Tuesday, 6 December 2011


I am spendng this week in the ashram town of Tiruvannamalai. The week is the festival known as Deepam with the culminating event (8th December) being the lighting of a fire at the top of the local mountain, Arunachala.

Because I had to do a bit a research on the Deepam holiday myself, I have copied what I found from a website called Festivals of India.

"When the light on the top of the Tiruvannamalai Hill is unveiled on the Kartigai Deepam day, people see the big light and worship it. They recite again and again in a loud voice 'Harohara'. The esoteric meaning is that he who sees the light of lights that is burning eternally in the chambers of his heart through constant meditation attains immortality. The light on the Arunachala brings the message to you that the Self or Lord Shiva is self-effulgent, He is the light of lights."

Upwards of a million people will pour into this small temple town tomorrow to watch the lighting of the fire and walk the 13 km around the mountain. We will be watching from a distance and actually plan to broadcast the lighting of the fire live from David's rooftop. Here is the link in case you would like to tune in...http://www.ustream.tv/channel/deepam

Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Rains are Back...

I am currently working for a small training company in Chennai, South India. My title is officially 'Director of Training' but it could just as well be 'Vice President of Pageantry'. The title doesn't mean much, and I don't really direct anyone; I basically organize training sessions and teach an occasional class.

From my office on the second floor of a nondescript white and blue colored building in an area called Ashok Nagar, I can look down on the bustling city below. I have witnessed the occasional funeral procession, a dead body shrouded in garlands pulled along on a cart by mourners dancing to loud drumming as they make their way through the streets of the city. I have watched the beginnings of the monsoon and streets choked with water and garbage, pedestrians making their way gingerly through the standing puddles in hopes that no uncovered manholes lurk beneath the muddy flood water.

The rains came with a vengeance over the weekend, and there is a promise of even more rain later this week. My farming friends in Tiruvannamalai are envious of the downpour we got here along the coast. I know the rain is necessary for a successful growing season, but if I make it through the monsoons without falling into an uncovered manhole here in Chennai, I will personally consider it a very successful rainy season.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Office Puja

Working in India vs being a tourist in India takes some adjustment. I have been coming to India over the past 20 odd years as both a tourist and the wife of an Indian spouse. Although my marriage ended nearly 16 years ago, I have always had a feeling that India was somehow part of my genetic make up.

One of the things that I love about living and working in India is that the spiritual is woven into everyday life, even corporate India. Last month we had an office puja (prayer offering) to ensure that our company continues to prosper. One of the office cubicles was converted into an alter; the IT guy is also a Hindu priest so we had the puja during work hours. The smell of incense wafting through the office lingered long after the puja finished.

On my rickshaw ride to work each morning, I pass small, colorful, street-side Hindu temples adjacent to stalls selling fruits and veggies, medical supplies and umbrellas. Nearby, a stray dog or cow may be rifling though a pile of last night's yet-to-be picked up garbage. A puja may be going on with the ringing of bells and the lighting of incense. It takes me out of my morning wind-up to a fast-paced day in corporate India for a few moments, and I do a mental reboot on my reasons for being here...

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Weekend Bus to Tiru

Each weekend I take a bus from Chennai to the ashram town of Tiruvannamalai. It is the location of the ashram of Sri Ramana Maharishi, the great Indian sage, and my main reason for moving to India. The bus ride itself is an adventure; it's a 4.5 hour journey from the Chennai city bus terminal to my bus stop in Tiruvannamalai. The bus terminal in Chennai is the biggest in all of India, and it took me several tries to find which bus went to Tiru as most of the signs are written in Tamil.

The 4.5 hour trip is by government bus; sometimes I think I could run the 189 km. faster than the bus, but you can't beat the price of 62 rupees one way. This equals a little over a dollar. Three days ago the government increased the fare to 110 rupees, and I was incensed (this is highway robbery!!) until I figured out it was now $2 for the 4.5 hour trip.

For the average Indian worker, this is quite a jump in fares, so I am waiting to see what comes of it in terms of protests. Buses are often burned when the price of sugar or some other commodity rises; I'm not sure if the buses are safe from burning with the fare increases, maybe they will set fire to a sugar warehouse?...stay tuned.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Arctic ATMs and Me

I discovered quite by accident which locations in Chennai have the distinction of having the best A/C in town - without a doubt, it's the ATM vestibules. With humidity levels reaching 90% outside on a daily basis, the condensation in the small yet appealing "oasis of cold air capsule" begins to form on the glass door and is a tell-tale sign that something is brewing inside - and that something is cold, cold air, sista.

