Monday, October 19, 2009

Keeping it legal

It seems that every Ananda community, whether in Assisi, California, Seattle or India, must deal with the problems of government regulations, bureaucratic oversight, difficult neighbors and legal hurdles. Things are no different in Pune although I find the form these take here to be more entertaining (or exasperating) than I’ve been accustomed to expect.

For the last year we’ve been working to receive permission to build a community with multiple uses on land that is reserved solely for agriculture. Since the concept of “community” as we use it is not familiar to local planners, we sometimes employ the term “institute,” even though all the locals simply say we are building an ashram, a term everyone knows and accepts. We’ve had to first establish an Ananda Sangha Trust in the state of Maharashtra (no small task), transfer our property ownership into this entity, consolidate our land holdings into one unit, define the official boundaries and then apply to the appropriate commissions for zone changes. It all seems so cut and dry on the surface but it’s only now, after one year of work, that we are taking our official submissions. In the meantime, our development has been constrained by local, village requirements, meaning that we can construct no more than 4000 sq. ft. of building space. Anything more must be designed in such a way as to be considered “temporary”.

It’s amazing what is considered temporary. It's such a loose term that just about anything could potentially qualify. It seems that the primary consideration is whether a building has a standard, permanent foundation dug into the ground with a solid roof over it. This is why the monks have built on concrete posts and pillars. Rammed earth buildings are “temporary” because they can be pushed over if necessary. I imagine a wood frame building on piers like those found in America, whatever its size, would be considered temporary because everyone knows those things won’t last beyond a lifetime. It could be argued that everything is ultimately temporary, so why worry about it? That argument might work on the village level, but because we are doing something broader, we have to proceed in a way that also satifies the higher scrutiny of officials in Pune. That’s a lot tougher.

You may have heard of Tip O’Neill’s quote, “All politics is local.” Doing a construction project in a small village in the countryside of India has reminded me of the truth of that statement. You may aim to change the world, but first you need to fix the neighborhood path. The other day I got a call telling me that someone had decided to dig, in protest, a trench across our road so as to block traffic. Road blocking is a familiar, local tactic. If you are upset, you block someone’s road and make angry threats in a very loud voice. He was sending a message that “he wasn’t going to take it anymore!” Unfortunately, I had no idea what our neighbor was so mad about, but after a little digging, it turned out that he and his wife were angry with the fellows who had originally built the road five years ago. They had failed to pay them for a small corner of their property crossed by the road. The villager had now decided that it was our job to resolve this for him. Did he ask us for help? Did he come and talk to us first? Of course not! He simply dug up the road. That’s how things work here.

Since the wife worked as a laborer on Swami’s house, I asked to speak with her. I reasoned, I complained, I appealed, I waved my arms and threatened dire consequences. No luck. She and her husband simply said they would continue to dig up the road unless they received satisfaction ($$$). Eventually, a nephew appeared to argue on their behalf. He looked like a Bollywood thug. A crowd gathered to enjoy the scene, multiple phone calls were placed until finally Amol (an Ananda Sangha Trustee in Pune) counter-threatened to stop the entire project and lay everyone off for a month if the road damage continued. This got everyone’s attention and brought an end to the argument. Stopping work was serious and the couple could ill afford to be the cause of their neighbors’ loss of wages. We soon came to an agreement. We would intercede with the previous owners on the couple’s behalf in an attempt to resolve their problem. They, on their part, would cease being a nuisance and repair the road. We had to go through this entire drama to reach an agreement that could have easily been achieved if they had simply come and talked to us first. But, the villagers aren’t used to dealing with common problems in any other way.

It wasn’t ten minutes after the road issue was resolved that I noticed a bunch of cleanly dressed, mustachioed men with sunglasses talking to our backhoe driver. You can easily spot the Indian politician and government official. This fellow and his henchmen had come from the talathi’s office to shut down our construction work because we hadn’t received the proper permissions from his office, or so he claimed. (The “talathi” is like the tax collector and registrar of government records. In India, it’s a prized post because of the many fees that pass through his office, making wealthy whoever holds the position.) To every assertion by the talathi, Biraj calmly explained in his broken Hindi that we were perfectly within our rights and no such permissions were necessary. "Toddle along, old chap and let us be." The fellow became increasingly frustrated by our lack of submissiveness to his position until he finally puffed himself up and asserted in English, “I AM GOVERNMENT!!”

After fifteen minutes of back and forth dickering (He making demands and we playing non-comprehending simpletons.), we called our attorneys. They quickly pointed out to this fellow that he was totally mistaken and that he should ask his supervisor to show him all the papers we had already submitted. The attorneys knew that no bureaucratic subordinate in his right mind in India would ever ask his boss for such a thing because it was highly likely the supervisor didn’t know the legalities or had ever read whatever documents had been submitted. He didn't do such things and that such a request would only cause embarrassment. This was something a subordinate could never do. To save the inspector from having to approach his supervisor, our attorneys volunteered to provide him with photocopies of everything in ten days. In this way, no one would lose face and the inspector would then be in the clear. He was now happy.

