09 December 2009

A clean breast of it

I stumbled upon an article written about Travancore (Kerala) in 1869 in an Australian newspaper. Stop sniggering, I wasn't searching for 'breast,' I was looking for 'Travancore'. Here's some of the relevant text, please click on the title to read the whole article:

Caste outrages in Travancore
Among the many instances of fanaticism in Southern India, perhaps the most striking was that displayed by the Soodras in their efforts to divest the Shanar women of the upper garments, in which their women, in conformity with Christian ideas of decency, had clad themselves. The circumstances of the disturbance so caused by the Soodras are possibly remembered by our readers. The Christian Shanar women, in clothing themselves with jackets, were attacked by the Soodras in the public streets, and their jackets were torn off. The cause of this outrage was, that the Shanars being of a low caste, and the women of the higher castes being alone permitted to wear such garments, the Soodras considered that the Shanar women, by the adoption of such a dress, were deviating unwarrantably from the laws of caste.

So, in 1869, in Kerala, women were forced to walk around topless by local enforcers. They were worried that women deciding what to wear would lead to the destruction of traditional culture. Today, women who decide to wear something that doesn't totally cover themselves are harassed, for trying to destroy traditional culture.

Could the main problem be that women deciding something for themselves, in either 1869 or 2009, causes men to feel powerless?

27 November 2009

Full tank, please

There was a petrol crisis in Zambia. There were long lines whenever petrol/diesel came into each fuel station. I was out of petrol and walking to lab (7 km / 70 minute walk) for a couple of days or so before I bit the bullet and waited in line. The plan was simple, I would drive the car to the petrol station that's about 300 metres from my house at the early hours of 5 way before anybody else got there. As soon as the station opened I would be the first at the pump, get my tank filled, and drive off into the sunrise. Brilliant plan, even if I say so myself.

So I woke up, picked up my reading for the day and got to the petrol pump. Apparently, other people had the same idea... to be fair though, one of them looked quite desperate for fuel.

So, a small hitch in my brilliant plan. But nothing too bad. I was still 5th in line, and should manage to get some petrol. So I asked the attendant when the station would open and when fuel is expected to come in. Station opens at 7 and fuel might come in by 10.30. Great! So I settled down for a long wait with a book in hand and the occasional foray outside to scan for a fuel truck. Luckily there was a shop right by the pump and I was able to find some 'healthy' sustenance in the form of crisps and water. Hey, I was working hard by waking up early so thought I should reward myself.

As time went on the station started to get crowded. Quite a few people had made a side business of filling fuel in all sorts of containers and selling it on the 'black market.' I was offered generous deals by a few well meaning individuals, at only 2-4 times the official rate. They assured me that the fuel would only come at 17.30 (about 12 hours from when I started waiting). I told them I'd wait and they shook their heads indreculously at the foolishness of the foriegner. The last thing I needed was adulterated petrol in the tank... then no car, no fuel, and I'd be out a few tens of millions trying to replace the fuel system on the car. I did feel sorry for these entrepreneurs when the owner of the station came out and kicked all the used milk cans away. Only approved petrol containers at this station. The black marketeers were persistent and kept putting their plastic cans back, but I didn't see any of them get any fuel. Safety first I suppose.

I had some time to reflect on the political grandstanding and what had led to the crisis. The country's sole refinery had shut down for maintenance and government had ordered refined fuel from Kuwait. Government had refused to acknowledge that there was a fuel crisis and said they had ordered enough and were going to figure out where all the fuel was. They implied that people were buying extra fuel and hoarding it. Inspectors were sent to petrol stations to make sure that the stations were not holding back fuel. A prominent opposition leader took jerry cans to a petrol pump and asked for fuel in a well-photographed event. Eventually the President had to step in and order the energy ministry to bring in more fuel. Though unhappy about the situation, he let the energy minister continue in his post to be answerable to the public. The government announced that there would be no duties on imported fuel... but they didn't sign it into law so the fuel companies refused to import. It would be their trucks stuck on the border if the customs officials refused to take their word for it, you see. Also, the fuel companies were angling for a higher petrol price as (apparently) they could not make any profit with the current price of fuel even with no import taxes ! So I guess normally they are all non-profit organisations and don't make any money selling at the government approved prices. And they are so generous that they open new petrol pumps every couple of blocks.

