Monday, October 29, 2007

Haridwar / Rishikesh

I think I'm finally catching up on my blog. Today is October 30, and I went with my new friends from the GRC team to Haridwar / Rishikesh for the weekend on October 13-14. So, I'm only 2 weeks behind in updating my blog. Not bad. Haridwar is about 6 hours northeast of Gurgaon, in the state of Uttarakhand. I found out about the trip just a few days before we went. The trip was initially a GRC team outing (GRC is a group within SAP), but my friends had extra room in van, and the rest is history. Rare will be the weekend when I refuse a roadtrip in India!

Haridwar is one of the holiest places in India. Spread along the banks of the river are pilgrims who have come to Haridwar to bathe in the Ganges river. 'Hari' means God and 'dwar' means gate. Haridwar, then, is the spot where nectar of immortality (Amrita), accidentally spilled from the pitcher, which was being carried by the celestial bird Garuda. The nectar also spilled in 3 other spots: Ujjain, Nasik, and Allahabad.

The day started very early on Saturday morning. We boarded the taxi van at 5am and set off on our journey. One of the best things to come out of the trip was the music. Varun brought some CDs with him of Panjabi and Hind music. Now, I'm proud to say that I can identify the difference between Hindi and Panjabi music about 80% of the time. I feel that Indian music is among the best in the world, if not the best.

I'd like to take a little aside here to discuss driving in India. Our driver, Dileep, was operating on very little sleep, having done some extensive drives in the last few days. Still, this man had nerves of steel. He drove us to and from Haridwar / Rishikesh without any problems. He also exhibited some impressive driving skills on India' s difficult roads, especially when passing on the 2 lane roads. I'm not just saying all of this. I've had a lot of drivers in India. And there really is a difference between the good ones and the bad ones. The good ones are focused. They realize that when they're driving, their job is to drive. Their job is to drive their passengers safely to their destination without getting lost.

Dileep is the opposite of my current taxi driver who drives me and several others from our apartments in Gurgaon to work. After two weeks of driving, this guy barely knows where we live and where the office is. He's more concerned with talking to me, talking on the phone, daydreaming, etc.-anything except concentrating on driving.
Driving in India is a serious matter because:
  • There are no lanes.
  • Drivers are crazy and are constantly operating in 'road rage' mode.
  • You're lucky if there are seatbelts in the car that work.
  • Motorcyclists ride with their entire family on the motorcyle. The worst is seeing the father drive with a helmet while his wife and kids ride helmetless. What, are the passengers somehow safer than the driver? These dads need to learn that their family is just as important as they are.
  • Passing on 2-land roads is an adventure every time.
  • Don't be surprised if a herd of buffalo decides to cross the road when you're driving.
  • If it's not a herd of buffalo, it's a family running across a 4 lane freeway on the NH8.
  • No street signs
  • Dust storms / floods, etc.

So when our man Dileep successfully and safely gets us from point A to point B and back, I give him credit. Incidentally, I saw him last Friday when we were doing our day of service in Delhi. I was happy that he recognized me - that's how much I respect I have for him.

We had several stops along the way. There are many places where you can stop for tea and snacks, like pakoras (onion, potato, etc.).

At first, the plan was only to go to Rishikesh to do camping / rafting. But, fortunately, we stopped Haridwar first. We arrived in Haridwar around 1pm in the afternoon. Here is a picture of pilgrims bathing.

If you pay a few rupees, you can buy some flowers in a boat that is made out of leaves. Then, you set it afloat in the water and say a prayer.

Here I am testing the water. It was actually very cold - not surprising since it comes from the glaciers, and we are not that far from the source in Haridwar.

This is one of the few pictures I have of the five of us. I'm on the left, then Varun, Jasmine (in the back), Shweta (in the front), and Hemanth on the right. We are enjoying fresh lime soda with masala. This is my favorite drink in India. And it's especially good on a hot day.

Our only activity on Saturday night was rock climbing.

Taking a little dip in the river between rapids.

Practicing some kayaking. Kayaking is harder than it looks. Unlike rafting, you have to be very careful and balanced so that you don't capsize your boat. I was hoping that we could each get kayaks and kayak part of the river, but we only got to take the kayak near the beach. Still, most people can raft class 4 and 5 rivers (if they can swim or are at least comfortable in the river). But kayaking requires some skill and practice. I've done kayaking a few times, but I don't feel comfortable kayaking anything more than a class 2 river. And even there, I'll likely flip 2-3 times at least.

