Monday, August 23, 2010

A Short Trip To Delhi

Last week, Sadhana Devi and I flew to Delhi for our annual pilgrimage to the Foreign Registry Office in Gurgaon to renew our visas. In most circumstances, I’m not a fan of the national capital, much preferring Pune for its weather, friendlier atmosphere and all-around ambiance. Yet, for once, I have to say I found Delhi beautiful. It was the cleanest I have ever seen it and very green after the monsoon rains. Big, beautiful trees shade the wide boulevards of the central city. The usual debris has been removed from the roadsides and replaced by tidy landscaping; buildings have been newly painted; the long-awaited Metro system zips efficiently overhead and I could actually see blue sky above. I was impressed. This is the culmination of a multi-year facelift in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in October.

It’s amazing to see how much the city has changed in the five years I’ve been here. Those familiar with the old Delhi airport will remember a rundown facility more suited to a small, declining American town. Now, on your arrival, you’ll disembark at a magnificent new terminal comparable to any of the best in the world. (See photo to left.) A new, multi-lane expressway takes you into town, and traffic, while still bad during rush hour, moves smartly along at most other times. If you are adventurous, you will soon be able to take the sleek new Metro all the way to Gurgaon.

The local newspapers have been merciless in their criticism of the lack of progress and pervasive corruption accompanying the building campaign. Some of the venues might not be completed in time for the Games, but I’ve come to expect this. It’s a national sport to expose the underhanded dealings of officials and the newspapers have a keen eye for it, although from my perspective, what has been accomplished is amazing. The editorialists, while good at feeding the population's disgust for its politicians, are less skilled at proposing useful solutions. That’s how newspapers are.

Criticism is common in every country but I find educated Indians to be particularly inclined toward it, and very good at philosophizing, debate and argument. A noted local author titled one of his recent books, “The Argumentative Indian” and I think the title apt. Indians have high expectations for their country and whereas you may hear some Westerners characterize the country as fatalistic, it’s a mistaken portrayal. Modern India is shackled by some medieval traditions but it is also hungry for change. Young people see what other countries have done and are not satisfied with the half hearted effort that may have characterized the past. It’s a country proud of its heritage but disappointed when it fails to live up to what it could be. And, when disappointed, they aren’t shy about saying so!

India lacks inspirational leadership. Politicians, with a few exceptions, are despised. Spiritual/religious leaders, while given traditional respect, are often dismissed by the young as irrelevant and suspect, with little to say to the modern Indian. Police and civil servants are perceived as corrupt and self serving. The figures admired are Bollywood superstars, sports heroes, a few scientists and writers, mega-industrialists, and technological entrepreneurs. It’s not much different than in America. These last two particularly are fast becoming the face of modern India. As Swami Kriyananda remarked, India has lost some of its spirituality in the last half century, but the change has been inevitable, and perhaps necessary, as the country focuses upon improving its material efficiency. As he also said, “It’s only a temporary phase. Spirituality resides in the soil.” It also corresponds with what Yogananda said about how Western souls are being born in India in this age in order to bring balance.

I love India, I really do, but there are a few things that get to me. Let me tell you about the Foreign Registry Office (FRO). It’s located in the “Mini-Secretariat” building on the outskirts of Gurgaon, a perfectly good example of soulless "Stalinesque" architecture but without the charm. I’ve written previously (May 2006) of my visits there and little has changed in the intervening years except now the elevators don’t work. The Mini-Secretariat is awful, which I find surprising because, on the whole, Gurgaon is a modern city with lots of attractive office towers, malls and beautiful residential districts. The Metropolitan Mall, where we have our Wishing Tree Boutique is pictured to the left. The Haryana government buildings are in sharp contrast.

Every year I make multiple visits Mr. Subhash’s office at the FRO in order to renew our Employment Visas. Two, three, or four visits per application is the norm. I never get it right the first time and this last visit was no different. Subhashji was very sorry (not really) but he had yet to receive approval (again!) from his superiors in Chandigarh (capital of Haryana) even though I had submitted my papers 60 days prior (two visits that time). Would I please return in a month or two or three? It’s the same thing every year. I wonder if this is what happens to foreigners around the world as I’ve been told America’s system can be pretty daunting too. Maybe all bureaucrats, whichtever their country, go to the same, bureaucrat school to learn the arts of delay and the infliction of frustration.