With the sun coming out with a vengeance and having woken up early, people all around me were starting to drop off. This guy looked very comfortable... I wish I could sleep like that when the Sun was out.

I got a lucky break and the driver in front of me decided he had enough of waiting and wanted to leave. He was blocked on all sides and had to do some complex jigsaw-puzzle type manouvering to get his car out. So now I was just fourth from the front. Exciting times. I got into discussions with drivers in the neighbouring vehicles about the crises. Their opinions were that the crisis was artificially created so that some higher-ups could line their retirement funds due to kickbacks. It's always possible, but I thought the amount of money lost from not having fuel for a couple of weeks was far greater than the amount gained from any shady deals. I'm sure we'll find out when the next government comes into power what these guys were up to. As we were talking, the much awaited tanker rolled in. The driver of that thing was everyone's favourite for miles, I tell you... women were throwing panties at him, people were fainting... nah, just kidding. He looked fairly harassed and wanted to get the fuel offloaded as soon as possible. Following the tanker were about 50 cars. People have taken to staying behind any tanker that comes in, following it to the station, and waiting patiently for petrol. Smart !

So now it was a relatively short wait... just an hour and a half... for the tanker to be offloaded and for the pumps to start. Everyone was excited, but then a potential hitch showed up. The first car at the pump, the Hummer, had no driver. Apparently it had been parked by the pump all night. We were hoping that the owner would show up at some point, otherwise we were all going to be stuck. There was no way a tow-truck was getting through the crowd. Apparently Mr Hummer had told some of the petrol pump attendants to phone him when the pumps started up, but nobody knew if he was coming or not. And then another odd thought struck us, how big was the fuel tank of that car? Would we get any fuel after it was done filling? Well, then Mr Hummer showed up and immediately was on the mobile, right in front of clearly marked signs saying No mobile usage allowed. I guess since there was no fuel being dispensed, maybe he thought he was safe from battery sparks. None of the attendants tried to stop him either. I guess they thought if he wants to set himself on fire, let him. To bring back an earlier thought, safety first, as long as you are poor. You have the right to immolate yourself and set fire to the station as long as you can pay for the damage.

The tanker finally offloaded and we all got into our cars in anticipation. All the other pumps started working, except the one I was behind. Yes... I had been waiting for 6 hours behind a hummer and a few other cars at a petrol pump that was out of order. It was a little funny seeing Mr Hummer's antics, he got fairly angry although he had not been waiting at all. I've sort of got used to Murphy being a constant companion, so it didn't faze me at all. I quickly made deals with the cars waiting next to me and they kindly allowed me to join their line. I, in turn, let the car in front of me at the non working pump jump into line. Amazing that people didn't blow their top. There was a further hitch, with the attendants refusing to put petrol in cars where the fuel door was on the opposite side of the car, away from the pump. So started more jigsaw puzzles, with cars (the ones that joined from the non-working pump line) having to turn around and face the line to get petrol. There's another half an hour of my life I won't be getting back. Of course nobody was controlling traffic and the station was packed so it took a long time for each car to drive out, turn, reverse, and have the fuel door face the pump. Then it took a long time for them to get out by reversing the procedure.

Finally... my turn... after about 7 long hours, "Full tank, please."

25 August 2009

It's my birthday 2009

For people new to the blog, every year I post a silly photo of myself on my birthday (here's 2008, 2007 and 2006) for those of you who wish to unleash more torture on yourselves. Here's this year's winner:

Yes... yes... I know... at my age I shouldn't be doing those things, my tongue might fall out or something, but I cannot resist.

I did a quick search of famous people who share my birthday and came up with Rupert Grint (better known as Ron Weasley), Dave Chappelle, Reggie Miller, Stephen Fry, Orson Scott Card, Paulo Coelho and Denilson. So happy birthday to all those folks too.

18 August 2009

The Phiri Deception II

Click here for the story so far....

...or enjoy the abstract... errr i mean summary...

A high-tech spy / assassin type movie is being shot in Zambia. The plot is that the government is using an assassin called Tembo to kill one of their former agents, M. Phiri. Phiri has been spotted at Milky Lane in Manda Hill and Tembo rushes there to locate him...

