Monday, July 25, 2011 20 comments


Yes, I know the title is borrowed from Umberto Eco but I would like to use it to discuss Shakespeare’s famous quote about the rose smelling as sweet had it been called something else ( what about “takdadum”/ “pinchipoo”/ “ichupichu?). So if there is nothing to a name then why have it? We can be roll numbers or unique ID numbers? The thing is that as human beings we often derive our identities from our names though our personalities may well be something completely contrary to what our name is all about!

When I started this blog I called myself the “Unknown Indian”. However, over the forty nine odd posts I think I have been able to  give out a flavor that is distinctly mine so today this “Unknown Indian” would like to devote her fiftieth post to her public identity – her name. Please note though – it is about my name not about me the person.

 I do not know why I have been named MEERA. When I ask my parents they are not able to throw much light on this either.. But my father says something about how my maternal grandfather suggested that I be called “Lakshmi” or “Kalyani” in true Tam Brahm style but thankfully my arrogant paternal grandfather dismissed him saying that only cows were called by that name in “our family”! The  memories seem to stop with that..!

“MEERA” is a practical name to have if you are child trying to learn the alphabets and write your name. It consists of only five alphabets in English and two in Hindi, Bangla and Tamil with only two “matras”. Having been brought up in Bengal, MEERA was a simple name that sat easily on the Bengali tongue. I also found later on in life that it could not be mispronounced by the Tamil tongue which has a problem with the “D” and “T” being used interchangeably! I personally like vowel sounds and there are three of  them in my name.

As I grew older I found a peculiar problem cropping up. My friends and peers started to suddenly tease me about “Krishna” “Mohan” “Giridhar Gopal” etc!!! I have cried buckets full after these instances in my teens. College was worse as I moved to a co ed institution where there were actually real fellows with these names. Even if I talked twice to someone with any of those names I would be teased mercilessly!

As I grew older I came to terms with this situation. I also started reading up about “Meerabai”- the queen from Rajasthan. Though a lot has been written about her devotion to “Krishna” and her role in the “Bhakti movement” or the religious transformation in medieval India, what we probably do  not appreciate is her fiercely independent spirit – which was very unique for a woman of her times. She followed her music and was not submissive either to her husband or to the king. As a royal lady she came out of the palace and mingled with the common people reaching out to them through her music. If  you hear the words of her songs you will find that a lot of it is beyond “Bhakti” – it has “Shringar” over tones with love and longing of a woman verbalized. I like to think that it was her way of coping with the situation of being  married to someone she did not love and so she created this mythical lover giving him the status of God. The film “Meera” by Gulzar probably potrays this the best. I also do not believe the myths about her not being affected by the various attempts made to kill her. I think given the conditions of those times, she must have been definitely executed. Gulzar leaves it unsaid towards the end of the film

But “MEERA” I realized slowly was not just an Indian name. While on one of my travels abroad, I was asked if I was Jewish or if I was from an East European Country ( the later by people who I was in touch through email correspondence. Otherwise my typically Indian features are a sure giveaway about which continent I am form) . “MEERA” to people of these ethnicities is “Mira”.

I like the pan Indian character of my name- Meeraji, Meeradi, Meeraben….!I was once planning a visit to a remote village in Sunderbans in West Bengal. While discussing the logistics with the head of the organization that was facilitating the visit, I was surprised to note that the gentleman , assumed that I was Bengali.  I heard him talk on the phone to his colleague telling him “Oh, she is a Bengali married to a South Indian!!” I guess my fluency in Bangla had as much to do with it as the name but all the same I was quite tickled!  But I have noticed that Bengalis spell my name with a “I”and not the “double E”. Even my favourite author Amitav Ghosh while signing an autograph for me has spelt my name as “Mira”.

MEERA is an easy name to have if you are in an inter religious marriage like me. My Syrian Christian in laws are as comfortable with it as my Tam Brahm family. I am sometimes immensely thankful to my parents for not burdening me with a name that may have raised unrealistic expectations. Names like Mriganayani, Meenakshi, Rukhsana, Kayalvizhi are some examples. One expects the person to live up to such names! At the same time I am glad I was not called something as insipid as Sheila where I would have been tempted to constantly do something to draw attention to myself. A name like “Mamta” would have also been a burden conjouring up as it does, images of someone matronly. I may have then felt compelled to do something really drastic to change that impression. 

