Archive for category Venkat’s and Others’ Selected Earlier Articles

Good News! Indians are not A “Minority”

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in July 2010)

Recently Carnegie Mellon University published in their in-house publication Focus (Vol. 21, No 8, Spring 2010) some statistics around the demographics of their student body and staff.  Race and gender being dominant parts of social discourses in the US, the stats were broke down along race and gender:

Notes: Blacks and Hispanics in the US form 23% of the population. At CMU 15% of undergraduates and 48% of graduate students are international.

Interestingly, CMU has grouped Asians (including Indians) along with majority Whites in the racial mix of the university body:

Tenure-track faculty:  91% White and Asian American

Other staff: 87% White and Asian American

When contacted, Ms. Janel Supkus, Head of Institutional Research at CMU, told The Patrika that in the context of the demographic makeup of the nation’s population, people of Asian and Indian heritage are not under-represented in the CMU community; but women, Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans are. That is why the university has not been classifying Asians — Chinese, Koreans, Japanese and Indians —  as minorities. If any, most of these can be realistically called privileged minorities.

Well, simply walking along the campus, we can even speculate that these Asians are over-represented in the university’s demographics. This grouping of Asian- and Indian-Americans along with Whites is a trend what we will see more and more in other walks of life in the future.

In the American context, Indian-Americans may be a minority in numbers, but bulk of us come from what can be only called a “privileged” minority: Because of skewed immigration, a large proportion of us have better education and/or entrepreneurial skills, hence higher earnings and net worth than the national average. We give our children stable homes —  so critical for their growth socially and psychologically in their formative and later years — even though most of our marriages may not be the happiest ones. We endure in our marriages for the sake of our children. 

As Indian-Americans, coming out of the minority classification ought to be liberating at one level. It’s an affirmation of how far we have come since the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. Going forward, the concept of Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity Employment are going to be irrelevant for most of our children. 

But this puts the children of gas station attendants, taxi drivers, restaurant cooks and others of Indian origin at a great disadvantage. To address this inequity, educational institutions need to look at the 1040 forms of the parents of Asian students before deciding on financial awards. This is one way to give a break to college applicants coming from socioeconomically disadvantaged homes – whether white, black, brown, and yellow.

Going forward, we are going to be judged, to quote Dr. King, “not by the color of our skin [or other features], but by the contents of our character,” to which we may also add, our intellect, skills, and how we respond to our social obligations here in the US going beyond paying taxes.  This is enough motivation for us to give back to society what we have received from Providence and from this land of opportunities.  –– END  


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Bridle the “Free” Market

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in July 2010)

There is an axiomatic belief bordering on dogma among conservative Republicans and Libertarians that less governing is better governing, and that a Free Market system is self-correcting.

But Free Market has never been free. After all, elected officials pass laws creating the environment in which the supposedly Free Market can operate. In making laws, elected officials jostle to pick the winners, or at least load the dice to favor the interest groups favorable to them. That is how hundreds of thousands of lobbyists for every imaginable interest group  make their living in cities, state capitals and in Washington, DC trying to load the legislative dice in their clients’ favor.

Besides, when the supposedly free-market-driven system in banking, finance, manufacturing, and the energy sectors takes the country to the brink of collapse – and this happens predictably in the US every 15 to 20 years – tax payers have repeatedly coughed up big-time monies to bail out businesses because they are “too big to fail.” The bailout monies have only become bigger with every new scandal.

Let’s us face it. Private enterprises are value-neutral, driven only by their profit motive. What they do to society at large is not their concern as long as they make profits, and they make more profits than their competitors. Along the way, they often have done irreparable damage to land, water, and people’s lives. Just see the abandoned ruins of industrial sites — mining in the West, or in the industrial heartland in the US – where the owners simply walked away after exploiting the land and the resources for decades without remedying the land they exploited for profit. And now in the Gulf of Mexico BP has become a four-letter word. Similarly, the history of occupational diseases and industrial hygiene tells how workers’ health was ruined by the working conditions through the ages. This, we all have come to recognize, is the price for progress.

In explaining the recent shenanigans of the banking and insurance industry that took us to the brink of financial collapse, commentators used casino metaphors. Remember, taxpayer monies in trillions  —  1 trillion is 1,000,000,000,000 —  were used to bail out these guys for their recklessness.  In casinos too, as long as the house gets its money, its operators don’t care what happens to gamblers. But gamblers at least know  the odds are heavily against them. In this financial shell game, investors were not told of the heavy odds against the different financial instruments the banks created and sold, even though the banks knew this game would collapse sooner or later. They even betted against these instruments themselves, making huge profits even as their clients lost.

Goldman Sach’s CEO Lloyd Blankfein was like a poker player when he testified with a straight face on April 27, 2010 before Congress that he didn’t pay attention to the credit ratings Wall Street uses all the time to peddle financial products to investors. Not surprisingly, New York state’s attorney general Andrew Cuomo is investigating “investment banking companies whether they provided misleading information” to the rating agencies (Standard & Poor’s, Fitch Ratings and Moody’s) “to inflate the grades of mortgage securities.” Among the banks investigated are Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, UBS, Citigroup, and Merrill Lynch. Attorneys general do not start expensive investigations unless they see a prima facie case.

When the lives of people are ruined, Wall Street’s high-stakes poker players escape saying, Caveat Emptor or Buyer Beware. Precisely because buyers – even the sophisticated ones — are not able to comprehend these complex and “synthetic” investment instruments, the strong arm of the State needs to intervene to protect individuals and the society at large.

Market-driven economy’s virtue is not that it is the best, but that all other economic systems are far worse. It is the same with elected governments. It is not that elected governments are the best, but all other systems of governance are far worse. Elected governments have checks and balances they have set for themselves to limit autocratic tendencies among rulers. Even then, there is no guarantee. Similarly, to protect ordinary citizens, it is necessary that governments regulate the supposedly free market system with laws with criminal consequences much the same way the criminal justice system takes care of crimes.

After all, after economic collapse, the big players, with their huge severance packages, move to their safe havens scattered all over the world, while the presidents, governors and mayors are left to salvage the physical ruins of the land and the economic ruins of people left behind.

Coincidentally, in April British Petroleum’s deep-sea oil well 40 miles south of New Orleans ruptured and the offshore platform Deepwater Horizon exploded killing eleven workers. Every day 2.25 million gallons of a mixture oil and gas has been spewing out of the rupture at 5000 feet below sea level polluting the American shores in the Gulf of Mexico. The mavens of American finance and manufacturing have been blaming everybody else but themselves to the catastrophes. Is there any wonder why nobody in the US trusts CEOs?  — END


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Uncommon Adventures — Witnessing the Dangerous and Highly Skilled Job of Air Refueling

Kollengode S Venkataraman (published in October 2009)

Recently in the wake of the FBI Citizens Academy graduation I had a unique opportunity to witness and participate in a air refueling operation by the Penna Air National Guard operation.

The Pennsylvania Air National Guard’s 171 Air Refueling Wing operate from their base close to the Pittsburgh airport using the airport’s infrastructure — runways and air traffic control — to reduce their costs for their operating their flights.  I was one of the over dozen participants in this exercise.

My first, and perhaps also my only, opportunity to get into an USAF plane

Air refueling is a 100% military-related operation but the Guardsmen, who are under the command of the governor in most states, also respond to natural disasters for supply and rescue mission, as they did during Katrina.

On the stated date (July 22, a Wednesday), we assembled at the Air National Guard facility adjacent to the airport.  I was under the impression that they would show us a video, or make us sit in a simulator — maybe take us for a short ride, over Lake Erie and bring us back.

But was I in for a huge surprise!

Inside the “cabin.” it is actually a bare bone fuselage

As we sat through the briefing by Brig. Gen. Rou Uptegraf, Commander of the Pennsylvania 171 Air Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, it became crystal clear that this was THE Real Deal!

The flight crew (two part-time volunteer pilots Eric Yockey and Keith Stephen and two full-time “Boom” operators John Cima and his colleague) informed us that we would fly due east all the way to the Atlantic shoreline in the NY/NY area and fly well into the ocean. We would be air-borne for nearly 4 hours!  There, our “mother” plane would dock with another plane requiring refueling during flight.

The plane had only bare-bone insulation and sound muffling. It was cold and noisy inside.

We had been asked to come prepared for cold temperatures inside the plane and were also cautioned that the plane’s toilet facilities are minimal.

The utilitarian 50-year old plane was C-135, the military version of the old Boeing 707. We drove past several of these planes, something that you can see if you land on the run way closest to their parking yard. We entered the grey painted plane through the very large door on the side. Even though thee planes are very old, we are told, their dedicated crew take great pride in keeping the plane fully operational ALL the time.

The barebones interior was with wires and cables and HVAC ducts exposed and running the entire length of the plane. The highly visible insulation/noise muffling layer was kept in place with the liberal usage of what appeared to be duct tape. The plane had only 4 windows – two on either side – along the entire length of the fuselage. The cockpit was open to those who were riding in the plane.  

The seats arranged along the length of the fuselage were barely functional, made with woven 2” or 3” wide bright red tapes like what we see in garden chairs. In the middle of the fuselage along the length of the plane were five sets of multipurpose cargo boxes for transporting anything that would fit into the box.

As the plane taxied to the runway, even before we were airborne, it was clear this would be a very, very noisy ride.

Another view of the plane’s inside.

Once we were cruising at 26,000 feet we walked around the cabin.  All of us took turn and entered the cockpit during the flight and sat right behind the two pilots. To have the pilot’s view (nearly 270 degree views) of what was outside the plane was a treat of a lifetime for all of us.  The veteran pilots were joking around with us even as they were fully focused on their job, making small talks with me on radio/intercom.

Exciting as the cockpit view of the outside was, the real action was all at the tail end of the aircraft! For this is where the maneuvering for the refueling takes place. Conceptually, a hose from the “mother plane” has to dock into the fuel receptacle on the fuel-receiving plane. The only constraint is that this has to be done at 20,000 to 30,000 ft in the air while the two planes are flying at nearly 500 mph. And everything has to be done by remote control.

This is where the “boom” operators come in.  These highly skilled technicians’ agility, skills and concentration at their task and their professionalism are very inspiring. They train, we are told, hundreds of hours on simulators, perfecting their technique before getting trained under a veteran boom operator in actual flight.

The technician lies on his stomach while playing with his joystick to lock the fuel nozzle with the receiving plane.

The whole operation takes highly coordinated communication among the pilots in both the planes and the boom operators as they maneuver the two planes close enough – but not too close — to dock the fuel hose from the mother plane to the receptacle on the top of the front end of the receiving plane, just above its cockpit.

