Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The First Day

Slept my five hours through the extraordinary din surrounding Bhoomi’s apartment. I’m up, and now they’re ready to put me to work.

Not so fast! I want to have breakfast! Krishnammal, it seems, is coming in by train, check that, it is now by bus from Chengelput (where Sathya and Jagannathanji live, Krishnammal simply camps anywhere she happens to be), so we have a little time. We go to the Saravana Bhavan, one of a small chain of south Indian veg restaurants, with dependable food at a reasonable price. (more on McDosa’s later.) I have iddiappam – the one kind of south Indian food absolutely unavailable where I live – a kind of rice vermicelli shaped into a small pancake and covered with a spicy kuruma (curry) and coconut chutney. And a dosa (an Indian crepe made of fermented rice and lentil flour). And coffee! (still Nescafe, milk no sugar). I am joined by Muttukumar my old friend and driver (I think I’ve insulted him by wearing my seatbelt; the Hanuman on the dashboard is supposed to protect us) and Krishnammal’s secretary P. Gandhiji (I insist on calling him “Gandhiji” – the ji being a high honorific – I’m trying to get him to stop calling me Davidji, but so far without success.) They have the more traditional breakfast of idlis (steamed rice and lentil cakes) and vadai (a donut made of the same), and are a bit surprised by my breakfast order, I think. I pay the bill – which I always insist on doing, as I am the richest person at the table (came in at all of $3.50). (Gandhiji informs me that the founder of Saravana Bhavan is in prison, having shot the husband of his would-be lover.)

I should have mentioned how I’d made my way through customs using my 15 words of Tamil. You see, I AM guilty of smuggling. I have several hundred packages of seeds from various seed banks to plant vegetable gardens at the children’s hostels and at LAFTI’s headquarters in Kuthur. They ask right on the customs forms whether I am carrying plants, seeds, fruits (I always carry dried cherries with me as well, to give to LAFTI’s staff.) I circle the “Yes” as small as I can. But when I get to each customs and immigrations official I pull out my biggest smile and a confident “Vanakkam” (“hello”) in my best Tamil, and they look at each other in delighted wonder, and say “Vanakkam” back, and pass me right through without even glancing at the form. I hope I am not teaching terrorists any new tricks. When I emerge from the air terminal, there are several hundred people with signs, looking for their guests. Gandhiji emerges from the crowd, and I give him a big hug and two hearty “Vanakkam! Vanakkams!” the second just for the multitude, in case they didn’t hear the first one. (I think even a few people clapped.)

We await Krishnammal at the bus stop where she may (or may not) get off, as there is another bus stop around the corner, where the bus may stop instead. But before we see her get off, she is already in the car, waiting for us.

“Three months,” she smiles.

“Three weeks,” I laugh.

And it is off to the Secretariat, the executive offices of the state government. I am going to meet government ministers. We have work to do, and I am supposed to be the good luck charm, or at least prevent boredom.

First Secretary, for Dalit/scheduled caste welfare, on the third floor. An old friend. It seems that every year, as the women (though LAFTI) take out loans to pay for half the costs of the land in the land reform effort, the land registration office demands the government stamp duty. Another 1,000 acres is ready to be transferred, and the office requires RS. 98,000 (roughly $2,200, or the cost of a Nano, the new Tata car that is causing even more traffic jams). Each year, they make Krishnammal apply again, with the same running around of government offices.) Krishnammal would like a permanent exemption, or at least a timely response, but I expect (to her regret) that this will not be forthcoming – it is one of the myriad of ways the government officials can keep her beholden to them.)

She also needs some invitations! She has just been named the winner of this year’s “Ambedkar Award”, for service to the poor and “scheduled castes” (those subject to traditional discrimination), and there is to be a big ceremony on the 15th. I am going, of course. The award comes with a medal and RS. 100,000 – I jest that now she can buy herself a Nano, or 33 bicycles. She needs 15 invitations, which she can give to friends and supporters.

First things first: the very friendly Third-Floor minister rings a bell, in comes an underling, and 15 invitations are requested from the Minister of Public Information. Then we are sent upstairs to another minister on the 8th floor (Taxation, I think). We get to use the Ministers’ elevator, which likely saves us 20 minutes. We are ushered into Mr. Eighth-Floor Tax Minister’s office, and he seems very friendly, smiles a lot, and insists that he will act on the request (which was made two months ago) as soon as he “gets the file”. Of course, his office is full of files, and it might have arrived a month ago.

“This is not a good response,” says Third-Floor Minister. “I will have to press the case.” The invitations haven’t arrived yet either, so Third-Floor Minister sends us up a flight, to Fourth-Floor Minister of Public Relations. Again, we are welcomed. (If you need to see government cabinet secretaries, don’t try this at home. Everyone knows who Krishnammal is, which is how we got into the building to begin with.) He says he doesn’t have any invitations, then reaches into his drawer and pulls out three. We will have to wait for Fifth-Floor Minister, who isn’t in.

So far we’ve accomplished very little in the past three hours, though showing our faces around is a very good thing, I guess. I take a picture of an office that is overflowing with tens of thousands of files (I hope ours isn’t in there!) Finally, Gandhiji is sent back to the office of Fourth-Floor Minister, and he threatens the office staff with reporting them (the suggestion being that they are selling the invitations), and he comes back with the requisite 15. Mission, well, not accomplished, but a little progress is made.

Now, a little correspondence for me, and then it is off to see Sudeep Jain, a wonderful member of the IAS – the Indian Administrative Service – who helped us greatly when Krishnammal came to Seattle. On October 1-2, 2005, he and Krishnammal and 300 others set a record (it is in the Guinness Book) by planting 252,464 mangrove plants along the coast (and for which he was removed from his post – sigh! Another long story!)

The long and short of it is, after much trying, and then much hemming-and-hawing about dates, we actually have an appointment with the director of the M.S. Swaminathan Foundation so I can try to convince them to figure out how to restore prawn farm land to rice agriculture!
There is more, but I think I’ll just stop here, and have some tiffin.


Post a Comment

<< Home