Friday, January 29, 2010

The White Pigeon Strikes Paydirt

After a day of rest from my vacation, it is back to the grind. We will become Chennai commuters again. I announce to Amma that we are going to pay several unannounced visits, without appointments (since we haven’t been able to reach anyone), and we’ll see how it goes.

First, there is an appointment for interview with The Times of India. Krishnammal believes they are less influential than The Hindu, but still, any press is good press (and leads to other press). We meet at Bhoomi’s apartment (which, it is now decided, will not be the LAFTI office in Chennai – instead, Krishnammal is working on moving in with the SIPA, the South Indian Producers Association, an organization of fair trade producers. She expects, probably correctly, that she will be able to make use of some of their office staff, give her the opportunity to meet more foreigners to enlist in our craziness, the people will be very friendly, and it is better located.) The interview goes fine until the interviewer asks how much a house costs. So I give them the “retail” number ($4,225), but then break it down to see how with the brickmaking and building of the beneficiaries, the contribution of the roofs, and the hoped-for portion from the government, it will come out that we have to raise about half that amount per house. And how many houses will we build? Much of that is up to you, dear friends. She chooses the number of 15,000 – she doesn’t currently have anywhere near that capacity, but if she is able to create a true social movement, who knows? It could be many more. The photographer arrives and takes a picture of this small, gray-haired old woman who runs a bit more slowly than she used to, and could easily be mistaken for a permanent resident of an Indian railway station. This is our Right Livelihood Award (“Alternative Nobel Prize” winner), who has been seen at a stop at a gas station to pick the leaves of a lonely plant standing in a far corner, and wrap them in her sari for dinner. “Lots of B-vitamins,” she says.

Next, we go to see the marketing director of Marg Limited, a very large construction company with officers all over the state. Krishnammal had known him when he ran one of their offices in Thanjavur, and had promised major help (she had asked for 45,000 rupees - $1,000 – and he said it was far too little.) But he hasn’t returned her calls later, so we decide just to show up.

We are admitted immediately to a rather modern office with lots of people scurrying around. Quite a contrast to the sleepy Secretariat. We are ushered into the director’s office; he is clearly in a hurry to leave, but will hear us out. He asks if we want coffee; I strategically answer, “Yes, without sugar,” in the hope that it will buy us a few additional minutes.

He asks if we plan to cooperate with the government, why we don’t simply build the 10’ x 10’ house according to the government’s design. Feeling feisty, I ask him if he could live with his entire family in his office? Krishnammal follows that up with a quip that the government must think Dalit’s are particularly small, so more can be packed into a 10’ x 10’. Okay, he says, but can’t we compromise on the size? (367 square feet, plus 32 square feet for the bathroom). Amma won’t hear anything of it. I note that the government could build much bigger houses if they organized the people’s participation like we are.

I see he really needs to leave, so I quickly come to the point. We need two things: a close-topped truck at our disposal to bring the fly-ash from the power station on a regular basis (Krishnammal thinks this could be as much as five times a week, though I have my doubts), and help getting cement from the cement companies at production cost, or at a wholesale.

“Done.” he responds. “Before I worked for Marg , I ran a cement company, and I know all the right people.”

I hastily finish my coffee, get up, thank him profusely, and hustle Krishnammal out. A secretary follows us to write down what has transpired, what has been promised. This will be worth hundreds of thousands of rupees. Transporting the fly-ash alone was costing LAFTI $300 per trip. Krishnammal is in celebratory mode. The white pigeon (or, in this case, Swami David) has done the deed.

“No time to stop,” I say, “No time for lunch, we’ll eat after the work is done.” I hand a couple of oranges into the backseat.

Muttukumar is instructed to go to the Secretariat. We will arrive at lunch time, which is fine with me – I have a hunch.

We arrive at the office of the very friendly personal aide to the soon-to-be Chief Minister (whose phone seems to have been off the hook) – he arrives at precisely the same moment we do. So this will be up to an hour of schmoozing. He will try to have us meet Stalin at 8 a.m. on Saturday (though most likely it will be Monday). We hand him our new conscious-raising flyers, relate our conversations over at Marg (he loves the remark about the small Dalits), tell him about the village drummers and the pledges coming in, and we now have him firmly in our camp (as we probably did before – we are just applying the cement over the bricks.). I know that theoretically, the government and LAFTI could find themselves in conflict (indeed, part of the plan is to shame them to spend more money on each house, or send it through LAFTI), so we are building strong allies.

Another complete success: chalk up another one for the white pigeon.

I spend a little time shopping (Bata sandals are terrific, and quite a bargain – mine are so old, they no longer make the same variety, and I discover I am wearing one size 9 and one 10. Shows how much attention I pay to such matters.) Ellen is now walleted and pickled.

We visit a dear relative in the hospital who has just suffered a severe (and freakish) automobile crash. And then it is back to Chengelput. We receive a phone call; an Indian in Chennai wants to set up a Paypal account for us to receive contributions, and I am going to talk with him tomorrow about setting up “Friends of LAFTI – India”.

(P.S. We did get to eat.)


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