The boom operator working with very limited space operates several joysticks and control knobs to move the “boom,” — which has the hose installed in it. He lies flat on his stomach on a padded mat like a Yoga mat and operates the joysticks and other knobs while looking through the three windows, the largest of which measured maybe 24” x 12”. By working on the joystick, the boom operator moves the hose independent of the mother plane, and with great skill, docks the discharging end of the hose on the receptacle on the top of the receiving g plane.  When the hose coupling comes very close to the receptacle of the receiving plane, a powerful electromagnet attracts the hose plumbing fixture and locks it into position on the receptacle in the receiving plane.

I was looking through the window lying on my stomach on the mat adjacent to the boom operator as we were flying at 26,000 ft at ~ 500 mph (ground speed). At a far-away distance, I saw a plane approaching us.  The boom operator told us, that is the plane we were about to re-fuel in flight.

The mother tank is locked with the fuel intake of the receiving plane flying at 20,000 ft. Delicate, synchronized, skillful maneuvering now onward till refueling is completed.

As the plane got closer to us, I could see the military jet plane’s four-engines… … then I saw the inscription US AIR FORCE painted on the side of the fuselage. And then I could see the number on the plane 3084.

As the plane needing the fuel got closer still, I could even see the pilots in its cockpit.  When the plane got closer at ~ 200 feet, I could see the fuel hose receptacle, even the rivets on the fuselage and the scratch marks when the hose made contacts with the plane near the receptacle.  It was an eerie experience seeing a plane in flight this close.

All the while, the Boom Operator was constantly in radio/intercom communication with the pilots in both the planes even as he was maneuvering his joysticks to bring the hose’s end of his plane to the receptacle on the receiving plane.  When they come close enough, powerful electro magnets on the planes quickly brought the two ends into contact and instantaneously locked the hose into its receptacle making it ready for refueling. The Boom operator then worked his buttons to open and close the necessary valves and the jet fuel from his mother ship’s underbelly was transferred to the other plane.  The unloading took may be 20 minutes transferring several thousand gallons of the fuel.

Perhaps the only opportunity for me get into the cockpit of a military plane in flight!!

Finally, his job completed, the boom operator instructed the pilots in both ships, he is going to decouple the hose. He detached their umbilical chord, and I could see the other plane slowly receding from my plane both in distance and elevation. After some time, the plane outside veered away from ours.

Having completed our training mission, the pilot returned his plane and brought us back to Pittsburgh.

It was an unforgettable experience.  I was so impressed with all the pilots, boom operators and other staff working with their absolute dedication and professionalism and pride in their skills and abilities in keeping the country safe in times of war, terrorist threats and natural disasters.

We owe them a huge debt of gratitude though we may never need their services. — END


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Saroj Bahl — The Woman Behind the Indian Nationality Room and India’s I-Day Gala — Her long journey started in Kenya!!

By Dolly Luthra, Weirton, WV  (Published in July 2009) 

Editor’s Note: Dolly Luthra, a long-time resident in Weirton, WV, talked to Saroj Bahl in April on what inspired her to start the India Independence Day celebrations, now an annual event in Pittsburgh. In an engaging conversation with Luthra, Bahl explains how she re-discovered herself in her activities and accomplishments in Pittsburgh. Luthra, a dentist, came to the US in 1975.

Dolly Luthra talking to the Saroj and Mohinder Bahl for this story.

In the Pittsburgh Metro area, India’s Independence Day Celebration is synonymous with Saroj Bahl. Started in 1997 during the 50th Anniversary of India’s independence and held annually in August in the lobby of the Cathedral of Learning, this function is for all Indians in the tri-state area.

Born in 1943 in Nairobi, Kenya, Saroj is the child of immigrant parents from India. She grew up as a British subject in a traditional Indian family with weekend trips to the temple for Havan. She attended the Arya Samaj School. Nairobi was segregated with separate residential areas and schools for Whites, Blacks and Browns.

Saroj Bahl in High School

Saroj recalled, “For college education I went to Chandigarh in 1960. My first contact with India is so dear to me that even today a lump rises in my throat thinking about that day. I returned to Kenya in 1963, the year Kenya got independence from Britain. In Nairobi, I taught English, literature and history in Senior Cambridge School. In 1964 I got married to the newly minted doctor Mohinder Bahl who had just returned from Pune, India.”

In Kenya, Saroj and Mohinder were blessed with three sons —Ashish, Monish and Sachin. They were set to have a great life in Nairobi. 

But life is never static. External events change people’s lives forever. Exodus of Indians from Idi Amin’ Uganda in 1972 prompted Ashok, Saroj’s brother in Pittsburgh then, to tell Mohinder and Saroj to leave Kenya voluntarily before they were forced out. It was prophetic. The government of Kenya announced that all jobs would be Africanized.

In 1972 Saroj and Mohinder with three children landed in Pittsburgh. Mala, their fourth child, traveled free and was born in Pittsburgh.  The Bahls never re-located and Pittsburgh became their home.

“In the early 70s, Pittsburgh had a small Indian community,” Saroj recalls. “There were no temples or organizations. We were like a small family meeting in homes around potluck meals. An Indian was just happy to see another Indian without regard to the region or religion. Soon there were talks about a Center and Temple for all Indians. Twelve couples including us made down payment for purchasing a church with attached land, at present location of the Hindu-Jain Temple in Monroeville.”

“I vividly remember,” She continued, “the first logo encompassed all religions including Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Muslims and Christians.”

A Gurudwara between Mombasa and Nairobi

The influx of physicians, information technology and other jobs resulted in ballooning of the Indian Diaspora. The increased numbers of various groups led to their separation from the main body. This resulted in the formation of S.V.Temple, the Sikh Gurudwara and several other religious and regional organizations. The Jains and many Hindus joined hands and built the Hindu-Jain Temple.

Having grown up in the segregated Nairobi, and observing divisions among Indian immigrants in Pittsburgh, Saroj wanted a yet-to-be born platform where people would identify themselves as Indian first and only then have a label of a region or religion, showcasing our unity in diversity.” Saroj animatedly says, “Involving children in such an organization would give them a sense of pride in their roots.”

In 1993, a bunch of volunteers, Saroj Bahl among them (standing behnind Cahndrika Rajagopal in Red Sari), handed over a $5,000 check to the Nationality Rooms Committee as seed money for the Indian Nationality Room that would cost $500,000

Around the same time, Chandrika Rajgopal, Deepak Wadhwani and Anu R Reddy, encouraged by E. Maxine Bruhns of Pitt’s Committee on Nationality Rooms, were working to create an Indian Nationality Room in the Cathedral of Learning. Their motivation was Indiaâ’s 4000-year unbroken tradition of pursuing excellence in learning.

Knowing Saroj’s commitment and work ethic at the Hindu-Jain Temple, she was invited to become part of the Indian Nationality Room committee. She joined enthusiastically.

The final product costing $500,000 was dedicated in Jan 2000, seven years after the seed money was give to the University.

Through several fundraisers, generous support from the community and help from the dot-com boom, the committee raised $500,000 in record time. The Indian Nationality Room was dedicated on January 9, 2000. The project re-created inside the Cathedral of Learning a room depicting the ancient (5th century AD) learning center in Nalanda, established a scholarship program to send one deserving student to India every summer, and holds an annual essay competition.

Finally it was time for Saroj to start the annual Indian Independence Day Celebration to bring all Indians in Pittsburgh under one banner. Rashmi Ravindra, a long-time friend, active community member and supporter of Saroj from Day-1 says “Independence Day Celebration was totally Saroj’s idea.”

Saroj recalls, “It had a modest start with fewer than 100 people in attendance. Over the years, with participation from all Indian organizations and individuals, the annual event now attracts over 1000 people. In earlier years it was hard to find participants, but now the function has no shortage of excellent and enthusiastic performers. The dances and songs match the diverse motifs of independent India.”

“Are you happy with the format of the function?” I inquired.

Without any hesitation and with a chuckle she said, “I love the Mela (Carnival)-like atmosphere — diverse programs, folk music and dances, classical dances, speeches, some people watching the show, some eating, shopping and some doing their usual  gup shup with intermittent loud laughter at the crack of old jokes!!”

The non-air-conditioned Cathedral in the sweltering August summer with less than ideal acoustics doesn’t seem to bother the participants or the audience. Saroj and her committee continue to look for other locations, but without success so far.

Constant improvements in the celebration led to an outdoor parade around the Cathedral of Learning. If rain is a good omen, it appropriately blessed the first parade in 2007, which consequently was held inside the Cathedral.  Last year the parade on the streets surrounding the cathedral was a huge success with over 450 people marching to the beat of Nadaswaram and Tavil by visiting artists at the S V Temple.

I asked, “How do you manage to do all these?”

She laughed and said “I have full support from Mohinder and my children. But I just cannot complain in front of them that I am tired. Saroj also thanks all the Pittsburgh Indian organizations, her ten hard working committee members and the community who have brought the event to this level. All the accounts are handled by the University.

She acknowledged a few frustrations but, “they were nothing compared to the support I received from the community. I will do it all over again. I have enjoyed every minute of it and I have become a better person from this experience.”

Saroj is also actively involved with Silk Screen Film Festival, the Pittsburgh’s  first India I-Day Celebrations in 1997. Bob O’Connor of Pittsburgh City Council was the main speaker.      

Hindu-Jain Temple, and the National Association of Women Business Owners, which selected her as one of the Make The Connection Award Honoree  in April 2009.

Her future dream is to see the Indian Independence Parade to take the dimensions of Irish or Greek parades held in downtown Pittsburgh with thousands in attendance. “I am in no rush. It will happen in its own time. I don’t know when, but that day will arrive for sure. Our youngsters are smart and well trained in organizational skills, business management, speaking abilities, and love for India.”

She continued: “For now, I will continue to give my best to the Independence Day Celebration. At the appropriate time, I will happily pass on the baton.” And she did it in the true Indian Vedantic style with detachment, handing over the baton in 2016 to Rashmi Ravindra and her team.

The small fire that Saroj lit has become a bright flame, and I am sure it will glow even brighter forever.   — END 


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Obituary: Raj Gopal (1933 to March 16, 2009) — Entrepreneur & Pioneer for Hindu Places of Worship in the US

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in July 2009)

Dr. Raj Gopal, who, in early 1970s envisioned a temple for all Hindus in Pittsburgh when the very idea of Hindu immigrants building a temple in the US with their own resources was considered a fantasy, died on March 16 in Coimbatore, India. He died suddenly while working on his project for helping tribal people near Ooty. He lived in Pittsburgh in the 1960s and 70s.

Gopal was born in Coimbatore to a middle class family. After his BE degree in PSG College of Engineering, he came to the US in 1955 and earned his PhD from RPI in electrical engineering in 1961. Returning to India and getting frustrated, he came back to join Westinghouse’s technology center in Churchill, where his work was filed for many patents.

