Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Visiting the Collector

Visiting the Collector – A Petition
February 14, 2006

Valentine’s Day in Japan and the West. The day of love, the exchange of cards, chocolates, flowers, and warm feelings. What a wonderful idea! Surprisingly there have been movements in India against Valentine’s Day as a decadent Western imposition on Indian society. Card companies and cake shops have been the object of puritanical ire. This, I can imagine doesn’t trouble the folks at LAFTI very much. No, they are concerned with spreading the love every day in action. There are many kinds of love.

Amma and Veerachamy have gone to the Collector’s home to wait and deliver a petition to him regarding the housing conditions of Dalits in Chellur and other villages. Houses built with government funds only two years back are already falling apart. Amma wants money to subsidize LAFTI’s work, to demolish these houses, use some of their materials and make strong pucca (proper) houses to withstand the rains and flooding, which seem to be happening with increasing frequency.

It is a cool sunny morning at LAFTI as I write. We are hoping for Amma’s success with the petition, waiting for her return.

Ah, I hear the car, that strong white Ambassador with its diesel engine. The car pulls into the compound and Veerachamy steps out smiling. His bearing is that of a leader indeed. I ask him in Tamil how the meeting went, and he says that it went very well, that the results were fruitful indeed! Then Amma gets down from the car and comes to me smiling, saying they have had a very good meeting with the Collector, that he also had thoughts about the need for more money to be spent on making new houses, not just repairing those that were broken down. Amma has also asked him for a letter of introduction for meeting various officials in Delhi, which he is happy to provide. The sense of forward movement. of momentum however gradual, is unmistakable.

Happy Valentine’s Day!!!

The Family of Compassion Reaches Out to Us All

The Family of Compassion Reaches Out to Us All
Kuthur, February 12, 2006

“Do you have an Appa and Amma in India?”
(Do you have a Father and Mother in India?)

Someone asked me this question at the MIDS/Workshop and then again when I met the students from the University of Wisconsin. I had been speaking about LAFTI and Amma and Appa. The answer is that of course I do. And so do all of us associated with LAFTI. Amma and Appa are Mother and Father for all of us.

The family of compassion, as Amma says, reaches out to us all.

As Amma tells me later,

“They must feel it is my home. Whenever anyone comes to LAFTI, no matter who comes.
Especially the Dalits. Eating together. That is the first thing we should do, eat together. Old people are neglected. I gave them food and bed sheets after the natural calamities. But first I gave them food. Oh my! We cooked 70 kgs of puli saadam (tamarind rice) to distribute to them before we gave them the bed sheets last month. They really needed the bedsheets but they also needed something to warm their stomachs and their hearts first. So I gave them rice.”

This is what the Japanese call the ikigai of Amma, the reason for living, in her case the desire to help others. Her energy for this purpose is inexhaustible. She is always fully dedicated to her work, rising often early in the morning to visit this or that village.

Amma asks us to share breakfast with her and then has me help her with a letter to the Collector. We print out the letter and add some photographs of dilapidated houses that have been taken with a gift from Amma and Appa’s son Bhoomikumar, a child psychologist in Cambodia. This has been a wonderful gift to LAFTI, enabling them to convey far and wide their messages of both despair and hope, to help the rest of us try to understand what is happening in South Indian society.

We get in the car and Mutthukumar, our driver, skillfully negotiates the newly-paved road to Nagappatinam. Amma and Mutthukumar spot a white Ambassador with a government markings and see that it is the Assistant Collector out on a visit. They pull along side just as the other car is headed towards Nagappatinam. The Assistant Collector is clearly very respectful of Amma, tells her to please come directly to his office, and then speeds away.

Entering Nagapattinam we see many signs for NGOs related to the Tsunami. There has been a large outpouring of money to help the victims, and, according to Amma, the sudden appearance of more than 70 NGOs in an area where LAFTI was originally one of the few operating. Amma has been involved with Tsunami relief work, but she is most persistent and committed to helping those whose tsunami has been ongoing, their treatment at the bottom of the society.

