The End

Hmm, that title seems unnecessarily ominous. Quick updates to people I don’t talk to generally:

1) I finished my bachelor’s degree, as well as a senior thesis, and some research.

2) I am returning to India for the third summer to fix my Hindi skills. In Jaipur. With a State Department scholarship.

3) In the fall, I’ll be starting a master’s degree in urban planning.

4) I will start a new blog, the URL of which will be posted here, when I get it off the ground. Main reason — seems disingenuous to continue labeling myself as an academic vagrant, when I now have a degree in a field.

5) Los Angeles is heaven on Earth. I just consumed like 3 lbs of cherries. It was sunny today, dry and cool. The streets are lined with avocado and citrus. The number of bicycles in this city grows by the day. It was also my mother’s birthday today. These are the kind of updates that belong on a twitter feed that will never exist.

Thanks to everyone for reading and keeping up — this has been a very rewarding space to write in, and I’ve particularly enjoyed all the comments and input over the past three years. It’s helped me get a sense of the issues I care about and will hopefully continue to work in rural/international development (through urban planning, a wonderfully ill-defined field).

Not Proper Journalism

This recent article related to India’s developmental woes paints a misleading and potentially harmful representation of microcredit for a general audience, many of whom will never visit India or see the regions that are reported on. As a newspaper that certainly shapes the way the American public sees the rest of the world, the New York Times has a responsibility to do better.

First off, it fails to explicitly specify which one of the socioeconomically disparate Indian states is suffering from this crisis: it could be Jharkhand with its roughly 50% of the population below the poverty line. Or perhaps it’s Tamil Nadu, coming in at around a much lower 25%. Andhra Pradesh is gleaned from the captions and quotes but is never named. This matters, not only in terms of the number of people affected by this crisis but also in terms of the geographic scale and cultural nature of the problem. There must be something more to the concept that politicians, known for being embroiled in endemic corruption, have the clout to lead borrowers to default on their loans.

More importantly, it does not present details of the usual microcredit alternatives, which are usually local loan sharks who extort even higher and more variable interest rates (48% annually is the figure I was given for rural Maharashtra). The figure for microcredit interest quoted by the article was 24%, still on the high end of microcredit but is still only half of that offered by rural moneylenders. These loan sharks or rural moneylenders are the reason that microcredit from established banks is so attractive to the average smallholder farmer. In addition, defaulted loans from rural moneylenders likely have much higher numbers of suicides, of farmers who borrow against the next harvest and have no way of formally and legally negotiating a new payment plan.

Furthermore, this article does not balance its reporting with areas in India where microcredit has been managed responsibly and successfully. In villages near Pune in Maharashtra, women’s Self Help Groups (SHGs) have translated to new homes and businesses, college educations for children from illiterate families, and a greater sense of independence, dignity, and pride among women, all with a 98% rate of repayment. “Managing microcredit responsibly” means making sure, as a lender or facilitator, that your borrower has the means, discipline, and proven record to repay a loan. In the case of Self Help Groups, women must first contribute a fixed amount of money (10-50 rupees) to a central fund, weekly. If this is done successfully for six months with verified registers and with successful repayment of small loans taken in the meantime, the women of this group can then approach a nongovernmental intermediary and a bank about matching the amount they have raised. When the group is brought to a close, the central fund, which has grown with interest from short term loans, is then distributed evenly among the women. These women are the beneficiaries of responsible microcredit, and the abundance of businesses owned by women in Rajgurunagar is a testament to the ability of microcredit to allow people to raise themselves out of poverty.

These are the kinds of stories and examples I wish were published alongside the predominantly negative news about a country of a billion people and a thousand social categories. Otherwise, the work of these journalists is nothing but sensationalism and unfairly harms the confidence of the developed world in the efficacy of microcredit. The consequences of poor public opinion can be disastrous for the success of future microcredit projects in impoverished regions that could benefit greatly from it.

Making Contact

I am settled into Cambridge, finally, but it feels like my relationship with India has only commenced. India doesn’t really resolve itself once you leave its borders, and it’s taking me a while to digest and consider what I’ve really taken away from this trip.