Subhashji’s little office is chaotic. Ten to twelve applicants, many with local “shepherds” guiding them through the process, jostle for position in front of his desk. Five years ago, I would have politely (and fruitlessly) waited my turn but have since learned a few lessons which I’ll pass on should you one day find yourself there. Never leave an inch between you and the person ahead, otherwise the space will be instantly filled. Persistently move forward, never taking a step back. Do not let anyone move around you or, if possible, get to your side. Plan your moves strategically and stay alert to those behind you. You must block their efforts to get in front of you at all costs. You will eventually get to the desk and once there, take as much space as possible and doggedly hold position until you get Mr. Subhash’s attention. If kindly offered one of the chairs to the side of his desk, refuse it—only women and the elderly accept and are then promptly ignored. Remain in front of the desk, leaning forward with papers extended until avoidance is no longer possible and your application is accepted. Be patient because Mr. Subhash has stacks of thick ledgers which must be searched to find your past records, using some inscrutable system known only to him and his assistant. Records are piled along the walls in loose bundles, tied with twine, from floor to ceiling. Don’t worry if he becomes distracted by other applicants reaching over and around you to put their papers on his desk, burying yours. His goal is to get rid of you, so he will ultimately deal with your application. He will take frequent telephone calls, answering leisurely while ignoring you. Don’t worry; don’t move. Stay put and sooner or later, you’ll get results.

Lyrics from an old song keep running through my brain,
He's never early, he's always late
First thing you learn is
You always gotta wait.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Land Progress during the Monsoon

The rain dance has begun,
The cripple is dancing,
The old have thrown away their staffs,
The cattle have stood up,
The calves are running
In joy-filled circles.

S. D. Prasad

I’ve written before about the monsoon so please forgive me if you find this repetitive but I find it such an enjoyable time of year that I can't help but remark upon it again. Of course, not everyone likes cloudy days like I've come to appreciate here, so if wet weather turns you off, give India a miss in the rainy season. If you intend to go to the mountains or you are planning to visit one of those regions along the coast (Mumbai or Goa, for example) or go to the northeast (Assam) where the rainfall is incessant, this isn’t a good time to come. Yes, sometimes there is flooding, but otherwise, monsoon season is when India is in many ways at its best: mild, clean, green and mostly free of tourists.

Rain and clouds blown to India in early June through August by the winds from the Indian Ocean are known as “The Southwest Monsoon.” That’s about as much as I knew of the monsoon before living here. My mental image was one of incessant and unpleasant rain. As it has turned out, that’s not been the case at all with the exception of those places mentioned above. You’ve probably heard people say during a downpour, “It’s a real monsoon out there today!” Yes, it rains, but it’s not constant. In the hills, the runoff can be heavy but more often than not, the monsoon season is a time of intermittent showers with heavy thunderstorms sandwiched between beautiful sunshine and cloudy days.

Multiple geographical factors create the monsoon. To the north of India, the expanse of the Hindu Kush, Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau acts as a shield to block cold Siberian air from flowing south in the winter. As a consequence, north India is blessed with mild winter temperatures. As the sun moves north again after the solstice, the air begins to heat and is constrained by the mountains, resulting in very hot summers from April through June.

If you’re a tourist, don’t come to India in the hot months unless you enjoy that sort of thing in the absence of AC. That said, I think it’s good to experience the hot season in order to fully appreciate why the monsoon is greeted with such cheer. As the hot weather grinds on, day after day, a national longing builds for relief, and when it finally comes, there is rejoicing. “The cattle stand up and the calves run in circles,” as the poem says. It’s a good example of how opposites complement each other. Without darkness, would day seem only half as bright; without the dry months preceding, would rain feel so cool? And, literally, without the hot season there would be no seasonal rains because it is heat that powers the engine of the Southwest Monsoon.

With the approach of summer, the heated atmosphere above North India and Pakistan rises and begins to suck moist air from the Indian Ocean to replace it, thus causing the “trade” winds used by ancient mariners from East Africa to reach India and beyond. In the fall, when the air cools in the north and heats in the south, the winds reverse, sending sailors home on the winds of the “Receding Monsoon.”

When the approaching rain clouds reach the southern tip of India in late May, the monsoon splits into two branches. To the west, one branch flows up the coast of Kerala to Goa, Mumbai and into central India through Gujarat. It crosses the deserts of Rajasthan on its way to Delhi before continuing onward to the mountains. The second branch blows around the east side of India into the Bay of Bengal and then northward toward Bangladesh, eventually swerving back into the Gangetic Plain. By August and September, the clouds drop rain on the Deccan Plateau in central India as they retreat.

