Serious Comedians – Giving voice to Lions

An East African proverb. Until the lion learns to speak, every story will glorify the hunter. As with lions in the savannah, so too in human affairs. History is written by the victorious. As far as I know, contemporary Gauls did not write histories of Caesar’s conquests. My early school textbooks were published during colonial times and spoke of the Indian Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. A few years later, my history books reflected the views of a self-governing nation and called it The first war of Indian independence. Similarly, a history text used by children in a Francophone African country began: nos ancêtres, les Gaulois, étaient grands et blonds.

Moving forward to today, a modern nation confronts the semantic shenanigans of a prevaricating president, one who heads the world’s largest military and nuclear strike force. He threatens to destabilize the world, and frequently expresses the desire to overthrow constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is a relatively recent tradition in our human history; a tradition that gives voice to lions. Research insights into the value of biodiversity show that ecological variety is absolutely imperative to the long-term ecological survival of our planet.

A time of instant communication is also a time of instant miscommunication, so many people no longer know where to turn for the truth. Official news agencies tend to broadcast the voice of the hunter, but where do lions tell their side of the story? Leonine voices are emerging from unexpected corners of television and the internet. The new lions are stand-up comedians, and they are emerging in every politically repressed country, from American to Turkey to Zimbabwe. Perhaps North Korea is the only country in the world where the only comedian still standing up is its great leader himself. In several countries that recently show signs of tending towards dictatorship, the leaders are becoming unwitting comedians in the mold of Kim Jong-Un.

Image courtesy the warmonger report.

It’s time for us consumers to realize how serious these jokes are. Time to sit up, stop laughing and act.

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Drinking Cocanutta Wataa–a refreshing trend

As temperatures rise around the world (think summer, think global warming!), lip-smacking ads of frosted glasses of beer, cola or other carbonated drinks appear on billboards and media screens. Plying Indian roads on a motorbike in the approaching summer of 2017 has shown one refreshing (pardon the pun) trend in the soft drinks world. Roadside stalls increasingly tend to offer locally sourced products (fresh tender coconut, palm fruit, sugar cane juice, watermelon, lassi, buttermilk and various local juices) rather than the ubiquitous glass or plastic bottled offerings of multinationals. All this without the benefit of national ad campaigns. Environmentalists at work, common sense, or simple economics?

As Harry Belafonte famously sang, it’s good for your daughter too.

 

Saving the World, One Turtle at a time.

Statement: Olive Ridley turtles are plentiful, so they are in no danger of extinction.
Answer: Wrong. Human beings are even more plentiful, and their habitations are encroaching on the Ridleys’ nesting sites at an alarming rate.

The SSTCN* is a voluntary group that has been patrolling the beaches of Chennai, every night for four months of the year, from January to April, since 1987. That’s a lot of dedicated patrolling by a group that’s entirely voluntary and has been largely self-funded since its inception. Thanks to nature-film series like National Geographic and Universum, the life cycle of sea turtles species and their general pattern of behaviour is widely known. The adult females mate in shallow waters or out in the ocean, then stagger ashore a few weeks later to lay their clutch of eggs in pits scooped out of the sand with their flippers. They cover the eggs with sand after laying (anything from 50 to 200 hundred eggs), using their flippers to wipe out traces of the nesting site. Conservationists use these telltale smooth patches of loose sand as an indicator that there is a nest underneath.

Ridley sea turtle: Image courtesy National Geographic

The eggs hatch under the sand in around 45 days. And then another miracle occurs. The newly hatched turtles emerge from their nest and fight their way to the sea, guided by the phosphorescence of the breaking waves in faint starlight or moonlit nights. They struggle out through undulations in the sand and disappear into the waves, where perhaps one in a hundred will survive to become adults. The sand temperature at the time of hatching determines the sex of the baby turtles, with relatively cool temperatures producing males, and females emerging as temperatures rise.

Several of the students who volunteered for turtle walks in the past have gone on to play significant roles in various national and international environmental organizations. The current group of volunteers has significantly improved contacts with local fisherman. Several fishermen, formerly enthusiastic poachers, are now supporters of the conservation network. These fishermen can play a significant role in the future of conservation efforts. As human dwellings increasingly encroach close to the shoreline, the turtle hatchlings face another hazard. Lured like teenagers by the bright lights of the city, they head for the houses, away from the sea. For this reason, the volunteers patrol the beaches every night, collecting freshly laid eggs and taking them to hatcheries. Six to seven weeks later, the hatchlings are brought to the same stretch of shore and released, guided safely to the sea by the light of volunteers’ torches.

