Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Building Community in Pune - Dec. 2008

I’ve always loved the story Swamiji tells of the time when Paramhansa Yogananda happily showed Rajarsi Janakananda his newly painted quarters at Mt. Washington. Praising the painter’s handiwork, Master marveled, “And to think it only took him a day.” Rajarsi was at a loss for words as his gaze fell upon an unpainted room, still awaiting the painter’s brush. Master’s consciousness was in another dimension entirely. To his eye, the room appeared as it would be and not as it still was.

I’ve thought of this story often since Wayne and Elizabeth Palmer and I arrived in Pune two months ago to begin creation of the Ananda Pune community. Sadhana Devi and others from Gurgaon have since joined us to expand our team and next week Swami Kriyananda shifts to the apartment reserved for him here. Just as we did at the Ananda Meditation Retreat many years ago, we are starting from scratch in a remote area, but with the hope that it won’t take us quite so long this time to develop an Ananda Village. With added energy, I expect we’ll now begin making faster progress.

Actually, I’ve been using those early days at the Meditation Retreat as a model for our Pune project. I remember Ananda starting with provision for only a few basic necessities and I have been patterning our development here along the same lines. On 1 March we have scheduled a “Bhoomi Pujan” which is the dedication ceremony for our community project. I expect we’ll have a few hundred people come for a morning program, fire ceremony, dedication and meal and we need to provide whatever is needed for that occasion. What will be needed to make such a thing possible? Water, sanitation, electricity, access, and shelter come immediately to mind. We can rent large tents for the program and cater the meals, but the other needs must be met by us. If we can provide these, we will have the basics for a “base camp” where a few hardy souls (our young monks?) can take up full-time residence.

We have yet to provide any of these services but we are working on all. Each has a story to tell. As I write, we have a crew of local villagers building a “bath house” with four toilets and two showers that should be ready by the end of January. It will be ½ brick and ½ salvaged wood, a combination of Eastern and Western building technology. This will be simple and “temporary” (3-5 years) until the retreat complex designed for this site comes into being.

Of course, for a bath house/latrine to function, we’ll need water, something that’s becoming a major obstacle. Temporarily, we’ve installed pipes to a 5000 litre hillside tank to which we can temporarily haul water by tanker truck (road needed), but that’s not a good long-term solution. Until the tank comes on line, I’ve hired a local villager to use his bullock cart to haul water to the masons for mixing mortar. There is an old bore well on the property, dug by a previous owner, but it’s caved in and useless. Water diviners came and picked two additional sites where we drilled to 300 feet but found both dry. One diviner pronounced the land to be dry and advised us to not waste more money on bore wells and to instead buy land by the local creek and drill there, piping what water we find to our land. I found that a bit discouraging. Earlier this week I had a professional hydrologist visit the property to elicit his opinion but have yet to receive his report. If he says to drill, I’ll try again. All have advised an aggressive program of rainwater harvesting (annual precipitation is said to be 100 inches) with which I agree, but I feel we need something more to secure the project.

Fortunately, we do have a final option should we need to exercise it. We have the right to draw water directly from the Mutha River, 1.2 kilometers away, and pump it to our land in pipes buried in hand-dug trenches four feet under our neighbors’ paddy fields. This would answer for all our needs but its a huge project and will probably cost in excess of twenty lakh ($50,000) without storage or filtration. I have been hoping to find something simpler to tide us over for the next few years while our demand is low.

When I first arrived, I was introduced to Rajendra Pawar, our agent for purchasing property. He and Wayne have the job of buying our land. I bow down to them both. Wayne could probably write a book of stories on this topic alone. Little did I know then the herculean task they face trying to secure title to all the tiny pieces of property that comprise the 30 acres identified as land needed for our project. Land is measured in “guntas,” one-fortieth of an acre, and some of our parcels are only five or six guntas. On top of that, often the parcels will have a dozen or more owners, each of whom must be contacted and brought to the government offices to sign off on the sale. Sometimes, these folks don’t even realize they own the property, live far away, dispute its location, don’t want to sell, or demand to compensated with land bought by us in another location. All of this takes infinite patience and time.

When I first met Rajendra, I asked, “Where are our borders?” He waved generally, saying, “It is there only, sir.” “But, where exactly?” “It is over there, sir. It is that way, sir. Over in that direction.” Try as I might, I couldn’t pin him down, and for good reason. No one seemed to know “exactly” where the borders were. It’s a shifting concept. Are the borders what is written in the government records or are they what has been recognized for generations by the local village--this tree, that rock or a local landmark? To get a handle on the situation, we hired a surveyor to locate the corners of all the parcels we had bought and then we drove stakes into the ground as markers. Sure enough, our survey boundary and the boundary recognized by the villagers don’t agree, sometimes to our favor and sometimes not. Now what do we do? Instead of throwing the village into a tizzy, we’ve decided temporarily to recognize the village lines and simply not build on disputed land to avoid future problems of ownership. Someday the government may need to come in and officially sort it out.

Once I started walking the land, I recognized an immediate need to better see what we have. Much of the land is covered by thick, prickly brush. I hired the local headman of Watunde to muster a crew of villagers to chop down and burn the brush in those areas where we intend significant construction. Opening up the landscape has made a big difference and already I can see that we’ll have to adjust our initial design slightly to conform to the reality on the ground. The town planner has told us that construction is allowed only on slopes less than 20%, so unless we do major earth moving, we’ll need to modify. Finding buildable land, along with water, is becoming another constraint and I believe we’ll have to acquire adjacent land in addition to what we have already if we are to build all that we would like to see sited here.

Still to be solved is the question of temporary shelter to allow some of us to actually live on the property full time. Solving this hasn’t been my focus because until the monsoon comes, camping is an option, but ultimately, something more is needed. We have considered various pre-fabricated options and simple site-built “kutirs” but nothing has been yet decided. I think an answer will probably emerge once our “base camp” is occupied with tents and the monsoon looms more closely.

A couple of other things to mention are Ananda Solar’s installation of a solar/wind power system to serve us until regular utility power comes on line, and plans for future agricultural projects. Both of these are in their beginning stages. Tim Clark and Jemal are working on the solar project now and should erect the wind turbine sometime in January. As for agriculture, the limitation is water. There is none. However, in the meantime, Ramani and Steve are doing research on plants and trees. Everyone in the area says our property is prime land for mango and jackfruit trees and that many other useful and commercial crops can be grown there.

