Monday, September 15, 2008

Video Clips

I've now created a separate page for some of the video clips I shot while in India. You can view them here.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

My Photographs from the Trip

I've now finished putting together a website containing some of my favorite photographs from the trip. You can access the site here. The photographs are divided into groups -- they really kind of sorted themselves out: People, People at Work, Streets, Signs, Facades (doors and windows), Mosques, Temples, and Villages.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Exploring India’s Prosperity Through the Eyes of the Invisible Men

Another article on India from The New York Times focusing on the enormous economic and class divisions there. It's written by Anand Giridharadas and also appears in The International Herald Tribune. The article discusses a new movie, “Barah Aana,” which features a servant's view of class division in India (reminiscent of Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger, which the author doesn't mention). The article quotes the director as saying India may have a problem deeper than "poverty": a "'dehumanization' problem." This is a little vague, but it seems to me it may allude to the entrenched effects of the caste system in India and how it has helped to structure the effects of modern capitalism.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Make Your Own Chapati: Part II

A couple of days ago I posted Mark Bittman's recipe for making chapati on the grill. I'm here to tell you it works. The first picture above is a shot of the four pieces of dough I rolled out, ready to go on the grill. The second shot is of a piece that's done and ready to come off the grill. He's right that it only takes about a minute a side--once the first side puffs up and begins to darken you just flip it over, then the second side will puff up and darken, and it's done. They were quite good, but next time I'm going to use more white and less wheat flour because I think wheat flour in the States is more grainy and "wheaty" tasting than what I had in India.

Of course in India the women I saw making chapati didn't use food processors to work their dough. They did it all by hand, and with artful dexterity and speed. Nor did they use rolling pins to shape and flatten the pieces of dough before they were cooked on a pan over an open flame (Bittman recommends using a tortilla press, which would be a heresy worse than the rolling pin). They would just work the dough in their hands for a while, then flatten it out with one hand on a stone or board with quick, rhythmic patting motions. The third picture here was taken in the small kitchen of a woman who made lunch for us in a little village outside of Pune. She let me try to make chapati with her and I failed miserably. But I remember squatting there watching her work and being taken by the rhythmic, musical sound of her patting the dough flat with one had. It was like she was playing a little drum and I began to clap along with her, and then did a little scat singing to try to indicate how musical her work was.

‘Auto rickshaw’ Gives Waukesha Man Cheap, Fun Ride

Thanks go to my brother, Greg, who lives in Milwaukee, for spotting this article in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about a guy who has bought and imported his own autorickshaw. Paulo are you out there? You can read the article here.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Make Your Own Chapati--on the Backyard Grill!

Those of you who have been following this blog know I tried my hand at making chapati a few times on the trip, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. Chapati is one of the traditional flat breads of India. It's usually cooked quickly in a hot pan, though at Navdanya I saw the cook throw pieces right on the burner after they came out of the pan to make them bubble up. But in today's New York Times the inimitable Mark Bittman has published a simple recipe for making chapati on the barbecue grill. Here it is:

Grilled Chapatis

2 1/4 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour, more for dusting
1 teaspoon salt.
1. Mix flours in food processor; add salt and, with machine running, pour in one cup warm water. Process for about 30 seconds, then remove cover. Dough should be in a well-defined, barely sticky, easy-to-handle ball. If it is too dry, add warm water a tablespoon at a time and process for 5 to 10 seconds after each addition. If it is too wet, which is unlikely, add a tablespoon or two of flour and process briefly.
2. With floured hands, shape dough into a ball, cover with plastic and let rest for at least 30 minutes. (At this point, you may wrap dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate it for up to a day; bring to room temperature before proceeding.)
3. When ready to grill, pinch off a piece of dough and roll as thin as is practical. Dust lightly with flour to keep from sticking and cover with plastic or a damp cloth while you roll out remaining dough. (It is O.K. to overlap them a bit, but do not stack them.) Or just roll as you grill.
4. Grill chapatis until they start to blister, char and puff up a bit, about a minute or so. Turn and repeat. Serve immediately.

Yield: 8 to 12 chapatis, 4 to 6 servings.

Click here for the complete article.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Interview with Ashish Nandy

Anil Lal, Vinay Lal's brother, has sent me the link to a recent interview with Ashish Nandy. You'll find it by clicking here. In the interview he is very critical of the impact of modernization and secularization on India, insists that Gujarat has become a kind of intellectual and cultural waste land, laments that the middle class do not have middle class values and lack "the modern concept of cosmopolitanism," discusses the reemergence of religion as a dominant force, and talks about how, in his disillusionment after the Emergency, he found himself re-evaluating Gandhi: "I began to look for new ways of looking at Indian politics. My discovery of Gandhi happened at that time. I had always disliked Gandhi: his allegiances had looked primordial; his style a deviation from our idea of cosmopolitanism; his politics anti-modern. But I rediscovered Gandhi. I became more sceptical of the Indian state, which was modelled on the colonial state that had ruled us. I saw that the categories that dominated Indian politics had no openness to the experiences of a majority of Indians." It's an uncompromising articulation of his position.

If you read it, feel free to comment here as a way to extend the discussions we began to have on the trip.

"A Farewell to India," by Ellen Lindeen

As my fellow travelers know, Ellen Lindeen composed a wonderful poem about our trip which she read at our farewell dinner. She's sent it to me, and you can read it here. Enjoy.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Photos from Chennai/Madras

I've just uploaded some of my favorite photos from our last stop, Chennai. You can view them here.

The initial group of photos were taken at Arulmigu Kapaleeswarar Temple (Hindu) in the heart of the city. The other photos were taken at the beach on the Bay of Bengal at twilight. As I explained in a previous post, Indians don't go to the beach they way we do. No bathing suits, no swimming. They treat the beach more as a park, with friends and family lounging around in groups and food vendors everywhere helping them to enjoy the evening. Paulo and I had vowed to put on our speedos and go body surfing here, but that provided culturally inappropriate. There are a couple of shots of the group frolicking in the surf. At one point a wave came in and swept everyone's sandals out to sea. Miraculously, they were all recovered.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Epilogue: The Ironing Man

I wrote this on the plane last night. It's the last of my posts from India, but I want to keep the blog going, both so I can keep writing about the trip and so others can use it as a way to stay in touch. We had an amazing time, and I grew to love all of my travel mates, a great group of people!. Thanks to them for making the trip so special.

p.s. Click here to read the article about us published last week in the Express India.

The Ironing Man

Today marked the end of our five weeks in India. It was time to fly home and pick up our lives. We had a short business meeting during breakfast, packed our bags, then left the hotel for a few hours of shopping before heading to the airport. We drove for about 20 minutes through the crowded commercial districts of Chennai, but then turned off into a solidly middle class residential neighborhood filled with nice two and three story homes set in thick tropical vegetation. It was overcast and grey, but there were lots of birds whose chirps and squawking cut through the humid quiet of the morning. We pulled up in front of a handicraft store, a shop full of locally produced goods that seemed like the only commercial business in the neighborhood. It must be geared to the tourist bus trade because it’s way too far from the business district for any shoppers to just wander by. We trooped in and over the course of about 45 minutes we all made a few last minute purchases. I decided to bail out of the shopping a little early and ended up taking a walk around the neighborhood. As I set out down the steps of the store I noticed through the thick trees across the street that there was a man in a shirt and sarong, ironing clothes just inside the gate of the home across the street on an old push cart while his dog slept underneath. I looked a little closer and noticed he was using a huge old iron that was heated with hot coals. At first I thought perhaps he was ironing clothes for himself, or for someone who lived in the very large house outside of which he was working. But then I saw that some people were entering his yard, either to pick up bundles of shirts he’d ironed, or to drop some off. He appeared to be running a little business ironing the clothes of people who live in the neighborhood, and his work was being done with tools—the old hot coal iron and the push cart—that seemed to date from the 1920s.

My walk in the neighborhood was short, but it was a pleasant break from shopping. I enjoyed seeing the neighborhood, and it was nice to have a few solitary moments as my trip wound down. Many of the homes had security guards sitting just outside the front gates on plastic chairs. Most weren’t doing anything at all, just reading papers or looking quizzically at me as I passed by. The tropical vegetation surrounding the homes was beautiful, and with the exotic sounding birds singing in a kind of cacophony and the architecture of the homes just different enough from what I’m used to at home engaging my curiosity, my little stroll made for a pleasant break. When I returned from my walk in the neighborhood and strolled past the ironing man I noticed the large house in whose yard he was still working was in pretty bad shape. All the other houses I’d passed were quite well kept and dignified, with an abundance of trees, shrubs, plants and flowers that made each home a pretty colorful place. But the exterior walls of the house where the ironing man was working were darkened with dirt that had run in the rain into dark streaks that stained its peeling paint, and the stain on the wood windows had long since chipped and fallen away. The windows seemed thrown open but the house looked largely abandoned. Clearly no one had taken care of the place in years, and I wondered why all of the vegetation was dead and brown, why the house, if was abandoned, hadn’t become overgrown with plants.