All the while this was going on, I could see one of the henchmen making surreptitious gestures toward me. He wanted to convey something, so afterward, when the above negotiations ended, he let me know through our labor foreman that the talathi had visited us at this particular time because was hoping for a “gift”, this being the season of Diwali when the giving of gifts is customary. I sent back an inquiry about what type of “gift” the talathi had in mind. “American googles (sunglasses), a baseball cap and some cash would do nicely.” After all, it was the day before Diwali.

Two weeks ago, Arjuna Lucki arrived from Italy to offer his help with our construction projects. Arjuna is one of the leaders of our Assisi center with extensive construction experience, he being the driving force behind the creation of our beautiful Temple of Light in Assisi and the temple/dining room/kitchen at the Expanding Light. He came to Pune with the thought of helping us finish Swami Kriyananda’s house but quickly realized there is little for him do to directly speed that project along. For now, it’s mostly in the hands of our contractor. Knowing of Arjuna’s fondness for temples, I suggested he help us erect a simple, temporary mandir (temple) we had been hoping to build before the end of the year. We need something to last us for a few years until we can afford to build a more substantial building and had been thinking of a pandal (tent). It was just the right project to get Arjuna excited and, as suspected, it wasn’t long before thoughts of a simple pandal had expanded into a pavilion with a blue mosaic-covered, ferro-cement roof shaped similarly to that of the temple in Assisi. To keep it within our budget, the sides would be open or closed with canvas. (See photo.)

As Arjuna and I were talking over the design with our local architect, a thought kept going through my mind, “How in the world are we going to justify this as a ‘temporary’ building?” We arranged a meeting with our attorneys and presented them with the dilemma. “Tell me again. What is this building for?” they asked. “It’s a place for satsang, puja, meditation and that sort of thing.” Hmmm. Thinking. Big smile. “No problem. It’s a mandir (temple)! Here’s what you do. Make a picture of what the mandir will look like when finished and put it on a big banner. In big letters, have a name for the mandir on the banner, something that clearly identifies it as a religious place. Dhyanmandir, or something like that. Place this at the site, and at the bottom, put our mobile numbers so that if anyone shows up asking questions, they can call us. Don’t say anything if officials come. Just have them call us. Oh, and one more thing. Make sure to start the project with a big puja to which all the local people are invited and hand out lots of sweets after. You won’t have a problem.”

We haven’t tried this yet, but maybe this is what we’ll do. We’re still thinking about it. In India, if you want to build a temple, it’s hard for anyone to object. You see temples everywhere and in the most unlikely of places. If someone gets inspired, they erect a temple without bothering with government regulations. That’s just how it is.

Arjuna has now returned to Italy for a couple of weeks to take care of personal business before returning in time to start this project in November. I’m hoping he’ll have a chance to show the design to Swamiji for his feedback. If everything goes well and we can squeeze enough money out of our limited budget, we hope to finish our “temporary” temple within a couple of months.

As you can tell, we have a lot on our plate. When it will be completed is anyone’s guess but we’re hoping to have Swami’s house habitable by the end of the year. “Habitable” doesn’t mean completely finished but we should have the inside working. We won’t have the staffs’ quarters done and landscaping will still need lots of work, but no doubt we’ll be far enough along to begin thinking of what comes next. Retreat? Flats? There will always be something.

Much joy to everyone,


(PS: If you would like to help us manifest our new mandir, you can contact me at my normal email address or at for information about how you can contribute.)

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Along the western coast of India, passing through the states of Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra into Gujarat, is a range of low mountains called the Western Ghats. Compared to the Sierras they are rather tame, going up to only 5000 feet further south of here and reaching only half that around Pune. The Ghats block the westerly winds off the Arabian Sea to create a rain shadow on their eastern side. Along the coast and in Mumbai, the monsoon rains are very heavy, but by the time the clouds cross the mountains, the monsoon slackens considerably, giving Pune only about 30 inches of rain per year. That’s a moderate amount. In the mountains, however, the totals can be considerably more, sometimes three, four of five times as much, depending upon location. Watunde Village, where we are building our Kriya Yoga Community, is in the Ghats, nestled in the river valley of the Mutha River below the Tenghar Dam. There, during the monsoon season, it rains a lot.

The annual Southwest Monsoon is India’s most important meteorological feature. The national economy and well being of the country depends upon the arrival of the annual rains delivered by the monsoon blowing up from the southern Indian Ocean. When for two consecutive years the rains failed in the 1870’s, millions perished in the resulting famine. All the farmers in our area rely upon the rains for their annual rice crop and Pune City would be completely without water should the rains not replenish its storage lakes in the Ghats. Because the monsoon arrived late this year, we had a taste of what this means when the city began to ration water, drill emergency wells and delivering water to sections of town by tanker truck when the reservoirs went dry in June.

