The (Many-headed) Demon

December 26, 2016

Our anger continues as does the feeling of impotence. The scary part is how the narrative has been laid out, so that many people who have no cause to feel any fear, are afraid to counter it. If you are not “with us”, why then, you must be a black-marketeer or counterfeiter or terrorist.

The statements and counter-statements (Modi, Parrikar, Jaitley, Bhattacharya, and pertinently No Urjit Patel), seem to indicate that there are differences within the BJP. And there perhaps is our hope. Only Infighting can save us now.

The Supreme leader deals exclusively in Rhetoric. It is 1984ian in the extreme. Countering anything real, he insists on his own reality. And that then becomes the narrative which people argue  and debate about.

If, for instance, one tries to ask people to see “Cui bono?”: Who benefits from the crime? one comes up against this “Narrative wall”. Obviously it is the banks which are now flush with funds after having been saddled with large NPAs for years. But the conversation will move towards black-marketeers, terrorists and counterfeiters who are actually statistically insignificant. And then one has to counter with “But, surely you cannot fingerprint a  whole village to catch two thieves”, and lo, the narrative wall has defeated you.

The sheer audacity of this demon was such that it took a while for economists to refute bad arguments being made about what is essentially “Loot and plunder”. Is it significant that Raghuram Rajan whose voice would surely have lent weight to the critics has maintained a silence till now?  After all, he had not so long ago said, (although in a different context) “it was the ‘legitimate duty’ and ‘moral responsibility’ of public figures to tell young minds what good citizenship is about and the virtues of tolerance.”

Countering the Supreme Leader’s narrative – not just the Orwellian propaganda but also the tendency of people to say “Oh, it is for a good cause”, requires hard work on many peoples’ parts. We all have stories to tell, and we must all tell our stories. “Bol ki lab azad hai tere“. Many anecdotes make statistics.

There are also going to be protracted practical difficulties: Shortage of cash, Long queues, and a tendency to hoard money are a few I can think of. We all have to suffer as the Supreme Leader has  said, but we should at least suffer meaningfully. Let us not hoard change; let us think of those so much less fortunate than us, let us act as locally as possible; above all let us trust ordinary people to do the right thing: Given a  chance, they usually do.

Now more than ever, we have to reclaim the sense of, “I can make a difference”. A million people doing the right thing makes a right. And it takes one person  and another and another and so on to make a million.

Demonetisation or Garib Hatao

November 17, 2016

Anger is the predominant emotion Sonati and I feel when we talk about demonetisation. And a sense of impotence: How does one respond to Messrs Modi,  Jaitley and co.’s cavalier “at the stroke of the midnight hour” act, the consequences of which ordinary people have to bear in the name of patriotism?

Let me start by saying that I have not been personally affected by this (yet). Last week and this week (today),  I went to shop in Karumandurai and managed with old 500’s, goodwill and credit. Today I even withdrew some money from our Post Office account. I haven’t stood in a bank queue yet.

And so I could say like so many people seem to be doing, “See I am honest; Be like me , Go digital and all is well.” “Blackmarketeers deserve demonetisation.”
Except that it is not blackmarketeers but MILLIONS of ordinary people who have had their lives up-ended by this; who have to stand in a queue for hours to get their own money back. This is not patriotism. This is Hell on Earth. It is as if there are a few murderers in Bombay and Delhi who have to be caught; so the entire adult population of India is being fingerprinted. Patriotism!

What of the old lady who came to Karumandurai yesterday with 4 lakhs in old and crumpled 500’s and 100’s to open a bank account and deposit the money because she didn’t have a son who would pay for her funeral feast when she is gone? Is she going to be taxed (and on the 100’s too?)?

What of Govindraj running around Salem after pawning jewellery to admit his father-in-law to a hospital; only to have them send him back home because (though they wouldn’t say that clearly) they knew that he would pay partly in old notes (which hospitals are supposed to accept).

Do not turn away from this and say this is all anecdotal: Ask anyone around you who is not of the digital classes, ask anyone who has actually stood in a queue; not once but multiple times; and they will all have stories to tell. This is affecting hundreds of millions of people. Modi Antoinette has reduced the country to queues. People in queues cannot protest.

