Friday, December 28, 2012

India # 48 End of the journey

 End of the Journey, Personal reflections

Five weeks after returning to the states I need to let this blog go. It took possession of me and an exorcism is required. Of course not having posted for a couple weeks no one is visiting the site anyway , so it’s mutual.

 I want to thank everyone who peeked in from time to time.  I’ve vowed to get serious about Facebook and LinkedIn so perhaps we will meet there or I’ll return to posting on another trip or topic. I may even post here, just for my own record.  Please keep in touch via

 India was a grand experience for me and a great deal better for sharing it with you.

Four months ago I installed at the top of this blog a quote from Martin Buber lifted from an Idaho backpacking book:  “Every journey has a secret destination of which the traveler is unaware.”  So I put myself on watch for secret meanings throughout my trip:  is this it, is that?  Must there be one and, if so, when will I know it?

My Personal Experience in India

This journey was certainly blessed, explicitly by my Centering Prayer Group and by another support group to which I belong, and by friends and family.   I tend not to believe God intervenes in our affairs; I often assume the worst.  Yet this journey felt propitious and somehow guided.  Good things kept happening and when they did not—as when I got sick and lost eight days--I figured I needed a rest.  I also needed a run-in with bureaucracy, experience a train stuffed to doors with people, go through electricity failures like all Indians and know the disappointment of not accomplishing all that I had hoped.   Part of God’s plan?  Not in the sense that God caused things to teach me a lesson, I would say.  But somehow during this set-aside time I expected things would turn out well, that people and events would unfold gracefully, and they did. 

What happened was that I had positive expectations, others added to them and then you live into them.  We do not travel alone.  The less fear we carry with us the better.

I felt spontaneous and unguarded.  Who was going to observe or judge me?  If I made a fool of myself, so what?  Rickshaw drivers often had more common sense than I did, so good for them, I was lucky to have them. I talked to everyone I could; it felt  a bit like campaigning when you are invited to talk to strangers, in fact you must do so.  Indians were easy to meet and talk to, some remarkably so.

Traveling alone and unknown was liberating.  Traveling among poor people was further encouragement to drop judgments about myself and others.  I liked being with everyone in the vast, confusing Majestic Bus Center, for example, anonymous but part of the whole. 

Once More, Katherine Boo

The most memorable event on my journey was a spontaneous trip into a Mumbai slum, as I’ve already recorded twice.  I want that experience to have continuing influence in my life.  My granddaughter, Julia Gunther, my daughter, Kristin, and perhaps others in her family will be reading it so “Beautiful Forevers” will live on in our family.

“The astonishment is that some people are good and that many try to be,” Boo writes about the people of that slum. I had the privilege of meeting one of book’s exemplars, Manjusha Waghekar or Manju, a lovely, modest young woman.  But the deeper truth is this:  “Among the poor, there is no doubt that instability fosters ingenuity…but over time, the lack of a link between effort and result could become debilitating. ‘We try to do so many things,” as one Anniwadi girl put it,’ but the world doesn’t move in our favor,” (as quoted in a New Republic book review February 8, 2012). 
The two little blue tents are where two families lived across from where I worked...
And these are kids who live there whom I would see leaving work, always playful and curious.
 Here is what Boo will tell us about her kind of journalism: “Seeing what is and seeing it clearly seems to me the crucial part of setting it right.”  What are steps toward “setting it right,” even in small ways?  When I left home I wanted to find one person or family with whom I could stay connected in later years.  Perhaps that person will be Manju or someone else in Anniwadi.  Perhaps that was my secret destination.   We shall see; I’ve got her mom’s phone number.

Two Words from Tony Doerr

It’s more likely, however, that Buber‘s secret destination was to be one of self-discovery, not a cause.  If so, two such destinations came out of my time at an ashram/monastery in southern India.

The first came at me when the power failed and the air in my claustrophobic little room got too heavy to keep reading devotional books. I needed a fiction fix.  There on my Nook was Anthony Doerr’s “Memory Walls,” which has won all kinds of international awards for short fiction.  Do you know his work?  He may be Idaho’s most accomplished writer, having moved to Boise a few years back and become a fine new force in our little state. 

These short stories are set in apartheid South Africa, Laramie, Lithuania, Sun Valley, Nazi Germany, etc.   The title piece is about a seemingly ordinary Cape Town couple who retire from the real estate business which allows the husband to pursue his first love, fossil hunting.  This takes them into one desolate place after another and it’s driving his wife nuts.  Doerr describes the old man’s passion as “… a boyish avidity.” I read that phrase several times.  Doesn’t that describe some of my enthusiasms-- avid, boyish and quickly replaced?  Might it not drive others nuts?  I learned more from those two words than the night’s reading in theology.