In accompaniment with all the above is the importance of harmonious integration of what we doing with the local village community. This can be tricky. A large project like ours can distort the local social/economic situation and we have to be sensitive to the impacts we are having. We’ve already begun to hire local labor and I hope that is seen as beneficial but as a Westerner, I’m in a terrible position to drive a hard bargain and it’s not my nature to do that in any case. Consequently, I’m undoubtedly paying too much for anyone I hire and for anything I buy. I’m a walking cash register. I can only hope this doesn’t come back to haunt us. We really need local devotees to take this roll, but we don’t have this option yet, so Wayne and I fill in for now. Soon, I hope, we’ll be relieved of this. In the meantime, we’ve tried to make friends, be seen in the village, shop at the local store and to be as friendly as possible, but these small efforts are but a drop in the bucket of what is ultimately needed. The area could use a clinic, economic opportunities, especially for the local women, and practical services, but it will take time to tackle these.

Some of those who have shared this adventure have suggested I write some of the funny stories of the East meets West variety that have arisen daily, but I’ll save those for another time. I’ll also tell more later of our Sangha work in Pune. In the background too is all the legal maneuvering that takes place to move a project forward through the Indian bureaucracy. Tales of that will have to wait. For now, I would like to simply give the basic facts of what is being accomplished, but the best way to really understand is to come visit and see for yourself. Our international retreat in late February will be a great time to share and I hope some of you can come. With Swami moving here next week, many more will now begin to pitch in and I expect things to speed up significantly. So, if interested, this could be a fun time to visit.

All in all, our work progresses slowly and it can be really frustrating at times, but when it gets like that, I remember the story of Master and the paint job. In my mind’s eye, I too can see it as all done, but for me, the fun lies in the painting, not so much the result, however long it takes. I just have to remind myself from time to time. On one level, what we are doing is but a small project that directly impacts only a few people, but on a deeper level, projects like this are something that can have a tremendous impact if they inspire others. In that spirit, I hope you feel yourself as part of what we are doing here.

In this Christmas season, Sadhana Devi and I send you all our best wishes and pray that you have a prosperous and happy year ahead. Please keep us in your prayers as we hold you in ours.

Joy and peace,

Jaya and Sadhana Devi

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Shift to Pune

As I write this, aerial bombs right outside my window and masses of fire crackers are exploding in a cacophony of sound all around. It’s Diwali.

I’ve landed in Pune after packing and shipping most of our stuff and taking care of last minute details -- a new bank account and an Indian driver’s license. I flew in from Delhi last Friday, leaving Sadhana Devi in Gurgaon to transfer her bookkeeping responsibilities to others before joining me later.

We were still in America in September, visiting with Swami Kriyananda, when we received word that we were to relocate to Pune from the ashram in Gurgaon. Along with Wayne and Elizabeth Palmer, we would be the first wave to spearhead our new community. Honestly, I was glad to be asked to go, as life in Delhi had become a little too routine. I asked Swamiji for his thoughts about our move, hoping for some nuggets of wisdom. “Sounds fine,” he said. Hmm. Maybe there’s a deep meaning there.

A taxi took me from the airport to the northwest suburb of Pashan where I was dropped at the Vanshaj Prestige Apartments. Wayne and Elizabeth were waiting, having arrived a few days before to meet their furnishings trucked from Gurgaon. They were busily settling in. It was not the first time I had seen these apartments. Sadhana Devi and I had been here on an earlier visit to second Wayne and Elizabeth’s thought that this would be a good starting place for Ananda in Pune until something is built on our own land outside of town. We had reserved six three-bedroom apartments for ourselves and for those who will follow in the coming months: Swamiji and his personal staff, Dharmadas and Nirmala, Vijay, Tim and Lisa Clark and five brahmacharis, all due to arrive by January. Some of us will double up. Each apartment is brand new, between 1300 and 1500 sq. ft. but completely unfurnished. They rent for Rs.17,500 to Rs19,000/month (that’s about $350-$400), plus utilities.

I dropped my bags in my new home on the fourth floor and came face to face with a pile of boxes from Gurgaon and bare walls that echoed every footstep. It seemed mighty empty and a bit lonely to sit there and wonder, “How in heck did I get here?” The apartments are 300 meters up a bumpy dirt/gravel track from Sus Road, a paved, six-lane thoroughfare. I imagine the road will be paved when the neighboring construction is finished. From my windows I can see fields of half built apartment towers going up across the road and directly below, a veritable township of shanties housing those who are building the “new India.” It’s first world and third world, side by side.

My first order of business was to “register” with the local authorities at the Pashangoan registry office. I had been told to bring Rs.4000 and two hours later I discovered what this “fee” was for. Let’s just say it was off the books, with no receipt, and the payment was not “officially” required. It’s just that the papers would simply sit in a big pile in the corner for weeks and weeks or they would mysteriously disappear if payment wasn’t made, meaning I wouldn’t be able to move in. In other words, it was “black money.”

The second order of business was to find a grocery store. The boxes could wait because I was going to be hungry if I didn’t find something to eat. I had brought coffee and soon found a store where I purchased an electric kettle to heat water. I was in business. This kettle has been quite handy as I’ve found it can also be used to boil eggs, noodles and packaged soups I’ve been buying from a nice little store called a half-kilometer up the road. It’s called Spinach. Around the corner from me is Manu’s Corner where eggs, milk bottled water and snacks can be had. All have gone into our new refrigerator, bought on Saturday and delivered Sunday. The DSL came last night at 9:00 PM and the water purifier is due any day.

Wayne and Elizabeth, in Pune longer than I, by now know how to get around town. Very importantly, they have a car, which is a great help. Bhim, a Nepali moved with them from Gurgaon as their driver and generally gets anything done that needs doing. He and his family live a few kilometers down the road. Sooner or later, I’ll probably take the plunge and buy a car too so as to get back and forth to our property 30 kilometers outside of town. For now, I’ve decided to buy a motor scooter which should be fine until the next monsoon. They get great gas mileage and Pune is flooded with them. I’ve picked out a used, 100cc Honda scooter for Rs.29,000 ($620) and if all goes well, I’ll get it in the next couple of days. Without transportation, it’s tough to function here. I’m looking forward to seeing Sadhana Devi riding behind me like the Indian/Muslim ladies, side saddle and wrapped up with a scarf around her head and face.

We (Ananda Sangha) are now in the process of securing title to the last few pieces of the 30 acres we are buying in the countryside outside of town (see April 2007 posts). By December, we should have the purchase phase completed so that we can submit our plans to the town planner. It’s complicated to describe the ton of legalities, but if all goes well, we should be able to begin construction in the spring, sometime after our Bhoomi Puja, the official inauguration of the project on March 1st. I hope some of you can attend. By then, Swamiji and fifteen or more of our ashram will have shifted here.

