Chennai Journal
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.
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