Moreover the logic being touted is flawed. Back of the envelope calculations produce some 15 billion notes per year from the four presses. And 18 billion notes to be replaced. Which is why 2000’s are coming into circulation. Which is another perverse joke (or another instance of patriotism): Who will be able to change a 2000? Try it..

Cui bono? The banks of course: They take all our money and lock it up; then they dribble it out to us so that the rest leads to their recapitalisation and then can be lent to…Your guess is as good as mine. Curses on the conceivers and implementers of this nightmare.

Since it is a fait accompli, there is no chance of a rollback. But surely it is illegal to take my money and refuse to give it back to me. Banks and the Government should pay us interest for this lunatic exercise.

Here in Karumandurai, it is possible, still, to use credit and goodwill and make things work since there is a sense of ‘We are all in this together”. Last week and this, I got change for an old 500 from two youngsters who said, “Oh, Saar, how will you stand in the queue: just take this”, not thinking about the fact that they would have to go through the exchange sometime. That was really heartening. But I shudder to think of the marginalised in the city: the construction labourers, the small shopkeepers, the shoeshines, the domestic help, the oh-so-many marginalised people whom none of the digital classes seem to think of.

Things are going to snowball in the coming weeks; make that months; so I will end with a request to all of you not to hoard 100’s and other change since it is only money getting back in circulation that will help the situation. I, for one, will pull out of the bank whatever I was forced to put in as a token gesture, if nothing else. I ask my economist (and other) friends to comment here on the blog any of their recipes for recovery from this carpet bombing.

Many a Slip

August 27, 2016

last jack hanging

This year, our jackfruits have been ripening rather late… about a month later than in other years.
Someone got impatient a month ago and stole one of the low-hanging fruit. This roused Arunachalam, who is working for us at the moment, to a fury and he barricaded some of the gaps in the fence, through which people can get in.
And all of us (including Arunachalam, of course) enjoyed a run of 5 superb jackfruit. Till yesterday.

In the evening, I noticed one of the lower-hanging fruit was missing. Since I have passed the baton to the boys wrt checking—plucking at the right time—sharpening the knives—dressing the jackfruit and so on, I had to call Varun to confirm that the fruit was not one that we had eaten.

He came and immediately said that it was stolen, and raced off, me following, in the direction we thought that the thieves would have taken.
At some point, he told me that I could return home—nobody to catch—and that he would return a different way.

A short while later, he was shouting out to me. I stopped. He returned to say that he had seen two boys, likely eating the jackfruit, further down and would I come fast.

I slithered and skidded down the path that he negotiated surefooted as a goat. But too late. The thieves had gone.

We returned in the twilight, by a path unknown to me, and reached the place in our fence which had been breached. I struggled over it courtesy a (literal) helping hand from Varun and realised that my chasing days were over. I passed the baton, telling the boys that henceforth in such situations they should carry on and confront the people; shouting out for me whether I was at hand or not.

Varun asked me if my wish for the last jackfruit was to be able to eat it peacefully, or to have the thieves try again and catch them red-handed this time.

This morning, Arunachalam was really furious, and said that we should have given chase with a stick. Had we caught them, we could have had a “nyayam pechu” in the village and claimed to have had 10 jackfruit stolen (instead of the two that have actually been stolen)

I said that the only thing to do was to plant more jackfruit trees so that there would be enough for us, for orombarai (kith and kin), and for the thieves. He was not amused and said, “Oru tharavai pal-la vodaicha, marubidium pala-va thirudi thinga maataanga.” (If you break their teeth once, they won’t steal and eat jackfruit next time)

The score for this season is 2 stolen, 5 eaten, 1 hanging.
Dekha jayega, uska kya hoga...


May 3, 2016

One day, last month, Govindraj came with the afternoon milk and said that there were policemen at the turn-u who were checking Driver’s licences and RC books.
Govindraj didn’t know the details, but apparently the previous evening, either Terthagiri had attacked his cousin Devendran or the other way around. The assailant had fled and was in hiding and the assailed was in hospital.
Since there was no villain (as yet), Govindraj was circumspect in his judgement, but said (neutrally), “Why can’t they just beat each other up? Why knives?”

The next day, Sonati and I went to the shandy and got the story on the way, in many versions and with much embellishment, depending on the teller.
It was Devendran who had hidden in the bushes and leapt out, unprovoked (at that moment, anyway) and hacked Terthaagiri’s neck and fled.