Once in the water, the young turtles face the hazards that nature has designed for them. An estimated one or two in a thousand survive, grow to adulthood, and emerge from the sea a decade later, to lay their clutch of a hundred eggs or more on the very same beach from which they entered the sea. This is a process that has gone on for a million years, and it is in the interest of mankind that they can continue to do this for centuries to come. In myriad complex ways, the future of humanity might depend on it.

*SSTCN – Students Sea Turtle Conservation Network. See their website at https://sstcn.org/ if you’d like to know more about their great work.

Poramboke – Singing the Tragedy of the Commons

The “Tragedy of the Commons” is a term applied to the problem of shared resources in societies. All over the world, resources that are shared by all its members (the commons, e.g. public grazing lands, ponds, lakes) are in danger of over-exploitation and long-term degradation. This is what is happening to the world’s air, the oceans, the world’s fresh water, and all the other public resources that we used to take for granted as a basic human right. The world’s common resources are under siege from mighty forces; industrial, economic, demographic. It does not seem right, it is not right, for us to say that all citizens of the world (and those as yet unborn) should not enjoy the same freedoms that we do.  And yet we continue to consume more, in the name of increased prosperity and well-being. The Tamil word for commonly owned public land or wastelands is “poramboke.”

How much is enough? Short question. No easy answers. I have met many interesting people recently, who are searching and finding answers, each in their unique way. The video attached above is of south Indian Carnatic singer TM Krishna, along with other eminent musicians, singing the tragedy of the commons in a song with powerful, compelling lyrics.

Poromboke ennaku illai, poromboke unnaku illaiPoromboke ooruike, poromboke bhoomikku he sings
Poromboke is not for me, it is not for you. Poromboke is for the city, it is for the Earth.

These past 3 months, as I travelled in different parts of the Tamil country, I see a powerful re-awakening of traditional values, and I will try to document some of my observations in the coming weeks.

Touched by the Invisible Hand

I bought a motorcycle for extensive local travel in an Indian city. A few friends and most of my middle class extended family were aghast when they heard. This is a form of suicide, they said. Look at the state of traffic on the roads. You need to protect yourself in a car.

Image: courtesy livechennai.com

Here are my answers to the criticism. First, there’s enough pollution already, and I’d rather travel at 55 km/liter with a 100cc motorbike rather than around 20km/l with a small car. Of course, the best alternative would be an electric vehicle powered by renewable energy, or else public transport, but neither of these options is currently practicable for my purposes.

Second, as the image above shows, progress is much faster with two wheels on congested roads. And third? I was reminded of the third reason this week when I had the painful news of a dear friend killed in a freak traffic accident in a European city, one of the safest cities in the world. I grieve at the loss. My take from the deep sadness I feel is this: seize the day, live as carefully and as well as you can, but follow your heart and do as you think you should do.

 

From Wellesley to Wellington: Auction Sale for Nostalgia Buffs

I recently attended a Vernissage of watercolor paintings by Chennai based artist Vikram Verghese. Several of his paintings caught my fancy and I bought the one pictured below, mainly as a gesture of solidarity with a talented young artist. I also had another thought at the back of my mind. A friend had remarked at the exhibition: “Why don’t you auction it afterwards to raise money for the rural education center you’re helping to build?” It appeared to be a splendid suggestion and that’s just what I’m doing here.

remains of Wellesley House, Fort St. George, Chennai, India, home of the future Duke of Wellington, 1798-1800.

Ruins of Wellesley House, Fort St. George, Chennai, India, home of the future Duke of Wellington, 1798-1800. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese

The painting below is on sale to the highest bidder. Floor price €1000 (or US$ 1060/Rs. 72,000).  This should be sufficient to buy almost 2 kW worth of solar panels and battery storage at today’s prices. The excerpt below is from an article by local historian S. Muthiah, who explains why the ruined building shown in the painting is historically significant. It appeared in the online edition of “The Hindu” newspaper on the 13th February 2017.

S. Muthiah

FEBRUARY 13, 2017 00:00 IST

UPDATED: FEBRUARY 13, 2017 03:42

My favourite bed-time reading the past couple of years has been the Richard Sharpe series by Bernard Cornwell, in which he puts his hero in the middle of battles from Seringapatam in 1799 to Waterloo in 1815, Cornwell has Sharpe the foundling rise from private to officer through 16 campaigns the British fought. They’re a fun read at one level, but to me the books are much more. They are brilliant, well-researched descriptions of battles and wars with often a bit more than a nod to the political history of the times.