In mid-1970s the euphoria among Indian immigrants for building an inclusive temple for all Hindus, and Sikhs and Jains evaporated soon after groundbreaking with disagreements over the scope of the project and the nuts & bolts of running the temple. A few mainstream Americans and several non-Hindu Indians, it is noteworthy, were active in this project.

Raj Gopal and several others coming from southern India broke away to build a temple of their own. This split culminated in building the Sri Venkateswara Temple. Gopal’s go-getting dynamism was instrumental in getting the bare temple with only the shrines dedicated for worship in record time in Fall 1976. He, with a group of South Indian volunteer-friends, worked with the Tirupati temple in India, raised funds under trying circumstances, worked with Penn Hills’ city hall convincing them for a permit for a Hindu temple, and on many other details.

Dr. Mahendra Mathur, who worked with Raj Gopal for a common temple for all Hindus, said, “Dr. Raj Gopal’s tireless efforts brought together the people and funds, and coordinated the construction of an authentic Hindu Temple in the Western Hemisphere for Venkateswara.  His single minded commitment was truly exemplary.”

Cecilia and Udaya Shankar Rao who were involved with the temple since the beginning reminisced, “Still vivid in our memory is the day Raj brought in a bus fifteen shilpis who had flown to New York from India in summer 1976. We received them at the Churchill borough building. At that moment, the temple project became a reality for us.”

Soon after S.V.Temple’s dedication in Fall 1976, the very dynamism of Gopal’s leadership style, crucial for completing the temple in record time against many odds, became an issue between him and the South Indian team members who worked with him in building the temple.

This was partly because the nascent S.V.Temple was transitioning into a typical establishment with elections, committees, rules, not to speak of the compulsions of pressure groups and conflicting vested interests common in many Hindu temples in the US. Because of this and other inter-locking reasons, the relationship between Gopal and the governing members of the S.V.Temple irrevocably strained soon after the temple’s inauguration in 1976, and the strain sustained in later years.

Gopal was also an ambitious entrepreneur. He saw the potential for Indians in the IT industry a decade before its boom in the 1990s. However, his business ventures did not take off, partly because he was ahead of the time. In recent years, he went back to Coimbatore where he was active in the construction projects of Amrtanandamayi’s ashram and in guiding students at the PSG Institute of Management.

G. Manoharan, who worked with Raj Gopal in the early days of the temple, recalled: “Dr.Gopal was a legend of many dimensions. A brilliant student and a successful engineering manager. He conceived and spearheaded a project establishing a traditional Hindu Temple in the US. A visionary entrepreneur and humanitarian. Loving husband and father of three admirable daughters. A role model.”

Sarita and Smitha, two of Gopal’s three daughters and their mother Rajshri were in Coimbatore for his cremation rites.

Raj Gopal’s associates and acquaintances in Pittsburgh earnestly acknowledge his vigor in getting the S.V.Temple built in record time. On this point, even his detractors agree, as it was evident in what was said in a memorial gathering for Raj Gopal at the S.V. Temple in May.

That the temple Gopal was instrumental in building is now a pilgrimage place for Hindus in the US is an acknowledgment for his vision and his single-minded dedication for the project. — END


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Getting a Call from the FBI —

Participating in the FBI Citizens Academy

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in July 2009)

Last January, there was a message in my answering machine from Pittsburgh’s FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations) office asking me to call them back in connection with one of their outreach programs. I wondered why they selected me for the program. Having traveled to many counties on work, did I unknowingly violate any of the National Security guidelines?  Is the “Outreach Program” a euphemism to lessen the impact?

I promptly called their office the next day, hoping to soon be out of their radar screen. Much to my surprise, they told me they would like to nominate me for the FBI Citizens Academy Program. If selected, I need to commit myself for an 8-week course held once a week between 5:30 pm and 9:00 pm. They asked, “Are you interested?”

My nervousness vanished. But I was curious. Who are the other nominees? I wanted to be sure what I was getting into. They told me the other attendees are citizens from a variety of backgrounds all from around the Pittsburgh area. After checking with my supervisor at work, I accepted their nomination.

On the first day, they set the stage: Law enforcement is society’s response to crime and violence by people against fellow citizens.  Traditionally, the thrust in law enforcement has been prosecuting crimes after they are committed. In the wake of the September 11, 2001, questions were raised on this approach by elected officials, citizens groups, and by the law enforcement agencies themselves.

Prosecuting crimes is still important. But preventing crimes was seen as more desirable and cost-effective than prosecuting crimes. After all, law enforcement agencies are there to protect law-abiding citizens. 

Further, till 9-11, law enforcement agencies at the local, county, state and federal levels were silos, often having very little communication with each other. Since the resources of law enforcement agencies are finite, there were advantages in breaking down walls between them and using each other’s resources to their collective advantage.

The FBI took this idea one step further, deciding to build bridges by using citizens at large as partners in preventing crimes. Towards this, the FBI holds a structured 8 to 10-week course titled “FBI Citizens Academy” in key locations every alternate year. FBI selects the participants from a WIDE cross section of citizenry – teachers, postal employees, community organizers, lawyers, company executives, entrepreneurs, chaplains, and sometimes even celebrities. My class included Franco Harris of Immaculate Reception fame, giving myself the lifetime bragging rights to claim Franco Harris as my classmate!!!  😉

On the first day, nearly forty well accomplished but regular-looking (except Harris) citizens (both black and white) were at the FBI  office in the South Side. I was the only conspicuously looking non-mainstream guy. 

Naively, I thought the emphasis would be on terrorism, particularly external ones –  al Qaeda and the like. But external terrorism was only a small part in one session. They also discussed internal terrorists, both right-wing (Unabomber, Oklahoma City) and left wing.

Each week, they had two or three sessions. The topics covered the whole gamut: drug trafficking and money laundering; public corruption by judges and elected officials such as congressmen, state representatives, city councilmen; organized crime; violence against minors and child pornography; corruption inside law enforcement agencies themselves including the FBI; crimes related to intellectual property; and many others.

In the training, they were the first ones to admit that they too, sometimes, make mistakes and  their own personnel commit crimes. The speakers — all veteran FBI officials — highlighted some of their high-profile cases and how they prosecuted them. The program’s other highlights:

1.   Identifying and gathering blood and other DNA samples, fibers, foot prints in crime scenes – mostly painstaking grunt work that is nothing like what you see while watching an episode of CSI.

2.  Polygraph testing and psychological profiling.

3.  Managing a very real-life simulated terrorist threat in downtown Pittsburgh that involved poison gas, evacuation, hundreds of deaths; coordination with multiple agencies, making split-second decisions and having to live with the consequences of those decisions… …

4.  Police chase that simulates high-speed driving in a real police car, including wide/sharp turns, burning tires, and screeching halts.

5.  And finally, firearm training with live ammunition.

If you get a call from the FBI in future asking you if you would like to be nominated for the Citizens Academy, say “yes” rightaway. You will interact with a group of people coming from different backgrounds.  Given the insular lifestyles in the US, it is not easy to meet people from such a wide range of backgrounds. More difficult still is to get a flavor of the challenges law enforcing agencies face, the constraints under which they operate, and how they operate.      — End   


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Thank You, Governor Jindal!

  By  Kollengode  S  Venkataraman  — Published in April 2009

Given the partisanship among the members of Congress, talking heads and punditocrats, we need to take it seriously when Democrats and Republicans agree on anything. That is what happened on February 24 when the talking heads started billowing their opinions on TV moments after Louisiana’s GOP Governor Bobby Jindal ended his response to President Obama’s address to the joint session of Congress. These were the captions to news stories the next morning:  

New York Times: Governor Jindal, Rising G.O.P. Star, Plummets After Speech

Washington Post:Republicans, Democrats Criticize Jindal’s speech

Washington Post’s’ Media Notes: How bad was Jindal?

Los Angeles Times:  GOP not pleased with Jindal’s speech

AP’s Beth Fouhy: Republicans, Democrats criticize Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s speech on style and substance

Chris Mathew, a liberal, on MSNBC muttered “Oh God!” as Jindal strode into his microphone from his ornate governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge. A blogger on gave an Indian twist in jest:  “Oh Ganesha!”

But among Jindal’s detractors were David Brooks of New York Times, Brit Hume of Fox, and Charles Krauthammer of Washington Post, all Conservatives. Only Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity were defending Gov. Jindal.

As an Indian-American, I am not at all unhappy at the whacking Gov. Jindal received. He is a Brown University graduate (biology major), and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He got admission into Harvard med school, which he did not pursue. With this background, as governor, he signed a bill that allows teaching of the Biblical story of creation (according to which the universe is only 6000 years old) in science classes in schools in Louisiana.

In his GOP response to Obama’s address Gov. Jindal said this on the federal government spending the $140 million for volcano monitoring: “Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.” Commentators berated Jindal right away on how he would have responded if the money went for hurricane monitoring systems along the Louisiana Coast.

For a man of his upbringing and high quality education, Jindal is appallingly ignorant in his understanding of this vast nation’s metropolitan areas precariously tied to the vagaries of geography — earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, snow storms… …

After his state using all the resources of FEMA including the US military and the billions of federal money for Katrina relief, Jindal said this: “Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us. Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina, we have our doubts…. …

“There’s a lesson in this experience: The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens.” And then this doublespeak: “We’re grateful for the support we’ve received from across the nation for our ongoing recovery efforts. This spirit got Louisiana through the hurricanes, and this spirit will get our nation through the storms we face today.” 

Gov. Jindal believes that society can manage the rescue efforts for a Katrina-type hurricane with human and material resources entirely from volunteer efforts of citizenry alone. Does Jindal really believe New Orleans could have managed the social and material wreckage of Katrina without tax-payer funded FEMA coming to the rescue? If he does, he needs to grow up quite a bit before dreaming himself standing at the portals of the White House as a future occupant.

I, for one, am glad that not only he was berated by both the liberals and conservatives, but also ridiculed in late-night comedy shows. 

One hopes Jindal does not represent the mindset of the thousands of children of Indian immigrants born and raised in the US in cozy middle-class Indian homes. If he does, that should scare all of us. — END


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Mercury Poisoning in Making Gold Kavachams

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in April 2009)

Many religious places of worship, including Hindu temples, consider it special to adorn their icons/deities and decorate their floats with coverings made of precious metals and gemstones, and use them on special occasions. The metal covering is called Kavacham in Sanskrit, meaning “sheath.”

Hindu Temples with modest resources have relatively less expensive silver kavachams (silver price is only small fraction of gold’s). However, for temples with better resources, the preference is the gold kavacham not only on their deities, but also for floats and even dwaja-sthambham (traditional flagstaff) in front of the temple.