Today I have been helping with a number of petitions, letters to the Collector, the director of CARE, and various top politicians in Delhi, where Amma is going soon. All she is asking for are funds to help with building small, clean, comfortable homes for the Dalits. The politics of India is only slowly moving forward on issues like this. The most recent issue of India Today, February 13, 2006, the Time or Newsweek of India has noted that the cabinet reshuffle of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shows that, while the Congress Party manifesto is pro-backward caste, its ministerial representation is not. Of the 57 ministers selected, 33 are upper caste, 7 Brahmin, 6 Scheduled Castes (Dalits and others), 5 Scheduled Tribes, 4 Muslim, 1 Sikh, and 1 Christian. Simple math calculates the population of Dalits and other Schedule Castes as 20-25% of the population of India, yet this political representation is 11%.

In one of her letters, Amma writes, “The Great Tsunami, torrential rains, and floods mean no let-up in the suffering of the poor. The extraordinary sufferings of all the people is even more visited upon the Dalits, treated with extreme prejudice, denied their dignity as human beings by the severe discrimination of religion and the caste system. They are the permanent victims of natural and larger social calamities. Their position in the society has over and over again denied them the opportunities given to others. It is now high time for us to right the wrongs that have been done to them by this system of apartheid, to help the Dalits who have been devastated by social prejudices and natural disasters. This has been my work for 35 years with LAFTI, the upliftment of the Dalits.”

She strongly feels we must take this opportunity to remove the mud huts and build new houses for the Dalits. The mud huts are disgraceful, deeply affecting the social status of the Dalits. The living quarters should be decent, “with all modern facilities.” There are so many program to improve their living conditions, but in the view of Amma nothing has reached them. So she is going to Delhi to discuss with the Government of India, various politicians, Dalit leaders, Habitat and India Care.

”What is it”, I ask Amma later, “that keeps you going?”

She answers,

“It is the light, jothi, within. Everything is possible when you have faith in God. This is the maha-mantra I am giving to you, he said, that everything is possible. Yes, I am starting projects, everything, without having any money, any projects. I begin them, then know they will be carried forward somehow.”

Amma is now, she tells me with a wink, finding a special way to finance a project that is needed for the house building, setting up a small cottage industry for making ceramic moulds for toilets that will need to be installed in the housing that is going to be built for the Dalits. The need for this project is Rs.79,000, and Amma has dipped into Appa’s pension for Rs.60,000. Bhoomi has said that if LAFTI builds any houses without toilets that he will tear down the houses when he sees them! He has said strongly that it is very important to have the dignity that comes with proper hygiene. Appa wanted to use that money to go to his home village at the foothills of the Southern Ghats to donate a well for water for the people there. Now Amma will be waiting to get the profits from selling the first toilet moulds so that she can replace that money she borrowed from Appa! So it may take another two months before Appa’s village can get their well!

Amma’s answer, when asked what will happen next, after she and Appa are no longer with us, is that she knows who the next generation’s leaders are. She is not worried about the future of LAFTI and the Gandhian movement because of these committed, dedicated, and compassionate leaders. The first line of leaders are people like Veerachamy, Venugopu, Gandhi, Thamba, and Bharati. Anyone who has spent time at LAFTI knows these leaders and their singular devotion to Amma and Appa and the cause of upliftment of the Dalits. The second line of leaders are those village leaders from surrounding villages, and then the third line are all the other support people. There are many.

Returning Home: LAFTI as Family

Returning Home: LAFTI as Family
Kuthur, February 12, 2006

After getting down from the minivan that Sekar, Vidya, Dr. V. and their students are traveling in, I wave goodbyes and gather my bags by the side of the road, and then start walking towards the LAFTI Ashram. It is almost mid-day and the sun is blazing down. I stop briefly to put on a hat, then resume my walk past the paddy fields and houses of Kuthur, many of them Muslim, a clear harmony prevailing here on all who live in this village.

People smile, nod their heads, and wave. It is the middle of the growing season for some crops, while others are being harvested. There is calm and the weather, despite the sun, is pleasant enough. It is not yet the summer and some people still have woolen caps on their heads or are wearing sweaters though it is already at least 20 degrees C. outside or the high 70s F.

Entering the LAFTI compound I immediately see Amma standing on the veranda in front of her house beside Appa, who is sitting on a bench holding his cane. She shouts my name and comes quickly towards me, holding out her hands. I give her a hug, which she may be a little embarrassed by! But I think she is happy with it and seeing me! Have you eaten? We will eat soon. Let’s talk.

We talk for sometime about everyone at LAFTI and where matters stand with various projects and cases. There is much work to be done.