The rose folks, therefore requires a name  that gives it that distinct identify. So, here I am yours truly- MEERA of the Unknown Indian fame. Thankfully a sensible name with a hint of history to it but something that sits easily across cultures, generations and tongues.

Thursday, July 21, 2011 7 comments

Writing fiction

I have been told that I am a "bundle of emotions" ( this is the kindest version  among many such comments). Over the years I have learn to manage them  both in speech and action. But somewhere along the way I decided to give vent to some of my emotions , if nothing to atleast keep the cosmic balance going.. And that is how I began this new endeavor- Writing fiction.

My new fiction blog is called Kaleidoscope . The time I have spent trying to understand Word press and work with it has been double the time I took to write up the story. Both have been very emotionally draining...!! After a number of days of its creation I have today decided to announce its existence. So folks, please do visit it and drop in your comments. I need it real bad!!! I never felt like this with the Chronicles.... but Kaleidoscope is very special to me as I try to evolve into something different.

I don't think I would be able to post as frequently in Kaleidoscope as I am able to in "The Chronicles "....because  writing fiction requires a certain frame of mind and I can probably summon that a couple of times in a month. So please bear with me until I am able to write more frequently. I hope that by the time I get to my 2nd post I would master wordpress to a greater degree.

Happy reading and do get back with your comments on the new blog ( hopefully posted there and not here).

With my fingers crossed I remain

Yours faithfullly

The Unknown Indian

Sunday, July 17, 2011 14 comments


I am sure all of us remember the definition of pronouns as being substitutes for nouns.  When a sentence has some nouns punctuated by pronouns we are able to make some sense out of what the pronouns have possibly been used to replace. But consider some sentences that have pronouns without antecedents or  full of unprecursed pronouns-it can drive you mad…!!! I will give you some examples of what communication in such pronouns can result in.  (Please bear with me… this is not a post on Grammar, I assure you! ) Though the post is in English the actual conversations can happen in any language ( in my case Tamil or Hindi besides English)

The year 1985….my mother  at her angry best  shouts at me “ What is that thing doing there?” I immediately remove the offending item- my school bag from the sofa and transfer it to my study table.

 My sister and myself were once overheard by my father having this conversation “  Let us get rid of these things” My father is always exasperated when this happens because he is usually unable to figure out what noun that pronoun is used for.  He is sometimes told by my mother to “return these and get that ”. He is puzzled and always wants to know what “ these “ and “ that” are to which Amma gives him one of those stares which seem to indicate” why did I have to marry this man?”  But strangely I find that when I am given directions like that I can usually pick up what the unstated nouns stand for. I have not noticed my sister having any difficulty on this either. I think it has to do with the alignment of the thought process. As women, I supposed the three of us understand each other well. But my father’s understanding is obviously different.

Alignment of the thought process is a very interesting concept because sometimes we say things expecting that the person who is receiving the message would understand what the unstated part of our message is all about. My friend and colleague  CV once told me about how one of the new girls to join his team  has a tendency to speak like this - “ He always does these things and that gives me a problem” . He said that her predecessor  also used to speak like that. “ How do they expect me to  understand”? I guess as their boss they expected he would know what was in their mind. It is funny because I remember I used to do the same with my former boss – “Can I do this first and then complete that” and the strange thing was  the rapport we shared was so good he often knew what the “this” and the “that”  were. So I told CV to treat it as a compliment because it indicates that his direct reports were of the opinion that he was completely in line with their thinking ! 

But speaking in pronouns is not all rosy pictures about loyalty and rapport. It can lead to a lot of confusion. I remember this incident where I was to take my parents to see an apartment. My parents were with my sister in the same city. She called me to say that she will “ be there” with “them”  at 2.00PM which I understood to mean that they would all come to the apartment by 2.00PM. So I left home by 1.00PM and waited for them outside the apartment. At about 2.00PM I received a call on my mobile. My sister was who was on the line was asking me “ We are here but where are you?” .  “ I am also here” I told her. “ But you are not there”.  I was now puzzled. I asked her to state the exact location. “ We are outside the gate of your house”.. Imagine!!! I never guessed that they were planning to come to my house pick me up and then all of us go together to see the apartment!  I was also not exactly sure about who would constitute the “ they”

“I  am always against speaking like this in pronouns” grumbles my father.  