On Sunday night, at midnight, which is also 9:30 am on a Monday morning in India, I received two nearly simultaneous calls from rural India.

I noticed the +91 country code on my caller ID, and my first thought that it was probably one of the random city contacts I had made in Delhi or Hyderabad. But I answered and found myself talking to Rampreet, the eldest son of the family I had stayed with in the village of Tirla, maybe twenty kilometers outside Ranchi, Jharkhand. My Hindi was terribly rusty, but we talked a bit, and he passed the phone around to other people in the village. They didn’t own a cell phone while I was there, so I can only wonder at how they managed to procure the phone and the comparatively large investment it must have been.

During my visit, I had lent them my Vodafone Samsung to talk to their uncle, who lived in a different village. In the warmth of their clay house, what ensued was an hour-long conversation, with the cell phone traveling from one sibling to the next. I found myself witness to an exceedingly rare situation, to watch a family approach using a phone as something to be treasured rather than a usual convenience. They spoke to their uncle as if they hadn’t heard from him in years.

If contact with their uncle was this valuable, what was it like to hear from one’s father, who left months ago to ensure that there was enough income to keep the family from starving?

At the end of that call to their uncle, they asked for my U.S. phone number. I thought about what it might feel like to contact them from halfway around the world. What would we talk about? Was there anything we had in common that we could hold on to? I half-expected to fall out of their mental periphery as soon as I left.

During that phone call, I didn’t have to imagine the wonder they must have felt to be reconnecting with someone they knew halfway around the world. I heard it. And I wasn’t just a random person from another country that they knew little about to begin with. I was someone they had personally gotten to know in the flesh, speaking to them from the still darkness of nightfall in Cambridge, Massachusetts, while they were just getting ready for the workday on a warm day in Jharkhand.

All of my friends from the village took turns talking to me on the phone, despite my very evidently handicapped Hindi. They told me that they’d received some more rain, but it was not very much. When I asked, they also said that their families were doing well.

None of them would ever believe that it was my privilege to be speaking to them from the other side of the planet, to be remembered despite the brevity of my stay.

Minutes after I got off the phone with Rampreet and the rest of the village, I received a Google videocall from Nagesh, who was located about 1100 kilometers southwest of Rampreet in Andhra Pradesh. Yes, Nagesh has a Gmail account and lives in a village 40 kilometers away from a town. Nagesh has an 8th class (grade) education, and his wife is a tailor who does gorgeous sequin work as well as the occasional school uniform. So, how did he end up on a webcam in a remote village located more than an hour away from the nearest major hospital? Nagesh apprenticed with someone who fixed appliances, so he acquired a comprehensive knowledge of repairing televisions. In one of the many villages where television has become a significant community past time, a symbol of wealth, and a window to the rest of the world, the ability to fix televisions is comparatively lucrative. He operates out of a two-room clay home, but has expanded his business to include a downloading service and a one-computer internet cafe.

We were able to communicate as he and his wife had learned Hindi in Gujarat, where they had migrated for a couple years. Like many Indians, they are, by default, bilingual — they know the local language, Telugu, and Hindi. They were all smiles despite the choppy connection. I happened to be drinking chai when they called, something they found to be very amusing, as I had done this several times in their home, often with a packet of biscuits to share. Their daughter had her hair in pigtails and was getting ready for school. Nagesh sent me a Hindi song that he thought was beautiful, and he also asked for Sean’s information. They wanted to keep in touch with him despite the lack of a common language. I suppose a videocall preserves the beauty of communication as something more than a few comprehensible words exchanged.

It’s mind-boggling to videocall someone in a village. Why is it possible to videocall an area where people still struggle with malnutrition, hunger, domestic terrorism, water availability and sanitation? Let me rephrase this. How have we gotten to a point where cell phone reception is more reliable than the ability to sate one’s appetite?

In the past three weeks in the U.S., not a day has gone by that I haven’t thought about these village and the reasons that some people flourish in spite of poverty while others, like myself, are able to take so much for granted. A washing machine saves us several hours and sore hands each week. Supermarkets are the meeting ground for foods (none of which we had to grow) from opposite ends of the Earth. And somehow, all our waste disappears without a single thought of where it might go. Other than making sure that I’ll have internet access, I have no practical reason to get to know my neighbors and can probably get by without ever formally meeting them or spending a day with them.