Throughout the series there is a Sharpe-Arthur Wellesley relationship which began in Madras. In my latest read, the connection cropped up again. Coincidentally there arrived an invitation for a water-colour exhibition,Disappearing Dwellings by K. Vikram Varghese, and on its back cover was a picture of a dilapidated house, a house almost collapsing. That house was where Wellesley had lived from his arrival in Madras in 1798 as the Colonel of the 33rd Regiment (after having bought his commission) till he marched to Seringapatam in 1799 during the Fourth Mysore War.

This building, Wellesley House , was built in 1796 and is one of the 16 Archaeological Survey of India-protected monuments among the 30 or so buildings in Fort St. George.
The portion of the house seen in a state of collapse met that fate during the 1980 rains.
Since then, though the main portion still stands tall, talk of restoring the buildings gets nowhere due to territorial rivalries.
With talk of the Army moving out of the Fort, very likely sometime this year, perhaps the ASI will get around to restoring this historical building as well as its protected neighbours and then make a bid for World Heritage Site status for Fort St. George.

Why ‘historical’? Arthur Wellesley took his first steps to serious soldiering while living in this house and went on from here to eventually become the Duke of Wellington, a military legend who had while in India sworn by the Madras Regiment.

Anyone interested in bidding can make an offer on the E-Bay listing at this link. This auction ends in a week, on the 5th of March, 2017.

A Retirement Present (or) How Corrupt is India?

This is a true story. Names have been suppressed in order to protect the identity of individuals involved, even though the events described here happened two decades ago.

Prologue: He had arrived with his wife in India from another country in order to adopt a child. For reasons that do not concern us here, the couple had decided to go it alone, rather than through one of the agencies that acted as intermediaries for the prospective adoptive parents in their home country. They had been through a series of interviews with psychologists, and their domestic situation had been thoroughly vetted by social workers in the home country before they were given an official seal of approval as suitable adoptive parents.

Inner courtyard, Chennai. Watercolor by Vikram Verghese.

Inner courtyard, Chennai. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese.

The Story: Armed with this preliminary paperwork, the prospective parents began to read up about adoption laws in India. Friends told them of informative TV documentaries that they should watch. One such documentary was particularly painful to watch, since it highlighted the worst malpractices that occurred in various parts of India. They accepted the contents as the unvarnished truth, since it was after all produced by a British documentary film maker of high repute. After the prospective parents had completed their due diligence, they decided to narrow their search to the four southern states of India. Kerala was eliminated as an option early on when they discovered that foreign adoptions were not permitted here. They travelled to cities in two of the other three states before they finally decided to further narrow their search to Madras (Chennai today) the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, where they had contacted several organizations.

Going simply by gut feel, they eliminated the first two institutions they visited. The people in charge either seemed untrustworthy and shifty-eyed, or the institution seemed too affluent (were they selling children abroad for profit, and if so, how did the children come up for adoption?). There is no absolute certainty in life, but they wanted to be as sure as possible before they made their choice.

Old homes replaced by highrises. Watercolor by Vikram Verghese

Old homes become highrises. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese

Their third visit was to an organization that was run by a foundation of some sort. The Director of the place was soft-spoken, was dressed elegantly but not ostentatiously, was obviously well educated, and from her name they could infer that she was a Muslim. They were given a tour of the place and met the matron in charge of the crèche, who spoke reasonable English. The matron wore a white cotton sari with a blue border, a pendant in the shape of a cross, and a name tag with a Christian name. Half a dozen women in colorful saris tended to the twenty or thirty infants in the crèche. Some of them wore bindi on their foreheads. The people working in the orphanage seemed like a friendly microcosm of India, with people of at least three faiths working together in harmony, so they decided to apply to this institution.

Back in her office, the Director was firm and clear. As foreigners, they came into the third and lowest category of adoptive parents. First preference was given to Indian nationals living in India. Second came Indian nationals living abroad. Foreign nationals came third in priority and could only adopt children who were not chosen by the first two. This usually means, she concluded, that the child you might get for adoption will be a dark-skinned female. Indian parents usually prefer to adopt boys or light skinned girls.