Lessons in Stone

Thanjavur: Tanjore’s Lessons in Stone
February 12, 2006

Sekar had called me around 11 the night before and asked if I would like to go for a walk in the morning at 6:30. That can only mean the Brihadesvara Temple, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. It should be good, early in the morning before there are any other people there. The sun is just coming up as we walk towards the temple, surrounded by massive battlements built by the Cholas, the great empire responsible for conquering much of South India and Southeast Asia, conveying its culture far and wide.

What, though, we might ask, remains from these military and political adventures? The answer gives us pause as we think of recent history. What is remembered about the Cholas is their art, their glorious bronzes, their stone temples, their images of the divine. And another perhaps darker legacy, the social ordering of Tamil society. We wonder how and to what extent the caste system, and what it has done to oppress so many people even as it wove a social system that has remained more or less stable for a thousand years, came from the Cholas. But then again, this social ordering may go even further back. What is this social organization that allows a few to trample on the dignity and humanity of so many?

We are reminded here, too, of the hybridity of South Asia, of how multiple cultures come together and work out arrangements, exchanging and interchanging, creating hybrid cultures. We are even seeing this today in the society around LAFTI. Many, if not most, of the Brahmins seem to have left Thanjavur. I do not see the agraharams that used to appear with their red and white striped walls when I was passing through villages along the banks of the Cauvery. There are other land-lords now who use the labor of the Dalits: middle and other upper caste people, Muslims enriched by money from the Gulf, Malaysia, and elsewhere. But always the labor, the hard back-breaking work of actually maintaining the fields, goes to those at the bottom of the society and especially the Dalits.

We marvel at the power and the presence of the Cholas, even as we reflect on larger lessons from the society. Dr. V., I might add, has told me his belief that the bronzes of the Cholas and much of their art, shows a distinct Southeast Asian influence, that the stapathi bronze artisans of the village of Swamimalai are likely descended from generations of Southeast Asians. Again, hybridity, despite the privileging of purity and the depredations associated with concepts of pollution. What can this mean for a society in transition?

We return to the hotel and have a delicious breakfast of dosai and iddly and rich coffee. Then we are off, Sekar and his group to the pilgrimage sites of Velankani (Christian) and Nagore (Muslim). They drop me off on the way after Tiruvarur as we recognize the sign-board for LAFTI.

Visiting the Samadhi

Visiting the Samadhi: Sri Aurobindo and the Mother
Pondicherry, South India, February 11, 2006

Today I am journeying to Tanjore, or Thanjavur as it is now called more correctly, where I will stay one night with friends from Madurai, before going on to LAFTI the next morning. Some parts of my journey have echoes of Amma and Appa and their work.

As I am going by car, I have invited Ananta and his wife Sushuma as well as John Clammer to join me for at least part of the journey. They are keen to see Pondicherry and the Samadhi resting place of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother. We are joined by their son Sumanta Prakash, who is 12 and very curious indeed about the world around him!

Our first stop is Vedanthangal, one of the most famous bird sanctuaries in India, a large marshy wetlands filled with low trees in which nest numerous species of migratory birds, including storks, pelicans, cormorants, egrets, cranes, spoonbills, and others. There is a paved walkway with interpretive signs and a watch tower from which large groups of school students on excursions can see the birds. We are far enough away from the birds so as not to disturb them, even with the loud voices of the school children. It is an astonishing site, these thousands of nesting birds, by some counts as many as 30,000 during the peak of the nesting season from November through February.

Vedanthangal llustrates all too well the imminent ecological and social dangers to our planet and ourselves. How fragile we are, situated as societies and as humans living on this earth, something clearly indicated by the possibilities here of bird flu, of avian influenza, through these trans-continental vectors who journey between South India and Siberia or Central Asia. That pandemic, when it comes, will effectively halt numerous activities we now take for granted such as international travel and trade, these minglings and mobilities of human beings so essential to who we are in the 21st Century. I remember what someone has told me about those moving in the world today. Last year between 250 and 300 million people were on the move around the planet.

We leave Vedanthangal and after 10 or 15 minutes of driving my eye catches large, milling crowds around a railway station, all of them dressed in red saris or red kurtas. Ananta explains that this is a temple to another ‘Amma’. There are so many Ammas in India! So many Mothers! This temple is aimed at and maintained by women, who are the caretakers and administrators for a new religion centered around the preachings of a man who has had visions of the duality of human beings and of his own trans-sexuality. He is a She. She is a He.