The monsoon brings life to India’s farmland, much of which is unirrigated otherwise. If the monsoon fails to flood the rice paddies for proper transplantation, yields fall dramatically. Even minor rainfall fluctuations cause alarm and dire warnings. A large decline can bring famine and catastrophe as was demonstrated by The Great Drought of the 1870’s when three consecutive years of monsoon failure claimed the lives of millions from starvation. That was at a time when the country’s population was far smaller than it is today. (Note: The great loss of life was as much a result of outrageous British policy in response to the drought as it was to a lack of rain, but that’s another story.)

This year, the monsoon arrived on schedule in Pune during the second week of June. For four or five weeks thereafter, we received only light, periodic showers until finally, in late July, the rain became steady for two or three weeks. In early August, we returned to intermittent showers and I expect this pattern to continue into September. From what I’m told, this is normal. Temperatures have been marvelously mild, 25C—28C (77F—83F) during the day and a little cooler at night.

Out on our land in Watunde Village, it rains more heavily due to our location in the foothills of the Western Ghats. On the Mumbai side of the Ghats, the rain can be intense, so the clouds tend to spill over the crest of the hills to our side. As you travel toward Pune from our land along the Mutha River, the rain abates the further east you go. Sometimes when driving to work in the opposite direction, I would see dark clouds gathering at the head of our valley and knew it was going to be one of those very muddy days.

Until the rainy season ends, little construction will happen on our land. Last year we worked every day, rain or shine, but this year sanity has returned. We’ll wait until conditions improve. All the vegetation has turned brilliant green and you can almost see it grow before your eyes. Molds and mildew love the warm, wet air and appear in all the places you’d rather they didn’t. The rain isn’t cold like in California or Oregon but pleasant, clean and filled with prana. Water cascades down the hillsides, forming beautiful waterfalls. Thick mud grabs at your feet and gets onto everything. Vehicles leave the roadway at their peril and, perhaps inevitably, some of our new houses leak.

This is the season when some Americans return to the States for holiday or, if Indian, visit family in other parts of the country. Only a skeleton crew remains here. Biraj, Shurjo, Hari and a couple of drivers are holding down the fort at our community while the rest of us are in Pune. Two of our Sangha members, Amol and Sundeep, have taken responsibility for constructing a simple guest house to provide accommodation for visitors next season but so far, we have only a big hole in the ground to show progress (see photo). If all goes well, the building should be ready by year’s end. We continue to work with our architects on a design for a cluster of flats for which “investors” have provided down payments. We feel some urgency to begin building in order to show them progress but there are so many other things to do first such as securing adequate water. Plus, we have yet to raise funds to complete the job should we start. We are juggling as we go.

The monks have been making good progress toward building their monastery and hope to soon add a solar electrical system and water storage tanks to their complex of little buildings. Jemal is leading a fundraising effort for solar panels (Panels for Peace) and has made good progress. Last month he hosted a group of young men from America who came to help set up the system and now two more young devotees from Uruguay have arrived to finish it. Maybe they can help with the clinic project too. Of the monks who still live in the city, I expect more to take the plunge and move permanently to the land when the weather improves. Katyayani, one of the young women who lives here in the Vanshaj apartments, plans to move out in September.

This is very encouraging because we need many more fulltime residents on the community land. I’d love to see us invest resources toward providing simple housing/huts to support a population of at least 20-30 residents before we go too far with other expensive projects. Amenities can come later. Because of the primitive conditions, pioneers will probably be young singles who embrace the ideals of "Plain living and high thinking." It's like the early days of Ananda Village We need idealistic youth (“must go north , south, east and west”) to build a spiritual foundation upon which an Ananda community can grow. That’s the theory. Now we’ll see what actually happens.

And what about Jaya and Sadhana Devi? We stay in Pune, building up our Sangha in the city. Weekends are dedicated to classes in downtown Pune and at our fledgling center across the hall from our apartment. After the monsoon, programs will begin at the retreat in Watunde. During the week, we take care of administrative tasks related to outreach, do special projects and write blogs such as this. Sadhana Devi supports a meditation group on the other side of town in Koregaon Park, and once each month, I travel to Gurgaon for four or five days to help Dhyana. Sadhana Devi does the same in Bangalore. I’m supposed to be going to Mumbai too. Anyone want to come and help? The weather is nice.

Lo behold!
The sky is lit up
With the lightning tree,
And against the backdrop
Of the dark and ominous clouds,
A silvery shining form:
Enchantment crystallized
Is descending,
Majestically – riding
A magnificent Lion!

--S. D. Prasad