This was my last image of India, the final scene of so many that made for me a special moment the power of which was a little mysterious and a bit elusive. I saw much of the India that had become familiar to me later as we drove out to the airport. Teeming streets full of autorickshaws, cars, trucks, bicyclists, the occasional old wooden cart being pulled by bullocks. The ramshackle cobbled together little commercial sheds by the side of the road that competed with more established and prosperous businesses housed in proper buildings that lined the business districts. The vendors selling roasted corn or full meals off carts or from stalls where fires burned and huge, old, darkly burned steel pans sat atop open fires while the food cooked. Men, some dressed in western wear, others, Muslims, all in white with white caps, Hindu men in traditional garb, the occasional turbaned Sikh, and women in colorful saris walking everywhere, many with pots, huge containers, or large packages on their heads (or thinner, troubled and disheveled looking women with nothing but an open hand wending their way through stilled traffic hoping to collect a few rupees, often with small children set on their hip). People in rags lying on the street or propped up against short walls, many of which supported small shelters carefully put together with cardboard, metal sheeting, wood, rags, and materials from old tarps. Some of these had morphed over the years into structures framed out of wood with thatched roofs. Many lined the river and wound down to its banks, enough of them to form little villages that looked livable but squalid to my eyes and which contributed inexorably to the pollution of Chennai’s main river, which flowed less with water than with a dark, murky, oily substance full of floating debris.

This was an urban India that had become familiar to me, a country bustling and full of paradox where grinding poverty existed along with a dizzying range of ingenious and tenacious commercial activity, people finding a way to somehow get by selling old locks or metal pots or roasted corn or used luggage or recycled bicycle tires or outdated electronic gadgets, or who made a living repairing bicycles or autorickshaws right on the street from small little enclosures and old tools. There seems to be an economy within the economy, a vast, impromptu, unregulated chaos of commercial activity among the impoverished who somehow scratch out a living amidst the more established, prosperous, glassed in formal stores that line the streets. An economy of the impoverished alongside an economy of the newly prospering middle classes, the one tied to what we usually call globalization and westernization, the other tied it seems to me to an older and more traditional set of commercial activities that service those who haven’t gotten swept up into the new prosperity. I imagine these parallel economies existed to some degree under the Mugal Empire and the British Raj, that the split world globalization has created has replaced these earlier divided empires.

And where does the ironing man fit in all this, and why did he capture my imagination now, at the end of my trip? He’s part of India’s vast service economy of course, but not the one we’re used to in the U.S., the one peopled by those who work in clean stores, nicely lit restaurants, or who handle our dry cleaning or repair our iPods. This is a service economy made up of an impoverished underclass who live in slums and who take care of the rudimentary needs of the middle class, driving their cars, cooking their food, beating the dust out of their rugs, or ironing their clothes. He’s a guy who has found a niche for himself and a way to get by, with an ancient coal powered iron (at one point I saw him walk away from the clothes he was ironing and blow into it to heat its coals, ash flying out into the air), an old wooden cart, and a steady clientele. I can’t imagine he makes much money at this. Perhaps he lives in the dilapidated, crumbling house outside of which he worked, but I doubt it. It’s just as likely the cart sits there for him to use every day in this island of prosperity and quiet tropical luxury, and that he goes back to one of the slums off the road we passed as we drove in, where he eats and sleeps and perhaps helps tend to a family. It can’t be an easy life, but as I watched him work, saw the steady careful rhythm of his ironing and how he neatly folded and stacked the shirts he had finished, as I saw his dog sleeping peacefully under his cart, as I saw people pick up or drop off their laundry and chat with him for a moment or two, observed all of this through the warm tropical foliage with the birds singing and no horns honking, no cacophony of traffic, it seemed to me he was doing alright given everything I’d seen I my 5 weeks in India. In comparison with the prosperity, even the modest opulence around him he wasn’t well off, and if I’m right about him spending the nights and mornings in a slum, then his situation borders on desperate. But even though I run the risk here of sentimentalizing the ironing man, taken as I was by the simplicity and dignity of his work, the romantic setting of the crumbling house and the humid tropical environment and the singing birds, still I think I saw something powerful and ancient and Indian in the ironing man. The house reminded me of the Jamughoda Palace, that dilapidated monument to a still crumbling colonial structure I wrote about in an earlier post, and the ironing man recalled entrepreneurial Indians like the women on the sidewalk in Pune whose business consisted of a weight scale, people who consistently impressed me with their calm, even cheerful way of scratching out a living under desperate conditions. The ironing man gave me a little gift at the end of my journey, more valuable than the handicrafts being sold just beyond the steps from which I observed him. He was for me another reminder of the tenacity and beauty I saw among everyday Indians on a continent Gandhi helped make independent, but which still struggles to be free, a nation bursting with economic development that allows many to prosper but which adds to the suffering of many others, and whose cultural traditions are threatened by the kind of homogenization that accompanies globalization. The ironing man in the yard of the crumbling old mansion seemed a steady presence amidst all of the chaos and change. I wonder how long he’ll keep ironing there, what it means that he does, what it will mean when he stops?

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Our Last Day in India

Today, our last full formal day in India, was devoted to a wrap-up mini-conference organized around a series of speakers, all of whom are trying to find ways to incorporate Gandhian principles into solutions for 21st century problems. Our first speaker, Ramasubramanian, Chief Consultant for Samanvaya here in Chennai, is a young activist working primarily with villages to help support their traditional governing and social structures. He explained that he is committed to the position that Gandhi did not idealize the village, that many villages here in Tamil Nadu in fact operate in just the kind of decentralized, non-hierarchical, self-sustaining ways Gandhi envisioned. Ramasubramanian is a self-described “field worker,” not an academic. Indeed, he was careful to explain that he wasn’t in the habit of speaking to academics and that academia often produces a different version of Gandhi that the one he embraces. His background is in information technologies (he was a consultant for information planning) but the more he worked with social activists the more he became attracted to the kind of work they do, which he decided had the potential to make a larger impact than the IT work he was doing. This of course fits a pattern I’ve observed throughout the trip and have already commented on, for many of our speakers started out with very traditional careers in academia, business, or information technology and left those fields to work as social activists and/or to start alternative institutions like Navdanaya or Navadarshanam.

Ramasubramanian presented a fascinating overview of how a particular village in Tamil Nadu functions, with a particular focus on the panchayat, or village council, that directs the village's affairs (civic, judicial, and commercial). He called these "caste" panchyats to distinguish them from the formal ones authorized by the national government. The caste panchayats are elected by the villagers, are part of a much older tradition, and take precedence over the government-designated ones. As he presented these panchayats and the villages they oversee, he highlighted the logic and elegance of their operation and the extent to which they function pretty smoothly and logically to take care of village affairs. When he concluded by praising these village structures as an example of how "Indian society" can function I asked him about urban India and how it fits into his larger vision of "Indian society," since as he used the phrase it seemed to only refer to village society. His answer was intriguing. He reminded us that India has a very long and rich tradition of urban centers, and that it makes sense to think of India's contemporary cities in terms of this tradition, not just as products of westernization. This suggested to me that there may be specifically Indian approaches to thinking about the city and its problems and the solutions they require. Traditional forms of "town planning," he insisted, are too western in their orientation, and Indians don't have to tackle the problems of urbanization by drawing on approaches from the west. He also had some interesting things to say about the urban slums we've seen. Many of the people who live in these slums work as servants for the burgeoning middle class and are therefore a product of the economic boom we keep reading about. They need to live near where they work, and so these slums develop adjacent to the middle class neighborhoods their population services (although many of the inhabitants of these slums have small commercial businesses they are running). According to Ramasubramanian the slums function a bit like villages, with some kind of organizational structure that helps keep them working in an orderly way.

It seems to me that both the villages and the slums in India are linked to problems that have their origins in the west as well as in India itself. The history of colonialism is partly to blame, certainly, but so too are the explosive forces of globalization which are draining the population of villages, transforming old patterns of farming in ways that ruin the land and run farmers into debt buying hybrid seeds and the pesticides they need, and at the same time are creating a boom among the expanding middle class, people who are buying into the marketing of western modernity in a big way that drives a deepening wedge between their economic status and that of the slum dwellers who service them. The Gandhians tend to focus overwhelmingly on the village because that's where Gandhi put his emphasis and because his critique of western civilization takes aim at the city specifically and at urbanization in particular as monsters created by modernity. But as I've been writing all along, it seems to me the problem of the city needs a solution, and that what these young 21st century Gandhians are struggling to work out is a particularly Indian solution for them. I'm struck by how the world I live in and enjoy is inextricably tied to the problems I've been exposed to in India. That's pretty sobering.