The key mantra is Om Shakti Adi Parashakti Om: Behold the Spirit of Duality and the Power of Female Energy. We are taken deep into the temple, to the sanctum sanctorum, by a woman volunteer from Chennai, who explains to us the significance of what we are seeing and experiencing, given darshan, a look at the deity, and presented with Prasad, which is in the form of lingam, and blessed offerings of sacred ash, limes, neem leaves, sacred water, and flowers. We are told we have come on an auspicious day, Thaipusam, and that this evening there will be 100,000 devotees coming to the temple.

We then travel the remaining 70 kilometers to Pondicherry. There is a clear increase in trees and other green vegetation as we approach the city, passing through the utopian community of Auroville.

Pondi, as the locals call it, is a former French colony, the place where the French tried to compete, unsuccessfully, with the British for control of India in the 1700s and 1800s. The French presence is unmistakable as we enter the city, the broad avenues, the policemen in kepis, and the many signs in French signaling a different space and different place in India. We locate a restaurant by the sea serving “French food,” which means anything outside the main menu of South Indian and North Indian food. Dishes like fried idly, chili paratha, and other non-mainstream cuisine, being Other, come closest to being French, even for the people here in this former French colony.

The beach promenade on top of the breakwall, which prevented the tsunami from causing much damage to Pondicherry, provides us with a pleasant interlude after lunch as we walk to the large bronze statue of Mahatma Gandhi after lunch. Sumanta and John have a great time chasing one another, with Sumanta trying to get John to catch him, running along the sea wall and promenade. We then look for a hotel room for John and Ananta, who are staying over to see friends at Auroville the next morning while Sushuma and Sumanta go back to Chennai. After we find a place for them to stay in the city proper we go back to the old town and to the Sri Aurobindo Ashram.

Entering the Ashram garden we approach the Samadhi, the resting place of Aurobindo and the Mother, which is covered with a profusion of flowers of all kinds. A number of people have their hands resting on the Samadhi, touching the flowers with their outstretched arms as their heads are bowed in prayer towards the tomb. We, too, touch the spirit of the Mother and Aurobindo, whose writings, hope, and optimism for the future have inspired so many. A quiet time. We notice, too, the many people sitting in meditation surrounding the Samadhi in the garden, a luxuriant spread of foliage framing everyone, the fragrance of roses, frangipani, jasmine, and other flowers.

We leave the Garden and the Samadhi in peace, feeling the powerful vibrations of joy and love which the Mother and Aurobindo conveyed to so many people. So much like another Amma and Appa who are so close to the people and in different ways. We search for the car, and I say my goodbyes to Ananta, John, Sumanta, and Sushuma a little after 4 pm.

Muthu, my driver, has been a little impatient with all the stops, starts, and going around as he thought he had a simple up/down trip to Thanjavur, but I know he will be happy with the end result. He has been a pleasant enough driver, accommodating us, and will get his reward. He also knows, like all of us, that nothing happens as one might expect in India. We journey south from Pondicherry through the countryside of the lush Cauvery River delta, and through the towns of Cuddalore, Chidambaram (home to the Nataraj, the dancing Shiva), Sirkazhi, Mayiladthurai, Kumbakonam, and then Thanjavur, stopping only once, to get Muthu a tea to help him with the crazy driving. It is a distance of perhaps 200 kms and it takes us 5 1/2 hours, what with the state of the roads, the dodging of goats, cows, people, trucks, busses, rickshaws, on and on! We reach Thanjavur at around 9:30. I check in to the hotel, Hotel Gnaam, and pay Muthu.

Sekar, my brother the last 36 years, his wife Vidya and the University of Wisconsin students magically appear. Ah,timing. They have had their dinner, but I am starving, so they take me to the restaurant in the hotel, which is excellent. Ah, masala dosai, kootu paratha, and lime juice. And, after some searching by the staff, gulab jamun. The jamun was a mistake. I am revived enough to stay up until one am talking with my roommate Professor Venkataraman, Professor V, about the art of the Cholas, the Khmers, the Borobudur, and Angkor Wat. A special day. Om Shanti Om.

New Horizons

New Horizons of Human Development
Chennai, February 9, 2006

My host at MIDS Ananta Kumar Giri is a remarkable scholar and humanist who has brought together an extraordinary collection of scholars, activists, and poets. Two of us are from Japan, while others are from Bangalore, Delhi, Kerala, and of course Chennai and other parts of Tamil Nadu.