Resourceful temples have used solid gold sheets. The well-known example is Amritsar’s Golden Temple. A much older sheathing with solid gold plates is at the Chidambaram temple, done during the Chola’s time a millennia ago. Traditional goldsmiths in India have been preserving for centuries the intricate artwork on metal carving/engraving.

Temples want inexpensive gold coverings:  With the gold price hovering around $950/oz, making kavachams with solid gold sheets is prohibitively expensive even for rich temples. So, simulated gold kavachams have become the staple. In making these “gold” kavacham, very thin foils of gold are worked onto the surface of less expensive copper kavacham.

Traditional Gold-Plating Techniques:  Making these “gold” kavacham uses mercury at high temperatures for working gold foils onto the copper substrate through amalgamation. Handling mercury at high temperatures gives out mercury vapors, a deadly poison with high toxicity when ingested into the body. See the health deadly effects of mercury poisoning at the end.  One four-step technique of making “gold” kavacham follows:

1.  Making a rigid kavacham using 1 to 2-mm thick copper plate. Copper is malleable for artisans to engrave intricate details such as ornaments, facial expressions, and sartorial details on the kavachams. It is also less expensive. Traditional artisans do an outstanding job in engraving most intricate details on metal kavachams

The next is to giving a gold covering on the copper kavacham. Modern gold electroplating using cyanide baths, a known technology, is one option. This requires strict safety and industrial hygiene practices because of the use of deadly cyanides. But gold electroplating of the kavacham is difficult because of their unwieldy sizes and shapes. The other difficulty is the poor quality of the gold plating on uneven surfaces with intricate details.

So, temples contract the work to traditional metal smiths in India, who have preserved a centuries-old 3-step technique developed in the pre-industrial revolution era that uses mercury and high temperatures.

2.  They heat the copper kavacham pieces to around 200 deg C, and smear the copper surface with the liquid metallic mercury. At these temperatures mercury forms an amalgam with the copper surface. But it also releases deadly mercury vapors in the vicinity of the furnace.

3.   Separately, they make foils of pure gold, which is quite malleable.  The foils are only tens of microns thick (1 micron = 1/1000 millimeter).

4.  They then re-heat the amalgamated copper kavacham pieces obtained in step 2, and painstakingly work the thin gold foils on the heated mercury-rich copper surface. The gold foil forms an amalgam with mercury on the copper substrate and adheres to the copper base. During this high-temperature process, the mercury already on the surface again vaporizes.

Workers exposed to high amounts of mercury vapors:  The boiling point of mercury is relatively low, only 356 deg C. Therefore, at the working temperatures around 200 deg C , mercury vaporizes into air.

The concentration of mercury is the highest in the immediate vicinity of the heating furnace where the metal smiths work.  This cottage industry is totally unregulated in India and it is inevitable that workers ingest the mercury vapors through breathing, mouth and also through their skin.

In all likelihood, even in the finished kavacham pieces, the mercury concentration would be high on the surfaces of the kavacham

Mercury poisoning is deadly:  Mercury, once ingested, is not readily flushed out of the body. The website lists the deadly incurable and progressively degenerative diseases caused by mercury poisoning. Mercury poisoning leads to premature death of people exposed to mercury vapors. That is the reason why it is banned in tooth filling and in thermometers. 

The safe exposure limits for mercury adapted by WHO is 0.46 microgram/day/kg of body weight. (Note: 1 microgram is 0.000001 of a gram).  Obviously working near the furnace will expose people to high levels of mercury, likely to be several hundreds, possibly even thousands of times above the safe working limit.   

The reason for the silence: Traditional metal smiths have preserved the technique for generations, keeping it within their families/clan. Since the technique is preserved within their families, the incomes also stay within their families. Since they are also the sole beneficiaries of this lucrative business, they do not complain.

The temples also keep quite because it gives them inexpensive “gold” kavachams, far less expensive than solid gold coverings. And the ordinary temple-goers rarely know the details of the kavacham-making techniques to understand the associated health risks.

Indian-Americans are better educated with higher degrees in health care, chemistry and engineering. Hence the purpose of this write-up is to raise the awareness of the serious health risks for workers making these gold kavachams.

Once people recognize the dangers of mercury poisoning, one hopes it would lead to some soul-searching among the decision makers on whether we need these mercury-laced “gold” kavachams at all. After all, will we ever let our children go anywhere near the kavacham making furnace?

Partial list of diseases caused by mercury poisoning: 

Addison’s disease, gastritis, allergies, hypogonadism, Alzheimer’s’ disease, hypothyroidism, Amylotrophic lateral sclerosis, infertility, ankylosing spondylitis, insomnia, anorexia nervosa, irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety, juvenile arthritis.

Asthma, learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, lupus, erythromatosus, autoimmune diseases, manic depression, bipolar disorder, multiple chemical sensitivities, borderline personality disorder, multiple sclerosis, bulimia, myasthenia gravis, candidacies, obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Chronic fatigue, panic attacks, colitis, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease, pervasive developmental disorder, depression, psychosis, endocrine disorders, schizophrenia, fibromyalgia, sciatica, food allergies. — END


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From the Inaugural Address of Obama

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in April 2009)

America’s ascension in economic, military, and political strength comes out of its commitment to research in basic and applied sciences and using  the findings to make money through profitable technology, not worrying too much about whether the technologies are useful or even ethical.

In this endeavor, thousands of scientists and researchers have spent, and continue to spend, the most productive years of their careers to continuously improve our understandings of Nature’s mysteries. On  top of this heap of Seekers of Truth are those who receive global recognitions for their work. Needless to say, without the big heap, there is no peak.

That is why researchers from the American soil (both as native-born and as immigrants) have dominated Nobel prizes in chemistry, physics, medicine, and economics throughout the 20th century.

So, there was no need for a US president to declare in his inaugural speech the nation’s commitment to science. Yet, that is what President Obama did: “We will restore science to its rightful place…”

He was alluding that in the last twenty-five years dogma borne out of deeply held religious beliefs took precedence over science in national debates on applying newer insights in science and discoveries in technology to modern life.

Since science in its essence is value-neutral, it is necessary for people to raise questions on how we apply science to make a profit, or worse still, to cause pain and suffering on helpless people as in wars – by using sophisticated guided missiles, land mines, and chemical warfare, and damaging the environment with chemical defoliants.

It is natural for people – officials of organized religions, including religious believers, and even unaffiliated citizens — to be uncomfortable when new findings in science and technologies challenge our deeply held beliefs. That is precisely what scientific discoveries are supposed to do: Challenge our beliefs on the basis of improved understanding of Nature. 

But when such discomforts get organized through selective opposition on the basis of religious/political dogma, it carries less moral weight.  

As a matter of fact, throughout history in the Western world,
almost every new scientific discovery was opposed by its religious orthodoxy of that era. Galileo’s assertion in 16th century that earth revolved around sun (originally suggested by Copernicus) was so disturbing to the Vatican’s orthodoxy that he was excommunicated. Only in 20th century, the Vatican decided to correct itself. 

Similarly, the church opposed initially anesthesia, blood transfusion, organ transplants, in vitro fertilization, and now embryonic stem cell research, supposedly on ethical grounds, but actually dosed heavily on dogma. The church also denies the findings of evolutionary biology.

As expected, President Obama in early March issued an executive order ending the President George W. Bush’s ban on embryonic stem cell research.  Embryonic stem cell research has the potential for finding cures for several chronic and denerative diseases that currently need expensive life-long medications and treatment or no treatment at all.

Often, losing the argument, the religious orthodoxy embraced science.  Where it did not embrace, its opposition eventually became irrelevant, as in the case of use of contraceptives. I wonder why religious orthodoxies has no stand on the use of Viagra by senile men.

Given this atmosphere, it was refreshing to hear President Obama declare, “We will restore science to its rightful place… …”

The second phrase that stood out was when President Obama
talked about faith.  This is what he said:  “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus and non-believers……”  

President Obama included nonbelievers among the people of faith, who believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing, merciful God who occasionally unleashes his wrath on man. As an agnostic, but practicing Hindu, I was fascinated not by Obama including Hindus, but by Obama including nonbelievers.

In the abstract, one can argue that a dogmatic nonbelief itself is a belief. For now, I set aside this verbal gymnastics. 

In the last twenty-five years in the US, an impression is created subliminally in political and social discourse that nonbelievers, though not evil, are amoral, not guided by any morality. But as we have seen repeatedly, evil and the absence of moral and ethical compass are equal-opportunity human traits. Throughout history, more violence and evil were let loose by believers among themselves and towards others as well.

And often, leaders of organized faiths in all religions have displayed total lack of ethics and morality that they preach for others. As a matter of empirical observation, many nonbelievers and even atheists lead very ethical lives. And many theists live diabolically given to debauchery.

For many in the West and Indians as well, it is incomprehensible that you can have religions without the need for God as the fulcrum. Two such religions are very old, at least five centuries years before Christ. Both these faiths have very sophisticated works on its doctrines, ethics, and even dogma. And both are born in India.

One is Buddhism, founded by Gautama Siddhartha in the fifth century BC, after his decades-long search for answers to human misery. Gautama Buddha’s teachings are so sophisticated that he completely bypasses the need for God, neither denying nor affirming the idea of God. Buddhism’s early works on the 8-way path does not invoke God, does not plead for God’s mercy, and does not supplicate God for not unleashing his wrath.

The Buddha’s central message is: Life is difficult, transient, and full of pain. Sarvam duhkham sarvam anityam.  But the Buddha was not a pessimist. Far from it. He offeres a way out giving a general path out of misery that one needs to travel by oneself, something he traversed himself.

Jainism, consolidated in the 6th century BC by Vardhaman Mahaveera, the 24th Tirthankara* in the Jain tradition, is atheistic in its essence. Its idea in karma is simply this: “Hey Guy, You find yourself in the ditch mostly because of your own actions. Now you need to get out of the ditch. Many others have done it. You can do it too. While others can be your inspiration, only you can get yourself out. The effort has to be yours.”

Buddhism, Jainism, and Hinduism all believe in Karma. Buddhism and Jainism, however, without the need for invoking and believing in the idea of God, show people a way out of misery with their own self-effort. 

Even within the Hindu fold, non-belief is never condemned. As a matter of fact, non-belief is a well-accepted idea within the Hindu fold.  Sankhya, one of the six schools (Shad-darshanas, or Six Views) in the Hindu tradition, for example, is atheistic. 

If you associate people’s morality and with their faith in God, how do you explain this?: The atheistic Jainism is totally committed to nonviolence not only toward other human beings, but also towards all other living beings. Even Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was influenced by his Gujarati upbringing, which is a melding of Jainism and Hinduism.

