Chennai Journal
Sunday, May 27, 2007
My Madurai

I picked up a lovely book over the weekend, called "Multiple Facets of My Madurai" by Manohar Devadoss. A few months ago, Roberta and I visited this temple city of the south, located an hour's plane ride from Chennai. The book is a series of sketches and little stories about the city's history, the author's experiences, and the Meenakshi Temple. He grew up in Madurai, but has lived in Madras since early adulthood.

As you will see from following the link above, Devadoss and his wife Mahema have had serious misfortune in their lives---first, in December of 1972 they were in an auto accident while traveling between Madurai and Madras, which left Mahema a quadraplegic. Then, Devadoss discovered that he had a rare eye disorder, that over time would leave him nearly blind. Yet, he continued to draw and has written three books, and the couple is very active and inspiring to all who meet them.

Perhaps the most amusing part of the book to me was the description of various kinds of dung--cow dung, elephant dung, and horse dung. Cow dung is used to line floors, and for fuel. Orthodox men take the urine and sprinkle it for religious purposes. Elephant dung--huge mounds in the streets--attracted bare-foot boys who believed that jumping in the dung was good for their feet (and fun). As a boy, Devadoss found dust on the curb near his house and examined it under a magnifying glass, discovering that it was horse dung. This was the least respectable of dung---"horse dung" my father would say, "is an untouchable among dungs."

Sunday, May 20, 2007
Working on the Line
This is a bit of old news, but sometime back I was in a weeklong training , which included a day working on the line. My team of five was put in the paint shop on what is called the sealer deck. This is where a substance is applied to the joints and overlaps in sheet metal so that no water can get into the car---very important here especially during the monsoons. I found the pictures they gave us, and thought this one was worth posting.

You might think that the paint shop would be very uncomfortable especially since you have to wear coveralls, head covering, and gloves. But in fact, the area is well ventilated and not unpleasant. In fact, it's probably more comfortable than the rest of Chennai these days--today the ambient temperature hit 45 degrees C. (113 degrees F.)!

Compared to other paint shops in other parts of the world, this one, as you might expect, is considerably more manual---a lot of the work we did would be automated elsewhere. And it is not easy. I have never been particularly adept at putting on eyeliner, and that is a bit what applying sealer on a car body resembles---you have to put on just the right pressure and then move the gun very quickly, so you don't waste sealer. After that, you take a brush--that's what I'm doing in the picture--and then spread the sealer between openings and joints so that it creates a water and airtight surface. And then, after you apply the sealer, you pick up and place several sound dampening pads on the floor and posts of the area of the body you are working to keep out wind noise and vibration.

Part of the purpose of the training was to learn shop floor disciplines in quality, process improvement, and cost, so that these techniques can be applied elsewhere in the organization. Although I had worked on the line once years ago, it was a great refresher. The office environment, though typically less disciplined than a plant environment where the line, the parts and the cars have to be choreographed to the second, can benefit a lot from applying some of the rigors of the shop floor--whether it is mapping and taking unnecessary steps out of repetitive processes or looking for even the tiniest cost saving.

Each of us was assigned a trainer who was an expert in the job we were supposed to learn--and who in all honesty was also there to make sure that any mistakes we made got corrected and were not passed on to the next station (or ultimately, the customer). Whether vice president or staff worker, all of us were equal and followed the same rules on the shop floor. Every time I used too much sealer, my trainer would admonish me with "muda." (This is the Japanese word for waste---now common parlance in manufacturing plants throughout the world). And when I didn't quite get all the sealer brushed to her exacting standards, she would patiently but firmly show me once again, and then remind me that this defect could lead to "customer problem." After a day on the line, all of us working on sealer deck (as well as those assigned to other parts of the shop) were much humbled by our experiences---and glad to turn the job back to the real experts!
Sunday, May 13, 2007
Hot, Hotter, Hottest

Summer has arrived with a vengeance in South India. Temperatures are daily rising above 40 degrees Celcius (104+) and the humidity is pretty high, too. It hits you in funny ways. After being out in it a while, I will find myself sitting, even in a cooled place, and suddenly breaking out in a sweat. There is a Tamil phrase similar to the English "dog days", and the streets aren't as crowded, as people just stay put and try to keep cool however they can as well as drinking fluids--with all the sweating, you can get dehydrated in a hurry. They say that we are in for another two to three weeks of this before the summer monsoon arrives on the west coast of India and begins to generate a cooling effect.

Friday was a big day in Chennai and in fact in all of Tamil Nadu, as there was a huge celebration for the 50th anniversary of the Chief Minister's election to the legislature. People came in buses from all over the state, and Sonia Gandhi, Manmohan Singh, and other national figures were here as well. For several days before the event on Friday night, we kept having brownouts and the lights in the apartment seemed continually on low wattage. As in fact, they were. The streets were lined with banners, hordings or billboards, and temporary fluorescent lights which, together with everyone lucky enough to have air conditioning running them at full blast, seriously tasked the power capacity of the city ---which is none too stable even in the best of times. I got caught in the traffic on the way to the city Friday afternoon, and it took me over two hours to get to our city office, which is usually little more than an hour's ride.

Sunday, May 06, 2007
Roberta Departs
Roberta, shown smiling with Leela helping her pack, left early Saturday morning after we had a lovely Shabbat dinner with our new friends Jon and Lindy, Janet, and Shael and Mohan. Jon, who is a rabbi studying for his Ph.D. in Jewish Ethics, even made challah and brought some study materials on Parshat Emor, the week's reading from the Book of Leviticus.

It will seem strange not having Roberta here---and she was sad to leave as well. Thanks to her, my social life picked up considerably, as she is much more outgoing and gregarious than I tend to be. And it was great to get to really know her--we seem to enjoy a lot of the same things ( on a number of occasions one or the other of us remarked we were doing something that Marty, much as we missed him, would NOT enjoy!)

The challah making is a story in itself. There is no standard white flour in India (at least not in Chennai), and maida, the Indian version, does not work because it has no husk at all ground in--it is superfine. Jon had to go buy the wheat and then have it ground---essentially making his bread a completely whole wheat version (healthy and delicious, but it didn't rise as much as he would have liked). Suppose you could combine with a bit of maida, but how much? Anyway, the challah was roundly pronounced as a vast improvement over that supplied by the Taj a couple of weeks ago when we had our first Shabbat gathering.

Earlier in the week I was in Bangkok and Koh Samui. I went to Samui because I had heard it was good for snorkeling, but the snorkeling trip I went on was a disappointment. Really not much to see, and if you are looking for the world's great snorkeling spots, Samui isn't one of them. Otherwise, it was relaxing and a nice break---though it did rain while I was there.

Tonight I am going to the Madras Hash---this is a part exercise, part fun event which occurs regularly here. I have not been to one before, but it is supposed to be great fun. "Hares" stake out a trail which everyone is supposed to follow, with twists and turns to throw you off--followed by beer and munchies.

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