Typically, the monsoon is said to arrive in Pune on June 10th but of course it can actually arrive anytime between the end of May and early July. This year, it was particularly late. Thunderstorms and clouds rolled into Pune in early June but little rain fell on our side of the Ghats. In Watunde, June brought a steady drizzle but the dry earth soaked up whatever came down. Villagers grumbled because many had sowed their rice crop early, hoping to get a jump on the growing season, but without adequate rain in early June, they were forced to replant. Daily articles appeared in the newspapers about the lack of rain and its consequences until finally, early last week and a month late, heavy rain came for three consecutive days, flooding the paddy fields and turning them into small ponds.

What a difference the rain makes to the landscape! From a dusty, parched brown, the hillsides were magically transformed to a lush garden green. Waterfalls cascaded down hillsides and you can almost hear the trees growing. Villagers happily flocked to their fields to transplant their starter crop of rice into the wet paddy mud. Only when the fields are flooded can this be done, so everyone has been anxiously awaiting the rain’s arrival. Villagers who had before been working on our building project now no longer show up in the morning as they have more important business to attend to in their fields.

For those of us from the Pune ashram who attend to projects and oversee construction on our land, the rain is welcome compared to the intense heat of April and May, but it also presents its own challenges. Once solid roads have become impassable mud tracks; supply trucks no longer reach our construction site; water tankers upon which we once depended now refuse to come; everyone and everything is wet and muddy; and our building project sometimes slows to a crawl. It’s just about impossible to work when the heavy rain comes, although we try.

I think it was in March, after the Bhoomi Pujan, when I last wrote about our progress in Watunde. I had thought then that we would have a breather after the intense push to host the puja but it was only days later that we began planning for two houses and a handful of small “kutirs” (cabins) for Swami and his immediate staff. Our hope was to begin construction in May and complete all foundation work before the onset of the wet weather. Should the rains catch us before we were “out of the ground” we could be in serious trouble. To realize our goal, we had to determine the location of the buildings, have them architecturally designed, hire a contractor, provide serviceable all-weather access, electricity, water and other infrastructure, and stockpile enough material on site to avoid the inevitable access problems that the monsoon would bring. Oh, and one more thing, we needed to actually buy the property where we had chosen to site the buildings.

Our intent has been to complete a home for Swami for when he returns to India later this year. When we’ll finish the houses remains unanswered but so far we are on track to have a house ready for him and another for Nirmala and Dharmadas by the end of the year. If all goes well, we could finish sooner. Our contractor’s intention is to finish his part of the job by October but once he leaves, we will still be faced with all the finishing details, landscaping and the provision of utilities.

On the afternoon of the Bhoomi Pujan in March, before Swamiji departed, we showed him an area where we thought we could build a home for him and received his approval. It is uphill from our intended retreat/temple area in a grove of trees with a beautiful view. A large mango shades the site. This spot was chosen not only for its beautiful setting but also because it is close to the area where we have already developed a few simple facilities, making possible a quick start. These services could be extended to serve Swami’s site as well.

Dharmadas and Nirmala took on the task of coordinating the architectural design of the buildings and working with our architect, Amardeep Singh, in Delhi. He designed two beautiful one-storied homes with four or five nearby staff cabins. Biraj concentrated his efforts toward buying the land under and adjacent to the buildings, making sure everything conformed with our on-going legal process, organizing contractors and developing a bidding process through which we found someone to do the actual construction. He then drew up a contract and got the work started. I was tasked with getting everything ready on site in preparation for construction, supplying all the services that would eventually be needed and supervising our contractor, Bhalchandra Deo. In this effort, I have had the help of Avinash Dias, Hari Sharma and Tim Clark (before he left for the USA for the summer). Together, we have made sure that Deo has had everything he needs to keep the job moving forward.

Along the way, we’ve learned a few lessons. Don’t start building until you OWN THE PROPERTY! If you know my history of past mistakes at Ananda, you’d think I’d have learned this by now, but because we were in such a hurry (again!) to beat the monsoon, we jumped the gun on the property issue. I’m happy to say that we actually own the property under Swami’s house but all around we were in the midst of negotiations that began to go south once construction began. The neighbors aren’t dumb and they can see an opportunity when it stares them in the face, so prices started to go up. Small parcels we thought to be locked up began to be withheld. This happened again and again. The footings of Swami’s foundation actually crossed over the property line onto one lady’s land who we thought had agreed to sell to us. She changed her mind and forced us to halt construction until we met her daily escalating demands. Another fellow, Prakash, who owns land further below Swami’s site, half jokingly told us, “I’m not selling. Instead, I’m thinking of setting up a hotel and teashop to serve all the workers that will be coming to your place.” Not a bad idea, actually, from his point of view.

In America, most homes are built of wood. In India, almost everything is composed of concrete, brick and mortar, all of which requires an abundant supply of water. Additionally, construction in India is highly labor intensive, so we’ve established a temporary labor camp for the workers. Providing a daily supply of clean water for them and for construction has been one of our primary occupations. We began by having tanker trucks deliver 10,000 liters every other day. This necessitated the provision of an all-weather road for the tankers and the many supply trucks that came daily with cement, steel, bricks and sand. That wasn’t too hard when the land was dry but as soon as the rains came, things quickly began to fall apart.