Unfolding, not Becoming


At the ashram I picked up another phrase worth chewing on, “unfolding, not becoming.”  It comes from “The Four O’Clock Talks” by Brother John Martin Sahajananda, a Benedictine monk who has pushed beyond his predecessor Bede Griffith’s attempt to reconcile Christianity and Hinduism.  He is interested in the realm which is “beyond all religions.”    

Growing up Catholic in Mormon country pickled me in the world of good/bad, reward/punishment, striving/achieving.  I could hear a thousand times over “God loves you unconditionally” and “Trust and surrender” and still feel I must be doing something meritorious or becoming someone I currently am not.  God has been mostly in the great beyond.

“Unfolding, not becoming,” as Martin develops it, is another phrase suggesting we are already whole, loved and saved and that the “Kingdom of God is at hand.” God is already here and God and man are already one, writes Martin.  When Mark 1:15 says ‘The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the good news,” Martin interprets this to mean “The good news is that God is everywhere and the whole of creation is in God.  Humanity, creation and God are one.  The spiritual vision of Jesus Christ invites humanity to realize this spiritual revolution.”

“Unfolding and becoming” refers to man’s desires.  We desire to become something other than what we are but, he writes, “I realize that what I want to become, I already am,” he writes.  Unfolding also means melding our will into the Divine and letting go of some of our freedom and individuality, as we will inevitably give them up at our death.  The spiritual journey is about letting go, as I’ve learned so often.  From self to Self, ego to egolessness, from many, one, and so on.

If anything, I felt ego more active in India and since, not less, as this blog might reveal.  But our motives and intentions are seldom pure.  We need a sense of humor about ourselves, don’t we?  After all, we already are who we would become!

I’m explaining only a small aspect of Martin who is no ordinary monk. He and Bede Griffiths are an intellectual hand full.  This is new territory.  If my journey is to end at a secret destination and this is it, I’m just getting under way.  But then there’s nowhere to go but where we already are. 
India has been my preoccupation since I began preparing in April through the end of 2012.  It will be percolating and influence me for the rest of my life. 







India # 47 Reflections on India Five Weeks Later

Last week I was in Idaho Falls with things to catch up on but what drew my energy was not work but decorating the large window into my office with fabrics and photos from India.  In my last days in India I bought fabrics, turbans and two statues I wanted to display for our staff and visitors, along with photos of flowers and spices.  My first abiding impression of India is of its colors.     


When the Benedictine monk Bede Griffiths landed in Bombay in l955 (“to find the other half of my soul,” he said) this was his first impression:  “I was fascinated with the spectacle of this world of immeasurable beauty and vitality. It was not the beauty of nature which struck me but the beauty of the human nature…the ‘human form divine.’…. It was not the poverty and the misery which struck me so much as the sheer beauty and vitality of the people.  On all sides was a swarming mass of humanity, children running about quite naked, women in saris, men with turbans, everywhere displaying the beauty of the human form...They have the natural spontaneous beauty of flowers and animals, and their dress is as varied and colourful as that of a flower-garden.”  This may be romantic but after living there for 35 years it remained his impression and it was mine as well.

Griffiths had another notion that the East would counter “the violent aggression of the West,” with its exploitation of nature through science and technology, with an Eastern influence that emphasized spiritual and less materialistic values. This proved to be idealistic.

Griffiths died shortly after the Indian economy shifted into high gear under its present Prime Minister, Mahmoud Singh, in l991.  The middle class has grown, poverty has been reduced and India has been propelled into prominence and self-confidence.  However prosperity has left a still-deeply unequal society, rampant corrupt and environmental decline.  Griffiths took hope from the Hindu religion’s deep connection to nature, for example through millions of local gods who protect particular places.  But forests have been razed against local protest and rivers are filled with pollution with little effective resistance.  Hindu’s may have a deeper love for and connection to nature than Christians but growth and material well-being have trumped such values.

Hearing a conversation between myself and a hotel owner in Jaipur bemoaning all this the owner’s nephew told us in no uncertain terms, “Indians are entitled to the same aspirations as everyone else.”  Indeed they do.  However India occupies one-third of the U. S. land mass with four times more people.  The British depleted India in ways that have not been replenished—its water system and the strength of its guilds and villages. 

I came to India with an image of it remarkably like the photo above of garbage piled on the banks of a small river running through Bangalore.  My impression was based on what I had read, particularly about Mumbai. This is not immediately apparent when you live there, however.  I experienced instead the vitality and necessity by which people live.  Traffic may have been oppressive but it moved with skill and a long-suffering patience Americans could never tolerate.  People are on the move, proud and individually hopeful.