Malcolm Phiri gets his regular vanilla cone with chocolate dip. As always the chocolate doesn't cool fast enough and drips on his hand. He licks it off, chocolate is chocolate, doesn't matter where you get it from. He walks out and proceeds to the Game store. Seeing the Barclays ATM reminds him that he only has 40 pin on him. Petrol for two days will leave no change from that. So he stands in the queue and gets to the ATM. Puts his card in and wonders if he'll ever see it again... The ATM informs him politely that there are no advice slips available. Hopefully there's some cash available. Luckily a mix of newly minted 50- and 20,000 bills come out of the machine... and the card pops out too. Malcolm wonders why it always feels like winning the slots in Vegas when this process goes well.

In the meantime Tembo rushes up the stairs by O'Hagens. The smell of fresh shepherd's pie brings him back to the days when he was dined by benefactors. And then those happy memories are obliterated as he runs into a cloud of smoke. The usual 'young gun' crowd is hanging out by the stairs, puffing on their cancer sticks. Coughing, Tembo makes it through the smoke and gets obstructed by the tables that line the stores. The crowds at this time... and it looks like - in addition to every flavour of food - every flavour of human in Lusaka is at Manda Hill. Pushing through the crowd, Tembo makes it to the outside of Milky Lane. Phiri could be anywhere. Using all of his police skills, Tembo spots a free chair amid the melee and sits in it. All these people... rushing past... they don't know that the future of the country depends on Phiri being eliminated.

Phiri walks to his friend's car that he's borrowing for some time. Phiri's own car was hit from behind and is doing the requisite time at a body shop just opposite Arrackan Barracks on Burma Road. The place looked shady, but that was all the 'accidenter' could afford. It was either this shop or drive around with a big dent in the car and let the other guy go to jail for a couple of hours until he bribed himself out, or pulled some strings. At least the perpetrator had offered to wait around while they fixed the car. Apparently he'd left his car unattended at the shop before and... well... it wound up missing a few mirrors and the odd alternator or so when he got back. The garage fixes things but they don't do security.

Malcolm gets into the borrowed car and starts to reverse, braking centimetres from a car that was about to hit him. He uses the 'minibus' technique to join the stream of cars passing by, inching a little more and more until the cars coming have to swerve. Bastards still won't stop. Eventually he moves just enough to where the silver Land Cruiser bearing down on him feared rolling over when it swerved and stopped. Success! Phiri sets off on the long wait to the Manda Hill gates. Why don't these guys build a couple more entries and exits from this place ? Oh yeah... they didn't get planning permission. Probably didn't fill the forms out in triplicate at the City Council, or made someone angry. After a lifetime of moving forward, he finally gets to the lights. A lady stands by his car asking for money... he refuses and she moves on. A youngster tries the same... for mealie meal, he says. The smell of glue wafts over Phiri. This young man could be working instead of begging, there are so many jobs now with the minibuses but this glue sniffing addiction has made him lose all his self-respect. The light changes, finally, and Phiri turns on to Great East Road going towards Addis Ababa, the road, not the city. "When will our people stop having to beg?" he thinks. Maybe it's a national illness... this culture of aid. Maybe Dambisa Moyo makes a lot of sense. It took Rozalla to remind us that everybody's free to feel good... and it takes a Moyo to come along and tell us the freedom is not free.

To be continued...

Click here for Part I of the Phiri Deception....

06 March 2009

Vaishnav jan

One of Gandhi-ji's favourite songs is called "Vaishnav jan." It's always associated with him because he loved the lyrics and tried to follow those ideals. He also wanted to instill those ideas in all he met. He was honoured with the title "Father of India," and I'm sure he would have wanted his children to follow them. The current crop of Indian leaders think that they are honouring Gandhi-ji's memory by bringing his glasses and slippers back to India. Perhaps if they were a little familiar with the Mahatma's favourite song, they may not have made that mistake. So I'm helping them along with the lyrics and meanings of the song. You can listen to the song here if you want to sing along.

Vaishnav jan to tene kahiye je, peed paraayi jaane re /
Par dukhe upkaar kare toye, man abhimaan na aane re//

The true devotee [of God] is one who understands the pain of those who are not their own,

Always ready to help those who are unhappy, and does not let arrogance enter his mind.

If the government was really interested in honouring Gandhi-ji's memory, they should be able to understand the problems that the people are facing. I would say the biggest problems are that people don't have enough opportunities to fulfill their potential. There are not enough places at institutions of higher learning, and not enough jobs for the few who do get a chance to study. I would say these things take just a little bit of priority over making a huge noise about Gandhi-ji's things that he gave away during his lifetime and nobody cared about for at least 60 years.