In the USA, making a country road isn’t such a difficult job. I’ve done it many times. You hire the proper machinery and call in the gravel trucks. In India, it’s different. Here, backhoes (called JCB’s in India) are the only excavation machinery easily available and I used these to make the roadbed. Typically, once a roadbed is ready, Indians will bring in quarried stone and have a crew of gents and ladies break the big rocks into smaller rocks with hammers and then neatly place the rocks, by hand, in a tight 6” layer. A binding material (muram) of clay and decomposed rock is carried by the ladies, using a pan (gamela) on their heads and then spread evenly over the rock. The muram works itself into the spaces and then another layer of smaller rock is spread by hand on top. Another layer of muram is put down if needed. If you want to go even further, you can get barrels of tar, heat them over a fire and pour the liquid on top, but I skipped this step. When cooled, this really makes a tight road.

Because our road location may change in a year or two, and because I really didn’t want to hire a crew of ladies to break rocks, I decided to skip some steps and do something simpler and cheaper. I bought broken gravel from a crushing plant not too far away and had the backhoe spread this, along with muram I found on our own land. I then had my crew of ladies dress the road by hand, filling and spreading as needed. The result looked pretty good in May and June but turned into a mess in July as the rain and heavy trucks took their toll. Avinash, Hari, and I, along with our crew of ladies, have ended up doing daily repairs to keep it serviceable. Two weeks ago, the water trucks refused to come until the monsoon is over and the road is dry. Now what?

If too much water was the problem, maybe it could be the solution too. On our property was a small dam that had been breached in a previous monsoon and we figured we could fix it and collect water good enough for mixing concrete. Thinking this, we repaired the dam and hand dug a well in one corner of it into which we put a submersible pump. From there we ran a pipe up to a tank to supply the concrete mixer. All we needed now was enough rain to fill the pond but as I said earlier, the monsoon arrived late this year and all we got was day after day of drizzle, just enough to soften the roads into muck but not enough to cause runoff. We spent days hauling water in the back of our pickup truck from a neighboring village and eventually hired a farm tractor with a small tanker/trolley to bring us water.

Finally last week, the heavy rains came and filled our pond within two days. So much water came down that the land couldn’t hold it and waterfalls appeared everywhere. After three days of deluge, to our pleasant surprise, we discovered an added bonus. Abundant springs had surfaced directly above the 12 ft. deep pit we had excavated to extract muram for the road. It soon filled to provide us with an abundant supply of clean, clear drinking water for all our needs until the end of the monsoon season. We quickly moved our submersible pump to this new location and think we now have the water problem solved for a few months.

The two homes have now reached “plinth level”, meaning that we have finished the foundations and are pouring the concrete floors. Pillars are in place to support the future roofs. Unfortunately, because one of our neighbors decided not to sell his parcel as agreed, we have had to relocate the location of our planned kutirs and construction of these won’t begin until August. Maybe Lakshman will end up in a tent? By September the two houses should have roofs and be enclosed and we’ll then be in the home stretch.

Typically, the monsoon season ends in September, followed by two of the loveliest months of the year in India. To take advantage of the good weather we are planning to host volunteers from India, America and Europe who would like to come help us finish Swami’s and the other houses. I will be going to America for much of August and when I return, I’ll be organizing projects for the volunteers. Biraj and the monks will be concentrating their energy on building temporary housing for those who will want to move permanently onto our land once Swami occupies his house. Already the monks have built a temple and bunkhouse for their own use in the area set aside for their monastery. (See photo of their temple.) They have also been busy planting fruit and shade trees.

Our plan for the fall season is to use our one pre-existing building as a “community center” around which we will set up camp for our volunteers. We’ll create a kitchen and dining area, build a meditation pavilion where our future temple will be located, set up tent/camping sites and do what we can to make our land habitable. For those of you old enough to have experienced Ananda in the early years, this will be like the Meditation Retreat in 1971. Basic. If this interests you, let me know and/or write to Nirmala for details.

I can’t begin to tell all that has happened here in a few short months. It’s been so busy, I’ve had little time to write. In addition to the land projects, we have also continued to build our congregation in Pune. Although the numbers are not large, I’ve been very pleased to see a regular turnout at our weekly, Sunday satsangs in Pune, at our 3 hour, Sunday morning meditations at our apartment complex, and at Saturday satsangs hosted by Sadhana Devi in Koregaon Park on the other side of Pune. Sadhana Devi also travels one weekend each month to Bangalore to help the group there with their new center and I take the bus from time to time to Mumbai to teach.

Sadhana Devi and I hope to see many of you in August. Our plan is to be in America for one month while visiting Portland, Ananda Village, Maine and Rhode Island before returning to India.

