Tuesday, March 30, 2010

This is India #2 - Contrasts

In an interior village in rural Tamil Nadu, a large house had been converted into a vocational school to teach welding to teenage boys. We were visiting the school which was run by an NGO. The students attended a 4 week course, and if the boys passed a professional welding test at the end of the duration, they were guaranteed employment by auto manufacturers nearby.

We were talking to the principal and he repeatedly stressed that the school admits only those who are BPL (Below the Poverty Line, an economic term that gets used often by the media in India.) He was telling us that the boys came from the poorest of the poor families. They couldn't afford to pay the fees for the welding course. Therefore, from the salaries that the boys earned in the first six months, a percentage was deducted and sent back to the NGO to cover its training expenses. This way, the NGO was trying to become financially self-sustaining.

The principal told us that because this was the first time in their lives for the boys to be away from their families for weeks at a stretch they got very homesick.
"How do these boys keep in touch with their families?" I asked.
"By cell phone. They all have mobile phones"
Then he noticed my questioning look. "Yes, they are all BPL. But these days even the BPL boys have mobile phones. They use it for SMS," he said.

That evening, on our return our vehicle came on the Bangalore-Chennai Highway. It is an impressive tolled freeway with 2-3 lanes on each side. At the toll booths, you get receipts with a computerized time and date stamp. Just as we were driving past the toll booth, I noticed one man sitting in a folding chair with a notebook and pen in hand. As each vehicle passed him, he was frantically jotting something down. From what I could make out, he was jotting down the license plate number of each vehicle.

I then saw that this was happening in all the lanes, each lane had a man with a notebook. I have no idea why they were noting it down, and that too by hand. They could have used a simple surveillance camera, or even a digital camera or they could have at least keyed it in somewhere. In their way, the records wouldn’t even be searchable. But they were at it diligently, all day long. (Since that visit, I have also seen this furious jotting down in other toll booths in TN as well.)

Just another reminder that India will never cease to surprise me. People living below the poverty line who have cell phones for SMS; and fancy automated toll booths where employees also jot down license plate numbers by hand.

Friday, March 26, 2010

My Top 10 Things to See and Do while in Istanbul

A friend who is visiting Istanbul asked me to send him a list of must-see and must-do while in Istanbul. Thought I'd share it here as well.

My Top 10 Things to See and Do while in Istanbul

1. Suleiman mosque/Blue Mosque
2. Aya Sophia
3. Topkapi Palace
4. Just wandering the Sultanahmet area – the Hippodrome and the Obelisk are nearby.
5. Visit Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, even if you are not interested in shopping.
6. The Orient Express Railway station (esp.for rail and novel buffs). There is a museum inside.
7. Be sure to walk across the Galata Bridge, watching the fishermen and looking back the mosque-filled skyline of the grand city.
8. Take a boat up the Bosphorous all the way to the Black sea. Keep a watch out for dolphins. (Climb up to the fort there to see the cargo ships plying). Or, take one of the dinner cruises on the Bosphorous.
9. Walk up and down Istikklal street – up to Taksim square. Sample some of the Turkish sweets and the local food there. There are also a couple of vegetarian restaurants in the area.
10. Go to a Turkish Bath

There is much, much more of course. There are some really good art galleries in the Beyoglu area that one can browse. You can catch live gypsy music performances in the Istiklal/Taksim area and also watch a dervish show that are performed just for the tourists.

Did I forget anything important that is there in your list?

Friday, March 19, 2010

A Married Man in Thiruvannamalai

I heard this story from the district collector of Thiruvannamalai district in Tamil Nadu whom we met on a visit to the town. The collector is the highest administrative post in a district. Anyone visiting Thiruvannamalai is sure to hear stories about the powers of lord Arunachala, and about the imposing hill there that dominates the town and is attributed mystical powers, and about the foreign devotees who throng to the place. I am narrating the following as I heard it from the district collector, without embellishment.

After living in the district for nearly a year, and hearing so much about Arunachala hill, the collector decided that he'd walk up the hill himself. One day, he hired a local young man to be his guide and porter and they walked up, with the young man carrying the collector's bag.

They reached the top, looked around and started descending. The collector was happy that he'd done the hike. He was also very impressed with the polite young man. The collector was paying him Rs 50 for his services, but he wanted to do more for this helpful porter.

The district collector had the discretion to offer low level janitorial jobs as sweepers to women in need. Hoping that he could help out this man, the collector asked, "Are you married?"
"Yes sir, I am."
"Would your wife like a job?"
"She has a job, sir."
The collector was curious.
"What does your wife do?"
"Sir, she is a doctor. She is an M.D. in America."

The collector was taken aback at this. How could this young local porter have a wife in the US? So, while they continued walking down the hill he asked for the full story. Here's what the local porter told the collector:

In the same Arunachala hill that they had ascended, there lived an ascetic, a swamiji. He didn’t speak much and tried to avoid people. But lots of devotees believed that he had spiritual powers and sought him out, including numerous foreign devotees. The ascetic didn’t care for any followers and would in fact hurl stones hoping to deter them. But the more he shunned his followers, the more followers he had. However, the ascetic liked this porter.

