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.