And in many parts of India, even today, Jain charities are well known in hospice care, and running hospitals and educational institutions.

Ido not know how many US presidents have come out so openly
embracing nonbelievers.  But in an environment where religious and political establishments were demonizing nonbelievers in their rhetoric, it was refreshing to hear President Obama’s nuanced approach to belief.

*Tirthankara in Sanskrit means “He who has crossed over the ocean of samsara or Life”, and Vardhamana Mahavira is the 24th Tirthankara. — END


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A Kabir Das Doha on Teaching

By Kollengode  S  Venkataraman   (Published in January 2009)

Several months back, I attended an arangetram of Sravya Vishnubhatla in which her maternal grandfather, retired Indian Air Force’s Wing Commander K. C. Varma, who had come from India, spoke briefly. Instead of praising his grandchild for all her efforts on her arangetram and the teacher who worked with his granddaughter, he dwelled on teaching itself. “Teachers in India are very strict with their students,” he said. He further elaborated by quoting a 2-line verse (called doha) of Kabir Das (17th century in the Mughal time), using the poet-philosopher’s vivid imagery on what teachers does to their students:

Guru is the potter, the student, the pot

[The Guru] slowly removes the stones [from the clay]

Supporting from inside the green clay pot

[He] hits the pot from out!

Kabir’s imagery is brilliant. People only see the potter hitting the “green” pot from outside, similar to what parents see in Indian teachers being strict, and never satisfied with their kids no matter how hard they try. 

The potter first removes the stones from the clay, making it good enough for his use. He then works the clay into a “green” pot on his wheel, and let the pot lose its moisture a little bit.

Then, he hits the pot from outside using a mallet. But at the very spot where he is hitting from outside, he supports the pot from inside that others don’t see to make sure that the pot gets the shape and strength he has in his mind. 

Similarly teachers appear to parents superficially, to be mean to their children. But from inside their mind and heart, their seeming strictness is just to ensure that the student meets and exceeds their expectations.  Acknowledgments:  Surinderjit Singh of Monroeville for the word-by-word explanation for the doha.   — END


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A Multi-Polar World from the Meltdown

By Kollengode S. Venkataraman (Published in January 2009)

Towards the end of the ‘08 campaign, the Republicans and right-wing talk shows extracted one phrase—Redistribution of Wealth– in Obama’s chance encounter with “Joe the Plumber” and berated him till the end.

Of all the GOP invectives against Obama this election season — his “funny” name, menacing middle name, his picture in a Kenyan costume, his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers of the Vietnam Era Underground Movement… …  —  the most hypocritical was the criticism of Obama’s phrase “redistribution of wealth.”  Senator John McCain and Gov. Sarah Palin used it in every campaign stop calling Obama by the awkward phrase “Redistributionist-in-Chief.” Gov. Palin and her fellow travelers incessantly castigated Obama for being a “socialist.”

It was hypocritical because even as McCain-Palin campaign was criticizing Obama for simply saying “redistribution of wealth” casually in a chance encounter in a rally in Ohio, their Republican president George W. Bush was actually doing it, pouring billions of taxpayer dollars to bailout scandalously mismanaged companies.

Bush’s bailout of the gilded Wall Street idols would ultimately cost taxpayers, by one estimate, over two trillion dollars ($2,000 000, 000,000), and then some. The companies receiving the bailout money are the gilded American idols like Bear-Stearns, AIG, and Goldman-Sachs. Even the prestigious American Express and Citi Group are begging for the handout. The Big-3 auto companies, after receiving $25 billion, are asking for another $25 billion more.

The original $ 700 billion bailout plan and others proposed by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, the ex-CEO of the gilded Goldman-Sachs, was the biggest ‘redistribution of wealth’ in reverse.  It took money from Joe Six Pack and gave it to John Fat-Cats. Remember, these companies, till March 08 paid their executives and their sidekicks bonuses exceeding hundreds of millions of dollars for supposedly running their companies well, while they were actually running them into a ditch.

The subprime mortgage scheme perfected by the Wall Street mavens that led to the global meltdown is the biggestfraudulent multinational scheme ever invented, even though it was entirely legal and wholly unethical.

While the redistribution of wealth from the affluent to the needy is an anathema to the right-wingers, the reverse redistribution of wealth from the needy to the greedy is not only acceptable, but also was necessary. In justifying the bailout, we heard President Bush, Secretary Paulson and their sidekicks say “the stability of the global economy,” “the unfreezing of the credit market,” “millions of jobs,” “systemic instability,” and “the survival of the free-market system” are at stake.

These mavens, with MBAs and  PhDs in physics, mathematics, statistics, and IE&OR from reputable schools, without creating any real wealth, created an illusion of prosperity people saw only on the computer screens of their accounts. By the time they got their paper copy, it was gone!

Of all the GOP campaign rhetoric this election season, the one on redistribution of wealth came across absolutely hollow. In the end, both the gilded and the ragged were standing with begging bowls.

Ironically, in the true meaning of the much-derided socialism, now, the US government is a part owner of banks, like in Russia, China, and other despotic rich countries like Saudi Arabia, and Brunei.

In the last twenty-five years, GOP was taken over by unfettered market ideologues, imperial might-is-right foreign policy neocons, and social/religious conservatives. The three simply could not gel into cohesion, but came together out of unenlightened self-interest. By not accommodating dissenting views of moderates within the GOP, these ideologues greatly damaged their own party and the nation as well.

After the WW II, the world was divided into two Super Power camps: The US led the Capitalist West with western Europe, Japan, and a smattering of anti-Communist despots as allies. The Soviet Union led the Communist East with eastern European nations and anti-American despots in tow. The two camps engaged in Cold War with heavy military buildup. There was a lot of sabre rattling, but without actual wars for the most part. Only skirmishes. The wretched Third World countries that did not want to be in either camp were caught in the middle. 

The Cold War ended with the socialist Superpower, the Soviet Union, imploding because of its rigid Marxist dogma. Twenty years later, the remaining unbridled capitalist “Sole-Super Power” US is seriously weakened right in front of our eyes because of hubris and greed.

The lesson? Extreme Right-Wing dogma is as damaging to society as the extreme Left-Wing dogma. An unbridled economic system based on unenlightened self-interest with no ethical compass, in the end, does more harm than good.

When the world finally recovers from this mess, new economic paradigms will evolve in many parts of the world. Each nation or region will accommodate the unique social and cultural ethos of the populace in its economic model providing protection from future implosions as this one. This global economic meltdown has shown the destructive nature of the unfettered greed-based Free-Market ideas, which was the creed in the post-Reagan America. It is not coincidental that the laissez-faire capitalism died in the US.

The economic implosion of the US will force the US government to put its own house in order. This will, by necessity, constrain America’s global political machinations and military muscle working in tandem. See the  highlights in the box on Page 6. Given the worldwide financial mess we are in, that may not be bad for the US. Or for the rest of the world.  — END


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Obama’s Election Breaks the Ultimate Barrier

By Kollengode S Venkataraman  (Published in January 2009)

Sen. Barack Obama’s victory over Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election is the grand finale in the long list of man-made barriers broken in the US since 1776. Consider these:

1. Legal barriers in the US prevented women from owning property and businesses in the 17th and 18th centuries. Married women didn’t have rights to execute their will. Women could not vote till 1920.

2. Branch Rickey, the general manager of Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 ended the 60-year old Color Line in major league baseball by bringing in Jackie Robinson, a multi talented black athlete. Rickey told Robinson “he would face tremendous racial animus from spectators, and insisted he should not take the bait and react angrily.”  When Robinson asked, “Do you want a player afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied, “I need a Negro player with the guts not to fight back.” Robinson agreed. Robinson went on to become a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer. (Source: Wikipedia)

3. President Harry Truman after the Second World War integrated the armed forces and ended the racial barriers in the military.

4. Till the 1965 Voting Rights Act was enacted under President Lyndon Johnson, the Poll Tax barrier prevented poor blacks from voting.

5. The other race-based barriers crumbling during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s are well known.

6. The 1954 US Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education ended racial school segregation and broke another barrier. Incidentally, Thurgood Marshall was the black lawyer arguing the case against school segregation. His appointment later by President Johnson as a US Supreme Court justice broke another barrier. He was the first black justice in the US Supreme Court. Johnson’s imprints are deep in changing the social fabric of the US.

These barriers were removed either by law passed by mostly white elected representatives, or by edicts by individuals — Truman, Johnson, Rickey, Supreme Court Justices — of extraordinary fortitude to end blatant, socially accepted discriminations against women and blacks. 

After this, it was only a matter of time that cities with large black populations would elect black mayors: Tom Bradley (LA 1973), Maynard Jackson Jr. (Atlanta 1973), Harold Washington (Chicago, 1983), and David Dinkins (New York, 1989) are the first black mayors in these cities.

Blacks winning state-wide elections, however, would take much longer. Strangely, of all the states, it was the very “Southern” Virginia (19% black population) that elected the first black governor, Douglas Wilder, in 1989. Virginia was seat of the Confederacy power.

Coming in this tradition, Obama’s victory in the presidential election broke the ultimate barrier in US social/political history. Nationwide, only ~12% of the population is black. A majority of voters – whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, with whites forming the overwhelming majority in a nation-wide election, opted for the charismatic, sophisticated, well-educated, and articulate Barack Obama, making him the first black man to occupy the White House and the Oval Office.

The self-assured Obama had confidence in American voters. Only once did he refer to his racial identity in stump speeches, that too obliquely, when he jocularly said he doesn’t “look like the other guys on dollar bills.” His Philadelphia speech on race relations in America during the primaries is too cerebral to be called a stump speech.

Obama was helped by McCain’s lackluster campaign. In September when the stock market tanked, the McCain campaign’s bottom fell. The choice of Alaska governor Sarah Palin as running mate only made matters worse for McCain towards the end.

The challenges ahead are daunting for Obama and the nation: American credibility under Bush is at an all-time low globally; the nation is in the midst of big financial woes at every level – among individuals, in small businesses, gilded boardrooms, municipal, state and federal governments; an aging population with under-funded social programs; huge military budgets (See the box on the next page)… …

The status quo is simply unsustainable, and if continued, will certainly weaken the republic even further. To avoid further damage, ideally, every interest group will have to give in something. However, given the power of lobbies on elected officials and bureaucrats, this will not happen. The final outcome could very well be ugly. So, even if Obama delivers  only 40% of what he promised, we should be pleased.

If history is any indication, Obama’s administration will have its share of scandals. We hope they are minor and manageable not to overwhelm his big ideas or the economic mess we are in.