Sakal lok maan sahune vande, ninda na karen keni re /
Vaach kaach man nischal raakhe, dhan dhan janani teni re //

She bows to the whole world, does not criticise anybody,
Words, deeds, and mind are kept pure, blessed is the mother who has such a child.

Well, this first bit the Indian government does really well. Bows to practically the whole world. "Oho, you want to come and blow up people here? No problem, please go ahead... consequences to you? None, don't worry... we will strongly condemn the acts but words have never hurt anyone. Do you mind if we blame the previous government for your actions? That way you can seem to be victims too!" Their words are definitely pure... deeds and minds not so much. Mother India is not very blessed with some of the current leaders that we have.

Sam-drishti ne trishna tyaagi, parastree jene maat re /
Jivaa thake, asatya na bole, par dhan nava jhaale haath re //

All are looked upon as equals, desire is abandoned, and he treats women as if they were his mother,

His tongue tires if he attempts to lie, he does not want other people's wealth.

I really wish the government would have this attitude. Right now, men and women are not looked upon equally, different castes are not looked upon equally, hell, ministers seem to expect the public to defer to them. Violence against women is a huge problem and their opportunities are still restricted in much of the country. Lies are the bread and butter of politics and stealing the taxpayers' money... that's an Olympic sport in itself. If only the government would spend some energy and time on this.

Moh maaya vyape nahin jene, drudh vairaagya jena manmaa re /
Ram naam shu taali laagi, sakal theerth tena tan ma re //
Desire and illusion don't hold him, he has detached himself fromt he world,

The name of God is on his lips, all places of pilgrimage are in his body.

Government is very much attached to power, but not so much to the people who give them their power. They do use God to stay in power as much as possible... for some reason if God / religion is mentioned people forget rational thinking and hand over their brains. So instead of religion being something that unites, politicians use it to divide and the "we will protect you from them" seems to work better in the short term than "we'll get schools and electricity and water," of course the latter are much more difficult than the former, especially when there's nobody to protect against... other than goons who work for the politicians.

Vana lobhi ne kapat rachit chhe, kaam krodh nivaarya re /
Bhane narsaiyyon tenu darshan kartaa, kul ekoter tarya re //

He has no deceit, no greed, has given up lust and anger,
If Narsi [the poet] is in the presence of such a person, his whole family will get salvation.
Government's definitely failed on all this... the bad side is shown to the people of the country, they're really nice to foriegners as far as I can tell.
So, I'm asking those ministers who want to keep the memory of Mahatma Gandhi alive, take a page from his favourite poem and be that person... building statues, getting bits of memorabilia back won't keep his memory alive... as Gandhi-ji liked to say, "Be the change you want to see in the world," or at the very least, stop interfering with people who want to see change happen.

Gandhi-ji was a brilliant tactician, he knew what would work against the British and what would unite Indians at a time when India had not been united for at least 2500 years. For all his non-violence, he never backed down from a fight. The fight wasn't physical, it was one 'half-naked fakir,' in the words of Winston Churchill, versus the greatest empire the world has ever known... and the fakir won. He also knew the power of experimentation to test his beliefs and he went against the opinion of most of the country when he decided to test if he had truly conquered desire for women [the experiment showed him that he hadn't conquered it.] He had a backbone... and great bravery, which is desperately lacking in the Indian government.

So, Gandhian legacy is... call a spade a spade, work for the good of humanity and not oneself... stand up for what you believe in... what do the politicians of today believe in, other than enriching themselves and making sure they get elected the next time... his legacy is not his eyeglasses and sandals. Seriously.

28 January 2009

Driving Lusaka

My favourite topic... driving in Lusaka... fraught with hazards, it's truly punctuated equilibrium in action... only the fittest survive to drive another day. It does keep you glued to the seat with both hands on the wheel at the 10 and 2 o'clock positions... just like the driving instructor said. There are multiple dangers and it is definitely not for people without quick reflexes. In fact, I'm about to market Lusaka driving as alternative training for table tennis and badminton players to improve their reflexes. There are multiple dangers on the road that anyone thinking of driving here has to be aware of, from the potholes to random people jumping in front of the car. I'll begin with the pothole.

