Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Perhaps we can light a lamp instead?

Recent generations of Bhaaratvaasis adopted several practices from newer societies and cultures, with or without fully understanding (or even attempting to know about) the ethos of our own. Blowing out one or more candles is one such 'alien' custom. I for one never knew why the candle(s) were blown out, but found a possible explanation here "The blowing out of the candles on the birthday cake originated from an early tradition that believed that the smoke from the candles would take one's wish or petition up to God."
A senior citizen (can we call them Gen W or earlier?) - my mother - is amazed that most families follow and perpetuate such new 'traditions', come each red letter day.
In India, and likely elsewhere, the 'light goes out' to symbolise the instance of a transition from light to darkness. Even this Rabindranath Tagore explains as: “Death is not extinguishing the light; it is only putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”
Recently a family celebrated the 80th birthday of its matriarch who declined to blow out the candle, instead she lit a lamp. Let us salute this anonymous octogenarian-trendsetter.
Is the next red letter day due very soon? Get ready to light up, don't waste your lung power to blow out.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Filming locations

On any given day, they say, there are 70 film crews at work at various public places in New York. The city has in recent years been a favored location for Bollywood film-makers. A few of their films – Kabhi Alvida Na Kahna, Aa Ab Laut Chale – have extensive footage shot in New York.

City apartments, with backdrops featuring familiar NY sights, are in demand not only for film and TV shows but also commercials and magazine ads. Producers of prime-time TV serial, Central Park West, hired an apartment with Central Park views. Bathrooms and kitchens big enough to give moving space for a couple actors and a filming crew are sought after for film shoots. One such apartment owner hired out the kitchen for $500 a day to a company called A Cocktail Napkin Production. A professional studio with a kitchen could have cost them $10,000.

A New York-based company, AKA Locations, maintains a library of available homes and other private premises to suit specific needs of film and TV production companies. They work with the company location scouts in identifying private houses for film shooting.

There is scope for outdoor location search agency in my city Mysore, which has been a traditional destination for filmmakers from all over the country. Many of them are unaware that, locations-wise, there is lot more to Mysore than Lalith Mahal Palace and Brindavan Gardens. Scores of other lesser known mansions, not to mention Crawford Hall and Oriental Research Institute, provide equally impressive backdrops. A local heritage group has identified over 200 sites within Mysore city alone. Besides, there are locales in Srirangapatna, Nagarhole, Bandipur waiting to be discovered for outdoor filming.

This could be a project for stakeholders in tourism to promote Mysore. The Mysore locations agency could be a joint initiative of tourism dept., local authorities and enterprising location scouts.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Back to bicycles

Bike rentals, a fashion in Paris. His suggestion is to try out in Bangalore what is fashionable in Paris. It is easy to imagine the benefits if more people take to bikes instead of automated transport - exercise, cheaper transport, easing traffic congestion, saving fuel and above all, reduction of pollution. I hope that the business community and the citizens would give this a serious thought.

Once upon a time Bangalore was a town of bicycles. With the increase in the number of cars and buses and the eagerness of people to reduce transit time, the humble pedal vehicles were pushed to the background. But now we have come a full circle and often the bicycles can get you to your destination faster than an automobile.

Bicycle rentals were quite common in Bangalore fifty years or so back. In the early 1950s we had one next to St. Joseph’s College Hostel. An Anglo-Indian couple owned it. I forget their name now. The bikes were available any time on nominal rent. It was a great facility for the hostel boys because very few of them owned vehicles.

During a class on the importance of punctuation, the English professor at St. Joseph’s asked us a question. The owner of a bicycle rental had a new name board made for his shop. It included the caption ’Bicycles for gentlemen and ladies for hire’.

The painter put a comma at the wrong place on the board and that changed the entire meaning. I am sure that you can guess after which word the comma was inserted.

That was a lesson well learned.

Coming back to bicycles, I remember that in Kerala too, bike rentals were quite common in villages and small towns. At least in our area this service is making a comeback. Why wait for a bus or auto rickshaw? Take a two-wheeler and pedal away.


Also see: Bangalore memories

Cross posted from

Song of the waves - Parayil A. Tharakan Blog

Thursday, July 24, 2008

A solvable power crisis

The power crisis faced today exists or does not exist depending on how you look at it. Large industries still continue to work normally by running diesel generators. Many homes do not feel the pinch too as they would have UPSs. Even a remote village such as Kabbigere is not short of power. The government however is not able to procure the required power even if it is willing to pay double the actual price. When such is the case, it is worth thinking whether power distribution has to be reconfigured.

