Thursday, August 7, 2008

Destitute, Devout and Dignified

The concept of an all-nighter is very familiar to college students, which came in handy as the group prepared to move on to Chennai. Our flight was scheduled for 6:30 a.m., which meant that we needed to leave no later than 4:15 a.m. from the hotel. Since we had not returned from our dinner hosted by Mr. Hooda until around midnight, staying up was an idea on everyone’s minds.

Even those who slept a few hours were tired and looking forward to getting a few winks on our two and a half hour flight.

Unlike domestic flights in the United States, our crew at Jet Airways was diligent to offer cold towels and bottled water before we left the ground. A full breakfast was served, complete with an omelet, hash brown potatoes, two chicken sausages, rolls with butter and jam, yogurt and, of course, coffee, tea and juice. Upon our arrival, we were met by our tour guide and proceeded through a half-hour of traffic to our hotel.

After a few hours to recharge our batteries, we were again met by the tour bus for a drive through this vibrant city located in southeast India on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. Chennai’s population is about one-third the population of Delhi, but keep in mind that we’re still talking about 5 million people. It’s India’s fourth largest city.

Many more live outside these official government figures in grass houses and other simple structures nestled throughout the city, including behind our hotel. As I write this, I am enjoying my morning tea in air conditioning that is at times too cold, in a room with all the creature comforts. Looking out my window behind the building, I can see people working hard to hand pump their water for the day, which they carry to their homes snuggled tightly against each other. All have either tin roofs with debris on them or a simple tarp. My guide book says that 40 percent if its population lives in slums, which I am sure is at least an accurate assessment.

I’m not saying that Chennai is an unattractive place. In fact, its colorful character is always on display, from the many billboards to its many reminders that this is a tropical city. Even in rainy season, much of Delhi was brown and drab in comparison.

Just as before, our ambitious schedule here is made fuller by the heavy traffic most Westerners have never seen before. Cars and trucks shared highways with foot traffic, people on bicycles, motorcycles and farm tractors, and others pushing carts. Horns get more use than brakes here.

Most everyone is tired. The bus takes us through this sprawling city and our guide, Ravati, describes buildings that once were used by the British before India’s independence in 1947 that remain very much in use today.

Among the most poignant stops is Marina Beach, considered the second longest beach in the world. Old Saracenic buildings across the Kamarajar Salai, the main road, highlight the former role of the British Raj. It and some of the fishing families who live on it were victims of the 2004 tsunami, which took about 200 lives here.

Students also went to the Basilica of San Thomas in Mylapore, a section of the city that is home to its urban elite. Built in 1898 and now surrounded by a tenement created in order to relocate fishermen away from living on the shore, this Catholic Church claims to be one of the only churches to be built over an apostle’s tomb. According to legend, the apostle Thomas is thought to have been one of the first Christians to reach India and preach here. He is believed to have lived his last years here in a cave on the same hill where the church is located and died in 72 A.D.

Nearby, they also visited the Kapleeswarar Temple, believed to be where the goddess Parvati became the wife of Shiva, according to the Hindu religious belief. According to our guide, this myth often is told and retold about this and other temples across India. Notables feature of the building include a 120-foot-tall gopuram, the pyramidical shaped temple top, bronze carvings of the 63 Shaivate saints and a Punnai tree that is considered holy and is one of Chennai’s oldest.

Outside many of such places attracting tourists are beggars. At times, they are children who often gesture from their stomach to their mouth and simply implore “please.” It’s heartbreaking to see them, but often to respond to their requests brings much more, unwanted attention. What follows is an account provided by Professor Prenkert.

Leaving the temple, a woman approaches the students. “Dollars” are what she wants, not rupees, India’s national currency. As students try to avert themselves back to the bus, our guide tries to oversee. Ravati, who the chaperones first met last year, is a beautiful woman and a gracious mother of two children. She works hard to support her family, along with her husband, who works in a city hundreds of miles away. They see each other once a month.

Ravati tells the begging woman that she will her give rupees if she leaves the students alone. At first, the woman is not in any way satisfied -- she is looking for a bigger haul. Finally, she relents, not wanting to turn aside all the money.

It is obvious that all of this embarrasses Ravati, who is afraid that our first-time visitors’ impressions of her country are being framed by this begging woman. She has nothing to worry about, as all of us see Ravati’s quiet dignity and kindness.

Next, inside India’s BPOs, business processing organizations, know better to some Americans as outsourced business operations. Perception, as we will see, is not always reality.

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