Much joy to everyone.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bhoomi Puja

My first assignment upon arrival in Pune last November was “to do the needful” regarding our land project and prepare the site by 1 March for our inauguration ceremony, a “Bhoomi Puja.” That date had been set months before and plans were in motion for a hundred guests to arrive for a major weekend retreat. To get everything ready in time, we needed to get busy.

Biraj (Wayne Palmer), Tim Clark and I began to make the one hour drive most mornings to our land in Watunde Village to begin projects, using local village labor where needed. Accompanying us was Hari Sharma, a carpenter friend who moved with us from Gurgaon and who has become our labor supervisor. We cleared brush, smoothed roads and building sites, developed a preliminary water system, built a shade pavillion, fixed up the house already on the property and built a toilet/shower facility to serve visitors.

Most days found us in the town of Pirangut buying supplies and learning hard lessons in the art of business in India. Thank God for Hari. Without him, we stood little chance of negotiating fair prices and avoiding creative swindles. Doing business here is an education and I learned, “When going to school, you must pay tuition.” Counterfeit labels, phony products, bait and switch tactics, rigged scales, inflated prices, theft and broken promises are all par for the course. The school of hard knocks has taught me the ropes and things now go smoother, but those first months were hard.

While us guys were working on the land, Sadhana Devi, Lahari (Elizabeth Palmer) and Lisa Clark were coordinating logistics and organizing those parts of the Puja Weekend that were to take place within Pune. Most of the retreat activities would be held within the city and only a few hours of the weekend were scheduled to be on the land itself. For some mysterious reason, everything we planned seemed to go wrong at one time or another and we ended up scrambling until the last minute to plug the gaps.

Four times we changed venues for our Friday and Saturday events, the last time just one week before the retreat. Our helpmates at the Gurgaon ashram were pulling their hair in frustration because we changed plans so often. We had reserved a major hall for Swami’s presentation months prior to the retreat but were bumped hardly a week before our event. Because that day’s activities were Sadhana Devi’s responsibility, I’m pretty sure she was contemplating grave bodily harm to the venue’s manager. Madly she scrambled to find an alternate venue, finally getting the original hall to allow us to use their space for a few hours in the evening instead of all day as planned. That "secured", we then rented a pandal (big tent) and had it set up on the courtyard lawn of our apartment complex, booked a caterer and completely rearranged our schedule. The monks rented buses to ferry retreat guests between hotels to our ever-changing venues and in the end, it all turned out beautifully. I suspect the guests thought it was all planned that way.

Over one hundred and fifty came to the dedication of our land on Sunday, 1 March. Most were ferried from Pune by bus, arriving early to tour the property and join in kirtan while they awaited Swamiji’s arrival. Fortunately, the day was not too hot. The astrologers had set the time of the ceremony for 12:45pm and everything was scheduled accordingly. An altar was set up under a large mango tree in the vicinity of where our future temple is to be located. There we had leveled the ground, erected a shade tarp and created a spot for the fire ceremony.

Swami Kriyananda arrived at 12:30 and after a prayer and invocation of God and Gurus, he led the crowd in recitation of the Gayatri Mantra while offering ghee and rice into the fire before him. Many of the locals, on their own initiative, then began to chant the traditional mantras associated with a bhoomi puja. I found it very touching. Dharmadas used a “powda” (A small, local shovel. See photo) to turn a bit of earth after which Swami, he and I mortared into place a brick to symbolize the creation of our new community and the temple we hope to one day build. Swamiji followed with a short discourse to the local villagers, translated by Amol into Marathi, explaining our hopes for the community and ended with a final prayer and blessings of Aum to all. As usual, he was mobbed for darshan and kindly gave his blessings to those who came to him.

When it was all over, I was really, really exhausted and glad the day was done simply because so much effort had gone into preparing for the weekend. Underneath the physical tiredness, I felt greatly blessed to have been a part of something special. On the surface, this was but one of many dedications in which I have participated but somehow I felt this one as being extra special. It wasn’t just about starting a community in the little village of Watunde near Pune. I think something more was involved. Whether this particular venture succeeds or fails seemed to me to be immaterial. Rather, larger currents of energy were at play in the dedication, a putting into motion Master’s vision for communities in India and in a world that transcends Ananda and Pune. We are planting of seeds that will spring forth and bear fruit far into the future. I hope so, and pray that others be drawn to carry forward this vision.

With the Bhoomi Puja over, I'm asked, “Can we now get on with building something?” Maybe, but we’ve still a ways to go. We continue to buy, at ever escalating prices, small, itsy-bitsy parcels of land that comprise our community. We move forward with the appropriate legal steps to consolidate all these parcels into a whole and to receive proper permits. This is a process of many months. We forever try to raise money to make all this possible. We’ve begun to have programs on the land and last weekend the monks hosted our first “Youth Retreat” (“Youth” being defined as anyone willing to sleep in a tent. See photo.) for a dozen or so hardy souls. Our permaculture crew (Tim, Steve and Ramani) have started a test garden and are beginning to build swales and terraces on the hillsides for capturing monsoon runoff. We’re fixing up the existing house, the wind turbine is producing electricity and we are developing a site plan for housing Swami and his staff.