I've got more I'd like to write about all of this, but my online time has run out at the hotel. But check back if you're interested.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Chennai (Madras)

Chennai, or Madras, is where the British Raj started. The East India company set up shop here, and in Calcutta and Bombay, and from that beginning England began inexorably to colonize India. Yesterday we saw the beach front fort the East India company first built. I don't have much time to run through the day, but we started yesterday with a really stimulating presentation by a western-trained Indian scientist who has been studying Indian ways of thinking at the history of Indian science. He doesn't reject western science, but is doing really interesting work on the differences between western and Indian science, and on the differences between modern western medicine and traditional Indian medicine. His group also keeps an organic farm outside of the city. I found his assimilation of western practices and Indian ones quite attractive. He doesn't reject modernity and the modern nation state out of hand, but feels we have to draw on Gandhian principles but adapt them to our own situation, so he doesn't find Gandhi's critique of modernity in Hind Swaraj, about which I've written a lot, very practical.

In the afternoon we visited a museum full of amazing Hindu bronzes from the 9th - 14th centuries that were excavated in the south of Tamil Nadu from temples by the British. Fabulous. Then we visited a still thriving 500 year old Hindu temple in the city itself, and ended with a visit to the beach on the Bay of Bengal. This isn't like a beach in the states. No one in bathing suits and no swimming. It's more like a giant park with food vendors. It was twilight and grey and misty, quite beautiful. We all got our feet wet and nearly had our sandals swept out to sea when the tide rushed in.

A note on photos. I'm trying to upload some but the connection here at the hotel is maddeningly slow. Please check my web gallery for whatever Navadarshanam photos made it (the link to my gallery is in the menu to the right under "General Links"). I may try again tonight.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Back Online from Chennai

We just arrived at our hotel in Chennai (in Tamil Nadu, on the coast of the Bay of Bengal)after three wonderful days at a commune in the countryside outside Bangalore. Please see the two posts below for details. The second post down is the first installment, the one just below this one the second. I will post photos from our trip there tomorrow. We're all well, rested, and looking forward to coming home (with a few regrets we can't just keep going)in a couple of days.

Navadarshanam II

My previous post dealt with the social vision underlying Navadarshanam since yesterday’s discussions dealt mainly with an analysis of Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj and the role his critique of modern civilization has played in the development of the community here. This morning’s discussion, on the other hand, focused on the spiritual aspects of Gandhi’s thought and on his conception of religion. As we’ve seen all along, Gandhi was a multi-faceted thinker, and so he is often treated as a political leader or as a philosopher, but not as often as a religious leader or thinker. In his presentation this morning, Ananthu stressed that in Gandhi’s introduction to his autobiography he wrote that the whole point of his existence was self-realization and seeing God, that he was less interested in India’s self-rule than he was in individual self-rule achieved through a kind of spiritual journey (although for Gandhi there seemed no division between religious and public life). His insistence on nurturing the spiritual and his commitment to a fundamentally religious life, of course, caused much division among his peers, for many of them, like Nehru, were secularists. But Ananthu insisted that Gandhi’s commitment to a spiritual life and to religion is of central importance. He explained that for Gandhi, however, “religion” was the “religion underlying all religion,” that is, it is constituted of those basic moral principles that underlie all religions and therefore intersect, so that to be religious is to rise above narrow definitions rooted in the doctrines of individual religions, especially those that claim a special or privileged status. This means that in the Gandhian sense, religion need not be divisive, since it’s constituted of the basic underlying truths of all faiths. The question I had, of course, what just what those basic underlying truths are, and who decides? We didn’t really talk about this, but I think the question sometimes gets begged. In theory this conception of religion is very appealing, but there are complexities underneath the surface.

Ananthu also took some time to discuss yoga as a spiritual practice that can help us to transcend mind and body and connect us to an ultimate or essential reality. This practice is a central aspect of life at the commune. His discussion of yoga, which as a practice is designed to “yolk” (the literal meaning of the word) the individual to a higher essential force or principle by using the body to do “inner work,” led to a spirited discussion of some of the underlying spiritual concepts Ananthu had been invoking all morning. Some of us wondered whether living a moral life required religion at all, and Ananthu quickly insisted that religion and morality are the same thing, which I think is essentially correct. Others took issue with his invocation of “essence,” the idea underlying western metaphysics that there is an unseen, higher, transcendent reality or force beyond material reality, a “higher” reality that is intrinsic and absolute. This in turn led to a discussion of the role religion has played in the history of violence and conquest, whether the quest for material plunder was at the center of things like colonialism and slavery, or whether religion also played a central role. The whole morning’s discussion was lively, intelligent, thoughtful, and engaging, and I thought it produced some really helpful give and take between the group. I like the fact that, collectively, we have a variety of points of view. We share an interest in Gandhi and how his work is being carried on at the places we have visited, but we have diverse intellectual and religious backgrounds and each of us comes at the issues we are discussing in different ways. Add to that the fact that our assumptions are continually being challenged on the trip and that we are learning an enormous amount (we’re really a kind of traveling seminar) and you’ve got the makings of a really fertile intellectual experience.

In the afternoon we met with the senior trustee at Navadarshanam, Partap Agarwal. He is in many ways the most fascinating person I’ve met in India. He’s is absolutely uncompromising in both his criticisms of the effects of modernization and his prescriptions for social change. And he’s quite preoccupied with toilets and what we put in them. He is absolutely convinced that the toilet is one of the three worst inventions of mankind (the other two being the automobile and nuclear energy). In Partap’s view the toilet has created two problems. In the first place, it wastes water, a valuable resource, and in the second flushed fecal matter pollutes the environment and is a natural resource that’s being wasted. He’s a strong advocate of shitting in the woods so that fecal matter can return to the earth and nurture the soil. For him, human beings took a fatal wrong turn when they invented agriculture, for agriculture has led inexorably to the degradation and then the pollution of land, and to the creation of increasingly large communities that have proved, especially with the invention of the city, increasingly unsustainable. His solution to the problems of modernity? Forget Gandhi’s proposal that people return to villages, for Partap insists that everyone should move to on an acre or so in the forest and live off the land. Without planting anything. He is a guru of the tree, and has a dizzying knowledge of the edible matter they produce. In his view, of course, the community of Navadarshanam is full of bad compromises. They have toilets (which he spoke against), grow their own vegetables, and create their own electrical power. In a way he strikes me as the conscience of the community, the man with the most extreme vision of what a healthy life entails. I thought Gandhi’s vision was severe until I met Partap. But while his vision is uncompromising, his life is a compromise. He lives here only part time, and his other home isn’t in the forest.

Partap’s other passion is fasting. He claims he hasn’t been to the doctor in 20 years. When he feels bad, he fasts. The science of fasting (if one can call it that) as he explained it has to do with freeing the body from its work processing the food we take in, separating off what the body needs from the foreign material it needs to expel, so that it can set to work getting rid of residual foreign material that may be causing our symptoms. When he gets sick, he fasts, letting the body purge itself of whatever is ailing it. He also fasts on a fairly regular basis as part of his over-all spiritual practice. In these fasts, he takes nothing but water, lays at rest, and does nothing but meditate, trying to get in tune with his body and lifting himself above the mind (I told him frankly that the fasting part sounded like something I could do but that doing nothing for three days sounded impossible).

What he advocates (everyone moves to the forest, no agriculture, shit in the woods, no doctors, fast regularly to cleanse the mind and body, live without everything we think of as part of our culture) of course strikes me as extreme, to say the least. There is a logic to his analyses and to what he advocates, of course, but putting all of these things into practice as a way to heal human civilization and save the planet is clearly impractical. I don’t see people deciding any time soon to move to a single acre in the forest to become gatherers who shit in the woods, fast when they are ill, and spend most of their time seeking God within themselves. But at another level I find Partap extremely compelling exactly because he takes such an uncompromising position, and because he argues it with such passion, grace, and goodwill. If we are to measure the quality of the lives people live by their presence, their devotion to the common good, their sense of well being and comfort in the world, by their sense of humor, contentment, and the solidity of their attitude, then Partap is doing something right. He’s a wise man, lovely to be with, and a great conversationalist with a wonderful sense of humor. And this isn’t to say that the others I’ve met here aren’t equally impressive in their own ways, indeed, everyone here is absolutely charming in the best sense of the word, and the range of their talents is striking. Ananthu is in many ways the intellectual leader of the group (though he’s a deeply spiritual man), Om the practical solver of problems, the engineer extraordinaire who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, Partap is the guru, the spiritual leader, and Shoba the master cook extraordinaire who prepares the most wonderful, tasty (and easy to digest) vegetarian food you can imagine and leads the group every night in communal hymns. All of these people have wonderful spirits. It is relaxing just to be around them, and they’ve created an impressive community here based in equal measure on devotion to sustainable, healthy living, ingenuity, and gritty tenacity.