The couple returned to their home country and three months later, had a phone call. As always happens, the long-awaited news came out of the blue. There was a child available for adoption. A female child, with a very dark complexion that was a year old and had not been adopted by Indian parents. Come to India, and be prepared to stay for 2 or 3 months till the paperwork gets done. They arrived in Chennai, were fortunate to stay in a private home instead of a hotel, so were allowed to bring their new daughter home from the orphanage with them till the adoption formalities were completed. They had six weeks to complete all the legal paperwork before the High Court closed for its 2-month summer recess. To paraphrase Longfellow, the mills of the legal system in India grind exceedingly small and they grind exceedingly slowly. With the result that, three days before the High Court closed for summer recess, they still had 28 stamps, seals and signatures to gather from various offices before the adoption was complete and legal. This number of attestations, they were told, normally takes about a month to procure. A huge setback! They had to get back to their jobs in ten days. They could not take the child with them, which meant she would have to go back to the orphanage for three months, an emotional catastrophe, considering how quickly she had bonded with the adoptive parents. To the child, going back to the orphanage would be like a second abandonment, a betrayal of trust that would undoubtedly deepen whatever emotional scars she already carried. In desperation the father cast about for someone, anyone, who could help speed up the process. An acquaintance told him of a Mr. Fixit, someone who might manage the impossible.

Mr. Fixit was slim, mustachioed, dressed in khaki trousers, white bush shirt and black leather shoes; the kind of non-uniform worn by off-duty policemen and government clerks. He heard the whole story from the distressed adoptive father.
“I’ll do it. Give me five thousand rupees, half in advance. And one thousand for expenses.” he said. There was no time for character evaluations or trustworthiness assessments. There seemed to be no choice. The father handed over 3500 rupees. “Wait in the court, in front of the judges’ chambers, for the next three days.” And with that, Mr. Fixit disappeared.

The father did as he was told. It was the end of April, approaching the hottest season of the year, the “Agni Natshatram – fire star” days of May, so he waited in the shade of a banyan tree that grew in the high court grounds. Merely breathing in the heat was exhausting, so he sat on a nearby bench whenever he could, rising hopefully whenever he saw a file carrying clerk emerge from the judges’ chambers. Courts closed at 5 pm, as the blazing heat of the day began to wane. Mr. Fixit appeared an hour after the court closed on the first evening, triumphantly waving a sheaf of papers. “I got the first six today!” Six down, twenty-two to go. In two days. It seemed impossible at this rate.
“Don’t worry. It’s difficult, but not impossible,” Mr. Fixit reassured.

Day two. Another long day’s fretful waiting, hopping impatiently from sun to shade to bench. Too anxious to eat lunch, impatiently gulping water at noon to quench a raging thirst, too nervous to move away even to a toilet. What if there were last minute questions and he was not there to answer them? At the end of day two, Mr. Fixit emerged again from the labyrinth. “I got the next seven today.” Was there a trace of despondent weariness in his face? Hard to tell. “Tell me you can do it,” the father rasped anxiously. “Yes, yes. Leave it to me.” Thirteen down, fifteen to go.
Would it help to offer more money? Mr. Fixit hesitated, thought for a minute. No, he said. This is more than enough.

Day three. The tension was unbearable. Fatigue settled in waves, batted away by bouts of anxiety. Another eight-hour day, mostly on his feet, moving from sun to shade to bench, with an occasional walk around the courtyard. He saw Mr. Fixit move between offices, sometimes empty handed, at others clutching an ever growing sheaf of papers. Finally, a few minutes past 5 pm. Closing time, and the beginning of the two month summer break. It would break his heart to have to drop the little girl back to the orphanage, unclasp those trusting fingers that twined around his thumb every time he entered the room. But there was no chance that the man could have done it. Not here; not with this kind of bureaucracy. Mr. Fixit approached him at ten minutes past five. He held the sheaf of papers, and there was exhaustion and a touch of despondency in his step.
“And?”
“Sir, I tried. I’m still trying.”
“What is there to try? I’ll give you the rest of the money I owe.”

“No, sir. You do not pay till I finish the job.” Then he explained. “I got up to stamp number 22 by 3 pm today. And then, the clerk who has to sign number 23 was not at his desk. He retires today, his last day of work after 30 years of service in the High Court and he’s been out at farewell parties all afternoon. No one could find him. So I contacted all the others, number 24 to 28 and told them about your case. They all said they will wait in their offices till I find the missing  clerk to put his seal. So now you come with me sir. We’ll go and wait for him.”