On Monday, Wayne and I visited Watunde (probably I’ve misspelled this) with Amol, an ashram member who moved here last spring with his family. Watunde is the local village less than a kilometer from our new property, within walking distance. It’s totally agricultural and home to one thousand although only half that many are in the village at any one time. There is little employment in the village outside of farming and many leave to seek work in the city. Ostensively, we visited to see a local cricket tournament hosted by the village, but really we wanted to simply make social contact. Twenty teams were signed up to compete over four days of the Diwali holidays for prize money of Rs.5000. That’s quite a lot for a village tournament.

We arrived just as the tournament was about to commence and were welcomed as honored quests. Amol presented the local team with a new cricket bat and gave a short speech, wishing them good luck. A short puja followed at the wickets, prasad was served, and then Wayne and I took a few ceremonial swings of the bat as Amol bowled (pitched) some soft ones to us. I made contact but Wayne wiffed mightily. The village boys were polite but I’m sure they thought we were hilarious.

We retired to the headman’s (sarpanch) house for tea and conversation. Thank God Amol speaks Marathi as I couldn’t understand a word except for a Hindi word every now and then. Marathi is similar to Hindi like Italian is to French. They both derive from Sanskrit.

We sat in the “living room” of the sarpanch’s house with his ten cows and buffalos. It was all rather cozy and I felt very much at home. Tea was served and we talked about past and recent improvements to the village, the weather, his house, cows, buffalos, milk, the local dairy cooperative, the crops, our thoughts about how we could offer help in the future, and whatever else came to mind. I had wanted to meet the sarpanch because it’s always important to have good relationships in the neighborhood when building communities. It’s also likely that we might hire members of his village once work begins. He seemed like a good man who is respected by his fellow villagers.

Leaving the village, we visited our own property, there to find our surveyor mapping the boundaries to prepare an official map. In a few days, I’ll meet him again to walk the property lines and if our proposed well sites are on land already registered to us, we’ll soon have a drilling rig come to bore water wells. Electrical pumps will follow with a temporary tank and water lines to supply our planned nursery and the simple structure already on the property.

I’m hoping our brahmachari monks will take up residence on the property when they come in December, at least for some of the time. They can escape to Pune for R&R and a shower when the need arises. It will be an adventure for them as there are few amenities. Right now, it’s bare land in the boondocks, but if we can get water, electricity and sanitary facilities set up before they arrive, at least they’ll have the basics. With those, they can set up camp and begin projects necessary for our inauguration in March. Most importantly, they will be on the land to set the proper tone and vibration before others follow. I sure hope they like camping.

Besides these projects and getting settled, we need to begin work with the local congregation. We’re just starting and plan regular satsangs at Amol’s on Fridays and possibly another satsang with a cluster of disciples on the opposite side of town. On Sundays I’d like to have satsangs at a small college in central Pune and when time allows, we can begin some new introductory classes. When reinforcements arrive, we’ll start to regularly go to Mumbai too.

Things are moving quickly and I’ll write more as events unfold. Please keep us in your prayers.

Additional photos to accompany this article are available at: http://picasaweb.google.com/jayahelin/AnandaPuneNovember2008?authkey=DAVwHY_xhUw#

Friday, July 25, 2008

Test Vote in the Lok Sabha

Last week’s events in India’s national Parliament (Lok Sabha) brought an end to months of entertaining melodrama. The ruling coalition, led by the Congress Party of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, survived a “test vote” that challenged their right to govern and in the process, realigned the political landscape of Delhi. It was a stinging loss to the Communist and Hindu nationalist parties. Although multiple issues brought on the confrontation, the India-USA Nuclear Treaty about which I wrote last winter overshadowed all.

Ostensibly, the treaty allows India to have international access to nuclear fuel and advanced technology in exchange for strict monitoring of its civilian reactors by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Below the surface there lurks the deeper issue of whether India, by signing the treaty, would move into a closer strategic relationship with America. Although nothing is stated in the treaty to indicate this, the sense of many is that by pressing forward, India will step out of the shadows to play a greater, and possibly more assertive, role in Asia. Many wonder if the country is ready for it. The Communist parties see India being drawn into America’s strategic orbit as a foil against China or Iran. The Hindu nationalists see India compromising its nuclear arsenal, while the “common man,” the so called aam admi, probably cares little.

The Congress Party does not have a majority in Parliament, so it is allied with the Communist Party (CPI) to form a coalition government with Manmohan Singh, a Congressman, serving as Prime Minister. It’s been a marriage of political convenience that has often seen Mr. Singh dancing to the tune of the Communists’ choosing. For months, the CPI has threatened divorce over the issue of the nuclear treaty, staying the government’s hand and bringing Parliament to a standstill. Had the CPI walked away, it could have forced a general election, something the Congress Party feared. Food and fuel prices are going through the roof, inflation is accelerating (12%), growth is slowing, and on the whole, the government has few accomplishments to show for its tenure in office—all boding ill for the Congress Party.

Finally, sensing little to lose, Congress called the Communist’s bluff and submitted the nuclear treaty to the IAEA for approval. Sensing an opportunity to strike while the opposition was fractured, the right-wing Hindu nationalists (BJP) called for a Parliamentary “trust vote” to see if the ruling coalition still held a majority. Thus was set in motion the turmoil of the last month.

Things were looking grim for Mr. Singh and the Congress Party, especially when a small, regional party from Uttar Pradesh, the BSP, threw their 17 votes behind the Hindu nationalists. They too railed against America and felt the N-Deal infringed on Indian sovereignty. At least, that’s what they said, but mainly it was power politics and backroom deals. Both the BSP and BJP saw the fall of the government as a golden opportunity for grabbing the Prime Minister’s office for their respective leaders, L.K Advani for the BJP or Kumari Mayawati for the BSP. Since it looked like Mr. Singh’s days were numbered, they felt to strike while the iron was hot. Unbeknownst to everyone, alliances were shifting in the murky world of India politics.

Uttar Pradesh is the largest and most populated state in India, so what happens there is of national importance. Politics in the U.P. features neither the Communists, the Congress Party or the BJP but rather two regional parties controlled by intense political rivals—Mulayan Singh Yadav and Kumari Mayawati. Yadav controls the Samajwadi Party (SP) with an iron fist and a populist agenda. His chief rival is the BSP (Bhujan Samaj Party) of Kumari Mayawati, a politician on the rise in India.

The fight between Mayawati and Yadav has been a bare-knuckled contest for rule of the U.P. Mayawati came to power as Chief Minister last year, ousting her political rival Yadav. She immediately fired 30,000 police officers, a sizeable number of who too were named Yadav. Being a Dalit (Untouchable caste), Mayawati unabashedly appeals to the pent-up, communal resentment of the Dalits and lower castes toward the landowning castes that have historically subjugated and oppressed them. Somehow, in a surprising upset, she was able to forge an alliance between the Dalits and Brahmins to overwhelm her landowner, mid-caste opponents. Immediately she became a national heroine of the downtrodden. Unfortunately, she also came under investigation for coming into possession of a few hundred million (!!!) dollars in assets, tucked away in multiple bank accounts and property holdings. I loved her answer when questioned about this. “People like me and they give me gifts.”