A footnote: There is a small village just about 200 yards beyond Navadarshanam’s gate which I visited alone early on the first morning of our stay. As much as I’ve come to love my companions on this trip it was nice to take a solitary walk and to move through the village on my own. Often when we’ve visited villages we’ve arrived as a group, and it is pretty overwhelming for the villager, and a little chaotic, when 14 Anglos just appear out of nowhere in western dress, cameras in hand. As I arrived (the name of the village is Ganganahalli) people were just beginning their day, emerging from their brightly painted concrete and wood homes to fetch water, tend to the cows, wash clothes, or just mingle with one another. One little girl in a school uniform was standing in the front of her house combing her long hair. I was struck by how colorful, well-built, and nicely kept the homes were (I didn’t see a single commercial business, they seem centered in another village a few kilometers away), and by how little people seemed to be disturbed by my presence. I strolled through the village and out the other side into rolling farm land. There was a small blue temple on my right which had a little shrine in it, and the structure was covered by a small thatched roof supported by four thick branches sunk in the ground. Beyond this farmers began to work their fields, some by hand and others with tillers pulled by oxen. One boy walked by and told me he was a student on his way to school. Further on was a small, abandoned granite quarry that had filled with water. A thick row of beautiful grass was growing in the water and swayed in the morning breeze.

The quarry pool was a particularly peaceful place, but I had to double back to get to breakfast, so I headed along the road I had taken back into town. The first little home I encountered was a small farm on the edge of the village with a pen full of very young goats. As I moved back into the village I could see more people were up and at work. They didn’t seem to mind my taking pictures. Indeed, one woman with a child on her hip motioned me over to take her picture. Once I’d shown it to her she called others over, including a much older women I assume was her mother, or her mother-in-law. Children also appeared from all sides, and pretty soon there was quite a crowd. I tried to explain who I was as best I could, and they spoke back, but who knows what they thought of me, why I was there, and what I was doing?

Navadarshanam I

Navadarshanam, July 29-30. On the 29th we made our way by plane, coach, and in the final leg, in the back of a truck, from Pune to Bangalore and then to the small commune run on Gandhian principles called Navadarshanam. The Pune to Bangalore flight was quick. The new airport on the outskirts of the city is another example of India’s explosive development. It’s modern, expansive, and state of the art. You could be in Paris or Madrid or New York City. The area just outside the terminal is dominated by a huge sculpture of a Luis Vuitton bag, as good an icon I can imagine for the boom in consumerism that’s helping fuel Bangalore’s rise. The city itself, where we spent about three hours is, at least in its modern center, even more prosperous and contemporary in its look than Pune. Many of the buildings are new, the shopping streets wide, and elegant hotels share the avenues with virtually every brand name store you can think of from Rebok to Levi’s to Nike (but no Chanel or Gucci, at least not yet). Bangalore is of course the home of India’s call centers, and is also a hub of activity for the IT industry, and it is booming (although this is only true of the immediate center and the IT parks, for on its outskirts the city quickly becomes shabby, then impoverished—and the pollution is nearly unbearable). The modernization and urbanization that mark India as a rising power but which seems unsustainable on a global scale is everywhere in Bangalore, and so the city in its own way represents everything many of the Gandhians we’re meeting with lament.

That’s certainly the case with our hosts at Navadarshanam, a small community started by Indians who were working both here and in the U.S. in the computer and software industries but who decided to drop out and start there own self-sustaining community in the forests of Tamil Nadu, in the south of India. But before I describe the place, a word about how we got here. After lunch in Bangalore we headed out in a convoy, two cars filled with our luggage and a couple of passengers, and the rest of us in a small coach. We had to cross the state border just before we got to Navadarshanam and at that point we had to abandon our transport for a new set of vehicles. I ended up in the back of an open truck with our luggage, our guide, Ranjith, and Ted and Wendy. It was a great ride. As we drove deeper into the forest people, animals, oxcarts, and soon, small villages would suddenly appear behind us out of nowhere. Hopefully I’ll be able to post some of the pictures I took from the back of the truck. My favorite series was shot when we drove by a large school just as the kids were getting out. It seemed like a hundred of them, and when they saw us they started waving and laughing and chasing after us. We waved back, the truck sped along, I shot away with my camera, and they ran, smiling, as fast as they could. Later we made our way through a small village, and then met the road to Navadarshanam, which turned out to be under construction and blocked by a tractor. We had to wait awhile, and mingled with a local couple and some kids until the road opened and we were able to make our way into the compound. Groves of banana palm trees covered the land that wasn’t being farmed, and the far horizon gave way to green, rolling hills.

The Navadarshanam compound itself is quite a beautiful place, nestled on land that slightly inclines down to a little valley and has beautiful views of the surrounding forest and a small lake. The vegetation verges on tropical. Here and there in the fields are small, simple Hindu temples. The buildings in the compound itself are made of simple, sun-dried bricks with tile roofs, but they’re pleasant, even elegant, and decorated in places with painted designs or murals. There is a single communal kitchen and dining area, small homes for the full-time residents, and a couple of large nicely furnished dorm rooms where we are staying. The grounds are beautiful, and animals graze nearby on a landscape that spills off into farmland. Navadarshanam (which means “new light”), a marvel of ingenuity, is completely “off the grid,” in other words, it produces all of its power from the wind and the sun and draws its water from wells and rain water harvesting. Gas, as at Navdanya, comes from a mix of cow dung and water which produces methane gas used to heat cooking stoves. Solar panels produce warm water for showers most afternoons. There’s also a windmill that generates the power that runs their computers.

We had a quiet dinner with the people who live here (all the food is vegetarian, grown either on the property or on nearby farms), spent a little time singing together in the dining hall, and then went to bed. It is surprisingly cool here. We’re at 3,000 feet and I needed a blanket to stay warm. After breakfast this morning some of us did yoga together and others walked the trails that branch out into the forest (I explored the area of farmland that spills down to the small lake, and it was on that walk that I spotted one of the small temples I referred to earlier). At 11:00 this morning we gathered for our first extended discussion with two of the principles behind Navadarshanam ,T. S. Ananthu and Om Bagaria. You can read on their website details of how the place came into being, but essentially it grew out of a study group centered in Delhi in the 1970s, people mostly in technological or scientific fields (Ananthu worked for Xerox and Om is a mechanical engineer) who were interested in governmental change. Although some of the structural changes they wanted finally did occur, they found themselves increasingly disenchanted with the direction of contemporary commercial and technological development and finally made a commitment to try their hand at creating a self-sustaining community based on Gandhian principles, and so they bought this fallow, over-grazed land very cheaply and set to work partly doing nothing so that the forest would return (it has, in dramatic fashion), building the facilities and small scale infrastructure for power I described above, and beginning to farm organically. Early on they had trouble with herds of elephants who would plunder their potatoes, so they put up an electrical fence around the property to keep them out. Apparently an occasional panther can wander onto the property.

Our discussion this first morning focused on Gandhi’s critique of modern civilization in his controversial 1909 book, Hind Swaraj. Ananthu presented his own sense of what Gandhi was getting at in the book, and the ways in which his arguments are connected to the community here. Those who founded Navadarshanam, of course, share Gandhi’s critique of modernity, partly because of their feeling that modern industrial society produces alienated people whose spiritual lives are undone by an increasing preoccupation with a market-driven desire for material possession, and partly because at the rate we’re going such a society is simply not sustainable world wide given the drainage of natural resources and the environmental pollution it produces. Their point was that even if only China and India succeed in creating a level of consumption like that we currently have in the U.S., the world will run out of resources quite quickly. It’s hard to argue with this analysis. The question, however, is what’s to be done about the problem. The general Gandhian answer, keeping in mind there are different versions, is to scale back radically on cycles of production and consumption, shifting away from material production and acquisition and the technologies and machinery that supports them toward a scale of production that is much more austere, local, and egalitarian. Their vision for India in particular, as I’ve said before, is to revitalize the villages (70% of the Indian population is rural) along Gandhian lines and to abandon the modernization and industrialization characteristic of India’s urban areas (which they often see quite understandably as the imposition of an alien culture on a country with a 4,000 year old history of rich cultural practices). For them, these modern cities are homogenous and unsustainable, and so the village, where most people live still, is the most attractive option. As I’ve said before, it still is not clear to me what future, if any, the Gandhians see for the city. Some keep telling me there’s no reason cities have to disappear, but I haven’t heard anything like a plan for India from any of them that deals systematically with the problem of urban areas other than a focus on the village as an alternative, which seems to suggest an embrace of Gandhi’s desire at independence that people move back to the villages. Again, I keep hearing this isn’t the case, but absent any large scale plan for dealing with urban areas as well, it too often seems like it is. When I brought this question up at Navadarshanam the assumption seemed to be that cities like Bangalore would soon enter a period of crisis and finally collapse of their own weight.