The lines for ATMs can be long here if you don't time it right. I stood in line for 20 minutes at an ATM in the city of Pondicherry only to be waved away when the machine ran out of cash. I was not disappointed by the fact that I was not able to get any money; I was more disappointed that I didn't get to stand for about 5 luscious minutes in the ATM vestibule filled with icy cold air. 

Some vestibules even have plastic chairs in them, which I can only assume are for folks like me, drenched in sweat, who pretend that they have misplaced something in the depths of their purse, only to be able to add a few more delightful moments of extreme coldness prior to re-entry into the wall of even more extreme humidity. The rainy season is fast approaching so my fascination with the icy ATM may wan a bit, but I doubt it.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Life and Death in India

Last night I returned by bus to Chennai. My weekend in Tiruvannamalai was a mixture of a heartbreaking incident and the power of a connection of good friends.

An elderly woman in the expat community was critically injured in a motorbike accident on Friday. David and I were first on the scene on a busy road in Tiru. I rode in the Indian ambulance with the woman, Dianne, whom I had only met a few times before. She had a serious gash on the right side of her head and was slipping in and out of consciousness. Although taken to a bigger city with a better hospital, she is not going to make it according to the doctors and will be taken off life support in the next day or two.

Again I am forced to focus on the brevity of life, how far away my daughters are from me, and how little I can do to protect them, other loved ones or myself from some type of accident while in a foreign land.

I also saw how a group of people living far away from their own countries were able to quickly network to contact Dianne's family in Ireland, assist her husband in the distant hospital and keep abreast of the changing  state of her condition. It was hard to leave for the city, and my heart is still in Tiru as I get ready to go to work.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

A Window on Chennai

Getting to work each morning via auto rickshaw is my window on Chennai. There is the morning walk to the auto rickshaw stand  past women scrubbing their front sidewalks with water, sweeping away the dirt before drawing a kolam, a geometric design, with white rice flour onto the sidewalk. Hindus believe that kolams can bring prosperity and good fortune to the family and are drawn anew each morning on doorsteps to the house.

Then there's the morning haggle with a rickshaw driver over 10 rupees too much or too little in fare. I usually cave in and pay the extra fare as it's not much for me but a few more rupees for the driver's family.

I have learned that auto rickshaw horns vary in sound and intensity. My favorite driver is an older man with one of the fastest auto rickshaws I have been in. When he gets some open road (which is very seldom on the streets of Chennai) he goes careening through traffic at breakneck speeds reaching 25 mph. But, what I love most about him is the horn on his rickshaw. It's an old fashioned horn, like the ones kids have on their tricycles, with a large bulb that one squeezes to make the noise. The bulb on his horn is green and makes a honking sound that had me biting the sides of my cheeks one recent morning to keep from all out laughter. It seemed funny to me to be speeding through the city in a bright yellow three-wheeled vehicle honking a horn made for a tricycle. It was one of those moments in India where I found myself happy to be here having such rich experiences that would be difficult to duplicate anywhere else in the world.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011


The rains have taken a hiatus and today was sunny in Chennai. I did not leave my flat yesterday as I just wasn't up to facing the noise of the city and haggling with auto rickshaw drivers. I spent over 10 hours on my computer sending query letters to agents and telling them about my wonderful (I think) idea for a non-fiction book about living  in Chennai as a single woman and working in high-tech India. I have now sent out over 10 query letters and/or book proposals and am keeping my fingers crossed that someone, somewhere will be interested in my story.

Some days I absolutely love living in India; this is most often when I am in Tiruvannamalai happily gardening with David. We work silently next to one another for long periods of time, both hunched over weeding or planting seedlings, our T-shirts drenched in sweat from the heat and humidity. At night, we sit on the veranda eating bread and cheese and split a cold Kingfisher. Life is so simple, silent, and serene for me there.

Chennai is more of a big glaring bully choked with smog, noise and garbage. It seems to assault one's senses and render one unable to muster the energy to cope some days. Thank goodness I can work from my flat whenever I want, and thank God for an uninterrupted power supply!