None of these things are even remotely true in the village.

Clothes are handwashed at the well. Food usually goes straight from the ground to over a fire; occasionally, it endures a short trip to the local bazaar or journeys in a basket on someone’s head. Plastic wrappings are burned or left visible to all, and human waste blends subtly into fallow fields. Everyone knows one another in the village because they grew up together, cared for each other’s children, and often ate and drank together. The very concept of ownership is somewhat foreign. Sonia offered me guavas picked from a neighbor’s tree, all resources are shared and freely borrowed, and there was never any hesitation to help with the cooking or caring for someone else’s children while visiting another person’s home. It seems that overall, in a village, there are stronger ties to one’s surroundings, one’s friends and family.

To me, this is what it means to live in a village, to live in a vibrant community where your relationship with your neighbor might run as deep as blood. For some inexplicable reason, living in such a community also means conferring the same respect and acceptance to complete strangers as one would offer to an esteemed relative. For the most part, acceptance in these villages extended beyond common delineators in American society: gender, religion, and wealth.

It’s the same remarkable reason that from the other side of the planet, I can still be made to feel like a neighbor, a friend, and a fellow villager.

Too Many Words

have been placed on this page. Here is the village in photos with some captions.

These goats go everywhere together and happily share the stoop in front of their owner’s home. If their owner does come into a time of desperation, they can each be sold for between 600-800 rupees a piece.

The villagers knew I was somewhat obsessed with random animals, so they pointed this guy out in the paddy field — which was sadly too dry to grow any rice. There’s no way to properly emphasize how devastatingly poor this year’s crop will be. I read a statistic today that more than half of the world’s underweight children live in South Asia, and two-thirds of the world’s hungry people live in Asia although only half the world’s population lives there. It is mind-boggling when you consider that the people on this planet who are capable of growing their own food have the most difficult time feeding themselves.  I mean, if someone handed you a spade, a fertile acre of land, some seeds, and irrigation, do you think you could feed yourself for the year? Food for thought at the very least.

I have much greater appreciation for these footprints than for Warhol’s Dance Diagrams. Each print is the impression of a woman bearing 50 kg of cement mix on her head. Top that, Pollock.

This might slightly explain the wage disparity — women under umbrellas and men standing in the rain. I lived in the village for two weeks, when the heaviest monsoon rains were supposed to come. This was one of two days of rain.

On average, each family had five children. My hosts had six. But even if you’re the rare only child, it’s not hard to adopt a sibling. Nowhere else have I seen five year-olds take such an active role in caring for their one year-old neighbor. You’d see a small boy with a small unrelated toddler on his back, even bringing the younger child over to the water pump to wash her face. It seems that from a very young age, you have to learn not only how to play well with others but take care of and collaborate with them. You don’t really have any other way to settle disputes when mom and dad are working 8-hour days in the field.

Without a local Toys R Us or the means to buy toys, you’re constantly making them out of things you find. The boy to the right has constructed a dumbbell from a couple bamboo ends from breakfast and a stick in the middle. Other kids have collaborated to build a crude chariot out of wood that can seat a small toddler. Also, their version of a jungle gym is a goods carrier driven by one of the fathers to transport goods to far off cities. There, of course, are no safety regulations. At one point I confiscated a battery from one of the kids, who was beating it against the ground to crack it open. His mother told me, “Just a battery,” in Hindi. I explained to her that the ‘water’ inside was bad. I doubt my explanation of its dangers was adequate.

This wheat is being dried in the sun. The sun not only removes moisture but disinfects it and encourages insects to flee.

I doubt this family dressed itself with the intention of matching the color of the doorway. Beautiful image though, and it’s unsettling to think that they will suffer a food shortage this year. I may have passed along the mistaken message that whatever shortages in food they encounter can be made up by foraging. This is completely untrue — all the plants they encounter rely on heavy rains. Mushrooms and large bamboo shoots spring up overnight after a healthy rain. Tubers are only accessible if the ground is moist, and the saag (vegetables) populations dwindle in drought. So it’s false to think that inadequate farmed food can be compensated by wild foods. When there is no rain, there is quite literally no food.