My own problem with this Gandhian vision has less to do with their analysis of the effects of development and modernization, which certainly are long past needing to be scaled back, made more socially and economically just, and more environmentally friendly, than with their wholesale rejection of modern culture and the extent to which their prescriptions for change are completely focused on revitalizing the village to support an austere lifestyle centered on the local production of food, clothing, and shelter. Such a revitalization, I believe, is crucially important for villages and those who want to live in them, and so the methods of organic farming and the environmentally friendly production of power advocated by the Gandhians are, to my mind, fundamentally sound. But I don’t believe modernity and the culture it has spawned in cities and suburbs is going to go away, and without some kind of structured and systematic attention to the problems there, we aren’t going to solve the systemic problems the Gandhians rightly call our attention to. I believe no matter how appealing you can make farming and spinning cotton young people are going to continue to want more than that, more variety in the lives they live and the jobs they do. Cities are going to continue to attract people and we’re going to have to find a way to make urban life in them sustainable along with improving life in the village. I don’t see the masses who live in cities suddenly deciding any time soon that they want to go back to living in villages (the trend is the other way), and no Gandhian I’ve talked to has suggested the most un-Gandhian solution of forcing people back to villages. So, we’re stuck, for better or worse, with large urban centers and the cultures they’re producing (I’m committed, by the way, to the idea that cultures are fluid and changing, not only urban ones in the U.S. and the West, but Indian culture as well, which has changed dramatically in 4,000 or so years). It seems to me the only viable option, then, is to regulate growth, production, consumption, and pollution aggressively in urban areas, and to move away from our dependence on oil and toward sustainable and renewable power. Gandhian principles can be central to that effort, but I haven’t heard many Gandhians talking about this in our meetings, as exciting, moving, inspiring, and enlightening as they’ve been.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Frolicking in a Monsoon

Here's a brief clip I took while we were at the Sevagram Ashram when the monsoons really let loose and a few of us got a little crazy.

For a short post about today in Pune and another video clip from our day in the village yesterday, please see the post below.

Signing Off for a Few Days

We're winding up our trip in Pune tonight, and tomorrow fly to Bangalore and then head by coach to an organic farm about 1 1/2 hours outside the city. I'm assuming they won't have any internet so you probably won't hear from me again until we get to our hotel in Chennai on, I believe, August 2.

I've posted here a short video clip from our visit to the village yesterday, a brief selection from the question and answer session we had with the village elders. If I have time I'll try to post the longer clip of the music they played for us.

Today we attended a day-long series of lectures, one from an activist who told wonderful stories to us about her meetings with Gandhi as a teenager in the last years of her life, another from a poet who talked to us about some of the differences between thinking of Gandhi as a political leader and thinking of him as a spiritual leader, a lecture on Islam with an emphasis on the distinction between seeing Islam in historical terms and as a set of doctrines and principles (and some discussion of the role of women in Islam, both historically and in our own time), and finally a discussion of Gandhi as a philosopher. It was a full and very thought-provoking day. Wish I could go into more detail here, but I'm shot and have to get up at 5:00 a.m. for the trip to Bangalore. More when I resurface in Chennai.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Bombings in India

I know most of you are aware of the bombings that have occurred in India in the last few day. This is just a quick note to let you know we're alright. It's a little unsettling to have this happening, especially in a city like Ahmedabad that we just visited. Regarding Bangalore, where there was also trouble, though we're headed there tomorrow we're just driving through on the way to a rural farm, so we won't be in the city. We're aware of the dangers, but they're really quite remote -- flying or riding the crazy autorickshaws is a much bigger risk, believe me.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Life in a Village Near Pune

Today we had another chance to visit a rural village, this one about an hour’s drive from Pune. We were picked up in the morning by Ashwin Paranjpe, the Principal Coordinator of the Gomukh Centre for Rural Sustainability, an NGO devoted to supporting organic farming among a group of 17 villages nestled in a beautiful valley. When we arrived we were met by the village elders and a swarm of children. The elders ushered us into the spacious Hindu temple off the main plaza of the village that’s also used for town meetings. There we had a chance to hear them talk about their lives as farmers, how the village is structured and governed (the caste system and attempts by the government to overcome the forms of discrimination it sustains are a charged topic in villages like this, we discovered), and to engage in a discussion with them about village life in India and farming in the U.S., a topic they were quite curious to explore. Some of the village children performed songs for us, and the whole group performed a traditional song accompanied by harmonium (which Ted later played) and sitar. This visit was particularly special for me because the elders traditionally welcome groups by presenting a set of gifts to the eldest member of the visiting group. That was me. I was invited up to stand with the group of village elders, and was given a traditional cap and shawl, along with a coconut to symbolize good luck. It was a moving moment for met, and I’ll treasure the gifts. Later we broke up into small groups to have lunch in a village home. Our group had a wonderful meal with a gracious family, a couple, the mother-in-law, and the couple’s two daughters. Language was a bit of a barrier at first but we got past it and had a lot of fun figuring out how to communicate with one another. Indians traditionally sit on the floor to eat, but for us the lunch was spread out on the family bed and we sat in plastic garden chairs. After lunch I asked to see the kitchen and eventually ended up in a little cooking room with an open fire on the floor. There I took a hand at working with the wife and mother-in-law to make roti bread. I failed miserably but had a wonderful time trying. It was amazing to watch the women’s hands at work making the roti. At one point she got to slapping the bread flat on a round little cutting board with a rhythm that got me clapping first, then scat singing. They got quite a kick out of that.

The visit with these people was very special, a chance to sit down with villagers and to talk with them about their lives and how Gandhian principles of self-sustainability are beginning to transform their lives. But they have a long way to go. It is important to remember that the so called “Green Revolution” in the 1980s and early 1990s swept away traditional forms of farming and instituted a whole economy and set of practices based on the use of hybrid seeds, pesticides, and machinery. Though yields go up with this type of farming the cost of transition puts many farmers in debt, the quality of the food produced is low, and worst of all, the environment becomes polluted by pesticides. Organizations like Paranjpe’s are dedicated to helping farmers return to traditional organic methods. Another factor at work here is that traditional crops (grown both for consumption and local sale) have been replaced by sugar cane, a cash crop of now value to the sustenance of local farmers. The transition to sugar cane works like this: large sugar can companies come into an area, build a processing factory, then systematically get each farmer to change their production to sugar can. Soon whole valleys like the one we visited go from producing a variety of vegetables and rice for their own consumption and local sale to the production of sugar cane for the world market.

We had an interesting discussion on a range of topics with Ashwin on our drive to the village. At one point we drove through a bustling commercial district with homes that branched out along streets running off from the main road. We stopped here to buy some bottled water and umbrellas (it rained lightly most of the day). Ashwin commented off handedly that this used to be a very small village but now it was a bustling commercial center, but one that had outgrown the older infrastructure of roads, drains, sewage, etc. that sustained the original village. It was still in place, while the village had grown into a town. I asked him if this growth was evidence of significant economic expansion, and he said that yes, it was, that things really had gotten much better here. The problem is that the village panchyat (like a city council) didn’t have enough revenue or technical expertise to keep up with growth. So, in miniature, this area in some ways represents the India we hear about in the West, a country which, along with China, is supposed to be modernizing rapidly and where economic expansion is roaring along. It often doesn’t look like it as we drive around India, but if we had been in this commercial town 25 years ago we would have seen a small place with little money and few jobs. The expansion here is apparently representative of that taking place in the country at large, but it’s very uneven, and in places like this is happening so fast they can’t keep up with it, so jobs and population growth far outpaces necessary improvements in the infrastructure of the country.

Please click here to see some pictures associated with this post.

Autorickshaw Ride in Ahmedabad

These little three-wheeled auto rickshaws are one of the main forms of public transport in Indian cities. You haven't visited India unless you've been whizzed around in one of them. You just have to put your trust in the driver and hold on--the traffic is horrendous and zooming around in one of them seems life-threatening, but it works. Here's a short clip of what the ride is like.

Video Clip: Music at Sevagram Ashram

Here's a clip from a wonderful impromptu concert by staff members at Sevagram. See below for some other videos and a long entry on yesterday's activities.

Cooking at Navdanya II and a Brief Note About Today

For the first in this series from the kitchen at Navdanya, see the post below. My latest narrative, from Pune, is below these video clips. More news tomorrow when I get back from a visit with my group to a village outside Pune.

Today we met with a lawyer, Asim Sarode, who has devoted his practice to social justice for impoverished people unfairly accused of crimes. A selfless lawyer who rejects high salaries and the pretensions of the legal system here, he does what in the U.S. we call "pro bono" work, but on a systematic scale. Another inspiring person putting Gandhian principles into practice to deal with social issues right now. He is particularly devoted to the protection of exploited sex workers and the whole issue of violence against women in Indian society, as well as working with HIV/AIDS discrimination cases. He's got a group of wonderful interns working with him and has begun to get a lot of attention here and in England. The press attended our meeting, and Madhuri and Katherine were interviewed by a TV station for broadcast tomorrow.