While rafting, we also got to do some cliff jumping. We got to jump from a 20ft rock into the river below. That was the highlight of the rafting, for sure. The rafting was mostly Class III.

In the tent. You'll see I'm applying my trusty 'Off' to keep the mosquitos away. After I was attacked by mosquitos on day 2 in India, which has resulted in some ugly scars, I employ all the mosquito protection I can think of. This includes:
Off, Odomos, long sleeve shirts and pants, malaria medication, and the keeping-alive of animals / insects that prey on mosquitos - things like lizards and spiders. As they say, any enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The Ganges river in the morning (or evening), I can't remember. This was a very peaceful place for me. Especially at night. It doesn't have the hustle and bustle of Haridwar. In fact, the times of the day when I feel that I am in the India 'of old' are early morning and late evening. Firstly, there is time to think and reflect during this hours. During the daytime, you're always on the move somewhere. Also, in the early morning and night, the 'new' India working class are at home. What you see is the 'old', blue collar working class: the milkman, the street sweepers, etc. One of the sights I remember was on Saturday morning, while we were waiting for the extra trip-goers to arrive. There were a couple of apartment guards who had built a small fire on the side of the road, and were warming themselves by it. It felt like something you would have seen hundreds of years ago.

All in all, this was a great trip with fun company. After breathing dust and pollution in Gurgaon 7 days a week, it's nice to drive far away and enjoy nature, if only for 2 days.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Tamil Politics

Politics all over India is generally dysfunctional. But in Tamil Nadu (TN), they take it to the next level. The picture to the left is of present chief minister M.Karunanidhi (centre) with ex-chief ministers C. N. Annadurai (left) and M. G. Ramachandran (right) (courtesy of Wikipedia). Why an article on Tamil politics? Well, because if it weren't for Tamil politics, I would have seen more of TN, including places like Cuddalore and Pondicherry. But, as I mentioned in my last blog, the 'bandh' or gov't protest stranded me in Chennai for all 4 days.

Okay, let's have some background on the (latest) problem right now in TN. All the fuss is over the Sethusamudram project. According to one article "The Sethusamudram Ship Canal project aims at creating an artificial canal in the shallow ocean, by dredging parts of Ram Sethu, to enable vessels to save time taken to circumnavigate the Sri Lankan island while going from west to east."

Makes sense, right? Ships should be able to go through the water between Sri Lanka and India, instead of going around Sri Lanka to get the east coast of India. This should save them a lot of time.

But, here's the problem. According to that same article, "According to the epic Ramayana, Ram Sethu is a bridge constructed by Lord Ram connecting the Indian peninsula with mainland Sri Lanka."

Wikipedia adds "Hindus believe that this bridge was built by Rama incarnation of Lord Vishnu to rescue his consort Sita who was abducted to Lanka by Ravana, as mentioned in the Ramayana. Many historical inscriptions, coins, old travel guides, old dictionary references, old religious maps indicate that this structure is considered sacred by Hindus.[2][3] Geological evidence indicates that this bridge acted as former land connection between India and Sri Lanka.[4]"

Hard line Hindus of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and others concerned about the bridge's 'destruction' oppose this project on religious grounds. So, there have been riots and protests against this project.

But, not everyone in India is a hard line Hindu. There are many who are not religious at all and just want India's infrastructure to improve. That's what the folks at the DMK (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam - literally "Dravidian Progress Conference") believe. The DMK is the current ruling party in TN. Their leader is M. Karunanidhi.

There are other objections to the project, on environmental, political, and economic grounds. I won't go into these - the most juicy objection is on religious grounds.

Karunanidhi had this to say about protesters:

"Some say there was a person over 17 lakh years ago. His name was Ram. Do not touch the bridge (Ram Sethu) constructed by him... From which engineering college did he graduate? Is there any proof of this?" Karunanidhi asked. "Only to prevent the good scheme, they got hold of the name of a person who was supposed to have lived 17 lakh years ago," he said.

Now, apparently, Karunanidhi made some other comments about Ram being a drunkard and Sita being a woman of loose morals, etc.

