Madurai 3

Aftershocks of the Tsunami

Although Madurai is only 50 miles from the coast, I hear very little about the tsunami. The pain of the stories I do hear, however, more than make up for their infrequency. A few weeks ago it was time for a bike ride, so I rounded up six foreigners from the guest house to rent bikes ($0.30 per day). We found our way to one of the highest points over the rice fields, an enormous boulder called "elephant rock."

As a bunch of white guys on bicycles, we were an instant hit among all the kids of every village we passed by. Like a sentinel posted on the lookout for freakshows, one kid would inevitably begin shrieking as we approached, and gather up his 10 closest cousins to come chasing our bikes until they were all out of breath.

At elephant rock, a good number of these kids finally caught up with us and scampered barefooted up to the very top of the rock with us.

One kid among them, however, seemed aloof, and did not share their "here comes the freakshow" shrieks. We later learned that he was from Nagapattinam, and had not seen his sister or mother since the tsunami. His house was gone, and his father was in the hospital. With his home town wiped off the coast, he had come to live with his aunt and uncle near Madurai. I suppose that from the top of elephant rock, he was getting a view of his new home.

What I hear about the tsunami relief effort from other foreigners passing through Madurai from the coast is not at all puppies and butterflies. Apparently there has been substantial violence in refugee camps. The dalits (also called "untouchables") are shunned from sitting down or eating in the presence of higher caste refugees despite equally desperate need. So, when they come looking fo food and shelter they are turned away, sometimes with force. Similarly, there has been substantial religious strife as local christian groups attempt to reserve christian aid for christian people. Seems rather un-christian to me. Next there are the polical candidates who are taking advantage of the desperation of the affected communities to buy votes with relief, and lastly, there are the unaffected people who come from inland to the coast to see what freebies they can drum up in the frenzy for clothing, food, blankets, and so on.

Revisiting Microfinance

On our day off, one of the engineers I work with, Jeyaraman, invited me to spend the day at his parents home about three hours outside of Madurai. Jeyaraman is the first from his village to attend college, and the first in his own family to learn to read. In a house without power or water, he studied by street lamp for admission to Maduraiís premier engineering college, and graduated near the top of his class.

The path to college, however, was even more perilous than I had imagined. In a community where bank accounts are unknown, and farmers live from harvest to harvest, paying college tuition was a major challenge. Student loans are nearly impossible to get without any kind of hard collateral, so Jeyaraman and his family turned to loan sharks for his education. Just months out of college now, Jeyaraman is Rs 200,000 (about $4000) in debt, with most of the debt divided into Rs. 10,000 to 20,000 chunks that require payments of around 2% per month ( 24% per year if we don't compound it). Since his parents have no income, and his salary at Aurolab is only Rs. 3000, he cannot meet the monthly interest payments, and his father makes a monthly trip to a loan shark to take a new loan to pay the interest on the old one. Given his rising risk profile, each new loan comes at a higher interest rate, and the debt builds faster and faster.

Jeyarman, his father, and me at the local 3 room K-8 school house.

In Jeyaraman's case, he will eventually earn enough to pay of his debts, but other farmers are not so lucky. When crops fail, families are frequently driven to loan sharks for survival. But when crops fail a few seasons in a row, families must sell off their land to meet interest payments. With smaller plots of arable lands and incresing debt, their risk profiles grow, and interest rates can exceed 10% per month (120% per year). In this way, families can be virtually enslaved for generations. Even after the original debtor has died, sons and grandsons are left to pay back the lenders sons and grandsons. To my horror, I learned that a common solution to this problem in Tamil Nadu is whole-family suicide, frequently using agricultural pesticides.

Despite the cruelty of the practice, loan sharking is big business where Jeyaraman lives. Young men from his village are eager to start their own "financing businesses" to serve other villlages because it provides a steady income without the hard hours and uncertainty of farming.

For all the praise of micro-credit and village banks, Jeyaraman explains that reasonable credit simply isn't availble to those who need educational loans. Loan sharks are the only option, and this creates a major barrier to college entry. Even if a student has the scores to get into school, how can he justify the tremendous financial risk of matriculation?

We are currently in the process of relieving Jeyaraman's debt through a private, interest free loan in Madurai, but I wonder what formal mechanisms might be possible to get these village kids into school...

Time Travel

We arrived at Jeyaraman's home around lunch time, and his mother was just starting to cook. The neighbor, with a squawking chicken in hand, stopped by to ask if we would like chicken for lunch. I voiced a vegetarian preference. He shrugged his shoulders and mentioned that he felt like chicken as he twisted the animal's delicate neck through two revolutions.

Jeyaraman's mother cooks over a hollow clay cone filled with firewood, and a metal pot or pan on top. Only one item can be cooked at a time, and she is constantly tending the fire. While electrical service, gas service (in the form of metal tanks which are brought by truck or bicycle), and other utilities may be availble in her area, these expenses are difficult to justify. In this water-starved country, the top priority--and the path out of poverty--is irrigation. Jeyaraman's father's irrigation pump, at $600 must be worth more than all of their other possessions combined.

The house is divided into two rooms. The first, about the side of a walk in closet, is the "kitchen" where food is stored and prepared. The second seemed to be pretty much empty except for some clothing in one corner. The family sleeps on the front porch on cots made from palm fibers. Like most other parents in the village, Jeyaraman's decided to have only one child. I wonder if this has anything to do with government sponsored programs which provide financial incentives for surgical sterilization. Even without a bunch of babies running around, however, there is still plenty of activity. Most families seem to keep their smaller animals around the house if not in it. Jeyarman's two baby goats have made a little home under his father's cot, while the mother goat is on a leash in the front yard, nibbling on whatever she can find, including my pants.

