Chennai Journal
Monday, July 30, 2007
Community Service
On Saturday night I went to the annual meeting of a chapter of the Roundtable movement, a friendship and service group for young men aged 25-40. This chapter has formed an affiliation with a trust that, in cooperation with Ford, runs a health center near our plant, and for the last nine years or so the Roundtable has donated money and sponsored events that have benefited thousands of villagers. A modest and open air clinic, more than 80 people per day from nearby villages come for free treatment, trauma care, and testing. Our employees are not allowed to be treated there, so that care can be focused exclusively on the villagers.

As a movement, Roundtable is another British invention that has blossomed in India. The origin is only indirectly related to the famous Arthurian legend--the movement was inspired by a speech of the Prince of Wales in 1922, exhorting young men to get round the table and "adopt methods that have proved so sound in the past, adapt them to the changing needs of the times and wherever possible, improve them'. The Arthurian legend figures into the concept that all are equal around the table. Each table---the one I attended was #94---has one meeting a month that is purely social and often involves families, and the other is a business meeting. The theme for the India affiliate is "freedom through education" and the various Roundtables have a goal to educate 1,000,000 Indian children through the building of classrooms in primarily rurul areas. Despite the enormous rise of the middle class here, millions and millions of Indian children do not attend school but work from a very young age---so the twin scourges of child labor and illiteracy focus the attention of many service organizations.

Roundtable was founded by a Rotarian, and in fact, many of the young men--who "retire" at 40 to become "square legs" of their chapter, do then join Rotary, which is also a very big organization here---albeit one that accepts women (the spouses of the tablers have their own mirror affiliate, the Ladies' Circle). The tablers clearly have a good time at their meetings---there were nearly 20 speakers including myself at their annual general meeting, including a series of roasts of the outgoing officers. I am not normally a patient person at such gatherings, but it was rather good fun, and the work of the tablers is certainly inspiring.
Sunday, July 22, 2007
A Birthday, a Prime Minister, and Harry Potter
This past week I marked another birthday, my last one in India. I got some cards and the team got together and had a little celebration with a chocolate cake and a very nice gift--a coffee mug with everyone's name on it. It will be a nice memento. This was not a big birthday (which I define as one ending with a 5 or a 0), and it was an ordinary working day. The custom here is that the celebrant gives sweets or candies (this is true for the birth of a child or other auspicious event as well) so people trooped in my office during the day to shake hands and take a candy. Finally, I was finding myself dipping into the bag a bit too often, so I turned it over to a training group that was taking a break.

The big news here is that India has elected its first female President. Her name is Pratibha Patil, and she had served as the governor of Rajasthan, a large state in the northwest. She was a compromise candidate, and a member of the UPA, or United Progressive Alliance, which is a coalition or amalgam of numerous political factions including the Indian National Congress, which is the major party here, and led by Congress president Sonia Gandhi (wife of the former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was assassinated in Chennai in 1991). Her nomination was not without controversy and some members of the alliance--including those in Chennai--threatened to abstain. Finally, many of the Tamil Nadu politicians did vote, although the biggest holdout was opposition leader and former Chief Minister Jayalalitha. There is no love lost between her and Sonia Gandhi---and often she manages to be out of town whenever politicians from Delhi visit the State.

It will be interesting to see how Patil does. She has made some controversial statements on the rights of women---e.g. opposing the Muslim custom of purdah--and is widely seen to be a strong advocate of women's rights. But she also has some other controversies behind her--including a cooperative banking scandal and even allegations that she used her political influence to protect her brother from a conspiracy charge connected with the murder of another politician in Bombay. The President's role has been mostly ceremonial and it's hard to say how strong an influence she will have.

Meanwhile, the other big world event---release of the last of the Harry Potter books--was heralded here as well. According to this morning's Hindu, 170,000 books were sold in the first day. The book is a bit more of a bargain here--975 rupees, or about $24. Of course, this is a lot of money for anyone below the middle class. Not surprisingly, there were glitches in delivery. Those who ordered the book in advance had to wait until late in the day, whereas those who lined up in front of the stores got their copies quickly. Blame went all around, with the online orderers pointing the finger at the fact that there was an embargo and "shipments are delivered between noon and 7 p.m." Penguin, the publisher, blasted the distributors for "sloppy planning." Marty and Sara both have copies and Marty will bring his with him to India next month (won't you, Marty??), so I'll hold off on buying one here. I have to say that while I enjoy the books and movies, I did kind of lose interest after about the third one. So now that I know that Harry lives, I can wait to fill in the details.
Sunday, July 15, 2007
Vignettes of Daily Life....
It is always helpful to go home because when I come back I see things here more clearly. Over time it is easy to get used to the pace of life and my frustrations at the daily annoyances. In general I think my tolerance level has increased significantly, but it is at its lowest point immediately after I return from being out of India. Not only do things register with me at a heightened level, but I also react more sharply. Two examples:

For another story (on tailors) check the link on the right for the Barkhouse Family. As I have said before, there is a reason why calming practices like yoga and meditation have their origins here.

Sunday, July 08, 2007
Back in the Saddle Again

After a wonderful vacation and a few days in the office, I'm back in Chennai again. We spent several days in New Hampshire at our place in Keene. Harry and I climbed Mt. Monadnock --he made it all the way to the top and I will save that for another day--supposedly is the second most climbed mountain in the world after Mt. Fuji in Japan.

And of course I spent time with Dad. He is not walking much now, as he is quite unsteady. But he seems content. I took the iPod with me to the nursing home, and played some of his favorites for him--Ravel's Bolero and 101 Strings "Soul of Spain." He would have been proud that I biked instead of rode the car on a couple of occasions--the nursing home is only a few miles from our house. Back in Tawas, Dad was an ubiquitous sight on his bright red bicycle--"I never take the car when I can ride my bike, and I don't take the bike when I can walk." Now, sadly, he is unable to do either.
I was dismayed at how the price of produce has shot up in the U.S. Everything seemed expensive, even more than meat. In New Hampshire we got some delicious strawberries at a local farm, but even those were pretty expensive. I did discover a new item--garlic scapes. These were delicious and very versatile.
Back in Chennai, the hot weather has broken and the mornings especially are very pleasant. Southern India does not get the summer monsoon that hits the North and West, but now there are occasionally rainstorms that also seem to have a mild cooling effect. Every season now is my last in India, and though I have grown acclimatized to the intense heat, I can't say that I will miss the oven blasts of spring and early summer here......

Monday, July 02, 2007
I am in the U.S. on home leave and will post when I return the weekend of July 6. Enjoying a cool New Hampshire morning......

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