Aaah the pothole, it's been a favoured sqatter on Lusaka roads since time immemorial. It was so ubiquitous that people avoided the roads entirely and drove on the sidewalks. It was such an example of the failure of government that the opposition used it in advertisements prior to elections. After the opposition won, they continued to leave the potholes in place just to remind the people how bad things were in the previous regime. And the opposition has won every election since, so I figure they have no reason, really, to fix potholes.

Minibuses... known affectionately as 'matatus' in Kenya and the harbingers of death in Lusaka. These contraptions, sometimes held together just by cello tape and faith, carry commuters throughout the city. They often have slogans on the back, such as "My lord does not sleep," "Jesus saves" and such-like. I used to wonder why they were so religious, but no longer. They really want your last memories in life to be those of God as you plough into the back when they make one of their sudden stops to pick up some passenger. The aforesaid passengers of course are too lazy to walk to the nearest bus stop which may be just about 400 metres away. (It may be noted that the world record for 400 meter sprint is 43.18 seconds, held by Michael Johnson of the United States). Of course if you don't smash into the backs of these buses, you may hit their nose. A strategy that works for the minibuses to re-enter the road after an unscheduled stop is to slowly work their noses onto the road as each car whizzes by. There comes a time when enough of the front of the bus is on the road that the next car driving by will stop to let the bus back in. It's also possible that the religious slogans are on because the bus drivers are saving the world. They do drive like they have to get to the other end of the city in the next 2 minutes to avoid major catastrophe. Picture this, a long line of automobiles waiting on the road for a light to change to green. We're sitting there, inside the automobiles, cursing the lights and the authorities who refused to make an extra lane to cater for the traffic. We're still patiently waiting even though we're late for an appointment at the Brown Frog or at Rhapsody's. Almost every single time, one looks to the side and sees one or more of these blue buses, the saviours of mankind, rushing ahead on the sidewalk. "So, are we stupid, waiting in line," pointedly asks my wife. I don't think she's convinced by my arguement that the drivers have to be somewhere in the next couple of minutes, or somebody will die. The other drivers all know this too, as they let the buses in at the head of the line... well, maybe it's just the nose-into-road technique. In short, if the traffic police got serious about having minibus drivers pay fines for violations, the entire Zambian budget could be balanced in about a year.

Pedestrians and cyclists - Automobile traffic in Lusaka seems to have increased every time I get the mini-minivan out (it's a Toyota Raum - yeah, I didn't know they existed until I got here either). This means that if you want to turn then you have a couple of seconds where there's enough time to jump on the road. Invariably, that's the time when pedestrians and cyclists will choose to cross the road right in front of you. They won't go around you so that you can turn, they will cross in front of you right as you want to move forward. It's common to see cyclists cycling against the flow of traffic. One would think if they cycled with the traffic, at least if they got hit, they would just accelerate forward. If they get hit head on, they'd just fly off the bike and crash into the car. Pedestrians at night... man... those are deadly. They wear non-reflective clothes and jump onto the road giving you just enough time to stand on the brakes or risk ploughing into them. And they won't even cross the road straight across... normally they do it in a diagonal fashion so they spend more time on the road than necessary. Are they asking for death? Who knows... I hope I'll never be the one to grant them their wish.

SUV's and other tall cars. Almost every government vehicle seems to be some sort of SUV. Pajeros, Land Cruisers rule the roost here. Most of the time, these guys will come stand right next to you so that you can't see the oncoming traffic. Now if you want to turn, you have to wait for both lanes to clear or risk being a pappadum on the road... usually if the SUV moves then you are safe to move as well. This is mainly a problem when you have to turn left... the right side is obscured by the big car and they wait for both sides of the road to clear before they can turn. The cost of 3 of those cars can pay for a 96-capillary sequencer.... which I could desparately use right now. Of course with SUVs the potholes are just gentle dips in the road... so why fix them?

I have found some Lusaka drivers to be extraordinarily well-mannered. They stop and let you through if you've been waiting for a while, they tell you to overtake them if you want to go faster, and flash their lights if you're driving with your lights on. They also flash their lights if they want to let you go through, and if they want you to stop, which gets confusing, but you get good at reading the context. I still have to figure out what some fool was doing last night flashing his or her lights behind me... the road was empty, my lights were working, and this person didn't want to overtake when I slowed down and moved into the other lane. Maybe someday the reasonw will come to me.

It just came to me, no wonder Satwant Singh "the flying Sikh" was All Africa rally champion eight times... he trained on Lusaka roads.