in the village.

David Willis and Mika Obayashi (she is keeping her maiden name) departed last night for Japan. It was delightful to see them again (I have seen David about once every eight years, though I think it will be more often in the future.) They are planning additional weddings! David’s mother is an Episcopal priest, so there will be one of those in Iowa. Maybe a Shinto or a Buddhist one back in Japan.

We had a long conversation regarding Mika’s toe rings. Indian women wear toe rings as well as the traditional necklace as a sign of their marital status. But, as Bhoomikumar points out, in the traditional “Tamil Way” (the newspaper Indian Express, in reporting on their marriage, noted that they weren’t planning to live in the “Tamil Way” – i.e. men ruling the roost – we’ve had humor with that all week), women were supposed to be meek and shy, always looking toward the ground. (Yeah, right.) So, as in the great Tamil epic, the Cilapattakaram, it was the man who was supposed to wear the toe rings, so women could see them. Krishnammal’s nephew, the Communist Party organizer in her home village of Iyenkottai (more on that in a future post), notes it is still the custom for men to wear the toe rings in the week prior to marriage, and then for the women to wear them following the wedding. We suggest to David and Mika that they have an exchange of toe rings in their Episcopal ceremony in Iowa.

We have become quite an international family. David and Mika will be at Oxford from October to April. Bhoomikumar will be studying part-time for an MPH in Sweden – concentrating on adolescent suicide prevention - beginning in the end of August (returning intermittently to Cambodia.) Aliyah will be studying in Florence beginning in September. Krishnammal will join Vandana Shiva for a speaking tour in Italy in October. My family will be in Italy the week before Christmas (the “other” David is considering joining us.) Randa has come here via Russia and Germany; Peggy pays regular visits to her “children” in Ghana. And we all dream about gathering in Stockholm in December (for the Right Livelihood Award, it should only happen…) That, sadly, is not in our control. We have to leave it to the fates.

This morning we are going to Madurai again, this time to visit with Gabrielle Dietrich of the Tamil Theological Seminary, to exchange ideas and contacts. We wanted to visit Human Rights Watch, but they are closed (like most NGOs) on the days leading up to Indian Independence Day (August 15th). Krishnammal complains that LAFTI never closes, even on festival days. “We must always be there to take care of the people’s needs, and needs have no holiday.”

Good news! The Minister of Revenue, she says, “is round about” in this area, and will meet with us to discuss the stamp registration fees. Time and place are not set, but I am sure this is an opportunity Krishnammal will not let pass.

Bhoomi did indeed bring me a new shoulder bag from Cambodia, very stylish in light green iridescent silk. So I presented Krishnammal with my 25-year-old one, figuring she might get rid of it. No such fate. She has taken to carrying around all of her important papers in it. It will bring her luck, she says, and of course, reminds her of me.

And so it goes…and so it goes.

(P.S. I have just returned from a meeting with the Minister of Revenue, who kept his entire entourage in Dindigul while waiting for us to arrive. He will arrange the fee exemption, and told Krishnammal, who is bearing my…I mean her…green bag, to come to Chennai to invite the Chief Minister in person to meet with the land recipients in Nagappatinam September 11th. And, first the mouse then the lion again – Solai, probably the best known print social commentator in Tamil Nadu, came out with a column several days ago saying, despite the critics, the state government will be able to move forward on its land distribution efforts, but only if it works through LAFTI and the Jagannathans.)


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