And yet the river is a sewer and the 300 lakes around Bangalore have become polluted by garbage dumped into old, nearby quarries.  The New York Times wrote that “The Garden City,” as Bangalore had long been called, has become “The Garbage City.”   As it became India’s Silicon Valley, its government did not develop a parallel sanitation system.  High tech companies created garbage with no place to go.

It might have been otherwise—or at least tolerable--had state and federal governments been more transparent and trustworthy.  For example, a good portion of the garbage collection business is controlled by companies whose interest is in monopoly control, not keeping the streets clean, but this went undeterred, according to the Times of India. 


The picture above is from Agra, not Bangalore, but disregard for the authorities seems to hold true in both places: people dump their garbage precisely where they are told not to. 

Hyper-Democracy and Corruption

India is the world’s largest democracy under a British parliamentary system and, in many ways, more democratic than the United States.  When citizens marched on the office of one cabinet minister in September he welcomed them by saying “Agitation is the music of democracy.”  If that is true, India is the most musical place in the democratic world, as I noted in my last post about the riots in Delhi.

Much of the agitation today is over corruption which is loudly lamented but often quite open and accepted.  The Hindu “Festival of Light,” celebrated in mid-November, is said to be an auspicious time to buy things.  It is also an auspicious time to give presents to people who have some control over your business.  A newspaper in Jaipur visited government offices on the biggest day of the festival to see presents being delivered to police officers, building inspectors and regulators of all kinds openly.  “We are grateful to them and know they have a hard job,” was the unabashed justification of those who came bearing gifts. 

Many people run for public office with an expectation that they will be able to direct business or other favors toward their friends and family. 

The Big Question:  China or India?

Some in the West are counting on India to outstrip China because India enjoys greater freedom and a more open economy.  A new study by the Organization for Cooperation and Development disputes this.  Looking ahead to 2060, it expects a seven-fold increase in the per-capital income of both China and India.  It expects China to pass the U. S. no later than 2030.  Both countries will grow almost twice as fast as Europe, the U. S. and other developed countries.

 However it says that in 2060 China’s per-capita income will be 25 percent greater than that in the U. S. while India’s will be just half of the U. S.  It expects relative economic inequalities to remain in India but less so in China.  This is not the outcome we might have envisioned.  Nor does it tell us how the natural world will absorb all this growth. 

I ask a retired university ecology professor if he was optimistic or pessimistic about India’s ecosystem.  He said he was optimistic and cited the dramatic growth of organic rice production.  There is indeed a lot of ingenious, sustainable development in India and substantial state-directed investment in alternative energy.  We hope the professor is right.   





India # 46 Three videos: street life, slum passages, loan meeting


I want to close out this blog by year's end with some last minute thoughts and three videos to convey some small sense of India.  The first, video above,  is a street scene in Jaipur during a big shopping day during the "Festival of Lights," above.  It is 34 seconds long and I swung the camera in a circle. The second, below, follows a loan officer for Accion affiliate Swadhaar through the alleys of New Andori, a slum which has grown into a place with hard walls and walkways.  We were going to the home of a woman who had just taken out her first microloan.

Below is a video taken after a typical monthly meeting of 10 women who are meeting to repay their loan from an Accion affiliate.  I don't do a great job of explaining it all but we get to see the beautiful women in the background.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

India # 45 They're Rioting in India...

Eight days after a brutal gang rape on a Delhi bus, Indians were still rioting and the police putting them down with water cannons and batons.  On December 28 the victim died in a Singapore Hospital, setting up further demonstrations.

When the treatment of rape goes public in United States, Republicans say dumb things and lose potential control of the U. S. Senate but no one takes to the streets.  In India, rape is punishable by life imprisonment.  Now it could be punishable by death, which the demonstrators demanded.  Why the difference in the response to a single rape between the two countries?  I’ll take a crack at it.

First, India is far more given to riots, strikes, protests and demonstrations than is the United States, at least since the l930’s.  In my first month in India I missed four days of work or travel because of strikes:  two for bus drivers, one for farmers protesting water allocations (they tied cows to the railroad, stopping traffic) and one against allowing foreign ownership in the retail, insurance and airline industries.  Political parties are on parade frequently.  Conflict between the states and federal government; between the judiciary and the executive; and among competing economic interests seemed to me more intense than in the United States.

Taking to the streets has a long history in India. 