So, of course, that further inflamed Hindus, hard line and non-hard line Hindus alike. This whole back and forth between the DMK and the protesters got me interested in Tamil politics. Who are the DMK? What's the platform?

The DMK is a party to support Dravidian rights. Here is a VERY simplified version of racial theories, as best as I understand them. According to many historians / anthropologists, Indian society is comprised of two races: Aryans and Dravidians. Aryans migrated to India from places like Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, maybe Europe too. They primarily settled in Northern India. Dravidians, instead are 'native' to South India. Their languages are not derived from Sanskrit. And, they are are generally darker and smaller in appearance.

The DMK was formed to promote Dravidian rights. Dravidians, the DMK asserted, were being discriminated against by the Aryans and by the Brahmins. They felt that it was time to take back their land, and they did so in forming this party. Their founder (Periyar) also started the 'Self-Respect' movement and supported the British colonization of India (this doesn't make sense - can someone why he supported this?). Other positions of Periyar and early DMK:

  • Anti Hindi (opposed the imposition of Hindi in TN)

  • Anti-Brahmin

  • Anti 'Aryan'

  • Once advocated secession of Tami Nadu from the rest of India

  • Sympathetic to the independence struggle for Tamils in Sri Lanka

Among the laws that Periyar fought was the "Heriditary Education" policy, proposed by Rajaji (a Tamil Brahmin politician), in which "schools will work in the morning and students had to compulsorily learn the family vocation in the afternoon. A Carpenter’s son would learn Carpentry, a priest's son chanting hymns and a barber’s son hair cutting and shaving after school in the afternoon.[13]" (Wikipedia). Periyar felt that this policy reinforced the caste system, where children did the same work as their parents. Under this policy, how could a person advance his position in life?

The only other party to hold power in TN is the AIADMK - or All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagam. The party was founded by an actor, MG Ramachandran. Here are some interesting facts about MGR:

  • His death sparked mass riots in TN

  • Refused to accept an award from the government because it was written in Hindi

  • 30 followers committed suicide after his death and 100 people tried to commit suicide via immolation

What's the ideological difference between the AIADMK and the DMK? For the life of me, I can't answer the question. Is there even one?


So what are my views? First, I would like to see a compromise solution on the bridge. Build the bridge but cause the least destruction to the natural bridge - not for religious reasons, but for environmental reasons. Second, SOME of the things that the DMK fought for make sense. Greater rights for non-Brahmins, for example. But the reverse discrimination of Brahmins is wrong. TN would benefit from a true multi-party political system. I don't feel that the AIADMK and DMK is that.

This blog was brought to you from Wikipedia - one of the greatest inventions of the 21st century.

Tamil Politics.

Go figure.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Chennai (and musings on 'home'...)

There's no place like home. How many homes can a person have? Many, depending on the person and their experiences.

For most of my life, California has been my home. When I went to school on the east coast, I resisted calling Cambridge, MA home for a year. When Winter vacation ended, it was "time to go back home to school." Eventually, though, it also became my home.

Then, I moved to New York for my first post-college job. Within a few months, New York became my 'home'. I was no longer in school - so it made sense to give New York the true home label. However, I only stayed in New York for 9 months, and then it was back to my 'real' home, in California.

When I was living at home in California, there was no denying that I was 'at home' in every sense of the word. Our house in Los Gatos is where I have spent most of my life from age 7 onwards. When I moved to San Francisco, I immediately called my apartment in San Francisco home.

In the end, you label something as home when you are comfortable with it.

But here in India, home has taken on a new meaning. When I first arrived in Mumbai, I told everyone that 'I had finally come home'. After all, I might have spent many years in Los Gatos, CA, but I as born in Mumbai. So then, how could Mumbai not be my true home? How could anything beat that? If I had visited the hospital where I was born, then I would have said 'case closed' - Mumbai is as 'home' as 'home' can get.

But, I was wrong. A couple of weeks ago, I flew to Chennai for a 4-day weekend. When I deplaned in Chennai, I felt that, no-everything that I thought was home earlier did not feel as much like home as Chennai did. This was a strange thing for me to feel since I have probably not spent more than a month in Chennai in my life. But, I felt instantly comfortable in Chennai. A lot of this is because of the language. I could understand the Tamil conversations that I was hearing and even respond back to people in Tamil. Secondly, Tamil Nadu, unfortunately, is the kind of state where people put you into 1 of 2 categories: Tamil or non-Tamil. If you're not-Tamil, good luck. I have heard that Tamilians can be quite cold to non-Tamilians. But, being Tamil, I was welcomed home with open arms.