All that we can say for now is, Godspeed Obama!   — END


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Clinton v. Obama Slugfest

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in July 2008)

Barack Obama’s political instincts were right on target, even though the odds were heavily against him. Here was an inter-racial black candidate with strange first and last names, and a middle name rightwing commentators exploited to sow the seeds of suspicion.  Besides, he was a rookie in national politics as a first-term senator from Illinois. Yet, he had the gumption to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency competing against veteran senators Chris Dodd, Joseph Biden, and ex V.P. candidate John Edwards, among others. And then there was ex-First Lady Senator Hillary Clinton, who, with the Clinton machine’s backing, was all set to stroll towards her coronation.

But Obama’s credentials were impeccable: Degrees from Columbia and Harvard, editor of Harvard Law Review, and good oratorical and political skills. With all others dropping out, it boiled down to a long slugfest between Hillary and Barack. 

While Barack stayed on his nebulous message on the need for change, hope, and optimism (Yes, We Can), Hillary resembled a Matryoshka nesting doll. Nested inside the outermost doll were other dolls—sometimes grotesque, sometimes fantastic, but always becoming smaller. She was the Experienced One ready to take charge on Day 1 with that emergency call at 3:00 am wearing her finest pearls shown in the TV ad. She was a Southern Belle in Texas before she re-discovered her roots in Pennsylvania. Then downing shots of whiskey, she was the champion of the working-class. A local labor leader in Indiana, introducing Hillary to his audience, admired her “testicular fortitude.”

She fudged facts on her landing in Bosnia in the midst of sniper fire. Employing coded words of racism, she and her husband Bill Clinton  talked on the support they have from “hard-working white Americans” and “whites who had not completed college.” It was a low-point in her campaign, given that Mr. Clinton, as president, had excellent rapport with blacks. But all is fair in war because only winning matters.  

And when all else failed, she tried victimhood. Blaming the media for its misogyny, she appealed to the anger of older, mostly white women. This was ironic since all of her gains in public life are on account of she being the acquiescing wife of an ambitious, successful, and philanderingpolitician – anathema to feminists.  She exploited her celebrity as the ex-First Lady to get elected to the US Senate from New York.

Meanwhile, Obama too had a few missteps. Though indecisive at first, he distanced himself and eventually divorced himself from the vitriolic Rev. Wright. Obama’s intellectual vigor was well evident in a brilliant speech in Philadelphia on race relations that will enter the annals of American social discourse.

Like the inner Matryoshka dolls becoming smaller inside, Hillary’s stature diminished as she changed tactics for getting the nomination at any cost. Finally, she was the fodder for late-night comedy shows.

Ultimately as the pundits predicted months ago, the delegates math favored Obama, and reluctantly Hillary Clinton conceded on June 6. 

The November election will be a good fight. The issues are stark, and McCain and Obama stand in sharp relief both physically, and also philosophically. Even with an unpopular GOP president, wars on two fronts with no end in sight, and an uncertain economy, the outcome of November election is unpredictable given the unknowables of the race factor in US presidential elections. We are on unchartered water here.

Still in the midst of all this, history is already made. From July 4, 1776 to the Democrats nominating Barak Obama in August 2008, it was a long, and sometimes painful, but in the end, always an exhilarating journey for the nation.  ––  (July 2008) END


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Vignettes in Indian Literature: A Tamil King on the Importance of Education

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in January 2008)

Among all Indian languages, Tamil is different: Its system of alphabets, morphology, sandhi rules, andgrammardeveloped independent of Sanskrit. The earliest literature extant now is Tol-kAppiyam (literally,  Old Literature), and is dated back to a few centuries before Christ. In this literary work itself, there are references to earlier works.  Even though in later works starting from 7th century, we see increasing usage of Sanskrit vocabulary, in the earlier works, generically called literature of the Sangam period, the Tamil used has very little Sanskrit influence. Ironically, sangam, meaning association, itself is a Sanskrit word. Serious Tamil academicians have long debated the origins of these names.

In any case, one of the oldest Tamil anthologies, well-known at least to those who have some familiarity of the history of Tamil literature, is the puRa-nAnUru, dated between 3rd century BC to 2nd century AD. With puRam meaning external, and nAnUru meaning the number 400, puRa-nAnUru is a collection of close to 400 poems authored by Tamil bards, poets, scholars, and even kings of that period.

[As an aside, today, just because people can read and write Tamil, or have Tamil as their mother tongue, does not necessarily mean they would have even heard the term puRa-nAnUru. Sadly, this is not unique to the state of the Tamil language. Given the benign neglect of India’s native languages by its elite and middle class, all the Indian languages are condemned to the same fate.The common refrain we hear all the time is, “What is the ‘scope’ in learning the Indian language?”]

These old classical poems have very little religious or philosophical  context. Often, the poets describe the valor and generosity of kings . These poets seek (sometimes even beg) gifts from their patrons to get reprieve from grinding poverty described is colorful imagery. In some poems, poets advise, and even admonish, kings for their misdeeds, a la our columnists.  More on this some other time.

But one brief poem by a king is striking in the social context of the Tamil country of his time, or for that matter, even in today’s context. His name is Ariya-p-paDai  kaDanda  neDunchezhiyan (literally, the NeDun-chezhiyan who went beyond the army of the Aryans).

The king talks on the importance of learning. It is worth noting that this is not a traditional teacher (pandit) or a barely literate community  elder telling youngsters the importance of education. Here is a king living in palaces in opulence, used to a retinue of servants and maidens waiting to do all his biddings, impressing on the importance of education. 

Only after the Industrial Revolution in the 17th century, nation-states started emphasizing education among its populace, recognizing its importance for their political, economic and military ambitions. But here we see a Tamil king centuries before the time of Christ encouraging his population to learn for very practical motivations. Here is his verse in its original:

உற்றுழி யுதவியும் உறுபொருள் கொடுத்தும்
பிற்றைநிலை முனியாது கற்றல் நன்றே
பிறப்போ ரன்ன உடன்வயிற் றுள்ளும்
சிறப்பின் பாலாறற் தாயுமனந் திரியும்
ஒருகுடிப் பிறந்த பல்லோ ருள்ளும்
மூத்தோன் வருக வென்னா தவருள்
அறிவுடை யோனா றரசுஞ் செல்லும்
வேற்றுமை தெரிந்த நாற்பா லுள்ளும்
கீழ்ப்பால் ஒருவன் கற்பில்
மேற்பா லொருவனு மவன்கட் படுமே.


Those who can read Tamil and are familiar with vocabulary of Indian languages would recognize that in this verse only three words are rooted in Sanskrit: arasu (etymologically connected to the Sanskrit rajyam), manam (meaning mind), and muni (used as a verb, meaning annoyance).

And the king gives his practical rationale at three different levels, namely, within one’s own family, within one’s own clan, and within society at large.  The free-style non-poetic translation is:

By helping [the teacher in his needs], and by giving [him] gifts,

It is good to learn without getting

annoyed for being subservient.

[For], even a mother delivering all children from the same womb,

becomes partial toward her famous, learned child.

Even among those born in the same clan (jati),

a king would not invite the eldest one,

but [only] follow the wise and learned.

And even among the differentiated four castes,

if a man from the lower caste is learned,

the person from the upper caste is obliged to listen.


This freshness and the import of this short piece of poetry written before the time of Christ are relevant for all times and for all places. 


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An Ode to My Favorite “Auntie”

By Nitya Venkataraman (Published in October 2007)

Editor’s Note: The author of this write-up was born and raised in the US and prefers to remain anonymous. The “Auntie” described here is not unique to South Indians. Variations of this archetype “auntie” are found in every Indian linguage group and every subcultural/religious group within the linguistic group. The author submitted this article for publication, which first appeared as a weblog under a pen name.

With a wave of your hand, the acquisition of some spare folding chairs and procurement of fifteen plastic table cloths, you could turn any room into a formal dining hall in under two minutes. At Costco, you never over- or under-bought because you know the exact number of bags of potato chips, 2-liter bottles of Coke, containers of Dannon yoghurt, and bags of hard candies needed to feed the crowd of any size, plus any last-minute non-RSVP-ed guests.

Those who didn’t prostrate before the altar of your vast knowledge of crowd control before birthdays, graduation or anniversary parties often paid the price in more ways than one. Functions without your fingerprints were never as good.

You weren’t scared of anyone. You had a PhD from the
School of Hard Knocks. So when you spoke, everyone listened. I’ve seen you go head-to-head with everyone — from mess hall cooks to American wedding planners, janitors to Hindu priests, elec-ted officials to Indian musicians — usually with-in the same afternoon. You always won. He who dared doubt you often felt your ire and disgust for years on end.

And you never forgot the rigatoni. You were a visionary and realized early on that the rigatoni was the appropriate side dish to every ima-ginable combination of Indian cuisine.

You also never forgot the thair chadam (yog-hurt rice) … … knowing that there was no location too proud, no occasion too fancy, no table too formal for a stainless steel vessel filled to the brim with plain yoghurt, rice, and fried mustard seeds, best served in scoops with a soup ladle. Once, in my adolescence, I saw you make it with your bare hands in the kitchen of a ritzy hotel in a $700 sari wearing $4000 worth of gold jewelry while the hotel’s uniformed catering staff looked on in disbelief.

When I was standing idly by and watching you, you handed me a plastic bag-encased bottle of Bedakar mango pickle from the depths of your Mary Poppins purse, and ordered me to find a spoon and add it to the buffet line. I hesitated momentarily, afraid of the way the offensive oily, orange-lidded jar of spicy, pickled mangoes would look against the grand opulence of sheer white linens and sterling silver trays. And on your way out of the kitchen with a pathram (vessel) of the rice, you snatched it out of my hands and did it yourself.

You barked at me for not immediately following your instructions — irritated that I was embarrassed by the sight of empty buttermilk containers in the kitchen of one of the city’s most ritzy hotels — but I loved you all the more.
You knew everything. Everything. Without having to ask a single question. People confided in you because you had practical, applicable solutions to any problem. You always had needles, thread, yarn, scissors, super glue, Sharpies, plastic spoons, safety pins and crepe paper on hand in case of emergencies.

You had no less than thirty aunties buzz around you at the
onset of every function like worker bees to the queen. They knew their role, their function, their designated vegetable in the buffet line, and always responded to your command like troops to the general. You always delegated, but they rarely stayed focused and usually messed things up. You knew things turned out right only when you did them yourself.

You were the stuff of legends. Once, I swear I saw you feed 100 people on five minutes notice with a cup of rice, a handful of flour and a few potatoes. Another time you stretched two cups of chakkrai pongal (rice cooked with brown sugar) to serve 400. And you made the best panchamritham of my life with a few bananas, small bunch of grapes, and a scoop of brown sugar.