 Second, this is a significant event, maybe like Rosa Park on another bus, not just one more in a string.  Rape is on the rise in India while in decline in the United States.  Indian Women have entered the workplace and are being subjected sexual harrassment which is seldom addressed.  Young women are taking this occasion to make their case vividly.
While rape has fallen by 40-85 percent in the U. S. since l980 (says Wikipedia) it is said to have doubled in the same period in India.  The December l7 Arab News says 568 cases of rape were reported in Delhi, a city of 15 million, last year.  The U.S. reported l91,000 in 2005.  Surely rape is under-reported in India.

 Rape has become notorious in India as an act of aggression by one religious or ethnic group against another.  Government officials and particularly members of the ruling Congress Party made stupid, retrograde statements about such rapes two months ago.  The party responded badly again in this case.  Although it was a local crime, anger was directed at the national government in Delhi which could have sympathized and talked with the demonstrators but did not.

It was a gang of drunks who put the couple on a private bus, not a public conveyance, then threw them out while it was moving, which is why the woman died.   

India is taking steps to offer transportation in women-only compartments and conveyances.  Harrassment of women in the workplace is widely reported and women's groups counter it as best they can but India is well behind Western countries in sensitivity and taking action.  Delhi authorities say they will increase women-only waiting rooms and compartments on comuter trains and buses.

Women on a bus in Bangalore....

Third, distrust of government and the police runs high.  Opposition to the Congress Party is widespread and the 80 year old prime minister is seen as honorable but slipping.  A new round of economic liberalization (inviting greater foreign investment) and a shuffling of his cabinet seems not to have offset the downward slide of the ruling government.  

Opposing parties have tried to capitalized on the riots, piling on.  The anti-corruption crusader Aruinda Kejriwal has added this case to the long list or scandals, offenses and charges of incompetence he accumulates week after week, not only against Congress Party leaders but against the leader of BJP, the party which is likely to form the next government, and its chief ministers.

I know of no statistic in India similar to the 11 percent approval rating for the U. S. House of Representatives but there may be similar numbers out there for India.

Fourth, women and students led these demonstrations, supported by labor unions and other interest groups.  Women's advances and anger are likely not understood by older political leaders.  Police forces include few women and handle their complaints poorly. Students live within a system which is highly competitive and generous to those who get to the top but they are few in number and percentage.   The victim of this rape was a 23 year old fellow student and that may be reason enough.

Fifth, unlike our image of them, and notwithstanding their often gentle demeanor, Indians can be very assertive.  “The Argumentative India” is the title of a 2005 book by the Nobel Prize winning economist, Harvard professor and public intellectual, Amaratya Sen, about India’s historic diversity and heterodoxy.  Riots are not arguments, to be sure, but they represent “we will not be ignored,” which does have a tradition.  When Untouchables gain political power and mandated slots in education and the civil service—as they have in recent years--everyone above them gets permission to be noticed as well. 

The best way to understand the riots in India may be to remember the murder of Travon Martin in Sanford, Florida, Rosa Park or riots following the death of Martin Luther King in the l968.  Consider how these events transformed America.


Monday, December 10, 2012

India # 44 Accion provides Loans in 8 hours, insurance for HIV carriers...

On the way back from India I got a good briefing on what Accion is doing around the world and spoke to some donors in New York City.  Here are some highlights:

·      The best thing about New York was hearing veteran observers say Accion’s biggest accomplishment in Latin America was that it “changed the image of the poor.”  In an online reunion of Accion alumni a few days later, founder Joe Blatchford explained how this happened.  “We took business leaders into the Caracas barrios and they ended up saying, ‘We had no idea.  I want to start hiring these people.’”  This went on country after country and the story got out.  Now an amazing number of Americans know that the “financially disadvantaged” repay 98 percent of their micro-loans.

·      The Accion affiliate Avansa in Colombia hands out money 24 hours after receiving a loan application and expects to drive this down to eight hours early next year.  How?  Modern data-mining (credit scoring) and 40 years of learning who will repay loans.  (Wouldn’t you like similar service in the U. S.?)

·      Ninety percent of Kenyans have a cell phone and use digital cash—sending and receiving money over their phones.  It’s easily the world leader in utilizing this technology. Tanzania, just next door, failed to reach critical mass and has consequently not done the same thing.

·      Accion partner Swadhaar in Mumbai is launching mobile wallet technology using the telecommunications giant Airtel.  “The future of financial inclusion is your mobile phone,” says Accion’s twice-yearly newsletter, Ventures.  Accion is also investing in digital money companies in Southeast Asia and Chile. 

·      An Accion partner in South Africa is insuring the lives of carriers of HIV—and making money!