I hate to think that I need to feel accepted. I like to pride myself on not caring what other people think. And while this is true for me to a certain extent, it does feel good to be accepted.

Here in the North, I think people do accept me. I'm not from the North, but it doesn't matter here - I'm Indian and I'm interested in India, and so I'm accepted. Still, though, the food is not what I'm used to. And I can't speak/read/write Hindi. The latter is my problem to fix. And I'm not used to some of the customs here where everything happens later, especially meals. So, I will call Gurgaon my home because it is, but it will never feel as much like home as Chennai does.

That's not to say that I couldn't feel at home in other cities in India (not just in the South). Eventually, I could see myself warming to certain cities in India that fit my personality - places like Mysore, Bangalore, Calcutta, Goa, etc. But when you know the language, the people accept you, and the food / customs are familiar - these things go a long way.

Who knows, as I continue my travels in India, I might find a place that makes an even stronger case for being 'my home'. Maybe this place will have nothing to do with my past and the physical locations of my ancestors, but it could feel like home for intellectual/spiritual/psychological reasons. Maybe I will arrive in Srinagar one day and wonder where that city has been all my life. I'll keep myself open to that possibility...

So, now onto my actual trip in Chennai. I was in Chennai from Sept 31 - Oct 2 visiting my relatives. Below are some pictures from that trip.

Here is a picture of my cousin, Sandhya, and her 2-year old daughter Anushka. This was taken at one of the many beaches in Chennai.

Happy Chennaians frolicking at the beach. The water was incredibly warm. The beaches could have been cleaner, but weren't bad all things considered.

Chennai beach at sunset. Absolutely relaxing and peaceful. I must have gone to 5 beaches in my 4 days in Chennai. The beach food is delightful too. You can get grilled corn with masala and lemon. Or you can get vegetable bajis - they have potato, onion (my favorite), banana, and chili. Or you can get the standard peanuts.

Here I am with Harish, Sandhya's husband, at Annalakshmi restaurant. Without a doubt, the food here was the best food I've tasted in India. We had a (must have been) 7 course meal with my favorite dishes. All the exotic and rare S. Indian stuff that is hard to find in the US. I was stuffed afterwards!

The Annalakshmi sign. Annalakshmi is a chain restaurant in India and other Asian countries. This restaurant has a spiritual philosophy. All the servers are volunteers. They come from different walks of life - doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, etc. You don't know how accomplished your server is. This is a nice thing, especially in India, where servers are treated like crap by patrons. Patrons think they are gods and can talk to servers however they want to - why? Because the patrons have more money than the servers and are probably more educated. Not so at Annalakshmi. Here, the servers get treated with a lot of respect. It should be like this in every restaurant in India.

I visited the Kapaleeshwar temple in Chennai. The very first picture in this blog is of a particular ashram of the Kapaleeshwar temple that is located in the middle of a man-made lake. Not sure what the purpose of that ashram is...

Here I am in Kapaleeshwar temple.

Here are the catfish in the man-made lake. They are being fed by one of the temple workers.

Here I am at night at the Rain Tree hotel in Chennai, on Friday night.

Here is the view from Sandhya's lovely apartment in Chennai. Notice how it is much less smoggy than polluted Gurgaon / Delhi! This might be due to the more frequent rain in Chennai.

The Rain Tree hotel.

Inside the Rain Tree hotel.

Inside another 5 star hotel in Chennai. I forgot the name. Can someone remind me of the name of this place? The clocks are of times around the world. I like this because you have Chennai's time. Normally, you see cities like New York, and London, etc. Seeing Chennai there was rare but cool :)

Me outside the Rain Tree hotel.

Unfortunately, I could not visit areas outside of Chennai. My visit to Cuddalore was derailed because of 'bandh' or govt protest that shut the buses down. Tamil politics may be discussed in a later blog. In any case, I will come back to Chennai, and visit places like Pondicherry and Cuddalore, but I'm not sure when.