We meet around 9 am, climb into three auto rickshaws and head to Madras University, a grand old series of Mughal-style buildings from the British era that stand out by the sea on the Marina Beach, the long sand doorway of Chennai to the world. There is much in the content of the program that relates to LAFTI and Amma’s and Appa’s work.

“New Horizons of Human Development and Social Transformations: Towards a Multiverse of Dialogue and Learning” is the theme of the workshop, jointly organized by the Madras Institute of Development Studies and the Department of Christian Studies, University of Madras. The latter, as we find out from the talks during the day, is a radical collection of liberation theologians and social activists. Our chair is Professor Felix Wilfred, head of the department, who welcomes us and who later gives a presentation on “The Calling of An Inclusive Development: Technology, Religion and Spiritual Transformations.”

John Clammer of Sophia University, Tokyo, begins our day with a critical analysis of “Peace and Development,” drawn from his work with the United Nations University. My own paper is next, on “India and Japan: The Challenge of Marginality, Multicultural Education, and Human Development,” followed by Anthony Savari Raj of the Department of Philosophy, University of Madras, who speaks on “Development as Cultural Innovation: Some Cross-Cultural Considerations.” “New Horizons of Human Development: Self-Development, Inclusion of the Other and Planetary Realizations” by Ananta Kumar Giri takes us up to lunchtime.

We start the afternoon session with a different approach: “Towards a New Poetics of Self and Society: A Reading of Some Inspiring Poems from Different Languages About Human Development and Social Transformations,” coordinated by Sister Kochurani Abraham, who is also with the Department of Christian Studies. We have poetry in Tamil, Oriya, Hindi, Tamil, English, and Japanese, all on themes of human liberation and development.

Subash Sharma, a scholar from the Indian Institute of Plantation Management, Bangalore, then talks about “Theories of the Quantum Rope and Human Development,” followed by Satyavir Chakrapani, an NGO leader from New Delhi who speaks on “Inter-Faith Collaborations and Realizing Millennium Development Goals.” He is followed by a hurried presentation by Nalini Rajan of the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, as she has to go somewhere else quickly. Her subject is “New Horizons of Development Communication and Civil Society: Gandhi, Habermas and Beyond.” We then have an excellent summary of the day’s presentations by Jayshree, a PhD student at MIDS, followed finally by comments on the day’s presentations by Professor S.P. Thyagarajan, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Madras.

We participate the next day in seminars with colleagues and then graduate students from MIDS and Madras Universities, earnest and serious young scholars like Jayshree, Anne, Raju, and Sister Kochurani. Two days of reflections on the human condition and new avenues for development.


My old and dear friend Professor David Willis of Soai University in Japan is now visiting Tamil Nadu and LAFTI and Amma and Appa. These are his posts: david

Chennai, South India, February 8, 2006

Returning to India opens one’s eyes and always spins one’s head around, to someplace different, to a new space and consciousness. My flight from Bangkok, where I stayed one night with my friend Michael Moore, a journalist and writer, to Chennai, formerly called Madras, was on time. The bags came quickly, as soon as I stepped into the baggage claim area, the exchange of money took less than a minute, and as I stepped out I was swiftly met by Ranjit Kishore or Raju, a PhD student at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) from Orissa who had been sent to bring me to the Institute upon my arrival. There were surprisingly few taxi drivers or hotel touts doing the usual of noisily getting into my face or aggressively grabbing at me for their business. It is a new India.

What a difference a few years makes! The India of waiting, waiting, waiting, has given way now to an impatient competition, a race to whatever is next. There is a sense of tension and possibility in the air. But for some there is also a sense of some being left out and left behind. That is what I am searching for, where and how the politics of being marginalized is having an impact on the daily life of the people.

Raju has arranged a car to take us to MIDS in Adyar, not far from the Theosophical Society’s headquarters with that enormous banyan tree that is the largest in the world. Probably if you Google that you can find an image of it. That tree provides a metaphor for us for much that follows. It encompasses under its shade and spreading branches and trunks a place for all, its roots coming from the sky.

The drive into the city has the feel of both new and old, of how things have changed but stayed much the same. There are fewer bicycles and bullock carts and far more cars, trucks, and motorcycles, but there are also people lining the roads who are eking out a living in the most marginal of occupations, cobblers and sweepers, vegetable and fruit vendors, construction workers and other laborers, hauling and moving goods, providing the muscle, the strength, and the base for the new development.