Madras Madness

Ordinarily, I like to blog about ideas rather than occurrences. I prefer to use this space to reflect rather than to report. This compulsion is doubly strong as I write from India, a place so unrelentingly overwhelming in sensory stimulation that one cannot help wonder at the significance of things. I am keenly aware that my friends and family are watching this space for word of our travels, not just to be informed but to be involved.

But there are other exigencies. Since our arrival, Yoo-Mi and I have been consumed with work on the tsunami relief and reconstruction effort. If we were sleeping little before we left San Francisco, we are sleeping little more now. While part of that may be chalked-up to residual jet lag, much has to do with the enormity of the tasks we have undertaken. There is little time to blog right now.

I should say straight off that the situation here in Madras is not as one might expect from reading newspaper reports in the New York Times. While the coastal zone, including thousands of fishing villages, has been obliterated by the tsunami waters, life only short distances from the devastation goes on essentially as though nothing had happened. In the heart of Chennai, you would never know a natural disaster occurred on its doorstep.

I should also report a little good news: it appears that within a few days, the relief effort will be completed and the long, hard process of reconstruction and rehabilitation will begin. This does not mean that life is settled for the hundreds of thousands displaced by the waters; but it reflects the amazing effort by both domestic and international NGOs to see that the first needs of the survivors are being met.

If I were writing for a newspaper or magazine I would tell all this in complete narratives, supplying context and detail to flesh-out the story. Instead, let me simply pass along snippets.

We had the loveliest of surprises when we stepped from the baggage claim area of MAA into the muggy midnight of Madras: the Krishnan sisters were on hand to greet us, Pavi having come up from Pondicherry, Deepa down from Bangalore. Gabbing into the early morning with these best of friends contributed to the feelings we had already expressed that it felt so comfortable to be back in India that the experience was almost eerily unremarkable.

Having snagged nearly four hours of precious sleep, we trundled off to an all-day meeting of NGOs working on relief and reconstruction. The meeting was well attended both in terms of the number and the brilliance of those who attended. The brilliant Sushma Iyangar, who was so instrumental in coordinating disaster relief and reconstruction in Kachchh after the 2001 earthquake, was among those who focused on strategic planning. Others with particular expertise – such as fishing village economics, the contribution of coastal development to the damage sustained, psychological counseling for victims and relief workers, the chemistry and public health issues regarding dead body decomposition, and many other topics – gave detail and immediacy to the process. The Chief Minister?Ĵs Director of Tsunami Relief spoke. We had a chance to speak with Balaji Singh for USAID about his fieldwork, and folks from countless other NGOs.
Sushma Iyengar
Among the most pressing organizational needs as the efforts turn from first response to reconstruction is to centralize the flow of information, particularly concerning requirements and resources. CharityFocus will be taking on a large and difficult role in creating the technology that will drive this information coordination system. True to form, Nipun and Paras are coming through in a big way. Within hours of the meeting in Madras, and within minutes of having risen from bed in the California, Nipun and Paras had gone live with a web log to be used by the organizing committee that will be building the information coordination system, made to specification.

We worked deep into the night and rose early this morning to complete the conceptual work that will drive the development of the architecture and functionality of the information coordination system. What greeted us this morning? Yoo-Mi’s mug staring back at us from page four of The Hindu, the newspaper of record in Southern India. We’d been in town barely 24 hours and Yoo-Mi was already in the press!

I want to comment on aspects of the relief and reconstruction effort that doesn’t make the press, even here. Things like heinous caste discrimination by villagers in the disbursement of aid. Like the frequent hold-up of trucks carrying relief materiel by gangs of bandits who proclaim, “We have been destitute for years and the government has done nothing to help us. These people have only been destitute for a few days.” Things like the surplus of clothing that has pour into the region like a second, beneficent tsunami. Things like the difficulty finding volunteers who will handle the bodies of the dead. But all this must await a later retelling.

It wouldn’t be a markandyoomi trip is there wasn’t some good eating along the way and so far, despite the hectic schedule, we are batting 1.000 (or 6.000 as they would say in this cricket-mad corner of the world). Without taking the time to go into detail, let?Ĵs just say that the goddesses who have been cooking for our friend Param’s family for the last 13 years would be declared living national treasures in most countries.

A word should be said about Param, a kindred spirit if ever I’ve found one. I’ve always described my role in CharityFocus as demonstrating that bad kids can be good too. Param exemplifies this principle. He shares my irreverent humor and love of mischief. He is a hooligan?Ĵs hooligan. And yet he is also an angel’s angel. He is the charismatic head of Smile Foundation, a voluntary service organization that can mobilize 100,000 volunteers for civic projects throughout Madras. The playful ironies of his personality is perfectly played out on his youthful, energetic face, which sports that peculiarly Tamil film star mix of mustachioed cherubic muscularity.
Paramasivan Smita Jain
I have often remarked that our journeys are more about people than places or activities. Having the opportunity to spend time with Param is therefore a significant a significant milestone for us. Getting to know Smita Jain is another. Smita is a CharityFocus volunteer who has recently moved to Chennai from Shanghai as her company is in the process of setting up an office here. Smita represents a classic CharityFocus experience: having the chance to know someone by working with them long before getting to meet them in person. Yoo-Mi has worked with Smita for months on the ProPoor web portal, and has regaled me with stories of her competence, industry, maturity, and brilliance. If Yoo-Mi regarded her as practically a sister even before meeting her, even I felt as though I knew her, indirectly. What a marvelous thing when unreasonably high expectations are surpassed!

Enough for now.

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