Mayawati threw her support to the right wing BJP against the ruling coalition, spurring the Congress Party into action. Low and behold, Mulayam Yadav soon after pledged his party’s support to Congress. Having the Congress Party over a barrel, it was a perfect opportunity for him to get back at Mayawati. His move caught everyone by surprise because normally his Samajwadi Party and Congress are at each other’s throats, but you know the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Suddenly, in a stroke, the Congress Party had garnered enough votes to make up for its Communist loses, thrusting the fate of the government into the hands of a couple dozen independent, maverick MPs who let it be know that they were up for grabs. In a flash, these fellows found themselves in a once-in-a-lifetime position to name their price as each side came courting.

Stories of bribery and political horse-trading are common in India but in the last month, they have run rampant. It was widely rumored that each vote in last weeks test was worth, under the table, 25 crore ($6,000,000) but that’s probably an exaggeration. What I found astonishing was the temporary release of six MP’s currently serving jail terms for murder to allow them to cast their vote. It got so bad that on the floor of Parliament, three BJP MP’s interrupted the proceeding to hold up big bags of cash they claimed to have just received in bribe from a rival member. All this was on national TV.

In the end, the opposition came a few votes short and the Congress coalition retained power. The big losers look to be the Communists as they are now out of power and have lost positions and face. The BJP came off looking really bad as a dozen of its MP’s defected to the opposition. Mayawati, although on the losing end, actually came out of the fracas looking good as she made herself known to a national audience. I suspect you will be hearing of her in the years to come. Mulayam Singh Yadav and those like him gained influence and Manmohan Singh, usually so quiet and modest, was uncharacteristically triumphant after the vote. He advised Mr Advani, head of the BJP, to hire a new batch of astrologers to guide him in future, much to the delight of the press. Now that it has cut loose their communist anchor, the UPA/Congress Party will probably move aggressively with its agenda to show a record of accomplishment before next year’s general elections. That means pushing the nuclear treaty, revitalizing the agricultural sector and further deregulating the economy.

I find this all very fascinating and educational. Here is something I recently learned. A Member of Parliament cannot vote against the wishes of his party’s leadership without being subjected to possible expulsion from his party and Parliament. That will be the likely fate of those MP’s who defied the BJP and Communist Party’s commands. This means that political power is extremely hierarchical and in the hands of a very few people. A citizen cannot simply choose to run for office under the banner of a political affiliation as in America where anyone can call himself a Republican or Democrat. Here, that is not allowed. You can only run as a Congressman or as a member of the BJP if you are chosen by the leadership of that party to do so. “Given a ticket” is the term used. The leaders alone pick the candidates. There is no such thing as intra-party democracy or primary elections.

Sadly, politicians are generally held in very low esteem in India as it is generally assumed that they are crooks. This is why I was pulling for Manmohan Singh’s government to survive. He seems to be a man of rare intelligence and integrity, and is not a politician. Underneath the rhetoric, even his opponents respect him. You might say that he is an accidental Prime Minister. Sonia Gandhi could have taken the position four years ago but she declined when it became apparent her Italian ancestry would cause too much dissent and distraction. Instead she chose Mr. Singh who had come up through academia and as Finance Minister in the 1990’s. It was he who opened the Indian economy and fostered the tremendous growth seen in the years since. He’s essentially an a-political man and maybe that’s his problem. It’s hard to be a seal in a tank full of sharks.

As for the nuclear treaty, it still must receive clearance from the IAEA before going to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and then the US Congress for ratification. President Bush has said that he wants the opportunity to sign it while he is still in office as a positive legacy of his presidency, but at the pace it’s moving, that looks doubtful. Whatever the case, one thing is assured. It will continue to be the subject of front-page entertainment in India for many more months, while in the USA, you won’t hear much about it.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Cricket

When walking through a shopping center or a cluster of sidewalk shops in India, it’s not uncommon to see a group of intently focused men, all staring into the store. “What’s going on?” you wonder. It doesn’t take long to make an easy guess. They’re watching cricket on the shop TV. Team India is probably playing another in a series of endless matches against a national rival, probably Pakistan or Australia, the two teams India most loves to beat, Australia because it’s the best and Pakistan because.........well, because it’s Pakistan.

Cricket, that classic British import, is by far the national sport of India. Nothing comes close to challenging it. It’s the only game I see kids playing in the parks outside the occasional basketball or soccer game. Indians love cricket with a passion but few play once they grow up as India isn’t much of a sports-playing nation like America, but they love to watch. Little kids play and idolize the star players, but once adolescence comes, parents and the extended family exert tremendous pressure on children to attend to their studies. The future is depending on it. Who has time to play games when the next level of examinations is always looming to determine whether you get out of the village and into the right school to become an engineer, or end up tending shop at the local mall or roadside dhaba? Playing sports is a luxury few can afford beyond childhood but the passion for boyhood games carries into adulthood. Isn’t it like that the world over?

In a country of one billion, India has but a single national cricket team, so you can imagine how much the players are lionized when the nation's honor rests on their shoulders. When they win, they are heroes paraded in the streets. After a loss, the nation goes into mourning with a flurry of accusations and recriminations. I think it’s not too far fetched to say that cricket is the unifying force in India, cutting across language, religion, caste and region to bring the nation together in a common bond. “The Boys in Blue” are a symbol of national pride, and the fact that they are fairly good and often win (except against those dastardly Australians) is even better.

It was against this backdrop of sporting nationalism that something revolutionary happened this spring. A new form of the game, called Twenty20 cricket, has been gaining in popularity and a professional league was formed of city-affiliated teams, organized along the lines of soccer’s Premier League in England. Called the Indian Premier League (IPL), eight teams were organized to compete against each other in a two month season. Each is owned by an industrialist, business conglomerate, or Bollywood star such as Shah Rukh Khan, India's biggest movie star, who owns the Kolkata Knight Riders. International players were invited to put their names into a pool to be bid upon by the teams and the owners weren’t talking small change either. Many received hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions in some cases, to play in a season of less than 20 games. As you can imagine, many of world’s best came to give all the teams an international cast.

Huge amounts of money were at stake and many predicted a flop—Indians won’t root for foreign players or city-based teams, the new format will “cheapen” traditional cricket, it’s a marketing scam. Some wondered if the international mixing of players would undermine the concept of a national team. Others saw it all as just a gimmick. Some newspaper columnists predicted, and secretly hoped for, disaster. They longed for the mighty to fall, but it didn’t happen.