Swami Kriyananda leaves for Europe and America in mid-May. Starting now and while he is gone, we hope to build a simple house on our new land where he can reside when he returns. Under the best of circumstances, to finish this quickly will be a major challenge, but we’ll try. A complicating factor is that we also need to provide shelter for his staff because it’s not possible for Swamiji to live on the land by himself and much of this will have to be done during the monsoon, a not so minor obstacle. As you can imagine, I’m not saying anything when people ask the inevitable, “When will the houses be done?” It’s daunting, but we also have a saying here, “In India, everything is difficult but anything is possible.”

Tomorrow Biraj and I meet with our architect and then our lawyers to see what is possible. If all goes well, we hope to have a design for Swami’s house within a week and begin a foundation within a month. We've already cut the building pads (see photo at left). How this will all be done and how much it will cost is still up in the air. Maybe we’ll hire a contractor to do much of the work. Maybe not. Maybe we’ll buy a pre-fabricated house. Maybe not. That’s seems to be how life is here, one day at a time. I’ll let you know how it all turns out in my next letter.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Valentine's Day

There was an incident in the city of Mangalore in southern India that recently stirred up a national controversy, revealing tensions swirling beneath the surface of modern Indian society. It seems that a group of thugs associated with the Sri Rama Sena, a conservative social/political group, ransacked a local nightclub and roughed up a group of women seen drinking on the premises. Their intention was to put a stop to behavior deemed “un-Indian” and a product of Western values. They simply couldn’t stand the sight of young women socializing with men in such a place and decided to take matters into their own hands to send a message to the emerging “pub culture” of the upwardly mobile youth of Mangalore.

The incident touched a nerve in the national psyche and exposed a burgeoning cultural and generational divide. The editorial pages have been raging about this for weeks. Conservative (and elderly) politicians in the state of Karnataka (where the incident occurred) were quick to see the incident as an opportunity for grandstanding and began railing about the degeneration of ancient Indian values. A woman’s place is in the home and all that. Because India is, at heart, a very conservative and patriarchal country, this plays well with the many, many people disturbed by the changes they see happening all around them. And they are right! "The times, they are a’changin.” Boys and girls holding hands is simply too much. Yes, they agree, it’s not right to beat people up, but what can you expect when women behave so provocatively. It’s the women who need to behave themselves.

This morning I read an article in the newspaper about a group called the Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women that has launched a campaign to fight back against the hooligans by sending stacks of lacy pink underwear to the Sena chief and the men who stormed the pub in Mangalore. Thousands have joined the movement, using the tool of ridicule to make their point. It seems to be working too.

All this comes on the eve of Valentine’s Day, a frivolous import from the West that has caught the imagination of young Indians, causing fits of apoplexy among their elders and threats of violence from the Rama Sene and cultural nationalists of their ilk. There seems to be a real cultural divide. Many young Indians have bought into the whole Valentine marketing phenomena—flowers for your sweetheart, gifts on the special day, chocolates, and sweet nothings via SMS on their mobiles. Here’s a cute Hinglish valentine I read recently.

You are my aloo-chaat.

You are my apple-tart.

Tu meri bhindi ki sabzee.

Main tera missi-roti

You are my paapad fry.

Never say bye, bye!

Aloo-chaat and paapad fry are snack foods. Tu meri (You are my) bhindi ki sabzee (deep fried okra). Main tera (I am your) missi-roti (a special bread made from chickpeas).

This is one of the differences I’ve seen between Delhi and Pune. North India is more socially conservative than the South. Pune is home to hundreds of colleges and it’s common here to see boys and girls freely socializing. Single women can safely ride buses in Pune and be out at night, whereas that isn’t the case in Delhi. Jeans are common for the girls and many ride scooters just like the boys. You don’t see that so much in the North. Indian women, raised in the South, have more than once told me that they feel repressed in the North and have had to switch wardrobes when visiting relatives there.

When you look at what is happening in Pakistan and Afghanistan, you’ll see that one of the aims of the Taliban is to prevent girls from receiving an education and participating fully in society. They know that women hold the key. What they don’t seem to realize is that by disenfranchising half their population, they are consigning their societies to a cultural backwater.

The emerging, increased role of women is one of the hopes for India’s future. For many, these changes are seen as upsetting to inherited social patterns and I’m sure many men feel threatened, but they’ll just have to adjust. As educational and financial opportunities reach more girls, these changes will accelerate to bring about tremendously positive benefits for the country. It’ll probably take a few generations, but you can see it happening now in the more forward cities. It’s there too, in these same cities, where you’ll see the clash between the old and the new.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Observations on Driving

Sadhana Devi’s first impression of India was of her ride from the Delhi airport to Gurgaon. This was before the new expressway was built, with the road still narrow, bumpy and chaotic. It was late at night and I was escorting her to the ashram through four lanes of interweaving traffic, bumper-to-bumper and moving at a snail’s pace. “Traffic’s bad tonight,” I thought. After a mile or two of intense congestion we saw the approaching headlights of a car coming toward us in our center lane, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he was going the “wrong” way. He had probably missed his exit and was going back by the shortest route. Traffic parted and flowed around him as he proceeded nonchalantly to his destination.