Cooking at Navdanya I

Navdanya is the wonderful organic farm where we spent a week earlier in the trip. I talked the cook into letting me help out with dinner one night. This is the first of a series of clips I shot while cooking that I'll try to post in the next couple of days. I wish you could smell the food.

Congratulating the Kitchen at Ranjani Restaurant, Delhi

I'm finally going to start posting my backlog of video clips. This one is from our second night when we got invited back into the kitchen after our meal.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Our First Days in Pune

Saturday, July 26. We all had a wonderful time at the rural Sevagram Ashram and the surrounding villages, as I reported in an earlier post, but we were also pretty elated to arrive at the Park Central Hotel in Pune, which is air conditioned, roomy, and just on the edge of being a little swanky. Our first afternoon we just enjoyed the hot showers and air conditioning (not to mention the free wireless internet, which, alas doesn’t work in my room so all posting is done in the lobby) and we treated ourselves to pretty competent pizza and red wine at an Italian restaurant not far from the hotel. I felt like I went back to the U.S. for a few hours to recharge.

Pune is very different from the other cities we’ve visited, Delhi and Ahmedabad. The fact that it has sidewalks, which I’ve been remarking to others seem totally absent in India, immediately caught my eye and has become for me a kind of symbol of the relative prosperity and sophistication here. Pune is known as the “Silicon Valley” of India, and you can see the effects of software industry money everywhere in the new buildings, fancy shopping districts, and the abundance of restaurants. This last adds to the city’s cosmopolitan feel. There’s a much wider range of cuisines here than we’ve seen elsewhere, and the city is full of, hip, sophisticated looking young people in western dress. Which is to say the effects of globalization with its general trend toward westernization and homogenization is pronounced. It’s a little too easy to romanticize India (women in flowing saris, orange clad wandering sadhus, cows in the middle of traffic, men in turbans and imams hurrying to mosques, makeshift Hindu temples and cobbled-together commercial districts right out of the 19th-century or earlier) but this India is a little harder to find in Pune, which is westernizing at what appears to be a pretty torrid pace. The city is also one of the intellectual centers of India, which helps account for some of the sophistication and cosmopolitanism I’ve noted. It has some of the feel of a large college or university town. Everywhere there are huge billboards advertising new, luxury condominium complexes marketed as resorts (swimming pools, golf courses, gyms, etc.). They seem indistinguishable from what we’d see back home and caught my attention for the way they underscore the rapidity of modernization here, and the huge gulf between the poor and the young, aspiring middle classes who are being seduced by a kind of globalized style of living that seems rather incongruous when experienced in the context of all the poverty we’ve seen. I suspect, too, that some of these are stand-alone complexes with their own water and power sources. Some even have their own schools. Organic farmers are finding ways to live “off the grid” but so too are these luxury complexes, which I can’t help thinking of as versions of the 21st-century village. But not the kind of village Gandhi had in mind, that’s for sure. Pune in this respect represents all of the changes the Gandhians (or most of them) we've met with on our trip despair over, for the economic effects of globalization in India (as elsewhere) are dramatically uneven, sap resources (and poepole) from the villages, contribute to environmental pollution, and undermine or erase traditional cultural forms and practices.

For a selection of pictures associated with this post, please click here.

Yesterday, our first full day in Pune, was pretty jam-packed, fascinating and moving. We began our day with a long visit to a substance abuse rehab center called Muktangan Mitra. It’s run by Dr. Anil Awachat, a noted writer and social activist. The facility incorporates elements of AA and the kind of programs you can find in U.S. rehab centers but with a Gandhian focus on promoting self-sufficiency (derived in part by Dr. Awachat’s devotion to Thoreau, who of course influenced Gandhi as well). Dr. Awachat, trained as a medical doctor, gave up his professional practice (and his early devotion to socialism) to help set up Muktangan with his wife, and he’s particularly interested in working with people living in villages to promote self-sufficiency along the lines Gandhi advocated. We had an informative meeting with him, and a very moving exchange with a group of around 75 male patients at the center. Some of them told us their own stories about how they became involved in substance abuse, and we were able to ask (and answer) questions in a wonderful give and take. Muktangan Mitra is another in a series of examples of institutions created by people influenced by Gandhi who opted out of mainstream careers to work on behalf of other who are marginalized, deprived, or suffering.

After our visit to the center we had a wonderful lunch at a Persian restaurant Madhuri recommended. It was wonderful, a huge open-air wood and bamboo structure in a kind of tropical setting that was part restaurant, part hookah bar (lots of young people sitting around smoking and just hanging out together), and part jazz club, with huge posters of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Billie Holiday, and others on the wall. The food was fabulous (I had an Iranian dish, cranberry rice with chicken), and the ambience great. After lunch we went by coach to one of the main tourist sites in Pune, Shaniwar Wada Palace, a huge 18th century fort and palace that became one of the last centers of resistance to the British. The vast array of wood-built structures that formed the palace burned down in 1828, but the grounds and foundations are intact and the huge fortified wall in the front with its beautiful rooms above were wonderful to visit. After I’d seen the fort I walked out to the street and around to the front to get a picture of the whole fort, but I got distracted by the array of sidewalk merchants who were running ingenious little businesses on blankets. There was a woman selling locks, another fellow selling keys who was repairing the lock on a suitcase, jewelry vendors, palm readers and fortune tellers, and, my favorite, a woman sitting on a chair who simply had a bathroom scale sitting in front of her. That was it. A business pared down to the bare minimum. She didn’t care if I weighed myself but she wanted me to take her picture and she whooped with delight when she saw her image on my LCD screen. For me she symbolizes Indian ingenuity and the drive to find a way to get by under difficult circumstances. Again, it's easy to idealize or sentimentalize people like her, but she impressed me, and she seemed just as happy as could be.

Riding the Train

One adventure you don't want to miss in India is riding the trains, and I've just posted a few shots I've taken from our rides between Delhi and Dehradun. These train rides are a great way to experience India, both because you see so much of the countryside, and because you inevitably get to meet some Indian people, who are wonderfully friendly and curious. Some of these shots are of people in the group relaxing at cards, and there are a couple of shots of Ellen with a youngster who adored her. Then there are the hijra, Indian transsexuals I mentioned in a previous post. Barbara got to talking to them and soon a number of us got involved. I've included a few shots of them. They were great fun, gregarious, spontaneous, playful, open, and as curious about us as we must have seemed about them. You can view the pictures I've posted by clicking here.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Update on Pictures

It turns out the hotel in Pune has free wireless internet, blogger heaven. And the uploading of pictures to my web gallery seems much quicker now, so I'm slowly uploading a backlog of selected photos. While I'm pasting links to the photos into my previous posts (Jambughoda and Temples and Shrines so far) you can just go directly to my web gallery home page and see the pictures I'm uploading. Newest galleries will be in front. Click here to go to the gallery. The shot above is of me romping in a monsoon downpour yesterday. If I get the courage later I'll post the picture of Paulo and I dancing in the rain . . .

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A Note About Pictures and Posts

It turns out that Apple's introduction of the new iPhone, which also involves a revamping of their mobile software, which is what I've been using to upload my photos, is not going very well and wreaking havoc with my ability to upload photos to my web gallery. I'm trying to upload some now, but it's horribly slow, so blame Steve Jobs (who I normally idolize) for screwing up my photo posts.

NOTE: If you're having trouble finding the posts from Jambughoda onward I published the other day just scroll down to the bottom of the current posts and click "Older Posts" and you'll find them. Just published a few photos from the Jambughoda Palace.

Sevagram Ashram

This post was written yesterday and comes to you today compliments of free internet access at the Indore airport, where we're waiting to change planes for Pune. I'll try to post pictures later to get caught up.

Tuesday, July 22. When Gandhi left his ashram in Ahmedabad for the Salt March he vowed not to return until India gained it’s independence. He eventually relocated to a very small village called Wardha, near the dead center of India. Having taken a stand in favor of people returning to the village, he felt he ought to follow his own advice. Eventually he founded an ashram and a school, and his mail became so voluminous they had to create a separate post office for him. Sevagram is now a vibrant institution. People come from all over to visit and study, the school was reinstituted in 2005, and there is building going on all around. Sevagram is a kind of living museum, dedicated to the historical responsibility of maintaining the buildings where Gandhi and his associates lived and worked directing the independence movement in the final decade or so of his life, keeping up the ground he walked and the shade trees he sat under. But it’s also a living, thriving hub of activism and education.