The first season of the IPL was a resounding success: full stadiums (50,000+), nightly TV coverage, a nation glued to their screens, huge ratings, fast paced action (at least by cricket standards), celebrities, imported cheerleaders (borrowed from the Washington Redskins) with skimpy outfits, lightshows, fireworks, close games, and controversy over a perceived decline in public morals. Throw in a couple of headline-inducing fights and you have all the ingredients for great theater and spinning cash registers. The games even drew a 30% audience share of women, an unprecedented number for cricket, although the purists sniffed that the ladies only watched because of the Bollywood glamour, further proof that the Twenty20 version of the grand ole game is declasse.

If you know nothing about cricket, you might be wondering what this is all about, so let me give you a short lesson. Cricket is played on a large circular field with most of the action happening in the center where the “wickets” are set. There is no foul territory. The bowler takes a running start and throws the ball (the throwing arm must be kept straight without bending at the elbow) at three thin posts (wickets) that suspend two small “pins” balanced on top. The bowler can hit the wickets on the fly or, as is usually done, he can bounce the ball in front of the batter, often putting spin on it so that it takes a tricky hop. If the pins are knocked off the wickets, the batter is out. The batter defends the wicket with his bat, knocking the ball anywhere into the playing field. If it is caught on the fly, he is out. Once he hits the ball, he has the option to run to a second set of wickets about 60-70 feet away or, if he thinks he won’t make it in time, he can stay put and await another ball. If he runs, the fielder will try to knock the pins off this second set of wickets before he arrives, causing him to be “out”. Think of running to first base in American baseball. If he makes it to the base, he remains there while another player bats. If the second batter also gets a hit, the first batter can run home and score a run.

One thing that frustrates most American viewers is this. Think of how it would be in baseball if the batter didn’t have to run after hitting a ground ball, only going if he thought he had a good chance of reaching first base. He could bat for a long time, simply swatting away balls from the wicket. That’s exactly what happens in cricket. Some batters will stay alive (“in the crease”) for hours because it’s hard for the bowler to hit the wickets when the batter has a big, flat-faced bat. Since there are eleven batters to a side, the game can drag on for a loooong time. When a bowler actually does “collect a wicket”, it’s cause for great celebration, chest bumping, team high fives and all the rest.

Cricket, as some say, is American baseball on valium. It’s really, really slow with a full game sometimes lasting for days. Twenty20 Cricket addressed this by limiting the number of “overs” for each team to twenty. An “over” is six pitched (“bowled”) balls. In traditional Test cricket, all eleven players per side are allowed to bat, no matter how many “overs” are needed (There is another shortened version that limits “overs” to fifty.). With Twenty20 allowing fewer pitches, a premium is thereby put on offensive production and teams don’t have time to settle for a steady, monotonous succession of easy, one run singles or with simply defending the wicket. Instead, they are forced to go for the big hit, a six-point home run (a “six”) when the ball is hit on the fly over the outfield boundary line. The second alternative is to hit the ball on a roll or bounce beyond the outfield boundary for four points (a “four”). This makes the game more exciting because just as in baseball, it’s the homerun that gets the fans onto their feet. As an added bonus, the shortened format leads to games of only three or four hours, the same as a typical Bollywood movie.

It was especially satisfying to see this year’s IPL championship won by the Rajasthan Royals, the team that spent the least amount of money. Compared to the big market teams like the Mumbai Indians or the Delhi Daredevils, the Royals had less glitz and hype but made up for it with a great player/captain by the name of Shane Warne from Australia. Think of the contrast between the New York Yankees and the Milwaukee Brewers and you’ll get the idea. On top of that, all the four smaller market teams (Rajasthan, Mohali, Jaipur and Chennai) made it to the playoff finals while all four high profile outfits (Bangalore, Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai) didn’t. As a startup enterprise, few expected teams to turn a profit the first year, but in the end, some of the teams did and everyone is looking forward to next year.

As you can tell, I’m a starved American sports fan. I’ve probably taken an interest in the league simply for a lack of alternatives, but there is something more to my interest than entertainment. I find it interesting to witness the birth of a sporting phenomenon and I’m intrigued by its social implications. Cricket is an international game and has always had a reputation of being somewhat stodgy. Might it now become more popular? How will it change with international success? With big, big money flowing and a fantastic launch, I’ll wager that even more players will come to India next year and the league will expand further. Will India become a sports capital? Might not similar leagues take root in other cricket countries? Will American fans take notice? Are the NRI’s (non-resident Indians) doing so already? Will Indian girls become cheerleaders?

Sports are reflective of the culture and consciousness of a country. It’s been said that baseball is a reflection of how America used to be in the past whereas football is a reflection of how it is now. Cricket is a gentleman’s game in which participants take a knee to the “spirit of the game.” We all know what it means when something “simply isn’t cricket.” The game honors a spirit of fair play, rule of law, order, leisurely pace, and gentlemanly virtues. You might say that India is sometimes marked by the utter absence of these qualities in daily life, but I think it matters that these are traits with which a society identifies to which it aspires.

Some locals worry that the new league will somehow weaken fans fanatical interest in their national team. I say, “I hope it does!” After all, they say, once we start to take a liking to those Aussies on the local team, how can we summon the passion to hate them when they play against India in the next international test match? Might we actually come to like those duplicitous Pakistanis or oily Bangladeshis?

From a strictly sporting view, the new league has given dozens of young, local players a chance to step forward. When there is only one team of consequence in the entire country, what are the chances of ever playing for it? Why bother? Now there are more, leading a young kid to think, “Maybe I don’t have to grow up and be a computer engineer after all.” Of course, some will say it isn’t good to invest one’s life in hopeless dreams, but I’m happy to see kids have a choice. Maybe a few of the older ones will go out into the sunshine and play for a change. Maybe the success of cricket will spill over into the other, totally neglected sports that languish here on the sidelines such as basketball, tennis, golf, soccer and field hockey (Really, it’s actually quite a good game). Maybe a few more young athletes will be given a greater chance. If so, I’m all for it.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Ananda Pune - A Plan, Letter #17

I’m always amazed at the marvelous variety of talents we have in the Ananda communities. It’s almost assured that a Sangha member can be found with the right skill-set to solve whatever problem comes along. That certainly was the case for us in India when JT Heater and Alex Forrester came all the way from Ananda Village to help us plan the Ananda Kriya Yoga Community in Pune. Working with our local architect, Amardeep Singh, JT and Alex extracted from us a unified vision, and translated our thoughts into a visual design for presentation to the public, Swami Kriyananda and prospective members.