·      Accion’s network provided 56 million loans worth 46 billion in the last l0 years.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

India # 43 Finding Manju from "Beautiful Forevers, "The Video

The highlight of three months in India was a spontaneous visit I made to a slum called Annawadi near the Mumbai Airport.  I knew something of life there because of a book, "Beyond the Beautiful Forevers" by Katherine Boo, which had affected me deeply as I prepared for my journey.
The visit was made possible because  I was in Mumbai to shoot a video in another slum but had missed a plane back to Banglore where I worked a volunteer for Accion International.  I was carrying the e-book version of "Beautiful Forevers" that contained four videos which I showed to an airport rickshaw driver.  He'd never heard of the place; however he could see the Hyatt Hotel in one video. From there it was a short drive to Annawadi.  Here are two scenes shot near the entrance, one short, one longer:


 I then found a man who spoke English. He told me Katherine Boo was not there right now, meaning she was still there regularly.  Did he know anyone who had made the videos I showed him or were in them, I then asked?  No, but he pointed the way and I soon recognized I was at the maiden or open place where the slum lord had lived, the brothen, public toilet and temple maintains and kids played: 

I then wandered north and got invited in for a drink, I think...
And turned into an alley where I was told I might find Manju.  Manju was  the subject of one of the videos.  I kept coming back to that video whenever I got the Nook in my hands.  She was an angelic and occasionally salty figure, living a life of significant virtue in a tough environment.  But what were the chances she would be there, two years after the book was completed?  These 20 seconds give us a tiny glimpse of life in Annawadi.

 I then turned back into the maiden and came to the public toilets, a late-night meeting place for Manju and her friend Meena, their one time to themselves during the day. 
To the right was the Hindu temple, brightly decorated in honor of the godess Durga who was being celebrated that week.  "Take off your shoes and come in," a young man said.  I asked him where I might find Manju.  Just then the woman next to me in the pink saree turned around.  It was Manju!  As you can hear, I was amazed.

We then talked as if at a family reunion.  What have you been doing and what are you doing now?  Great, she said.  First I taught school and now I'm a trainee for Cathay Pacific Airlines.  And your mom (who wanted to be the slum boss and failed)?  She's well too, and teaching at two schools.  How about Sunil?  (The book had been dedicated to this 12 year old because of his courage, and to Boo's husband, also Sunil.)  Great, he's got a job.  Then, knowing I should leave soon, I asked her if she knew the meaning of the word "hero," which she did and I spontaneously said "You are my hero."

Because I was talking and filming (poorly), I only caught her answer and smile at the end:

On the way out I saw other things and, from the book, knew their significance. 

 Boo wrote that, at the height of the scavanging (prices of recycled plastic and metal have since shrunk), a bag of aluminum or plastic bottles was so important for survival that scavengers often slept on their bags.  Here are unguarded bags at the slum's entrance.

The horses in the footage below are still where they were in the book and I remember them because the owner, the slum boss, painted them black and white and rented them out as zebras for special occasions or used them in races.  The scene ends with a glimpse of the video machines.  One man who bought metal and plastic for which kids had risked their lives and freedom paid them in video games.   Another dealer was the 16-year-old central figure of the book, Abdul.

We said goodbye to a man who had helped us and ended less than an hour in Annawadi.  But what a time it was, thanks to writing so vivid I had to come here and then, once here, knew exactly where I was.  I  went back to the airport and immediately posted the story on my blog.  I found myself writing then about the holiness of the experience.

"Beautiful Forevers" has since won the National Book Award as the best non-fiction of 2011.  Janet Maslin of the New York Times writes,  "Novelists dream of defining characters this swiftly and beautifully, but Ms. Boo is not a novelist.  She is one of those rare, deep-digging journalists who can make truth surpass fiction....Comparison to Dickens is not unwarranted." 

The suggestion that this is the first book to read about India or, as one reviewer put it, "the best reporting to come out of India in 50 years" is not unwarranted either. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

India # 42 Sunday in Lalbach Park, Bangalore

Late on a Sunday afternoon four weeks ago I took a last look around Bangalore and landed at its second largest park and aboretium.  Here are a few people I met, beginning with a family of six on a single motorbike.

This group was cheering because of my Obama hat.
These old guys (younger than I), above, liked my cap as well and we had a nicer time than their expressions would tell you.  The family above was typical.  It was easy to meet people and sit down to talk.
Everyone wanted their picture taken as long as you showed them the image afterwards.
This family below was more more sober but not the girls.

The kids below were obviously poor and were supposed to be selling balloons but by the time I got there, all they wanted to do was have fun and be silly for my camera.  I love looking at them now.


 In the middle, part of a large glass house and arboreteum left by the British.  At bottom, a tree full of monkeys in fading light.