Anyway, more soon. I’m currently writing from Los Angeles and will be in Boston early next week. There’s quite a bit I’ve left out of this blog, so I’ve been struggling to push it all together into a single coherent piece.

On Rice

When we think of rice, we think of carbohydrates, Asian people, and maybe the adjectives ‘fluffy’ and ‘delicious‘. Sometimes, we’re more specific and we think about basmati, wild, brown, jasmine, and white rice. We might even recall the words ‘Enriched’ and ‘Extra Fancy’. What we fail to consider is where rice comes from and what happens to it after we inhale it.

Rice is grown in a lot of water and is the staple for much of Asia; millions of people in Asia manage to grow all the rice they eat, and there are tens of thousands of varieties of it. Some varieties are drought resistant, others can outpace rising flood waters, and others will leave you feeling full for the entire day. There’s an entire category called aromatic rice, which emits a sweet appetizing odor when it‘s still on the stalk or freshly cooked. Jasmine and basmati rice fall into this category. Despite this kind of diversity, we only grow a handful of varieties in the U.S., and most of us only ever know that rice as white rice.

White rice is what’s left after everything useful to your body has been stripped out. If we go by the glycemic index (GI), which measures how quickly an ingested food goes into your blood sugar compared to ingesting glucose (where pure glucose sits at a GI of 100), the only foods with GIs over 90 are white rice, sugar, white bread and potato without the skin.  That is, eating a bowl of white rice is, metabolically, like drinking a cup of sugar water. Consuming foods with a lower GI is important to maintaining your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar. And in general, high blood sugar levels can damage organs and tissues.

So then we might ask — what is rice before it becomes white rice? And is there any way to redeem this stomach-turning comparison of drinking sugar water (unless you enjoy sugar water, which would make this much less compelling)?

Coming off the stem, rice has five parts: the chaff (or husk), the bran, bran residue, endosperm, and germ. Five parts with different functions and a vast trove of nutrients, including vitamin B, vitamin E, phytosterols, unsaturated fats, and an entire dictionary of nutrients that researchers are still working to understand. Together, these five parts create a kind of wonder-food with carbohydrates, protein, vitamins, and fat. It is, after all, a whole grain.

White rice happens when everything but the endosperm has been scraped off. That is, white rice is the waste product after your manufacturer has recovered rice bran oil, a product that is pitched as “rich in antioxidants, proteins, vitamins, and free of trans fats” and sells for $27 a gallon. Rice bran oil is also touted for containing nutrients that will prevent heart attacks and rejuvenate your skin. Sometimes, after removing all these nutrients, your manufacturer will also pretty up the waste product and “Enrich” it by brushing on a couple vitamins and talc powder, hence the warning to not wash the rice, the only step necessary to render white rice no different from pure sugar (my mother used to unknowingly wash all of this stuff off). So that’s what “Extra Fancy” and “Enriched” mean. “Extra Fancy” tells you that everything that is not white has been removed, and “Enriched” merely signals the addition of a couple Centrum tablets. White rice should be the poster child of good advertising and is probably to blame for the skyrocketing prevalence of diabetes in Asia — as people earn more money, they prefer white rice because it is prettier, and they are no wiser about the nutrients that are being removed. And high glycemic indices have been tied to higher rates of diabetes, cancer, and heart disease.

So what’s the alternative? Do other types of rice even exist and do they taste as delicious? Are they also pretty?

We’ll start with the least evil among the varieties of white rice: while the great majority of varieties of white rice turn into refined sugar once the four other parts of a rice grain are removed, basmati rice appears to be an exception. Most white rice sits at a glycemic index above 80. But basmati white rice has a glycemic index of 58, which makes it a medium-GI food and less likely to spike your blood sugar levels. Basmati rice is also famed as a delicious component of Indian food, especially in rice puddings (but the whole milk and sugar might balance out any of the added benefits) and as the complement of curries. If you’re going to choose a white rice to eat, basmati rice is a good bet.