When I wrote last month's weblog post, a group of us had just returned from touring our property in Pune. Immediately, an invitation was sent to JT and Alex requesting their help. JT Heater is a professional, resident architect at Ananda Village with many years experience in design. Alex Forrester, also an Ananda resident, is a professional community planner and highly knowledgeable in the science of permaculture. Amardeep Singh is a local architect whose firm we have chosen to prepare plans that can be navigated through the Indian regulatory process. Together, these three great souls were able to coalesce our ethereal concepts into a realistic plan of action.

As I've mentioned before, we are developing a multi-use community with a retreat, institute, hospice, school, monastery, commercial area and residential quarters for 100-200 people on 30 acres of land in the countryside outside of Pune in central India. We now own about twenty of those acres but hope to have title to all by the end of the year. As funds allow, we'd like to buy additional, adjacent land, but for now we feel that thirty acres will allow us to begin.

If you look at the map above, you’ll see that development is densely clustered in the lower, northern half of the property. (The missing North arrow would point down.) The upper half of the property, much of which is not shown, rises into steep hillsides in excess of 30% gradient, making it unsuitable for building but, positively, creating an undeveloped backdrop to the community below. To the north (down on the map) and below the bordering road, are cultivated paddy fields of local villagers. The view in this direction from the community is across a broad, agricultural valley toward hills in the distance, three or four miles away.

The community’s design is a combination of elements found at Ananda Village mixed with the high-density housing found in Ananda’s urban, residential communities in Palo Alto, Portland, Sacramento and Seattle. On the left (east) side of the map, you will see a guest retreat complex and a Temple of Light. In the center are apartment flats served by a village/community commercial center. To the right (west) will be larger houses, a school, hospice or some combination of these elements. Two alternatives are drawn on the far right. On the upper, right side of the map is a home of Swamiji and a monastery with seclusion “caves” adjacent. At the entry will be reception offices and a boutique with a landscaped garden offering a beautiful view of the temple on the hillside above.

One of the nice features of the design is that the elevation contours run across the land from left to right as shown on the map, allowing for pedestrian traffic to traverse the community on an easy grade. You will be able to walk from the houses on the far western edge to the temple without having to climb the hillside. It’s only a walk of a few hundred yards. We hope to limit interior traffic to electric carts and bicycles, but both Vidura and I have our doubts about how well residents will conform to this. From our experience, people don’t really like to walk, even though they affirm that they do. We keep joking that people will drive into their living rooms if given the chance. I think those of you who live at Ananda Village know what we mean. Somehow we have to construct a design that lets residents get reasonably close to their destination while still keeping the cars in check. We’ll see.

Our next step is to show the plan to Swamiji for comment. Nirmala and Dharmadas flew to Rome to show him our progress, bringing with them maps, drawings, and a three dimensional model made in an amazingly short time by Amardeep’s employees. It’s quite something. They have said that Swamiji's first reaction has been very positive. Assuming few changes are needed, more detailed plans will be drawn and we’ll engage engineers to do calculations and design for all of the infrastructure needs—roads, water, electricity, sewage, etc. While this is happening, plans can be refined further, more land purchased, applications submitted, budgets set and serious fundraising begin.

We’ve been promoting this particular project since last fall when Swami visited Pune to see the property we have now bought. It’s hard to excite people about something they can’t see and can hardly imagine. Cooperative communities aren’t all that common, after all. Yet, even with these obstacles we’ve had dozens of people express interest and many have been willing to give an initial donation to help with the land purchase. What most want now is a firm plan, a graphic design, a list of requirements and details about what their costs will be. These are the questions all of us want answered and we have local residents working on them.

Ananda Village in California was a “build it as you go” project where it took ten years to provide basic services and houses that were more than country cabins. That model worked well for us because we were young and it conformed to the “hands on” spirit of the times. We were learning as we grew, both in how to build a community and in our attunement to Master's teachings. Our city communities were able to purchase already constructed housing complexes and improve them, thus creating a community much more quickly. Here, we must develop from scratch a mostly "turn-key" project within a short time frame. To do this, we need large sums in advance and then find ways to pay it all back. It is a daunting prospect. One idea is to have potential residents “buy” flats so that we can use their money to first build the retreat, community buildings, Swami's house and infrastructure. Can you guess the problem with this approach? How do we build the residential flats for when people come, furniture in tow? “Details, details, Jaya. You just need more faith. It’ll all work out.” Right!

One thing we all agree upon is the need to attract people who are spiritually motivated foremost. That’s why we’ll begin with construction of our retreat, creating something like The Expanding Light. For this, we’ll depend heavily on donations, and I suspect we'll provide for residential needs with funds provided by those who choose to make the community their home. Naturally, everything will be built in phases, so our task now it to raise a few million dollars to get the project off the ground. Simple! Who knows? Maybe we’ll attract a sponsor.

I’m sure some of you are interested in coming to see for yourself our new land. If so, you may want to visit next February. We are planning to have an international retreat in Pune similar to what we’ve done the last four years in Gurgaon. It’ll be a four-day event in the city. From there, everyone will have a chance to visit the property and Swami may even dedicate the community at that time. It’s highly likely we’ll also organize a pilgrimage to spiritual and cultural locations in South India to coincide with the retreat, so you may want to start planning now.

I’ll keep posting updates as our plans unfold. For now, I don’t think much will happen until the fall and Swamiji returns from America. This is the time of year many in the ashram take vacations and return to America or Europe, so it will be quiet in Gurgaon until the hot season and monsoon are over. Things are, however, proceeding in the background, and once fall comes, we should have a clearer idea of our next step. Many of us are hoping our ashram shifts to the city of Pune, but for now, Gurgaon, the official "City of Malls" remains our home

Ananda Pune-Letter #16

I finally found a chance to visit our new land outside of Pune. I was in the city last weekend to conduct meditation programs with Dhyana and Karpani, so it was convenient to stay a couple days extra to see the property. Dharmadas, Nirmala, Vidura, and Wayne had arranged to fly in on Monday to meet Amol and Amit who were already there, so I joined them to check out the situation.

For the last many months we’ve been going regularly to Pune to nurture a small but strong core group of kriyabans and new students. Our introductory program last weekend drew fifty-five and another twenty came to the advanced course. We’ve been doing programs at The Poona Club, an old stately place in the heart of the city. It still retains a flavor of the Raj: cricket players in white, a beautiful green pitch, members on a shaded veranda, liveried servants with tea, couples taking their daily “constitutional” about the grounds. A friend is a member and that’s how we can have our program there. We’ve discovered the importance of doing events at well-recognized, centrally located venues so when people see our ad in the newspaper, they’ll think, “The Poona Club! I know where that is and it’s a nice place. These people must be legit. I think I’ll go.”