That evening, Govindraj had a villain to rail against: “I never did like that Devendran; who will marry his son, now? Where will they find grooms for his daughters?”
When Sonati and I went to Terthagiri’s kottai, his mother and daughters and daughters-in-law were there. He had been alone with his wife and mother; the sons and daughters had been away working in Mysore, but had now returned: Murugesh was in hospital, and Sathyaraj at the police station.

Their story was that Devendran had been drunk, and had hacked Terthagiri at dusk; and had then inflicted some injuries on himself and had been admitted to hospital.
His father, (Foxy) Aandi was in the lock-up and was the brains behind this attack.

The trouble with this sort of story is that it could well have panned out symmetrically and oppositely with the victim and assailant exchanging roles.
Kaatu prachanai (Land trouble) is ever present, particularly amongst brothers and cousins (whose are the adjoining lands, generally), and perhaps this April’s heat played a catalytic role. There is a Ray Bradbury story called Touched by Fire which is based on this violence-during-the-heat theme. The tragedy is that the feud will pass down over the generations a la Asterix in Corsica even when the protagonists have forgotten the original cause of the trouble. The evil that men do is visited upon their children.
The police and the lawyers make a packet. So both the assailant and the victim are losers.

The only thing to be thankful about is that we haven’t reached the level of the American Dream: A gun under every pillow.
A month on: The situation hasn’t changed. Terthagiri hasn’t returned from hospital. He hasn’t really recovered full consciousness. Devendran and his dad are in jail. Devendran’s wife and children have to cope with the farm work without him. As do Terthagiri’s wife and children.

Subversion on the Hippo Rock

November 3, 2015


When Sridhar first mooted the idea of us meeting 80 Teach For India fellows, our first thought was “Where will they sit?”, and then, “We don’t even have 10 tumblers”.
But Sridhar said that those were not issues. The group would come from Vellimalai, we wouldn’t have to feed them, and we would have to have them for two hours: a one hour speech followed by one hour of questions/answers. Eventually all the numbers changed.

Last Saturday we were host to some 40 Teach For India Fellows, most of whom were around 25 years old, who have been teaching in corporation schools in Chennai for the last four months. The Hippo Rock saw its largest footfall count.

Initially we were in the unenviable position of having to hold forth a la a school classroom; but after the speech component was disposed of, and the questions started coming, the energy of the youngsters took over.
We fielded questions about home-schooling, our own childhoods, rural life, schools in various places, fear, and Sridhar even added a bit about fishing on the high seas. We have enough material there for a book.

Sonati, Varun and I had managed to make peanut laddoos the previous day, and Varun had decided to leave an auspicious number for the event: 108. These were consumed with gusto.
And then, since lemons insinuated themselves into the speech I made, we all had a shot of Nimbu Paani on the Hippo Rock thanks to Krishnan, who took on the task of squeezing the lemons.

Then the discussions spilt over to the house, all over the land, and continued unabated until Sridhar and Krishnan hustled everyone down to the buses and back to base-camp, leaving Varun, Sonati and me to debrief each other, since each of us had been having independent conversations with multiple people. And then a brief debrief to Badri baba on the phone with the promise of more when he gets back home.

Some of the responses were heart-warming:
“I want to unschool my kids…; but how can I say that, I don’t have any; in fact I am not even married”

“I wonder why my parents didn’t home-school me”

“I feel so bad that all I have been doing is to push the kids to score high marks; I will change that now”

It really was great having the group over; the energy of that age is tremendous. And we feel that some of them were touched somewhere by what they heard and saw; so that there will at least be some chinks in the citadel of school.

For the record, my “Speech for India” was as follows:

Hello everybody. Welcome to Thekambattu.

I am not used to talking like this, so consider this a conversation and stop me if you want to question something that I have said; if you want to say something; or if you just want to change the subject. I am just getting the ball rolling.

The impulse to stop the movement of your life–your career–your studies–and teach others not so privileged is commendable–something to be applauded– Not too many people pause at this stage of their lives; or for that matter at any stage.
Later, my question to some of you will be “Where does this impulse come from?”

A sense of discontent with things as they are. That’s not a nice word. Let’s coin a new word: malcontent.

We (Sonati and I)– I will use we and I randomly; but the two of us are in this together :-)– feel very strongly that if something is done with good intent, then the results will be good. However having said that, one needs to be careful of pitfalls. One great pitfall is that the system will co-opt you and make you complicit. I may think that I know best; I have thought this out: Arrogance. I may think that there is no other way: Resignation.
In both these cases I become an ally of the system.