The solution really is that power need not be distributed at all. Power can be generated in distributed locations just as the Kabbigere example above demonstrates. However, this requires many considerations as well. For example, we found that Biomass gassification is not feasible always as it requires a constant supply of woody biomass. When demand is created in a village for biomass, the costs for the previously-considered-as-waste biomass suddenly increases. So, unless the biomass gassifier is maintained by the village people themselves, it is difficult to operate one profitably. This is the main reason, most biomass gassifiers are run by village panchayats/communities. The biomass gassifiers at West Bengal run by village people has in fact changed the quality of life of the people living there.

It is not just biomass. Solar thermal is appropriate for areas that receive a lot of sunlight which is quite normal in much of the country. Methanification of urban waste is another source of energy.

If only the government ever considers distributed power as much as it should instead of working on uncertain energy sources such as nuclear, it would be possible for a India without constant power-cuts.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Hired night nannies: Where have the grandmas gone?

Reacting to a newspaper report on growing demand for night nannies in the US my wife sympathized with the young parents who are constrained to hire nannies to take care of their infants. It is just bad luck, if parents of a new-born don’t or can’t draw on the support of their own parents.

Like her late mother, who had night-nursed our son and five of her other grandchildren, my wife believes it is a blessing to be able to take care of one’s grandchildren. Hiring night nannies is an idea that is alien to our traditional family values. What are grandmas for?

The grandma support system has been our mohalla culture. In villages and close-knit urban localities – agraharam - young couple with a newborn can count on nursing support from neighbours. Any elderly woman in such neibhourhood would volunteer to play grandma to your infant.

My twin nieces – now in their early 30s – were nursed by an elderly neighbour in Mysore’s Vidyaranyapuram area. They retain link with the family, though their night nanny, whom they called ajji, is no more, and my nieces moved out of the neighbourhood years ago. Such has been our social support structure, and night-nannying makes our women worthy of a special bond and life-long affection of those they had nannied.

In the US, they say, a week’s worth of night-nanny services could cost well over $1,000; and a hired nanny earns between $15-40 an hour depending on her experience and expertise. An article in The New York Times refers to mushrooming night-nanny service agencies in major metropolitan areas - the International Nanny Association in Philadelphia, Caring Nannies of Scottsdale, Ariz., Nocturnal Nannies at Ashland, Mass. and Night Nannies for Newborns in Denver.

Those taking up professional night-nanny work are themselves mothers in their 30s and 40s, whose husbands do the nanny-ing in their homes. The Mysore ajji scenario is, perhaps, inconceivable in the US, and, even in major cities in India. But I reckon we still have women with child-rearing experience of the likes of Mysore ajji.

Many such grandmas in economic need could be helped, in return for their nanny service. Maybe this is being done already in cities, through word-of-mouth and social networking . In Bangalore and other cities there is scope for placement agencies that bring together working couples in need of night-nanny services and eligible neighbourhood grandmas. Residents associations and community organizations could get involved.

Retirement homes and other institutions for the aged can be tapped for eligible grandmas for night-nanny services. Temples are places where such women frequent. Management of some temples that run matrimonial agency as service project for devotees could extend their services to help young parents find a ‘grandma’ to nanny their infant.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Look behind the glitter...

Have you ever thought of the lengthy process after which a piece of gold jewellery reaches the showroom's display? If you want to understand the magnitude of the environmental costs of mining, take time to read Kamala Balachandran's article Gold is costlier than you think.

The glitter and dazzle portrayed in the media, and the way jewellery outlets (want you to) go gaga on Akshaya Tritiya and Dhanteras are such a far cry from the desolation wrought by mining, and this contrast reveals a lot about the attitude of gold-collectors. No wonder then that "the more you know, the less gold glows", as No dirty gold points out!

As long as corporate houses and nations delude themselves that material upliftment signifies progress, the demand for yellow and white metals, and black gold will continue to abet the crime of increasing environmental costs.

If we have to redifine prosperity, let's start now. That re-definition can be as simple (or as complex) as accepting the fact that Kapalbhati pranayama gives you a glow no 'precious' trinket can.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bike rentals, a fashion in Paris

In my schooldays in Coimbatore, Tamilnadu, bicycles were the prime mode of transport for the middle-class. The affluent among my class-mates came to school in own bikes. My parents didn’t get me one till I joined college in New Delhi. By which time (this, in late 50s) bicycling went out of fashion.

With aggressive marketing of Luna, scooty, and other two-wheelers bicycles became a poor man’s vehicle. We, who considered ourselves better-off on the social scale, preferred the rush, long wait and uncertainty of public transport to a bicycle for travelling to work. Coming to office on a bike wasn’t an executive thing. Clerks biked to work.

Today, the good old bike could be an answer to traffic congestion and carbon emission in Bangalore,if only office-goers and company executives take to the bike in a big way, making bicycling a fashionable mode of transit, as they have done in Paris. One would like to see Anil Kumble and Shivrajkumar going to work on a bike;see Rahul Dravid with a bicycle in lifestyle media ads. Major IT companies - Infosys, IBM, Yahoo and others - could promote use of bicycles.

