Chennai Journal
Wednesday, August 29, 2007
Dhobi Ghats

The Dhobi Ghats are probably the world's largest open air laundry. From all over Bombay, laundry is brought here and washed, dryed, pressed and sorted. It is quite an operation to see. The dhobis (laundry men) wade knee deep in bleachy water and it is said that each has a unique mark so that none of the laundry ever gets misplaced.

Saturday, August 25, 2007
On the road
In Bombay at the moment and heading tonight to Thailand for business meetings, back later in the week. Took some good shots of the Dhobi Ghat (laundry city) of Bombay, where thousands of clothes are washed and hung out to dry every day.
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
Udaipur Part II

As mentioned in the previous post, while in Udaipur we took a side trip to a famous Jain temple at Ranakpur. This was about a three hour journey on narrow, often narrow one lane roads, through small villages and cow paths, in a Tata Indigo that had its windshield taped to the body (see right). A bit of a harrowing trip, but well worth it when we arrived at Ranakpur.

Jainism is one of the world's oldest religions although today one of the smallest in terms of followers. It is not a sect of Hinduism; it predates Hinduism and in many ways is similar to Buddhism, with an emphasis on enlightenment, non-violence and self control. (Some scholars believe that Buddhist sprang from Jainism.) Jains are strict vegetarians- and the more extreme followers may wear a covering on their face to avoid ingesting, and thereby, killing, small insects. Similarly, potatoes, garlic and onions are also avoided. The holy symbol of the Jains is the swastika. Of course, the swastika--despite its horrific appropriation by the Nazis-- has an ancient and sacred heritage in India. It is seen commonly here---and connotes peace and well being. Typically, you will see it on buildings and in the form of rangoli lovingly made by women in front of their homes as part of the morning prayer ritual.

The temple at Ranakpur is a marvel of art and architecture. It has 1444 columns in all, and according to one source took 22,000 manyears to construct. Each column is meticulously carved and supposedly, every one is different. Below, you can see Marty in awe as he looks up at the dome.

Sunday, August 19, 2007
Udaipur Part I

Marty and I had a wonderful stay in Udaipur. This will be the first of a couple of posts, since we spent three days there, taking in the sites both in the city itself and we also took a side trip to a fabulous Jain temple and a fort.

From the airport, we were driven by a smartly dressed chauffeur--replete with turban---to a boat dock where we boarded a small power boat that took us across the lake to the welcoming party from the Oberoi Udaivalas.
The Oberoi is one of the luxury hotels of Udaipur, the other being the Taj Lake Palace. Marty and I splurged and stayed there for two nights. The views are magnificent (see several of these up top on Flickr) and the service efficient and mostly not too cloying--usually a problem at these upper class establishments. The food was good---even Marty enjoyed a vegetarian mezze-- with a marinated feta cheese that was so outstanding that we called the chef over to explain---he prepares a marinade of mint, cumin, cilantro, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil, and lets it sit overnight. Other dishes were also good---Marty had a tandoori lamb that was excellent as well.

While at the Oberoi we did an afternoon of sightseeing--to the Monsoon Palace, which was visible from the open hallway in front of our room, and which provides breathtaking views of the city below. We also visited the auto museum which houses the luxury car collection of the maharaja of Udaipur, including the famous Rolls Royce that was used in Octopussy, which was partly filmed here. The collection also includes some old Morrises, several other Rolls Royces---including one with a purdah screen so the Muslim women could ride--and even a Ford Model A.

Another famous sightseeing spot in Udaipur is the city palace, which is the largest palace in Rajasthan and was built beginning in the late 1500s by Maharaja Udai Singh, for whom Udaipur is named. We went up and down narrow stone staircases to view courtyards and gardens, and room after room of gold and silver encrusted artwork, depicting processions of the Maharaja, peacocks, and the three sacred animals of Rajasthan--the elephant for luck, the horse for power, and the camel for love. The architecture is a blend of Mewar--Rajasthani--Mughal, and Chinese.

The Maharaja had several wives, each with their own quarters. One interesting room to me was the queen's guest bedroom, which was used when the queen had sleepovers with her girlfriends.


Friday, August 10, 2007
To Udaipur
Marty and I are headed to Udaipur in Rajasthan for a few days. It's supposed to be a very romantic city. Pictures and impressions when we return!
Sunday, August 05, 2007
The State of Education
A lot has been written about the state of education in India, and I can't do justice to the topic in a short blog post. But I have been thinking a lot about this topic in part because it is the focus of so many community service initiatives here, as I noted last week, and also one critical to India's future.
The sound byte version is that India has among the finest educational institutes in the world--and also the most substandard and pathetic. The social and human rights imperatives aside, India's continued ability to grow and attract both domestic and foreign investment will hit an abrupt ceiling if it cannot find a way to bring quality education to a greater percentage of its population. The supply of skilled and educated resources is simply not keeping up with the demand--and education is a major reason (infrastructure is the other).

There are a few good government schools But because the vast majority of them are of such poor calibre, virtually any parent who can afford to sends his or her children to a private school. Household servants, who typically make less than $150 per month, may take loans from their employers (or the employers may gift them the money) to send their children and grandchildren to private schools. The tuition for some of these schools is modest by western standards--perhaps $200 to $300 per year---but is still out of the reach of the vast majority. Government schools are not even in the consideration set. In addition to a more limited coverage and curriculum (usually age 5 or 6 through 10th standard), the drop out rate is high, and standards low. Children are passed out of each grade up to grade 8 automatically. Many cannot read despite having passed the 5th grade.

The problem includes the parents and teachers. According to a study done of some of the schools around our factory neighborhood, only about 50% of the parents of the children attending these schools are literate themselves (literacy rates in India vary by state, with Tamil Nadu having about a 75% rate overall). Many of the men are unemployed and about a third are alcoholic (but most households have a TV). Only about half the teachers are qualified to teach, and few have any computer literacy or even sufficient English language skills. As English is the medium of the higher education system---not to mention essential for many higher skill jobs---the fact that the children study only in Tamil automatically limits them even if they are academically inclined.

It is especially difficult for girls to get educated. There are many barriers, from parental concerns about the safety of a young girl walking to a school several miles away, to the more cynical--but engrained-- belief that education is wasted on girls and they are better off at home helping to tend livestock or earn a living. For all poor children, procuring a notebook, which only costs a few rupees, may be impossible. In some villages, there have been efforts to train educable adults who, although they do not possess teacher qualifications, are preferable to outside teachers since they are part of the fabric of the community. There are many other models with modest, but achievable goals.

The problem is complex, and both private and public resources and interventions are needed to improve it. It is not only a matter of money, although financial resources are of course required---for everything from building infrastructure, providing school resources, and training and incenting teachers. A number of non-governmental organizations as well as private industry associations, concerned about where they will get future employees, are involved in various efforts with individual schools, the government, and villages. There is no level of the system that doesn't require help---although the sheer number of primary schools and teachers is insufficient, the colleges and universities also have wide variability in quality and many are turning out graduates who are simply not equipped for the working world.

In addition to international institutions such as the UN and World Bank, Rotary, Roundtable (noted last week) and many other local service organizations have improvement of the country's education system as a top goal. Given that there is so much to do, it may seem disheartening to view the magnitude of the task. Yet, the literacy rate in Tamil Nadu, 75% as of the 2001 census, has climbed from just 54% in 1981. Other states are further behind, but in all cases the trend is up rather than flat or even. So the work of many hands-- and hearts-- is bearing fruit.

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