So then our views, admittedly opinionated, definitely personal. But you need to look for the truth that may shine through for you in what we are saying.

So schools.
1. The first thing to be aware of is the seductive, lottery nature of school. This is inherent in all schools. Some kids will do well. But MOST kids? What happens to them?

2. Competition dominates: If someone else does badly, I do well. There is no place for co-operation.

3. Entitlement: I went through school and did well; so I deserve this. And Resignation: I went to school and did badly, so I deserve this.

4. When you spend a large part of your life in school doing what you are told, then you stop thinking and wait to be told what to do.

5. Irrelevance of school subjects to real life (And I am sure most or all of you will have loads to say on this subject). This destroys a lot of potential, particularly in rural areas where the irrelevance is even more stark. There are kids who end up being neither here nor there because they have lost the school lottery, and have not acquired the required skills to look after their land.

Schools are leading to breakdown of relationships due to competition. Children are being alienated from their peers, their family and their community (Irrelevance of school subjects to real life means they are relevant to some alien life somewhere else, is it not?)

Where do the winners of the lottery go? Farmers’ children to the towns; small town children to the cities; city kids to the US of A.
Maybe the losers of the lottery are better off? One, perhaps irrelevant statistic; but it comes to my mind: the number of farmers in the US is less than the number of prison inmates!

So then, what does one do? One needs to focus on the home. The fallacy that is prevalent is that everyone learns anything worth learning in school. Not true. Since children in their growing years are in school much of the time, it seems that that is the case. Think of your own experiences.

A sense of security can only develop at home. Home is inherently a co-operative place. Non-competitive. A sense of community first develops at home. Responsibility for another; for the place. Sense of people. Sense of place. Nowadays the sense of home as a place is absent for many people.

It all turns on affection. If, anything clicks in school, it is because of a sense of affection between teacher and taught. In spite of the structures of school. Think of your own experiences with the kids.

Here we can see changes in front of our eyes. Neither-here-nor-there youth. Kids who are not farmers-in-the-mind. The world has swept into a self-sufficient economy, and in a matter of a generation, changed it around. Cultures are being destroyed by the monoculture of school.

OK, I think I have spoken enough. Over to you.

The perils of homeschooling

September 7, 2015

Badri’s A level exam results were declared a few weeks ago. He got an A* in Computer Science and a d in English (AS). He was unfazed and had not “expected” or “not expected” any grade. And there the matter rested for a few days. But Sonati and I were not easy about this.

He had “studied” even less for his O Level English, and had got an A grade (or was it a B? I forget). Sonati and my gut feeling was that there was something wrong.

Badri was no help because he said (admittedly, in answer to a leading question) that he would not have been surprised if he had got a C in Computer Science.

The school was discouraging; admittedly in good faith:
“Just a caution – last year we did request this for our Art students, who received a lower grade than expected even by the expert external assessor. They had worked like mad for two years and expected a grade or two higher! But the response we got from CIE after re-eval was very disapppointing. It seemed to be the same person, and it was the same grade, with NO explanation of why they had done poorly that made any sense to us…”
“Some thoughts about the English exam. I feel it is not a trivial exam; as an estimate, students in the past have spent up to fifty hours (over about three months) preparing for it. Preparation included reading and understanding a textbook that explained basic concepts, working through several sets of exam papers and coming to a teacher for feedback, ideas for improving writing etc. Even with all this, some students only did moderately well.”

And the fee for the re-eval was 40 pounds per paper! That’s 80 pounds for two English papers times n rupees per pound! Bloody hell.

Then I awoke one morning with the remembrance of something similar from my Class 11 Chemistry exam at Xavier’s. I was travelling home on the bus with my Chemistry teacher and I tentatively asked him “Sir, how come I did so badly?” And he said, “What do you mean badly? You were top of the class.” It transpired that the office clerks had not added my Practical marks to the total. It was too late to change it on the Report card however, and Sukumar Verma said, “You; OK, you were tentative, but didn’t your parents think that they should kick up a fuss?”

And that day, serendipitously, we came across this Guardian article:

And on the CIE website, I saw that they would refund the fees in the case of a grade improvement.