They could cut-back on car allowance and offer, instead, bicycle bonus to employees. And those who give up their cars for bicycles could be considered for telecommuting. Maybe IIM-B students could take up a project to explore the prospects of putting in place (are you and your project group reading this, Reema Mahajan?) bicycle rentals service in Bangalore on the pattern of Velib’ of Paris.

The New York Times, in a recent articleA New Fashion Catches On in Paris: Cheap Bicycles Rentals – gives us an idea of how the system works. Maybe we can’t replicate it in all aspects, for Bangalore isn’t quite Paris; but the concept could be emulated.

The highlights of the Paris bicycle rentals:
1)The bikes are cheap to rent, as they are subsidized by advertising; some 20,600 bicycles are for hire, from 1,450 rental stations.
2)Annual subscription (29 euros) lets user take a bike whenever needed for 30 minutes at a time without extra-charge. It is reckoned 96 percent of all rides are less than 30-minute duration (and hired bikes can be returned at any convenient location).
3)Bicycles theft rate – 15 percent in the first year of operation. About 1,500 bikes a day come in for repairs.
4)Bikes can be rented on hourly basis, for a day, and also on weekly basis.
5)The 10-year contract for running bicycle rentals has been taken up, not by a transport contractor but a major PR and advertising company – JCDecaux.

Cross-posted in My Take by GVK

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Cremation woes

In my village, Olavipe, cremation sometimes poses a problem. It is difficult to obtain the right type of wood on short notice to burn the dead bodies.

Possibly, other places without an electric crematorium or a public burning ghat that has support facilities also face this predicament. Therefore I am recording a project underway in our place to tackle this problem so that it might be useful to others as well.

To burn a dead body, about 400 to 500 kilograms of wood is required. In addition, 50-75 kilograms of coconut shells are also needed. In the olden days we (Thekkanattu Parayil Family) used to provide all these, free of course. (See A tree of death? at Song of the waves - Parayil A. Tharakan Blog) But now most people take care of the need themselves.

This is as it should be, for those who can afford. But the difficulty they face is the immediate availability of fire wood when the need arises. After a person dies, the search for wood to burn the body begins. It is somehow obtained and the rituals are carried out. But in most cases there is a lot of running around and the suppliers exploit the urgency.

My brother Jacob is implementing a project in Olavipe to tackle this problem. One could call it a Pyre Bank. We provide a proper storage facility and donate a buffer stock of one or two tons of wood and sufficient quantity of coconut shells. Others also are welcome to contribute. Anyone who needs the material for cremation can draw from this stock. But what they take has to be replaced within a specified period.

Representatives of the organizations of different communities in Olavipe administer the facility. It is that committee’s responsibility to ensure that the stock is replenished within the stipulated time. The periodic turnover prevents the wood from becoming too dry and therefore fast burning.

The idea is very well received by the people of Olavipe. Even the vicar of the local church is involved in the project even though the Christians are not normally cremated.


Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Elders: Sunshine in sunset years

A local organization in Chennai, India recently conducted an opinion survey on whether grandparents are being treated as glorified servants. The findings of the study are not known.

Anyway, this is a relevant question at a time when there is a subtle change in the nuclear family scenario. With both husband and wife working there is often a problem in looking after small children. Increasingly more couples seem to be depending on their parents to fill in this need.

Whether the grandparents in such cases are being treated as glorified servants mainly depends on attitudes. Provided they have no serious health problems, the senior citizens would be generally happy to look after their grandchildren.

Many elders see their grandchildren as an extension of themselves. Taking care of the little ones brings a new meaning and purpose to their lives. What otherwise would have been empty, depressive hours are filled in purposefully.

Are such arrangements good for the kids? The answer is yes, of course. Busy working parents hardly have the time for their children. Expressions of love and shared activities are often below the desired level. Grandparents fill in that void.

The elders, particularly in the Indian context, provide a link to culture and heritage. Many children who grow up in the cities are only vaguely aware of their roots. That changes slowly if the grandparents stay with them. The stories and reminiscences narrated during the hours together make the children aware of their background and also, in many instances, instill in them a certain sense of values.

With grandparents staying in the house there are likely to be more visitors and greater contact with relatives. This too has a positive impact on the children. They become conscious that they have people, a family background. That provides the children with a feeling of belonging and a better sense of security.

There is, however, an amount of risk when parents stay with their progeny. The elders are bound to be quite sensitive. A thoughtless word or gesture from the offspring (or his/ her spouse) with whom they stay, can cause considerable damage. This is particularly so if the seniors are financially dependent on the son or daughter.

On the other hand, unless the seniors understand the requirements of their offspring, living under one roof can be a fiasco. Awareness of the compulsions of the younger generation, their need for privacy and independence is essential for being together happily.

These risk factors apart, the return of the joint family system in a modified, modernized and limited form can be good for the society.