Your efficiency and style and street smarts deserved their own show like “Whose Wedding Is It Anyway” or a million-dollar, high-flying, party-planning gig for P-Diddy where you would silence him and his entourage with the fire of a single glare and convince them to use plastic table clothes for cost-efficiency. But you stayed and catered to us, the undeserving.

And now, your hair’s a little bit grayer, your gait a little bit
slower, and you haven’t hiked up your sari on one side and leapt across a stack of plastic chairs to stop someone who wasn’t following your directions in quite some years… … But every time I go home and see you organizing and directing and orchestrating the details that matter the most, I know that my childhood, my hyphenated-American experience, my memories of the perfectly organized buffet lines of yesteryears would not have been the same without you.

We want to be “Fair and Balanced.” So, in the next issue will be the other part, “My not-so-favorite ‘Auntie.’” by the same. — END


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If the Ramayana can be condensed, … … …

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in October 2007)

Powered by hand-held PDAs and instant txt msgng, ours is the era of sound bites that call for extrm brvt in communication. And thanks to the information overload triggered by the Internet, our attention span has shrunk to a scary state, which, twenty years ago, psychiatrists would have called an abnormal medical condition similar to ADD (attention deficit disorder). And we have become incapable of digesting abstract ideas unless they are aided by glitzy color-coded graphics.

Sometimes, even mundane information like weather info need color graphic props, a la USA Today; if it is on TV, we need animation for rain, snow falls, lightning, and — even hurricanes and slippery road condition!

And with incessant, thoughtless chattering on phones and over the airwaves, writing has become a burden for most. When is the last time you wrote a coherent paragraph outside work? Or for that matter, even inside work? No wonder, editors often ask first-time writers, much to the writers’ chagrin, to be coherent and tell their story with fewer words

Two years ago I was narrating this to my friend Bhanu Pandalai when she smilingly recited on the spot from memory a four-line shloka in classical Sanskrit condensing the story of the Ramayana. Remember, Valmiki wrote the Ramayana in 24,000 Sanskrit shlokas (verses), which Kamban in 10th century rendered in over 10,000 Tamil verses. Here is the four-line Ramayana from Bhanu’s recitation:

आदौ राम; तपोवनादि गमनं हत्वा मर्गं काञ्चनम्
वैदेहि हरणं जठयु मरणं सुग्रीव सम्वादनम्
वाली निग्रहणं समदर तरणं लङ्कापुरी मर्दनम्
पश्चात् रावण-कुम्भकर्ण हननं एतद्वि रामायणम्

Adou Rama tapovanadi gamanam; hatva mrgam kanchanam;
Vaidehi haranam; Jatayu maranam; Sugreeva samvadanam;
Vali nigrahanam; samudra taranam; Lankapuri mardanam;
Paschat Ravana-Kumbhakarna hananam; etadvi Ramayanam

First, Rama’s going into the forest-retreat; [then] the killing of the golden deer.
Stealing of Vaidehi (Sita); Jatayu’s death; dialogue with Sugreeva;
Vali’s destruction; crossing the ocean; destruction of Srilanka;
Then the killing of Ravana and Kumbhakarna. That is the Ramayana.

I was impressed by the brevity of the unknown poet who distilled the essence of the 24,000 verses of Valmiki’s Ramayana into a four lines—brief enough for a cryptic e-mail! By the way, are school children expected to commit any poems to memory these days?

Then, last April, a few of us including Harish Saluja (DUQ’s Music of India Fame) were in a local restaurant. As I narrated the story behind the abbreviated Ramayana that Bhanu recited from memory, Harish, an animated conversationalist, stretched out both his hands and quipped, “Arre, Venkat, this is nothing! I know an even more pithy and rustically humorous version of the Ramayana rendered in a very colloquial Hindi.” And he, too recited from memory on the spot:

रामभैय्ये इक रावण्णा
वा खत्री वा ब्रामण्णा
वा ने वा कि नार हरि
वा ने वा कि मोउत् करि

Ram bhaye ik Ravanna
va khatri va brahmanna;
va ne va ki naar hari;
va ne va ki maut kari.

One Rama, one Ravana; He, a kshatriya (warrior); he, a brahmana (brahmin);
His woman, steal he did. [And so] his demise, cause he did.

This author, his name and time too are not known, was not content with his extremely brief version of the Ramayana that was good enough for a txt msg. The poet continues taking a jab at Tulsidas, who wrote Ramacharitramanas in the Awadhi language:

बात कहो तो बात्तण्णा
तुलसि लिख् गये पोत्तण्णा

Baat kaho to batanna, Tulsi likh gaye potanna. or
That’s all there is to state. [But] a long epic did Tulsi write.

If Tulsidas Goswami himself can be edited into a few lines with some editorial jabs included, where are we? I for sure — maybe all of us — can be frugal with words in expressing our thoughts. With passing years, I realize, frugality in my wandering thoughts would be even better. END


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My Not So Favorite Auntie

By Nitya Venkataraman, (published in October 2007)

I always ran into you on the days I least wanted to. You knew how to cut to the core of me, of everyone — the weak- and strong-willed alike. Your BS detector was unsurpassed.

Foolishly, for a time, I thought I could anticipate your moves, but quickly learned I would never be fast enough: you were always one step ahead. I tried valiantly to dodge your never-ending stream of inquisitions over standardized test scores, cumulative grade point averages, class rank, college major, graduate school, first job, starting salary, rent payment, home purchase, and potential spouse.

I always failed miserably, stuttering, shot down and wounded on topics I would have never even thought to imagine. Like how much my student loan payments were. It always seemed easier to surrender immediately to your poison bite than to fight it and prolong my own demise, snared and tangled in a weak web woven of my own lies.I always suspected you knew the color of my underwear, how much I’d paid for it and you strongly disapproved.

I avoided Indian functions my entire senior year of high school because of you… … …This was especially problematic when all I wanted to do was go to the temple to pray I would get into a far-off college to escape your evil clutches.

You were infamous. People in other cities knew you, and my friends in other cities were warned by their mothers to steer clear of you. You were a fast-talking, smooth-moving, sweet-smiling hustler. In my opinion, your greatest triumph was that — despite your status as an equal opportunity offender — you were still invited to most events. But then, you also made the best desserts in a 6-hour radius.

You remembered and verbalized details with a selectivity that borderlined on humiliating: where I didn’t get into college; what I wanted to be but wasn’t; and the other Indians you knew in my age group that did things better.

Your questions were poison double-dipped in sugary innocence. I never realized what I’d just consumed in our conversations until it was too late.

Like Visa, you were everywhere I wanted to be. Once I saw you at the mall on a Wednesday night when I was on a clandestine date. Within an hour, I got a phone call from my mom asking who I was with and how I could have been so stupid. Another time, from the passenger seat of a moving car, you saw me jogging on a local highway and called my parents to let them know you thought it was dangerous. And also that my shorts were too short. I never jogged again.

Among your peers and other aunties, your role oscillated between strictly functional and purely ornamental; and you breezed past both ends of the spectrum with an air of nonchalance so pungent it was rivaled only by your tea rose perfume. You always managed to be assigned a job by My Favorite Auntie that strategically placed you in the middle of the action; but you could also pass off at the drop of a hat. You lingered. You listened. You smelled fear and attacked.

You missed your calling. As a Guantanamo interrogator, you would have extracted policy-changing confessions; as a CIA agent, you would have been the second coming of Mata Hari. And if the federal government put you on the trail of Osama Bin Laden, it is my personal belief that you would not only find him, but be able to report his SAT score, high school grade point average and record of admittance to Governor’s School.

Your line of vision resembled the viewfinder of an AK-47. You always had a target and, with the skill of a true gamesman, you never missed your mark. You taught me how to be coy, how to answer questions without really answering and how to play cat-and-mouse with alarming dexterity. The great flirts and politicians of our generation have you to thank.

I’m grown-up now. And independent. And though I have relatively little to hide, I’m still slightly afraid of you

But when I visit my parents, and see children, teenagers and adults alike running away as your silk-shrouded fin weaves through the crowd at community functions, I miss the simplicity of a long ago time when you were my greatest adversary. — END


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Reflections on How Indians in India Look at Themselves

By Kollengode  S. Venkataraman (October 2007)

Geographically, India forced out the British and the Europeans starting on August 14, 1947. But the Indian polyglot media, with its elite angrezi media in the lead, continue to give great importance to West’s recognition of India this and India that. And even after sixty long years, Indian elite still craves for recognition from its erstwhile colonial masters, who were actually, its occupiers. It never occurs to India’s “elite” why it took so long for the West to recognize India’s inherent strengths. That is another story. Now is the time to emphasize the positive.

For forty year after independence, India suffered through the Nehruvian controlled economy, which in mid-1980s took India to the brink of bankruptcy. With no other option, the Congress Party was forced to loosen its stranglehold on the economy. Since then, India’s foreign exchange reserves have been steadily growing. Now it is in excess of $200 billion. China’s is 1200 billion. Without embarrassment, the Congress Party shamelessly takes credit for this liberalization.  

Without the need for any statistics, even cursory visitors to India these days see the strengths not only of India’s macroeconomy, but also feel and experience the vibrancy of ordinary unpad (illiterate) Indians. The Wall Street Journal and others routinely feature articles on the strengths of India’s English-speaking manpower that is “cheap” by the standards of the industrialized West. India’s huge population now is an opportunity, not a problem. My, my, how perceptions change!

Now, multinationals, big and small, driven primarily by the cost advantage, invest heavily in India in manufacturing and in R&D in pharmaceuticals, transportation, and biotechnology. With the cost of healthcare rapidly escalating in the West, many in the West are looking at the option of going to Asia (India, Thailand, and others) for elective surgeries. It costs a lot less in India, including travel, hospital fees, and sightseeing. 

That all these changes came in India just in the last 20 years is quite impressive in itself. What is more impressive is that these changes are mostly the result of the instinctive enterprise of native Indians. All that the government did was loosen its stranglehold (derisively called the Permit-Licence-Quota Raj of the Congress Party) on the economy, which enormously benefited only India’s established businesses, bureaucracy and politicians, at the cost of everybody else.

Overseas visitors to India — mostly tourists and business people — complain about the terrible state of the physical infrastructure like roads, rails, electric power, communications, and mass transit. If you talk to Indian sociologists, social workers and activists, or read newspapers such as The New York Times, Washington Post, Le Monde, Spiegel, and others, you see a different India with a widening chasm between the educated Indians who gained by globalization and the others left behind.