I’ve been to Pune many times by now and I like it. It’s easy to navigate and although big, it’s not huge like Delhi or Mumbai and the weather is better too. The city and surrounding metro area has a population of about five million but it seems smaller until you to drive around the outskirts and see the sprawl of new development extending in all directions. Public transport is primarily by fleets of three-wheeled motor-rickshaws, but they’re metered, thus eliminating the price bickering that so typically drains non-locals. Everywhere in Pune you see schools and colleges and I’ve heard it said that Pune is the “Athens of India.” Amol grew up there and when I asked him if it’s true that there are two hundred colleges in Pune, he said, “Oh yes! There are two hundred management colleges alone. How many others, I don’t know.” With so many schools, naturally there are lots of young people, most of who seem to be on a motor scooter.

On Monday Amol, Amit and I met the others at the airport and we drove to a restaurant overlooking the city and then to a hotel outside of town, halfway to our land. We dropped off our stuff, washed up and continued our journey into the countryside. The road is excellent, a two-lane highway that goes over the hills west of town and drops into a beautiful agricultural valley of paddy, onion, grain and assorted vegetable fields. A few simple villages line the road. The fields are small and I saw no tractors but plenty of bullocks working the fields. Women and men were harvesting wheat with sickles, tying the sheaths into bundles for threshing. It was probably much the same a hundred years ago. Ten miles further, we turned onto a one-lane asphalt drive and kept going. The road dissolved into gravel, potholes appeared, dust began to billow and the road ended at a little concrete house above the road. Welcome to Ananda Pune.

The valley, so scenic and clean, is protected by the government from haphazard development as a reserved “tourist zone.” No industry is allowed there. Further up the highway is a big, concrete dam and lake with a turnoff to Lavasa City, a multi-billion dollar development where entrepreneurs are creating a modern “hill station” for the upper class from Mumbai. Maybe that’s one reason things are kept so nice in the outlying areas.

The Ananda property is about two miles off the main highway, nestled up against the surrounding hills and about an hour and a half drive from central Pune. The valley floor is prime agricultural land, sustaining the local people who rarely sell it. For the villagers, to sell one’s land is to lose one’s livelihood because they have few skills or opportunities outside of farming. In the hills, however, land is less prized because it is dry, much harder to irrigate and therefore less suitable for farming. That is what we have bought.

The hills have two seasons—green and brown. The monsoon arrives with heavy rain in June and tails off in August and September, leaving behind a lush carpet of beautiful green that lasts for many months. As the hot season approaches, the land turns brown as it does in California where the hillsides alternate in a similar half-year cycle between wet and dry. In fact, I was reminded of the brown grass and brush hills of the Coast Range, but instead of familiar oaks, I saw an occasional mango, jackfruit and other unfamiliar trees.

From the contour maps I had seen before, I was prepared to be disappointed because, on the map, the land seemed steep. I was pleasantly surprised and liked what I saw. Even though dry now, the land is beautiful and it’s easy to imagine it being splendid once the rains come. I found many useful pockets for sensitive development. The gentle roll of the hillside between creeks and hillocks falls away into the valley below, allowing for numerous and distinct use areas.

The land faces the valley to the north (In India, this is auspicious.) with cliffs rising steeply behind. A dry watercourse along the northern border gives evidence of a rainy season flow and up the canyon are potential waterfalls. But, best of all, it’s quiet. Sitting in the shade on an old rock wall, I could hear insects buzzing and wind rustling in the trees with no sound of cars, horns, or music. Ahhhh. I loved it.

No, it’s not all idyllic. Within a few minutes I’d cut myself on thorns, the sun was hot, trees are few, and it’s far away from modern conveniences. I’m sure some won’t care for the forty-five minute drive to any type of store serving more than the basic needs of villagers. I can imagine a visitor thinking, “Geez, we’re really in the boondocks!”

I remember the early years at Ananda Village when a trip to town was a big deal. I’d go once each month to visit the hardware store, bank or grocery. At the time, I thought that was great, but I was young, a sadhu, and hardly typical. I remember the months before moving to Ananda in 1969 when I had attended a series of organizational meetings at Swamiji’s apartment. Prospective members gathered to discuss and debate the ins and outs of building a community in the foothills. As perhaps the youngest in the group, I said little, but I later found it instructive to discover that only one or two of those many who attended the meetings ever moved to the country. Have you ever noticed that sometimes a vacation or journey is more fun in the planning and anticipation than in the doing? Most people talk, few do.

As raw land, the property is very nice but notice my use of the word “raw”—no electricity, no drinking water, no roads. Nada. A tremendous investment of money and energy is needed. I see years of hard work ahead and pray for more young men and women to join our ranks. Young people pioneered Ananda Village so maybe the same will be true for India. At the Village, because we had little money, we substituted youthful enthusiasm and energy, but in India, perhaps we can find a way to attract financing and speed up the process.

By Monday evening, it was time to pin down details concerning our borders and transfer that data onto our topographic map. We’ve never had a clear picture of what we own so now was the time to sort it out. Dr. Wani, the man coordinating our purchase, brought out the local equivalent of a regional parcel map. Which of the hundreds of parcels on the map was ours? I had mistakenly thought that we had bought one large piece, but it turned out to be not so simple. One by one we checked the parcel numbers of our individual pieces and outlined each on the map. What became clear is a realization that we have actually bought about 20 small pieces, some less than a half acre, and when outlined, they are not all contiguous. Instead, what I had thought to be a large rectangle took the shape of a horseshoe with a few stray bits here and there. Surprise!

As the outline took shape, I think each of the Americans had the same thought, “Oh, oh. I don’t think this is going to work. Where are the missing pieces?” Dr. Wani assured us that this was “in process,” and when completed, we’d own about 30 acres with most of them contiguous. To my eye, I think we’ll need more than 30 acres, probably in the neighborhood of 50 to fit all the pieces together and include enough adjoining property to make a workable community. But, we have started and taken the first big step. One by one, the missing pieces will be added.

We spent the night at the roadside hotel and discussed options the next morning before making our way back to the airport. Wayne stayed over another day to scout the city to find possible locations for another Wishing Tree store. All morning we asked ourselves, “What’s next?” We decided to proceed with our planning “as if” we already owned the missing pieces. We’ll pray for the best, but at the same time do whatever is necessary to move the project forward. Dr. Wani says it’s only a matter of time before we have the land we need and that he is working on it, but my mind says, “Yes, I’m sure that’s true, but how much time?” I’m an impatient American, you see. Some of the small acreages have unclear titles, others have multiple owners who can’t agree, and some belong to people who are hard to find. Rationally, it could be argued that we should wait until everything is in order before planning proceeds, but a door of opportunity is now open and if we don’t walk through now, planning will stop until fall or next year.