That driver, marching to his own tune, was a great illustration to Sadhana Devi of the two sides of India. On the one hand, you have someone willing to go against the tide, unhindered by mere conventions and rules, doing whatever it takes to achieve his goal. Or, if you choose, she could have seen him as an example of someone so self-absorbed in his personal needs that he was totally oblivious to the needs of others and his impact upon them. Which was it? Maybe both. Or, maybe he was just a lousy driver.

When I first moved to Pune last October, I needed some way to get me around the city and decided, against the advice ofa few, to buy a motorcycle. I had owned two-wheelers before but that was many years ago, so I knew my skills would be rusty and not on par with those around me. Yet, the practicality of driving a motorbike outweighed my concerns and, to be honest, it seemed like a whole lot of fun to be zipping around town like the young kids. Yogananda said, “The mind follows the heart,” and I think this was a good example of that.

I bought a small 100cc Hero Honda, the most common model in India. You see millions of these on the road, so I figured they must be reliable. Brand new, it cost about $800 and I haven’t regretted it yet. It gets great mileage (100+/gallon), can be parked most anywhere and is peppy enough for my needs. That said, I must say that riding a motorcycle in Indian traffic is seriously dangerous, but it’s a great way to blend in and feel a part of the scene. It’s a terrific education too, so I thought I’d share a few observations and lessons.

1. Expect the unexpected

A driver in India should never allow himself to say, “I never thought he’d do that!” If it's possible, expect it! Americans drive by the rules; Indians don’t. Just like the fellow going the wrong way didn’t invite undue concern, you can expect behavior of any and all kinds: indifference to traffic signals, turns from wrong lanes, passing on blind curves, murderous road conditions, buffalos/cows/camels/goats, and suicidal pedestrians. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you’ll be surprised. In America, you can drive and have your mind elsewhere. Not here. You must be 100% alert at all times.

2. Indians are programmed to get ahead

I was riding with an Indian friend when he commented as a car passed us, “An Indian driver has to get ahead of the car in front of him. You see, we Indians are a competitive people and you see it in our driving. It’s our strength and our curse. Wherever we go in this world, we have to get ahead of the next fellow. It drives us to success but at the same time, it makes it difficult for us to cooperate with one another.”

When riding my bike, I inevitably find myself going faster and faster as I weave in and out of traffic, trying to get ahead of the next fellow just like everyone else. I get caught up in the competitive spirit and must constantly remind myself that there are at least a quarter million young men in Pune between the ages of 16 and 25 fully capable of winning motocross races in America. There is absolutely no way I should let myself get caught up in that. Slow down! Take it nice and easy! Relax and enjoy!

3. Space is measured differently here

In America, personal space between people is not the same as in India. Americans keep a greater physical distance between themselves and others and feel uncomfortable when someone “invades” their space. Here, people stand close and the same goes for cars. In America, clearance between vehicles is measured in feet. Here, it’s measured in inches. It’s a bit disconcerting to have someone pass you by at high speed with only inches to spare. In the West, this would elicit a nasty reaction but here, it’s normal. Maybe it’s because space in India is at a premium and the population is high. Highways marked for two lanes soon become three or four, with a total disregard for lanes. Cars squeeze into the tiniest of openings and you soon understand the utility of a motorcycle.

4. Know when to yield.

Indian culture is hierarchical. It’s the same for driving. You yield to tonnage, or else! The car yields to the truck or bus. The motorcycle yields to the car. The pedestrian yields to the bike. Everyone yields to the cow or buffalo. While driving on a two-lane road, a car coming in my direction will pass another and bear down on me in my lane. No problem. I’m expected to move to the far edge of my lane since I’m only driving a motorcycle. I understand that the on-coming cars will allow me enough space to slip by. Usually. The attitude is, “There’s enough space for all of us to get by, so why waste it?” This is why you’ll see cars passing on blind curves. Indians don’t waste things like Americans do, whether resources or space. Roads can usually accommodate three vehicles in a pinch, so what’s the problem. If there’s enough space for a third car to pass a second car passing a first one while still leaving room for me, I expect it.

5. Don’t wait for someone to be nice to you.

American drivers, by and large (Boston excepted), are polite. We are taught to yield to on-coming traffic, to defer to pedestrians, to give the right-of-way to those who possess it, to think in terms of the best interest of all. It’s so civilized by comparison and reflects a community spirit. Not so in India. Here, you never yield space if you can help it. You take it. To defer and yield will turn a ten-minute errand into an hour-long journey of frustration. If you leave a safe space between your car and the one ahead, it will be filled again and again. If you wait for someone to let you into traffic, you’ll be on the sidelines for a long time. It simply won’t happen and it can be dangerous. You have to ease in and force others to accommodate to you. But don’t feel bad, it’s expected. Life off the highway is much like this too.