As Jeyarman's mother cooked for us, she paused to voice her concern that her boy was not eating enough in Madurai, and that he should be oiling his hair more often, and that he did not come home often enough. Mothers share some of the same qualities anywhere, I suppose. Between sentences, however, she spat a red liquid from her mouth-- a mixture of saliva and betelnut. In most rural places, it seems, addiction to betelnut is rampant, and few people over sixty seem to have functioning teeth as a result. Jeyaraman's parents, in their 40's, frankly state that they cannot get out of bed without it.

After lunch, Jeyaraman's mother was eager to see pictures of my mother. I had brought my laptop with pictures at Jeyarman's request, and it was immediately clear that this was the first time any of them had seen a computer. News spread rapidly, a good portion of the 30 person village gathered around the laptop."Why doesn't your mother wear a saree?" they wanted to know.

The car which I had hired to come to the village was also a point of conversation. Locals were thrilled to have their picture taken in front of it. Immediately before our departure, Jeyaraman's father asked if he could sit in it just for a moment. When he sat down, we all piled in and drove a few minutes up and down the road. It was his second time sitting in a car.

The Running of the Bulls, Indian Style

The biggest festival of Tamil Nadu, called "Pongal" celebrates the winter rice harvest. Businesses close and everyone goes home to their "native place" wherever that might be. In the case of most Aurolab engineers, this meant that they stayed at home with their extended families, watching TV, and smacking on globs of a yellow rice/sugar mixture called "pongal."

In the villages, however, pongal seems to be a much involved affair, where farmers will decorate their bullocks and feed them pongal as a token of thanks for the good work they did this season. Even in Madurai, virtually every cow on the street was in rare form, with horns painted and flowers around their necks. Even the goats on the street were painted up for the event with multi-colored dots. Over a week later, these dots have not yet washed off completely, so some of the goats around my house appear to have some odd fur disorder.

Anyway, one of the highlights of pongal is the taming of the bulls. When I heard this I was rather confused. If any of the bulls I had seen in India to date were any more tame they would be dead. All they seem to do all day is sit around in the shade, or at most, lazily chew their way through the business section of The Times of India.

No so on Pongal.

At a nearby village called Palamedu, I heard there were 900 raging bulls, so naturally I rounded up some IOL engineers and we went. The road into Palamedu was packed thick with people eager to attend the taming of the bulls. About 10 minutes after we joined the crowds on foot, the people ahead of us abruptly parted, and an ambulance came roaring down the street. We concluded that perhaps the bulls had tamed their first person. A few minutes later, the crowd again parted, but this time, it was a bull that came chasing the ambulance down the street. Perhaps the bull and the guy in the ambulance still had unfinished business? My understanding of this event abruptly changed, and I continued with great caution lest I be tamed by the bulls as well.

We made our way to the main event ring, where there were no fewer than a bajillion people packed onto whatever they could stand on. I doubt if I have ever seen a higher density of humans in my life.

Naturally, spots above ground level were in high demand, with bulls on the loose, but we managed to find our way up into some bamboo bleachers. For those of you who are "where's waldo" fans, try to find the truck in this picture.

So the event works like this-- there is a corral full of bulls at one end of the ring, each with some sort of reward strapped to its horns. In most cases the reward was money, but some of them must have been certificates for gifts in kind, as "bull tamers" were rewarded with household furniture, live chickens, and gold-colored trophies. When the bull is released into the ring, hundreds of young men chase around after it trying to pull the reward off of its horns before they themselves must be pulled from its horns. Very quickly the bull realizes that the ring instantly expands in any direction he charges, so the bull inevitably charges through the crowd in one direction or another with no one there to stop him. By the time the first bull has found his way out of the ring and is charging down a city street, they release the next one, and so on, seemingly all day long.

After we had left our viewing spot high above the ring and were returning to our car, we heard a commotion behind us, and I immediately jumped through a metal gate to a street side courtyard in case a bull was on its way. Apparently the other people on the street thought this was a good idea, and as perhaps 20 people crammed through the small gate, we found one more uninvited guest wanted to follow our lead: the bull. So in he came! Lucky for us, the courtyard was exceptionally large, and had another exit gate so the bull charged right on through...

Trying to get a sense of the spectrum

Having spent time in the Bay Area, we all have some sense of what the most priveleged end of the human spectrum looks like, but little view of the most challenged. Even after nearly two months here, I realize that I still have not even approached an understanding of the challenges people face at the far end of the spectrum.

A few conversations I have had with some eye care professionals from Africa might help illustrate what I mean. One guy was working in Rwanda immediately before the genocide, and packed up one suitcase to leave his home when the situation got scary. When the violence had subsided and he returned to his house, he did not expect to find any of his possessions. He did, however, expect to find his sinks, toilets, doors, some windows, and wiring in place. Instead, the place was stripped to cement, with every nail and board sold off, yet the structure still had over twenty squatters living inside.

The second story was from an English nurse who describes herself as a cross between Forence Nightengale and Evil Kneevil. Based near Nairobi, she coordinates nomadic eye hospitals which fly into remote African areas, conduct a few thousand surgeries, and move on. On a recent job in Somalia, her single engined plane had just touched down at a rural airstrip when men with guns appeared on the runway and began firing at her plane. The pilot slammed the Cessna back to full throttle and took off again realizing that the "ground crew" was waiting for a plane full of khat to come before they would allow any other plane to land. There was too much money at stake in that particular drug trade to risk the presence of any outsiders who might attempt to steal the khat, the cash, or both, so the eye doctors circled around until the khat plane landed, the drugs were moved, and the gunmen were less trigger happy.

So now, when these two NGO workers come to India, they must see it from the opposite side. The people are peaceful, the government is stable, and the barriers to poverty alleviation seem relatively manageable, and I realize that I have not yet touched the far end of the spectrum, nor do I want to.