What an adventure. By the time you read this, whatever I say could all be out of date. Amol and his wife Arati will move to Pune next month with their children. Perhaps others from the ashram will follow in the fall to magnetize a congregation and teaching center. In the meantime, we’ll scout for possible locations to start an ashram in the city while planning and development goes forward in the countryside. Who knows, maybe Swamiji might even move to Pune later in the year. That would certainly give the project a boost. All I can say is, “Stay tuned.”

Friday, January 18, 2008

Girl/Boy Ratio in India

I read with interest an article in the Delhi newspapers. A motion in Parliament was passed, with overwhelming support, requiring children to take care and financial responsibility for their parents in old age. Presumably, the next step is for a committee to draft a suitable law to be brought back to the floor of Parliament for debate and a vote. Parliamentarians, it was said, gave impassioned speeches with tears in their eyes, lamenting the state to which Indian values had descended to make such a law necessary. The care of elders is a sacred duty and something that families had always before performed as a matter of course.

What prompted this measure is an increase in the number of elders who have been “abandoned” by their children to fend for themselves, straining the limited social services of the government. The system is overwhelmed with other problems and provision for the elderly is simply not something that can be added to the burden. Society has become more fluid, people are less rooted to their ancestral villages and the tight social networks as of the past have loosened. People now live longer too and young people are less willing to shoulder these costs and traditional responsibilities.

As I read the article I couldn’t help but wonder how such a law would be administered and how it could possibly be crafted to be fair. It sounded a bit like political grandstanding and perhaps nothing will come of it. On the surface it sounds noble but I wonder if the consequences have been fully considered? If children are forced to be responsible, by law, for aging parents, which child will bear that responsibility? In a patriarchal society such as India, the financial impact will fall first upon the son and his family. A daughter, upon marriage, traditionally leaves her family home to join her husband’s and it is her duty to look after her husband’s parents in old age. Sons bring wives and wealth into a family, daughters leave and take wealth away, so having a son is important. Parents go to great lengths to insure their son’s education and financial success because he is their “Social Security.” Would enforced elder care not increase this pressure more?

India does not have a Social Security System as does the United States and only a small percentage of elders receive a pension or have an independent income large enough to cover their financial needs. Old age is a perilous time in India when only a few have adequate savings, a source of assured income, investments, a business, or inherited wealth to manage life on their own. Thus, you see extended families and parents living with their children. It is one’s family that must be relied upon and this is how it is in most of the world. Without children or an extended network of cousins, nieces or nephews, life can be hard and it is understandable why there is such an emphasis placed upon marriage, children and family in India.

Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to this—female foeticide. It is a sad fact of modern India that the number of boys in the population heavily outweighs that of girls. The boy-girl ratio in the age group 0-6 in India has fallen from a healthy 972 girls per 1000 boys in 1901 to 927 in 2001. Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat have 790-870 girls per 1000 boys. The ratio is better for girls in tribal communities and worse in the cities, probably because of education and urban access to clinics and prenatal diagnostics. Although India passed a law in 1994 making pre-birth sex determination illegal, if one can pay the appropriate “fee,” just about any service can be had. It’s OK to let the first child be selected by chance but if it is a girl, something more than chance is needed for the next one.

I find it notable that the states with the worst ratios are in the northwest where we live. Is this why I sometimes see masses of young men on the street but rarely big groups of young women outside of school. Of course, the men are working, but I wonder what effect this imbalance has upon society. In some villages, the ratio is so bad that young men have little hope of marrying locally, if at all, creating a good business for importers of brides from the south and West Bengal. I have wondered, “Why is the ratio so bad here?” I would guess one reason could be a greater emphasis on dowry. It would be a good study for some ambitious student. Modern families foreswear dowry in theory, but when it comes time to marry, old traditions assert themselves even though dowry is supposedly illegal. If statistics are to be believed, a tradition once confined to the upper castes has now spread throughout all segments of society, fueled by India’s growing prosperity and materialism. A mass of consumer “stuff” is demanded by the groom’s family and forked over by the bride’s to insure a good match (Remember, India is a land of arranged marriages.) If it isn’t delivered, the newly married girl might find herself in peril. The Delhi prison has a "mother-in-law wing" to house those ladies who did away with their son's wives who didn't deliver the goods.

Family wealth is another factor for the preference for boys. Traditionally, families of substance are unwilling to allow their inheritance to pass into the hands of another family unrelated by blood to their own. Kerala, a matriarchal state, might be an exception, but even there, statistics show a preference for boys. Of course it is dangerous to make generalizations, but I will do it anyway. Boys, by and large, are treated better than girls in India in middle and upper class homes. This is probably true in the villages too but I haven't the experience to know for sure. Boys are pampered and catered to in the family home and rarely lift a finger to help with chores if the family can afford a servant, whereas girls do help around the house and serve their brothers, all of which fosters a sense of male entitlement. I’m sure families love their daughters dearly, but old customs and tradition exerts a subtle pressure. “Girls have a cost. Boys are an asset.”

India is trying really hard to change these old ways but it’s an ancient culture and can only change slowly. I’m happy to see the emphasis placed upon education here, for boys and girls alike. As the country prospers, young women will begin to demand, and be granted, greater opportunities and more autonomy. It’s my feeling they will be the major force that transforms India into a modern country. Ironically, India has not been reluctant to elevate women to positions of political leadership, as exemplified by Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law Sonia, so perhaps America has something to learn from that. This is a time a great change in India, when old ways are being challenged by new realities. Just as during the gold rush in California, it was mostly men who pioneered, dug the mines, established the foundations and built the industry, but it was the women who civilized the West into a modern society. I think something similar, and good, will happen in India during the coming century.

I’m sorry if this is all a bit depressing, but I find it striking and can’t help but take notice. I’ll end with a couple of quotes from The Hindu, a major daily in India.

Ward rounds in a hospital in the small town of Mokama. I am examining a young woman who delivered her second baby the previous night. I tell the mother that her baby is healthy and beautiful. She turns away, sullen and silent. "It's a girl," says the nurse. "That's why."

The couple sitting opposite me in the clinic are young and wealthy. She is three months into her third pregnancy and wants to know the sex of the unborn baby. Their two bright-eyed daughters aged four and two are playing outside. I explain. It is against the law; the number of girls in our country is dwindling; all-girl families are often high achievers. The husband's patience begins to wear thin. They leave my clinic with the frown of those who will not come back to me. I find out later that the woman "miscarried" in Bangalore. Yet again, a doctor careless of the law, and one more added to the list of unborn girls, now numbering millions.