6. Indians are great drivers.

Typically, one’s first reaction to traffic in India is, “These people are crazy! What terrible drivers.” Actually, I’ve come to see it as just the opposite. If you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere. You have to be a good driver simply to survive. We mistakenly equate ability with following rules. In that sense, Indians are terrible, but if we measure ability in terms of successfully navigating a ton of metal through impossible conditions, you gain a healthy regard for the Indian driver. He and she are among the best. Unfortunately, also plying the highways are road warriors fresh from the village with absolutely no experience behind the wheel. By the time they become halfway competent, another million will have taken their place.

7. Merging—learn to flow.

Although I said Indians don’t drive by rules, there are "unspoken rules”. Traffic flows and you have to move with it, kind of like dancing. Once you get into the flow, you glide along in a natural way whereas the beginner is stiff and moves jerkily. That’s when you get into trouble. As for rearview mirrors and looking first, forget about it.

8. The horn is your friend.

Newcomers get a kick out of the signs on the back of trucks that say, “Horn Please.” But it’s true. Truckers appreciate you giving a honk before passing. Arati said that when she first learned to drive, her instructor began Lesson One with instructions on “How to use your horn.” Brakes can be done away with, along with mirrors and other unneeded accessories, but when your horn is on the blink, you have to fix it. Typically, when you are about to pass someone closely or on a blind curve you honk as a warning to anyone approaching and to the person you are passing. It’s a self-preservative courtesy. Americans, on the other hand, get all hot and bothered when someone honks at them because it’s considered aggressive.

9. Road hazards

In my opinion, this is the worst and most dangerous thing about driving here. The roads here haphazardly constructed and maintained. I just can’t, for the life of me, figure out why road crews invariably leave a mess behind themselves when doing repairs. The job is never taken to 100% completion. There is always a pile of bricks, blocks or debris left behind on the roadway. Last week I saw an unmarked and unprotected crater in a major intersection, about the size of a man-hole. I’m sure it’s still there, waiting for someone to fall in to be seriously injured or worse. Sometimes I’ll be driving along and “Wham!” I’ll hit a speed bump without warning. Awhile back, we saw a biker hit a water buffalo. The driver bounced off and hit the asphalt hard while the buffalo looked completely unfazed. I was driving along recently and skidded to a stop to avoid going into a trench that a crew of fellows were digging across the highway. No signs or flagmen. If a truck breaks down, it stops for repairs right in the middle of his lane instead of pulling over onto the shoulder. He'll put in the roadway behind his truck a row of bricks or large rocks as a warning. When done, off he goes, leaving the rocks in the roadway to be hit by unwary motorcyclists at night.

10. Police

I’m always on the lookout for the police who work in teams to flag down drivers at intersections. You’ll go around a turn and six of them will jump out to signal for you to pull over. Don’t make eye contact and keep going if you can. If I can’t, that’s when I play “dumb foreigner.” Usually this will cost you about two hundred rupees as they will always manage to find something wrong with me or the vehicle. I see it as a “road tax.”

I pulled into a coffee shop last month and made the mistake of not getting far enough off the road and into the store’s private space. Within five minutes, while enjoying my latte and not paying attention, a police truck with five happy pirates absconded with my bike because I was illegally parked in a spot that was off limits for the day. If there was a sign to say this, I couldn't find it. I came out to find my bike gone. Now what? The vegetable wallah next to where I had parked told me in sign language that the police had taken it, so I flagged down a rickshaw and asked him to help me out. He knew exactly where to go and off we oomed to a spot where the police trucks waited. I checked and sure enough, there was my bike with a whole bunch of other victims. The pirates had big grins on their faces as they saw a “gora” (white guy) approach. They knew they had hooked a fat one because I had few chips with which to bargain. Six hundred rupees it cost me that time. No paperwork of course. It must be a fun job for those guys.

The interesting thing about living here is that, after awhile, it all seems so very normal. We have the capacity to get used to just about anything. Last summer, upon returning to America, I noticed that I had picked up some Indian driving habits. I could tell because I noticed so many people honking at me. I was blithely cutting others off in traffic, nosing my way into their space, pulling in front and not yielding the right of way as I should. Actually, after living here, I’ve started to feel that Americans are rather “up tight” about a lot of things, rules for example, and let themselves be bothered by things too easily.

Sometime in 2009, Tata will start selling its new, one-lakh Nano automobile. It will be interesting to see what happens. If traffic is bad now, it’s going to be horrendous when the motorcyclists upgrade to cheap cars. You see whole families now—mom, dad and two kids—driving along on their scooters. With people moving into the middle class, there will be an explosion of car buying, just like there was in America many years ago. I can’t see how the roads will handle it, but I’m sure India will somehow muddle along and cope. It always does. This is a resilient country and the people find a way to navigate just about anything. Compared to everything else Indians face, fighting traffic is a minor bother. When the time comes, maybe even I will buy a Nano.

Much joy to everyone.