You can see this for yourself in India. See the quality of primary education your nephews/nieces or your siblings’ grandchildren get. And then go to a primary school in a nearby rural area, and see the difference between the two schools. See if the poorer kids even have footwear; see if they sit on benches in classrooms or squat on dirt floors in the open; or talk to people in Ekal Vidyalaya ( or others who run schools in rural India for the poor.

Then go to any hospital where middle class Indians go for treatment — I am not talking about the top-of-the-line Apollo/Escort hospitals where India’s rich and other patients from outside India go for treatment. And then go to a nearby public hospital where the poor go. See the difference.

This is not peculiar to India. The much-touted trickle-down theory of Reagan-era did not work. The US is now more socioeconomically polarized than it was 30 years ago. But the starkness in the differences you see in India quite unsettling. This has led to deep fissures among the India’s social segments  because the beneficiaries of globalization are the 300-million strong educated class that is anglicized to varying degrees. Large numbers (over 400 million by one count) are left behind.

The following scenes encapsulate India’s irony, paradox, dilemma: 

The Father of India, Mohandas Gandhi, the London-educated
barrister, on his return from South Africa in the 1930s gave up his 3-piece suite and arrived in Bombay in the traditional Gujarati dhoti and turban. A large number of Indians, including London-educated barristers in their flannel jackets and ties in the warm, humid Bombay, were there at the sea port to enthusiastically receive Gandhi.

And a few years after Independence, in 1953, the very first Filmfare awards ceremony was held at Metro Cinema in Bombay, and the post-awards dinner was at the Willingdon Club run by India’s brown sahebs. Bimal Roy, who had won two awards for Do Bigha Zamin was denied entry into the club because Roy was in his white Bengali dhoti. 

Now come to May, 2007, sixty years after India’s independence. Source for this story is in Kumudam, the most popular Tamil weekly.

Place: the so-called Traditional Chennai.  Venue: The Madras Cricket Club. A group of Rotary Clubs was holding a seminar on how to make the benefits of the IT boom in India reach rural India in the club auditorium .

A US-returned Chennai native, Mr. A. Narayanan, a senior honorary official in India’s federal ministry of Panchayat Raj (or ministry for Grassroots Democracy), was an invited speaker because of his expertise in the field. He had returned to India after living in the US for several years. Since he was going to speak on improving rural India’s development, Narayanan went to the Madras Cricket Club in a dhoti, worn in the traditional Madras-style. As it happened to Bimal Roy in Bombay, Narayanan too was denied admission to the club in the “tradition-bound” Chennai. Mind you, the club was only the venue, and not the organizer of the event.

And this happened 60 years after India’s Independence! And there was not even a whimper in Chennai’s English media for A. Narayanan being denied entry into the Madras Cricket Club because of his dhoti.

Looking at the irony, one can say during its colonial days, India’s leaders might have been politically slaves, but were free in Spirit. And with spiritual strength, they drove the European colonial occupiers out with very little bloodshed. The Partition was a bloody scar though.

But, today, India’s ruling and social elite is spiritually a slave of the West, while remaining nominally free politically and economically. Where India will be in the next twenty years depends very much on how well India reconciles its accelerated growth in the aggregate with the imperatives for more equitable opportunity for all to benefit, the inequities are no more exclusively along caste lines. In the years ahead, the voices of India’s conscience keepers will only become louder. The challenge for India is for it to regain its spiritual freedom, using the word “spiritual” in its transcendental sense.    — END


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Vignettes from Indian Literature: A verse from Sivavakkiyar

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in July 2007)

This is a new feature we are starting, and this can sustain only with your participation.  Indian literature is studded with nuggets and gems on ethics, faith, personal conduct, charity, justice and human foibles.  Since these ideas evolved well before the time of the papyrus, Indian thinkers composed them in condensed verses so that people can easily commit them memory. These poet-philosophers wrote these verses frugally choosing words paying attention to meter, rhythm, alliterations, and rhymes and other rules unique to the grammar of the languages. Hundreds of verses — four, eight, twelve, and sixteen lines — chiseled with great brevity are available in all languages. 

We welcome readers to share with others on an ongoing basis verses in your language (Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Malayalam, Urdu, Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, Sindhi, Oriya, Assamese, Konkani… … Briefly comment on the verse—who wrote it and when, literal meaning, literary nuances and beauty, and the import—so that others unfamiliar with the language can share your pleasure. Include the verse in the original script for publishing as part of the story.  Call Prema or Venkataraman (724 327 0953) before you start for the nonbinding guidelines.  Asmita Ranganathan would provide illustrations, her time and our space permitting, to reinfornce the story.

Several centuries ago, a  king in India commissioned a Sthapati (traditional temple architect well versed in its art) to build a temple to commemorate a big event in his reign.

The architect went to the neighboring hill known for its excellent quality granites and selected blocks of the black stone for the work — pillars, steps, dwajastham-bham (flag post), and of course, the vig-raham (stone-carved images) for the presiding deity in the sannidhi (shrine).

He spent several days looking for the good granites. Putting all his knowledge to use, the temple architect selected the blocks of stones for his work and hauled them to the temple site. Obviously, selecting the granite for carving the deity was most demanding—the boulder should give a metallic sound on being tapped with his chisel.

He carefully split the best granite block into two halves. With one half he carved an exquisite image that was consecrated in the sanctum. 

He used the other half for a step that takes worshippers to the sanctum. Only by climbing on this step, people could reach and enter the sanctum. With constant use of priests and devotees walking in and out, the surface of the granite step became smooth.

Sivavakkiyar was a Saivite Tamil ascetic. Literary scholars believe his
     time was 14th century or earlier. It is possible, Sivavakkiyar is the name given to him after his time by his admirers, who collectively called the compendium of his works Siva-vakkiyam (literally, the Words of Shiva).  Shiva-vakkiyar can mean the person who spoke the words of Shiva.

Sivavakkiyar uses the vivid imagery in the above scene that many have seen in temples, churches, mosques, and other monuments all over the world, and raises a thoughtful question in a four-line verse:


Selecting a metal-sounding* granite, you split it into two.

And a step you made with one block. See, it has become smooth with your use!

Out of the other block, you carved an image for worship, offering the image holy water and flowers.

Why don’t you tell me, sir? Which one of the two is dearer to God?

  * Metal-sounding granites are traditionally preferred for carving images.

If you think Sivavakkiyar is castigating only Hindus, you are
entirely missing the point. The message is to all organized religions. Sivavakkiyar, out of compassion to his fellow-citizens, teasingly asks all of us to ponder over when we imprison ourselves in rigid dogma, theological absolutes, and empty rituals, making them ends in themselves. In reality though, dogma, theology, and rituals are not ends in themselves, but only necessary steps in our spiritual journey as Seekers of Truth.

We can go one-step further. All human organizations—political parties, corporate boardrooms, governments, sports teams, and even religious organizations—deify their stars and heroes. And as they deify and fawn over stars, people knowingly and unknowingly step on those who are the very  foundations of the organizations making the organizations work.

Even in  our personal efforts to succeed, we step on others. Often, we don’t even think what happens to those on whose back we rode to success, till we see somebody else riding on us to get ahead.

After succeeding in life, many realize that they paid a terrible price, often intangible, for what they thought was “success.” One of the Tamil Bhakti poets puts it well: “I was impoverished by my servitude to others.” The poverty he talks about is the poverty of the Spirit in the midst of material prosperity.  — END


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We owe it to the Civil Rights Movement

By Nitya Venkataraman (Published in January 2007)

Nitya is a producer for ABC News in Washington DC. She grew up in the eastern suburbs and went  to schools Plum Boro  and Murrysville and CMU.  

November was a month of significant groundbreaking in Washington. First, after 12 years, a Democratic majority swept the House and Senate. Then, on November 13, the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr joined the officially recognized ranks of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson in the last available space of the National Mall.

“By its presence in this place it will unite the men who declared the promise of America and defended the promise of America with the man who redeemed the promise of America,” declared President Bush addressing the 5000-plus crowd assembled on a cold and rainy Monday to watch their dream of Dr. King’s monument become a reality.

The President was joined by former President Bill Clinton who signed  legislation in 1996 authorizing the memorial; author Maya Angelou; Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill); business and political leaders of the African-American community; and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey.

Winfrey credited Dr. King’s vision with allowing her “a voice that can be heard.” “I do not take that for granted, not for one breath, not for one breath,” Winfrey emphasized, “I live in state of reverence for where I have come from, and the price that was paid for me to be here.”

As Indian-Americans, we owe both the memorialized leader and the nameless, faceless masses of the American Civil Rights Movement that reverence, too. “Thanks to the civil rights struggles of those who have come before us,” said Deepa Iyer, Executive Director of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, “South Asians can look to laws and values that protect the interests of minorities, women and immigrants.”

Think about it: The Barred Zone Act (1917) and the “Thind Decision” (1923) blocked South Asian immigration into the USA. In the 1930s, a group of successful South Asian professionals began to lobby the US government to open its immigration policy to India and though President Roosevelt was receptive, the United States was an ally of Britain, and the bill regarding South Asian immigration wasn’t passed until 1946.

Sixteen years later, in 1962, the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation is unconstitutional. The next year 200,000 people marched to Washington where Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and, in 1965, the Voting Rights Act, Equal Employment and Equal Housing Acts under president Lyndo Johnson.

We’ve come a long way, certainly: Newly-elected Rep. Jason Altmire  attended  a sit-down luncheon with the South Asian women in Pittsburgh before the November elections; Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa) held a Pittsburgh-area fundraiser courting the South Asian vote.

In doing so, both acknowledged the presence, influence, history and contributions of South Asian Americans in this country and in their respective voting districts.

But after a summer caught on tape of thinly veiled racially insensitive comments by Sen. Joseph Biden (D) on the abundance of Indian  convenience store owners in Delawre and Republican Sen. George Allen’s infamous Macaca comments referring an Indian-American volunteer of his opponent, it’s evident that to some in the US, South Asians are still outsiders, no matter how educated, wealthy or seemingly American they are.

Not long ago — in a climate of hate and anti-minority sentiment — political blunders like those made this summer might not have been taken so seriously. But in 2006, because of laws that protect us and a social decency that defends us, our outrage is communicated and addressed, even influencing the outcome of a local election.

So, it is important during this Martin Luther King Day in February to take part in community events to honor the struggles of those people of color who marched before us, whose shoulders we stand on.  We need to remember this as we achieve more than what was ever thought possible.

“As we build our community in America,” SAALT’s Iyer emphasized, “We must also ensure that we stand up for the rights of all minorities and people of color.” Remembering, of course, that we stand today because less than five decades ago they stood for us.

Editor’s note: February is Black History Month.Make it a point to attend community events where you live.  If possible, also make small contributions to local community events and  charities that help the socially and economically disadvanged children.  — END


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