We arrived yesterday late morning after getting up at 3 a.m. in Delhi and taking a short flight to the city of Nagpur, making our way in a convoy of jeeps to Sevagram in time for tea and a rest before lunch. In the afternoon we had a long meeting with one of the principal administrators at Sevagram, Shiva Dutta, with the discussion focused on Gandhi’s theories about education and how they are being employed at the ashram’s school, Na Talim , which means “New Education.” Dutta was formally trained in economics and math but decided to renounce a mainstream career and dedicate his energy to the educational mission of Sevagram. According to Dutta, Gandhi’s approach to education was to focus on producing people for the “future, a process that involves growing ideas that can lead to productive, collective change. But the key thing is that the process of education was linked inextricably in Gandhi’s mind to the central importance of the small, independent, self-sustaining village. Peoples’ needs ought to be basic (austerity is the hallmark here) and they ought to be fulfilled by local goods and local labor. Indeed, Gandhi insisted everything villagers need ought to come from no more than 5 km. away. His educational model is linked to this idea by its stress on producing knowledge that has practical use in this context, knowledge that breeds self-reliance, ingenuity, and the ability to understand local conditions and to work with them to produce the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. Education at the ashram’s Na Talim is organized around handicrafts, so that knowledge about math, geography, science, and history grows integrally out of learning about how to produce things the village needs. As an educator myself I found this approach to education a challenge to some of my own assumptions, which is a good thing. Here the problem I’ve been productively struggling with the whole trip, how nurturing a simple and austere village life can lift everyone in India up, those who live in rural areas and those of live in cities, and how the life of the village can be made appealing enough to people who find modernity in the 21st century so seductive kept dogging me. No simple answers here, of course.

There are prayers every evening at 6:30 in the evening and again at 4:30 a.m. I attended the 6:30 prayer and, though I’m not a religious person myself, I found it quite moving and relaxing. Hindi, Muslim, and Christian prayers were chanted and in a variety of languages. A man playing what looked like a very simple sitar occasionally played a quiet tune, another person beat time with finger cymbals, and here and there men were meditatively spinning cotton on portable wheels. After dinner we were treated to an informal concert by two of the teachers, one who played the sitar and the other the tabla (drums). Staff members from the ashram joined us and sang along. This was the kind of special experience we’ve been privileged to have on a trip where we’re able to move beyond the tourist sites and have access to people in their homes, offices, villages, etc.

Today, the 23rd, was a very full day. We began with a visit to an ashram run completely by women. It is situated on a lovely spot above a wide, rocky river. The living quarters surround a small farming plot, and many women were working the field or cleaning the property. We heard a wonderful talk by one long-time inhabitant, Nirmal Bhen, who spoke to us about her own spiritual life, the power of the mind and the senses, and her belief that the purpose of life is to experience joy. She defined her life at the ashram as “spiritual experimentation,” and I think we all found her soulful energy contagious. We spent the rest of the day at an extensive center devoted to engineering and scientific innovation. They have a dizzying array of environmentally friendly, sustainable projects, everything from honey harvesting to metal works to paper making to textile weaving and dying. One whole section of the place is devoted to experimenting with toilets that process and purify their own waste materials, either to recycle them into the earth or capture them to produce gas. While we were all impressed with the ingenuity guiding their various projects there were some questions about just how all these projects will directly effect villagers. The textile production section in particular seemed dedicated to finding ways to market fairly high end khadi projects as commodities, a project that one of the directors of the ashram here later told me wasn’t really in accord with its Gandhian commitment to austerity with a focus on the production of goods to be consumed by the villagers.

This again raised for me the question of what relationship there would be in this Gandhian vision between the village and larger urban areas, between a culture of consumption focused on basic needs and one based on the production of new products and services tied to the kind of complex market economy we currently live in. While this predominantly western-driven market economy, and the patterns of consumption it feeds off, clearly isn’t sustainable world-wide, I am still having trouble seeing the “village” as an answer to the overwhelming problems of poverty, environmental pollution, and a crumbling infrastructure I’ve observed all over the country. The Gandhian principles we’ve been learning about, based on a mix of beliefs and practices that are both traditional and innovative and which tap into and thus preserve deep cultural roots, seem promising as vehicles for stabilizing and improving the quality of basic life in India’s villages. But we’re talking here about the basics, food, clothing and shelter, and a system (depending on who you talk to) that seems narrowly focused for reasons both moral and practical on austerity and on staving off the effects of modernization. Yet modernization is everywhere in India, aggressively marketed on billboards and television and realized everywhere in planned communities and building projects both in the countryside and the city. This makes for the kinds of stark juxtapositions only a visitor to India can appreciate, you see poverty and wealth side-by-side everywhere, ox-carts pulling piles of shrubs to feed cows being passed by shiny new cars and dwarfed by gleaming new buildings. Our trip has heavily emphasized how Gandhian principles can help renew and sustain basic life in villages (which make up some 70% of the population), but we’ve seen little to help explain how the quickly modernizing urban centers of India, with their vast slums and decaying infrastructure, can be stabilized and transformed. The challenges are enormous. Opting out of continued modernization and some kind of global system of linked economies (which is going to bring cultural change, but what’s new about that?) seems to me rather inconceivable, but that system needs to be made fairer, more socially just and environmentally responsible, less exploitive all the way round.

Monday, July 21, 2008

I'm Back!

Hi everyone. Sorry about being out of touch for so long but I've been without an internet connection for almost 2 weeks. But as you'll see below, I've been writing, and I've just posted everything to bring you up to date with our travels and my own thoughts about what we've been doing, hearing, and discussing. If you go down this page to "Jambughoda" and work your way up you can read these posts in chronological order (but see the headnote to the first post, below). Alas, I don't have time right now to upload pictures since we're just passing through Delhi on our way to Nagpur and no more internet for 3 days. But soon after that we'll be in Pune and I'll catch you up with what we've been up to and hopefully post some pictures.

One more thing. More and more these new posts reflect my own thinking about what I've been hearing, my own responses, and my evolving ideas. Of course they don't reflect what others may think, i.e the ideas and opinions below reflect those of the writer and aren't meant to speak on behalf of the group. I just wanted to be clear about that.

Later, Paul

Adivasi Academy

PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS POST IS OUT OF ORDER. It should have been posted below between "Jambughoda" and "Dinner at the Jambughoda Palace." Sorry for the slip up.

Friday, July 11. Gandhi was committed to reviving life in the villages of India, and this, coupled with his sweeping and controversial critique of modern civilization, was a key component of his vision of an independent India. This means that any trip to India to explore Gandhi’s legacy has to include time in the villages and a look at the work of people who are actively involved in helping to sustain and enhance the quality of life in them, where poverty is rampant and the impact of globalization on farming has vastly undercut the ability of rural Indians to grow the crops they need to sustain themselves, let alone to make a living. This means that the economic viability of village life is in a critical state, and the culture of the village is in danger or disappearing. All of these problems are even more acute in tribal areas, where the indigenous people of India (called adivasi, which roughly translates as indigenous) have been marginalized and oppressed under the British, who branded them “criminals,” and even the independent Indian governments, which have been slow to find a way to help insure the economic viability of tribal villages and to find ways to preserve the cultural traditions of the adivasi. Many of these villagers are leaving with the hope of finding work in the cities, adding to the population of slums like those we saw in Delhi and Ahmedabad. Moreover, the state government in Gujarat, where we are, is totally preoccupied with modernization and seems content to have these tribal areas disappear altogether, sucked up into the drive toward urbanization and industrialization.

Ganesh Devy and his staff at the Adivasi Academy (also called the Tribal Arts Academy) have a deep institutional commitment of helping tribal societies to recover and sustain their histories, traditions, languages, and artistic practices, and today we had an inspirational day meeting with Devy and visiting his academy. Devy himself is a remarkable man, having left a successful position as a professor of English literature (he is an eminent critic with an international reputation) to commit himself, initially, to the preservation of tribal languages and then, more ambitiously, to the education of students from the villages surrounding the academy and the creation of a museum dedicated to the preservation of adivasi arts and crafts (though Devy doesn’t like the term “crafts” and rejects the separation of art from life--he underscored in his talks to us both the artistic quality of the objects produced by the adivasi and the link between their art and their daily lives). Devy started from scratch with his project, first by publishing materials aimed at studying and preserving tribal languages, then constructing a museum space on the academy property, then developing an academy or school complete with library and computer resources. He has attracted the attention of both private foundations and the government, successfully developing a solid funding stream for the academy and gaining recognition by the government as a “Center of Excellence.” The academy is wholly staffed by young adivasi men and women who have studied at the academy and taken by Dr. Devy’s passion for preserving adivasi culture and enhancing the economic status of tribal peoples.

During our visit to the academy we had a number of meetings and discussions with Devy about the importance of sustaining and enhancing tribal cultures and the villages where the adivasi live, and particularly of preserving their languages. He talked with us about the archival work the Academy is doing and the educational philosophy he has instituted there (non-hierarchical, decentralized). We saw a short play put on by some of the students that dramatized the history of oppression tribals have faced, had lunch with Devy and his staff, and later heard some songs sung in both Hindi and English by the students (including “We Shall Overcome”). Particularly illuminating for me was the final discussion we had with Devy regarding the influence of Gandhi on his work. Like many Indians we’ve talked to, he grew up with Gandhi as only a dim presence and came relatively late to a serious engagement with his work. Others who have spoken with us were committed Marxists when they were younger or, like Devy, taught literature. Like them he’s wary of making a saint out of Gandhi, approaches him with an appreciative and a critical mind, and seems focused on the practical, imaginative application of Gandhi’s thought for our own time, inspired more by his principles and methods than by a desire to follow Gandhi in some kind of dogmatic or devotional way. For example, he doesn’t have his students spinning cotton every day as is done in some other schools, and he said at one point that if advocating for micro-credit for villages will help them, he’d rather do that than teach everyone how to spin cotton to make their own clothes. I was impressed with the mix of principle and pragmatism he was taking from Gandhi. His contemporary approach to Gandhi seemed consistent with what other speakers had said to us about avoiding thinking of Gandhi in conventional, quasi-devotional categories some acolytes put him in.