Brown rice is rice that has only been husked and retains the bran and bran residue. Its GI is usually closer to 40 and 50, and boiling instead of steaming will raise this index. All rice varieties have a brown rice version, even medium and long grains. They have more flavor and may appear more yellow and white than brown. Fortunately, not all brown rice is the stubby variety that most people must acquire a taste for. If you’ve settled on a favorite white rice, it’s likely you’ll also enjoy its brown cousin.

But if you’re stuck on the white rice, parboiled is also a great option. Parboiled rice is rice that has been boiled while it is still a whole grain. It is estimated that 80% of the nutrients from the bran and bran residue then permeate the endosperm, so even when everything but the endosperm is stripped off, the resulting ‘white’ rice is still very healthy.

It’s interesting to note that white rice is more expensive than its less processed counterparts, even though processing has removed most of its nutritional value (and highly nutritious and expensive oil). Hopefully, however, this information encourages you to try other kinds of rice. While I was in the Indian villages, I was initially alarmed that people were consuming so much rice (easily 20 ounces of cooked rice per person, per meal), mostly because of what I had heard about the glycemic index of rice, but it turns out that a poor man’s rice can make up a part of a very healthy meal. Their rice, usually brown or parboiled, is the cheapest in the market. As India and China‘s growing middle-classes have shown, with rising incomes, there is a greater demand and higher price for white rice, as well as a higher diabetes rate.

It makes you wonder how much people really know about such a basic staple. I, myself, am pretty new to this information — just last week, my mother purchased two 10 lb bags of Extra Fancy and Enriched Long Grain Rice (thanks to Costco). After we work through these ones, I’ll be on the lookout for a good brown rice to add to the mix.

Coal Mining in Jharkhand

This is considered good employment.

I was on the back of a scooter when I shot this, and you get a vague sense of the kind of traffic these people compete with — 18 wheelers you regularly see smashed up against trees, their drivers long-ago extracted more dead than alive, motorcycles, mopeds, and shared autos zipping loaded with twenty more people than they were designed to carry. This man makes 3000-4000 rupees per month. It’s good because it’s consistent employment, which is very much lacking in Jharkhand. But what he must do is a remarkable feat of human strength and perseverance. After personally mining a couple hundred kilograms of coal (illegally) from Ramgarh, he loads everything in bags on his bicycle and hauls it along for 40 kilometers to Ranchi. I can’t imagine the joy he must feel upon reaching the top of a hill from which he can precariously balance on his bike and coast down, avoiding traffic and reckless drivers. Watching these men makes you tired and turns your stomach a bit, that in the 21st century and in the most populous democracy in the world, human beings are no more than beasts of burden — regardless of the kind of education they’ve managed to achieve.

I met so many people with bachelor’s degrees working as day laborers in the fields. I doubt there’s any other place in the world that you’ll find college graduates earning 2 dollars a day.

Back in the Heart of India

Delhi. (I haven’t posted on the village because I am working on a much longer piece for it. Hopefully will have something of that in the next week.)

This is not going to be a pretty description, but when I left Jharkhand, I thought I was leaving behind all the infected bloodsuckers — but alas I met a couple different kinds on the train back. Bed bugs and dubious politicians.

All of my train rides in India have had wonderful, curious, and generous people. This was certainly no exception. Well, in the end it was no exception, but I started off in the wrong cabin. By the time I found my seat, the crappiest allotment in a second class AC sleeper (side upper), the train was about to move and the man with the bunk below me refused to allow me to sit down. While I insisted that his bed was supposed to be converted to two chairs, he told me to stay in my cramped upper bunk where the side of the train curves in, giving a sitting person late-onset scoliosis. As much as I’ve gotten into the habit of picking a fight with people that shouldn’t be doing the things they do, I wasn’t willing to do so with a man who was going to be residing just above my bags for the next 17 hours, let alone the fact that he knew exactly where I would be sleeping.

So, exasperated, I ducked into the adjoining main cabin and asked if I could sit with them. “Main aap logon ke saath baid saktii huun?” I asked.