And Sonati and I decided to indulge in this lottery. Yesterday, the d was revised upwards to a c.
Given the adrenaline rush that this “win in the lottery” has brought, we are tempted to ask for yet another re-eval. What would you say?

Double or Quits?

Hackers 2.0

September 3, 2015

On Monday, Arunachalam, who was working for us on the Upper field, returned from lunch and (quite casually) asked me, “Did you let someone cut down your Porcha-maram?” Judging by his casualness, I assumed that it was some small tree. And in the heat, I had no interest in going and looking at the site of a cut-down tree. So, I just said, “Of course, not. Some bloody thief again”, and we carried on with our respective work.

Later that evening, when Sonati and I were sitting on the Hippo rock, Varun joined us and immediately said, “Oh, someone has cut down a big tree”, and pointed to a gash in the landscape.

How come we didn’t hear the sound of the hacking? Sonati and I (and the boys to some extent) are so “tuned-in” to that sound that we start up from sleep if it happens.

Next day, we took a look at the place: It was a clean cut with a saw! That is why the operation was silent.

A silent hack

A silent hack

And what’s more, the felled tree was still lying in the undergrowth, having damaged a couple of others in its fall. It is a tricky spot; so has the thief let it lie, intending to come back later, with help?

The felled tree

The felled tree

The Porcha-maram is a tree used to make ploughs, and as with most other native trees, it can now be found only on our land. I suppose we should feel thankful that it is someone whom wants a plough who has chopped down the tree. Who knows the state of things to come? We have heard horror stories of Timber Mafias operating near Auroville, with chain-saws and trucks. If that comes to pass here, we may hark back to the idyllic time when thieves operated only on a Need-to basis and not for the market.

The "gash in the landscape"

The “gash in the landscape”

After all, till yesterday, it was the sound of hacking that was an alarm call for us. Today, without any hacking sounds, we are on edge: a continuous High-alert.

World Poetry Day Haiku

April 3, 2015

Boys, trees and we have
In the last fifteen years, grown
At Thekambattu.


Karumandurai Rocks, OK!

April 3, 2015

When we moved here, fifteen years ago, phoning Salem was an event: One had to book a trunk call from Karumandurai. Hot on our heels, STD came to Karumandurai. And now as everyone who visits us now knows, Karumandurai boasts of four (or is it five?) cell phone towers.

Call us old-fashioned if you will, but we preferred our chunky WLL phone; and surrendering it a couple of months ago was a watershed event. We had hoped for a chunky desk phone which would use a GSM SIM card, and I have window-shopped in Salem but never had any luck. “Adha yaaru vanguvanga, saar?” (“Who would buy it saar?”) was the refrain.

And on April fool’s day, when I visited Sensar Mobiles, the fancy cell-phone shop in Karumandurai (In one period of 45 minutes waiting in the shop last month, I saw 6 cell phones being bought; and all of them smart-phones costing over Rs.3500), with Badri, we thought, No harm in trying.

And, for less than the price of the cheapest cell phone in the shop, voila:

Varun's painting of the new desk phone

Apna nimbu: Kahaan pahunchega?

December 16, 2014

Since there has been a lot of back and forth about our lemons, on Facebook, on our blog and in e-mails to us, we thought we should clarify/consolidate, and carry on the conversation.

If a solution was required to our personal lemon problem, then e-commerce or organic marmalade would have provided one. Even so, we strongly feel that surely these lemons should be consumed locally, by our neighbours and others from nearby who need lemons to pickle or juice or…

But the problem is not a personal one but rather a systemic one: which is that primary producers of all hues seem to be trapped by a broker mafia into becoming sweat shops for faraway customers who outsource their every requirement (and responsibility).

So perhaps, I need to say, with Wendell Berry, All you who eat; eat thoughtfully. Eating is a political act. Where you get your food, where it is cooked and who cooks it, and how you eat it: all of this contributes to the solution.

Farmers need every encouragement to grow food, not cash. As things stand, what Wendell Berry writes about 60’s America is true for India now: If you can get into a profession; why, then you must not be a farmer. If you can move to the city, why,then you must leave the country. If you can work the “miracle” of industrial progress, then you must do so, even if it means the theft of energy from posterity. (Posterity can’t complain!)

The countryside is no longer a place to come home to; it is a place to leave. That needs to be turned around.

landscape card