Today, by the way, was the first day we experienced India’s famous monsoons. It rained hard the whole day, but though we met outside a good deal of the time we were sheltered from the rain by a series of porticos where we sat. But it turned out it had rained so heavily that the dip in the road leading into the Academy was traversed by a roaring river and we had to roll up our pants and wade through the waste high water to get back to our jeeps. I shot some video but don’t know when I’ll have a chance to post it. Lot’s of incredulity at having to do this, initially, but then it turned into a lot of fun.

Temples and Shrines

For some pictures related to this post please click here.

Monday, July 21 aboard the 5:00 a.m. train from Dehradun to Delhi. We all got up at 3:00 a.m. today to pack and head off to the train station for our 6 hour return trip to Delhi. Tomorrow we have an early flight to Nagpur, and then we head by coach to the Sevagram Ashram, established by Gandhi during the last decade of his life, where we will stay for three days.

Since some of our lecturers at Navdanya unexpectedly cancelled over the course of the week we had enough free time yesterday to explore some sites in and around the small city of Dehradun, which is a kind of gateway to the hill towns that eventually take people up into the Himalayas. We’d all had a very relaxing and intellectually stimulating time at Navdanya, but there seemed a collective sense of excitement too about getting away for an afternoon and diving back into the maelstrom which is India. We weren’t disappointed. Our first stop was a huge Buddhist temple or “stupa” outside of Dehradun in an area that was predominantly Tibetan. It was striking how quickly the look and feel of people and things changed as we made our way into this district. The temple itself (called “The Great Stupa” at the “Mindrolling Monastery,” at 60 m. high it claims to be the world’s tallest stupa) is immense, a full three floors that constitute areas of worship and meditation, each of which are filled themselves with smaller shrines. The walls on each floor are painted with fantastically intricate scenes from the life of the Buddha. Here and there young monks sat under windows where the sunlight flooded in, deep in study. Others worked to guide tourists through the temple. One was so young I saw him playing with a small green plastic car or toy of some kind while standing watch. A stairway on the top floor leads to a small terrace that rings the top of the temple and provides spectacular views of the outlying buildings, the town, and the countryside beyond. Faded, weathered prayer flags hung in small clusters in the trees, and in the far distance a large swath of prayer flags at least a dozen rows high and 25 yards across flickered in the light breeze. In the farther distances you could see the mountains below the Himalayas, but we weren’t really high enough to be able to see the Himalayas themselves. This was a spectacular place and full of an interesting mix of people, some whom were clearly on a pilgrimage but others, mostly tourists like us, were just curious to visit the carefully tended temple and finely manicured lawns that surrounded it.

After our visit to the temple we made our way back into Dehradun so that some of us could get on the internet and do a little shopping. A chain of clothing stores called “Fab India” has become a favorite destination for a lot of us (women’s blouses, men’s kurtas, pants and scarves), and a few of us spent some time there. They’ve got a big website so just google the place if you want a vicarious shopping experience. At 4:30 we piled back into our convoy of jeeps and headed for what we were vaguely told was some kind of Hindu shrine or monument just outside of Dehradun. We threaded our way through town, then past a forested area where some military training camp was located (a number of security checks here since Muslim/Hindu tensions are high and there have been occasional bombings throughout India), then through a smaller residential area until the road narrowed into a dead end where carts selling colorful devotional items ringed a huge tree wrapped in layers of rope and fabric, at the base of which were a number of small shrines. Vendors cooked food or sold candies and snacks, and the atmosphere was relaxed and festive. At the end of this area was a large gate and beyond that a wide stairway that spilled in a curve to the left down to the rain swollen Tons Nodi river and the Tapkeshwar Temple.

Descending this stairway took me, stunned and literally open mouthed, into another world. On each side of the stairway were small, open-air rooms inhabited by “sadhus,” holy men who wander through throughout India but often reside at the entrances to temples, setting up small but elaborate shrines and asking for money. Some were simply dressed, others were more elaborately clothed in flowing robes and bright turbans. One had his face painted orange and wore a kind of crown, mimicking the monkey god, Hanuman. Scruffy children and old women begged for coins on the steps among the sadhus, and Hindu families taking the day off (it was Sunday) threaded their way down to the shrine or back up to the parking area. Descending the stairway I could see the river and, on the other side, a strip of small structures running from right to left that eventually met a stairway that led to a large shop and restaurant with a broad terrace looking back across the river and up the stairway where I stood. At the base of the stairway and above the river there is a small shrine and a lookout, providing views up and down the river. From here I could see the entire area was comprised of natural caves, one on each side of the river, caves that had been carved out by the flow of the river over the centuries. To my left steps led down to the main temple area, housed completely inside a cave the outer walls of which are painted a light blue. To my right, upriver, a wide walkway led to a narrow set of stairs that took me up to a shrine, and then to the left there is a bride over the river. Reaching the other side I turned left and walked through a kind of grotto, moss covered overhanging rocks dripping streams of cooling water that eventually opened into a vast open-air cave filled with shrines and statues (each of the major shrines has an attendant, and Hindus leave small offerings they have brought with them, or coins and bills). I explored each of these, then made my way down to the river and then up the stairway to the restaurant and terrace. From here I saw that all my friends were on the other side, having gone the other way at the base of the stairs for a visit to the main temple in the largest cave. So after a few minutes taking all of this in I backtracked over the bridge and entered the temple, which consists of a small labyrinth of brightly lit shines (all housed deep in a cave) leading into a much larger interior space where a sadhu waits to bless you and mark your forehead in red. Behind him another man sat in the lotus position on an elevated stand with a bed behind him, incense burning in the shrine beside him. Beyond this man’s platform, inexplicably, was a large, wide office space, which seemed to be the administrative center of the complex. This also housed small sleeping areas. Moving past this space took me back to a narrower path through the cave, filled on each side with shrines and burning incense. Eventually I spilled out again into the light of day above the river and made my way back up the stairway filled with sadhus, beggars, and families leaving the shrine area.

It is difficult to describe without clichÈs the sense of wonder I felt here, especially as I first began to descend the stairway, saw the sadhus on either side of me, and the then the roaring river below and the colorful buildings and shrines in the far distances across the river. I’d seen photos of sadhus before, and the iconography of Hinduism is somewhat familiar to me, as are the small shrines and the imagery you see in them of various Hindu deities. But the collective effect of what I saw, the reality of the teeming panorama before me, the smells, the sounds, the hubbub of movement, the fact of actually being in this place which was real but felt in part hallucinated, theatrical, unreal, was finally a kind of physical experience of the senses. There were moments I just stood there, my mouth slightly open in wonder and my body literally tingling at the sights and sounds. These are the kind of moments when you get jarred out of your body and your everyday, familiar self, when the world turns and resets itself and you enter another place, another dimension of experience. The only thing I can compare it to was the feeling I had marching up the side of the mountain at Delphi, in Greece (where the “Delphic oracle” resides) and spilling out into the large athletic stadium the Greeks somehow built there. At that moment my whole familiar world spun away and I wasn’t quite sure who I was anymore. That’s what it was like here at this shrine. It’s a quite wondrous place, and a striking contrast with the Buddhist temple we’d visited earlier. The temple was monumental, impeccably clean and groomed, sited on manicured grounds and carefully guarded by attendants. It was a site for tourists, and we marched through in the orderly way we were supposed to. By contrast, the Hindu shrine was a place only the imagination over centuries could cobble together, built bit by bit in a river gorge, all haphazard but somehow hanging together. Worn, scruffy, well tended but gritty, and full of everyday people, families, and devotees whose experience there was inextricably connected to their daily lives. We were the only tourists there, from what I could tell, and we were about as far off of our beaten track as we could get. This was another India, at once like the India I expected from travel books, yet unimaginable until I actually found my way to this place.

A concluding note: We just pulled into the first station since leaving Dehradun. We’d had the car we’re in pretty much to ourselves, but there was a large crowd of people waiting to get on, and they poured into our car. Among them were Hijra, the name that has been historically used for transsexual males in India. I’ve read about the Hijra before but it took me a moment or two to realize who these colorfully dressed women taking seats nearby actually were. You can read more about Hijra and the communities they form online. There are lots of sites about them, some with wonderful photo galleries.