High Court building, Chennai, Indo-Saracenic architecture. Watercolor by Vikram Verghese

High Court building, Chennai, Indo-Saracenic architecture. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese

I walked into the rooms with Mr. Fixit, unbelieving. The High Court clerical offices were like government offices all over India, relics of the British raj, corridors lined with steel almirahs bulging with case notes, dockets, files tied with string, pages of brown and yellowing papers held together with office clips or rusting staples. From one empty desk to the next. A few clerks were packing up their desks, carting away most of their personal possessions before the long summer recess. One desk was still piled with papers, on top of which lay several gift-wrapped presents, a paper plate with a half-eaten bonda and chutney, a glass of cold tea.
“This man,” Mr. Fixit indicated the desk, “is still out celebrating. He should be back soon.” They pulled up chairs and waited for ten minutes in the now deserted hall. Finally a short smiling man appeared, with crumbs of cake or pakora on his three day growth of beard and looked inquiringly at the two men. “Yes?” Mr. Fixit rose to his feet and began to explain.
“Yes, yes, yes. I know about the case. Five people told me at the farewell party. This is the gentleman?” He looked long and hard at the stranger. The father leapt nervously to his feet, and instinctively reached for his wallet. The clerk looked at Mr. Fixit and beckoned with imperious crooked fingers.
“The papers.” He grabbed the papers, signed on the last page, took two separate seals from his draw, inked both on a worn pad and stamped the paper with loud bangs. “There!” After the days of waiting, the father was beside himself with gratitude, even though the man was merely doing his job. He took out his wallet. The clerk stopped him with a quick gesture.
“Sir. I want no money from you. After thirty years of service in this court, on my last working day, what a retirement present you have given me! It is a privilege to see what my stamp on a paper means to someone. Keep your money sir, and thank you for giving me the chance to do one good deed before retirement. I wish for your daughter a life full of God’s blessings.” The clerk was beaming now, a dark cherub with a three-day growth of beard and crumbs on his face. But there was only time for hurried thank you, thank you’s before Mr. Fixit dragged the father to other offices where clerks number twenty-four to twenty-eight impatiently waited, almost an hour after closing time, seals and signatures at the ready. At all of these desks, the by-now delirious father offered money but met with the same response. “No sir. You are doing a good deed. We wish for your daughter to have a good life.” The last four stamps, seals and signatures were obtained in ten minutes, probably an all-time record for any High Court in India. At precisely one minute to six, Mr. Fixit handed the papers to the father with a flourish.

Disappearing Dwellings, Chennai. Watercolor by Vikram Verghese

Disappearing Dwellings, Chennai. Watercolor by Vikram Varghese

Epilogue: A few days later the parents visited the orphanage with their newly adopted daughter to wish the staff good-bye. The child was kissed and hugged and caressed by all the staff and finally they sat down for a chat with the Director, the child seated in her lap playing with a pendant. The parents expressed their gratitude to the Director and to the foundation that ran the orphanage, remarking on how well it was run, contrary to their expectations, especially after having seen the TV documentary a few months ago.
“Wait a minute. A documentary? Was it by so-and-so?”
“Yes it was.”
“Interesting! He came here, you know, two years ago, while he was filming. He looked around the place. I told him, why don’t you show something of this place? Why not show a good institution? Not just the bad ones. But he wasn’t interested. They left without taking a single photo of this place.

Corruption: How corrupt is India? I honestly don’t know, having spent twenty-seven years in this country without paying a single bribe. I know someone, a fairly successful businessman, who claims never to have paid a bribe during his entire working career. I know many more, equally successful, who say it’s impossible to do business here without greasing palms all along the way.

Which is true? Both narratives are equally true. Transparency International ranks India 79th on its 2016 index of the most (or least) corrupt countries in the world. India’s close neighbors in this index are Brazil, China, and Albania. I have no idea how corrupt China is, but I do know that China’s infrastructure is far superior to India’s and things seem to work far better there than they do in India. However, in the worldwide rush to industrial prosperity, chasing the American dream (with, perhaps, the exception of Bhutan), I fear the world is losing its soul.

Is this single-minded rush to wealth (and exploitation of the earth) the reason why so many amoral leaders seem to come to power in America and other countries around the world? If so, I begin to think that this country (India) has something unique to offer the world. I think back to the incident at the High Court and dozens of other random acts of kindness and grace that I experienced and accepted unthinkingly, as a matter of course. Today I feel that there is some deep spring of spirituality among its people that has nothing to do with religion, but is a product of time and space, centuries of invasion, centuries of adaptation and forgiving. So perhaps, despite its low ranking on the Transparency International index, the soul of India can show the world the way ahead in the turbulent and troubling years to come.

All watercolors pictured above by Chennai-based artist Vikram Varghese.