They were four regally relaxed looking men in kurtha pajamas. “Of course of course,” they said, as if my question didn’t need asking. I thanked them and pulled out my computer, intending to stay out of their way.

Two minutes later, a woman entered and presented a very large guava. The largest guava I had ever seen.

These are normally sized guavas.

This guava. . .  Well, look at it. Use the human hand as a scale.

It weighed half a kilogram and was apparently a gift. “If you take this photo with the guava holding him, it will be more famous,” said one of the men. I was confused. “This man is very famous in Jharkhand,” he clarified.

“Oh, I see, he’s a celebrity.” I took his word for it and continued to marvel at the truly absurd size of the guava.

“Very famous,” he repeated. He asked why I had been in Jharkhand and seemed uninterested when I described my work in the villages.

“What do you do?” I inquired.

“What do I do? Or what do all of us do? We all do the same work.”

“What is that?”

“We care for poor people, the blind and the sick. We carry them and take care of them.” This sounded like very dubious phrasing. I understand when English is your second language that you will have trouble, but this sounded like an oblique phrase from someone who had no idea what it meant to care for poor people or ‘carry’ them.

“That is very noble of you,” I said, “Jharkhand needs people like you. Are you part of an NGO?”

“No, we are in politics.” Only then did it register why these guys didn’t really care to elaborate how they helped the poor people, mostly because they didn’t. I asked them why they were going to Delhi.

“Oh, for political stuff.” Shady.

Politicians in Jharkhand are especially known for being corrupt.

When I asked Kamesh, a friend who had grown up in the villages near Ranchi, who he voted for, he responded, “the local party, because the BJP and Congress Party only comes to villages to buy the votes. After they win, they never come back.” But it seems that even the local party have failed.

These men continued their conversation in Hindi and were very kind to me. They offered me pieces of the large guava, but I sensed they had no interest in sharing how exactly they cared for the blind and poor or in learning how other organizations were engaged in rural development. They chatted about the Congress Party and about the estimates for the votes they would receive. And they did talk a bit about the poor people and how they would rise up. I feared asking them which political party they belonged to because, honestly, they all seemed the same — uninterested, immersed in corruption, and occasionally violent. Maybe I should have given them a chance, but part of the draw of not caring was my safety for the next 17 hours.

And with that, I quietly returned to my bunk, when my mother conveniently called me. In my conversation with her, I verbally abused the man below me in Mandarin and English, one of the benefits of knowing other languages. It’s one of those things that is extremely childish but enormously satisfying (I made sure that he did not speak English first). The side upper bunk is a truly terrible place. You feel all the traffic passing by in the corridor through the thin curtains, and the air conditioning blasts right through. And you end up sleeping in the same position as a corpse in a morgue, I realized, covered in a thin sheet because the blanket might have cooties.

My blanket actually did have cooties, it turned out. I woke to lines of bites down parts of my body no insect has ever traversed. It was disgusting, miserable, and itchy. The train was running on Indian time, arriving at the labyrinth that is the New Delhi Railway station an hour late amidst a downpour. From the overhead bridge, I could see men carting about large packages (large is like 4 times the volume of their body) somewhere, probably soaked with twenty times the liquid that their owners had intended. Some men had towels over their heads, which stopped serving any function once the rain graduated from a drizzle. I kept walking but none of this station looked familiar (it never does; it needs to be bulldozed and rebuilt), so I had to stop and ask if I was in Delhi, the kind of  question that probably gives rise to stereotypes that Americans are idiots. The woman was nice and pointed me to the metro. En route, I slogged through shin-deep puddles of water and other liquids I don’t want to think about. I had a single objective: to get back to the hotel and disinfect everything I owned.

Upon getting back, that’s exactly what I did. I filled a bucket with detergent and water and submerged everything vaguely clothlike that shared the upper bunk with me, and I examined the damage. The bed bugs had had a feast.

I’ve instructed my mother to pick me up from the airport in a vehicle lined with plastic trash bags. All of my luggage will sit outdoors and piece by piece be disinfected by the washing machine before gaining admission to the house. I may immerse myself in an antibacterial bath. It will be great.


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