One day, there was a white lady who was following the ascetic.
"Swamiji, whatever you tell me to do, I will," the lady told the ascetic.
The ascetic decided to test her. "You have to marry whomever I tell you to," he told her. She agreed without hesitation.
Then the ascetic turned to the young porter who happened to be around. "Hey boy, how would you like to marry this lady?" he asked.
The porter looked at the while woman and said he would be happy to.
And so the ascetic instructed the white lady to marry the porter. She agreed and went ahead and married him.

It turned out that she was an M.D in the USA, and a staunch follower of lord Arunachala of Thiruvannamalai. The porter and the lady had a child, whom she was bringing up in the US.

Every year, for 3-4 months, she came to Thiruvannamalai and stayed with her husband, the porter. The rest of the time, she practiced medicine in America and brought up their child.

When the wife was in the US, the young man earned his living by working as a porter and guide for those who wanted to go up Arunachala hill. That's how the collector had met him.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

This is India #1

One fun aspect of being in India is that you never know what you will find yourself discussing where.

We were visiting a couple in their 80's in a very small town called Mhow in interior central India. The talk came around to the kind of work I'd done in the past. While talking about airlines, I said that pilots are well compensated. The elderly gentleman, who'd been mostly quiet suddenly came alive. Turns out that he had been a commercial pilot, and my remark had rankled.

He started to make a case for pilots and suddenly I was on the defensive. I braced myself and heard the many familiar arguments I'd heard before. I was surprised to find myself in a small agricultural town in Madhya Pradesh, discussing crew deadheading, good and bad pairings and the assorted pilot quality of life issues.

After I managed to extricate myself reasonably, I mentioned to him that in India, I could never anticipate what I'd be discussing with whom. "Let me tell you something about India," said the ex-pilot who had warmed up by then. He went ahead and narrated the following story. It is almost surely an apocryphal tale, but it still has a lot of truth in it which is why I am sharing it here.

The ex-pilot told us about a German lady who was returning home after living in India for many years. On her last day she was asked, "Madam, after all these years, what have you learned about India?"
"I can tell you 4 things about India," she apparently said.
"Every stone is sacred." (More shrines and temples per square mile than anywhere else.)
"Everyone is a doctor." (People will always suggest home remedies no matter what the ailment.)
"Any time is tea time." (Numerous cups a day is not at all unusual.)
"And every place is the toilet." (You can see men going everywhere.)

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

An Ashram Stay at Rishikesh

For many many years now, I've wanted to experience staying at an ashram. It sounded like a great way to escape from the daily drudgery and to get some time to think. Maybe the desire started when I read that the Beatles had stayed in an ashram back in the 60's.

In Rishikesh, we had our chance. Rishikesh is less than 25 kms from Haridwar, which is only a few hours out of Delhi. After the bustle, the noise and the frenzy of Haridwar, Rishikesh is a refreshing change. Lots of people have noticed this, for I later learned that Rishikesh has become an extremely popular retirement community.

There are lots of ashrams catering to curious visitors like us, but they weren’t easy to find initially. And everyone we asked was directing us to regular hotels. The guidebook referred to an area 3 kms up the river and across the Ganges called the "Swarag Ashram" area and that was the place we should have come to right away. (The Beatles stayed in Mahesh Yogi's ashram, but we are not sure if it is still around.)

With our backpacks, we took a ferry ride across the river. In the place we wished to stay – Paramarth Niketan, there was one small problem. The receptionist wouldn't let us see the room before we paid. In India, we have been to too many places where the reception lobby is beautifully done, but the rooms are quite bad. In Parmarth, we were worried about the cleanliness, but the receptionist assured us that it would be fine.

It was past 2pm and we really wanted to experience an ashram stay, and so we decided to take the chance. If the room turned out to be really bad, we'd walk away and treat it as a donation to the ashram.

Once we paid up, we were taken to a separate area meant for foreigners and NRI's (Indians living abroad). The room was simply decorated but very clean, with hot water and there was an air cooler instead of an A/C. It was definitely adequate.

We would be given 3 meals a day, could participate in all the ashram activities as we chose to. For those who were interested, there was Yoga, evening meditation, early morning prayer and another meditation assembly. We were also free to wander in and out of the ashram to take in Rishikesh's sights.

Daily, at 5pm there was a daily Yoga/guided meditation class for the ashram residents. So we went. Around 20 people showed up, wearing mostly white clothes. Mats were provided and it was a very relaxing type of yoga, not the strenuous kind. The lady who guided us had a very soothing voice and I fell asleep trying to follow her directions.

Up and down the Ganges, the evening aarthi is performed in a grand manner right around sunset. The residents of Paramarth Niketan are given preferred seating for the Ganga Aarthi.

After the aarthi, we noticed the others residents practically rushing to the dining area. The meal times are fixed and there is only 45 minutes given for dinner, hence the rush. A few foreigners struggled with sitting cross-legged on the mats. For lunch and dinner, the food was hearty and wholesome- chappatis, rice, dal and veggies. Toasts, fruit and tea and coffee were included for breakfast, which the westerners enjoyed quite a bit.

This particular ashram has clearly adapted things to cater to the foreign visitors. The ambience is very good, with careful landscaping and places to walk by the fast-flowing river. Once we paid the room rent, there was never any pressure to give money anywhere else. We were free to donate more if we so desired, or to leave our email addresses if we wanted to be part of their distribution list.

Overall, our ashram stay was a very enjoyable way to spend a couple of days, though it might get repetitive beyond say two days. I would unhesitatingly recommend this to anyone visiting Rishikesh.