I am not a stickler for grammar.  In India many women use pronouns to refer to their husbands because they cannot address their husbands by their first names. Therefore in such cases pronouns seems to take on the character of a noun. When my mother says           “ Avar”  meaning he - we usually know which “he”  she is referring to ( Gosh this is again running into too many pronouns!) .  Similarly in Hindi the use of the word “ Woh” is usually for the “Pati Dev.” .!!!

But I have noticed something very interesting about Malayalam – people do not use pronouns much. They use the noun repeatedly. For e.g instead of asking “ Do you like Aapams?”  I may ask “ Does Meera like Aapams?” Now, I am not a Malayalee by birth ( I am Malayalee only by marriage) so I am not very confident about this. I would be interested if any of my Mallu Followers would like to comment on this.

Anyway to conclude I would say that language is after all for communication and so long as people understand what is being said then who cares if we are using nouns or pronouns…! Let us leave that to the purists!
Wednesday, July 13, 2011 6 comments


This takes off from where my post To pee or not to pee” stopped. I think we were all in agreement that we need clean public toilets at convenient locations for women to be able to relieve themselves.

I will now take you through two years of my work with villages in Tamil nadu and let us discuss the same issue from a different perspective!

The year was 2007 and I was in one of the coastal districts of the state.  My task – monitoring the use of the toilets constructed under one of our projects.

I reached the first village. Accompanying me was a field worker from one of our partner NGOs. The toilet was freshly whitewashed  with door painted in gleaming blue with all the donor logos painted on it.  Dharmambal whose toilet it was,  was all smiles- “  Madam we are keeping it very clean. See the door is locked” she told me.  I smiled back at her and asked if she would be kind enough to unlock it for me. She obliged and guess what I saw inside ? Firewood stacked up to the roof neatly!!  I collected myself and asked her why it was not being used for the purpose it was intended. The firewood gets very wet if left outside” she grumbled. “But what about relieving yourself”-  I asked. “Oh we go there” she said pointing somewhere in the western direction. “Then why the toilet”  I asked her. “Well, it was being constructed free so why should I not take it” she asked me? Good question!

The next toilet I visited was unlocked. I breathed a sigh of relief.   Locked doors held unpleasant surprises. I opened the door- but where was the pan? Nothing… there was only a hole in the ground! What was the reason I wondered? Had the government contribution for the activity not come in yet? Mr Murugesan my companion in the field explained- “well it is like this Madam.. the District Rural Development Agency is out of funds at the moment. So they asked some of the families to spend their own money and construct. They will reimburse later”. So this family had obviously only constructed to the extent they could with the money given by our organization. I asked for the number of the official coordinating the Total Sanitation Program of the government at the DRDA and called him on my mobile. After I identified myself and got round to the point he explained again about the lack of funds and the request having been sent for more funding. “But what will people do till your funds come “ I asked him angrily. “Don’t worry Madam, these people are not interested in using toilets so the delay will not affect them”  explained this official who had spent over five years in a program whose primary goal was to ensure total sanitation. I must say I was impressed by his conviction ( or lack of it)  !!!!! No wonder the government works wonders on behaviour change…..

Moving on to the third house .. I introduced myself and asked the lady of the house if they were using the toilet that was constructed. “No” she said angrily. “Why? “ I asked her. “ You see the door does not fit properly. We can be observed if someone looks inside” she pointed at a tiny gap between the door and the frame. I pressed myself to look inside and could see nothing. Only a very determined peeping Tom with great eyesight could probably see inside ( and even that I am sure would be coloured more by his imagination than by his vision). So I asked her where they were relieving themselves “ Where we usually do. Near the casuarinas grove” she pointed towards one end of the village.  “You mean out in the open” ? I asked her innocently. “Yes” she replied nonchalantly. “Surprising… considering that you will be completely in the open and anyone passing by that way can see you” I remarked. “That is our problem. When you construct a toilet you should make sure that the door fits without any gaps” she said angrily… Point taken and noted…!!!

I now turned towards Mr. Murugesan- a plump man who was sweating profusely in the heat and in anxiety. “ It looks like there is no need for toilets here” I told him.
“But we need these projects Madam. No one is using the government funding on the total sanitation program If we don’t use it then someone in the government will “swallow” the money and report 100% achievement of targets”  I remembered my experience with the need assessment done six months ago when we submitted to the district administration a list of villages seeking part  funding under the Total Sanitation Program and were told that atleast 50% of those villages had toilets. It was now clear where those toilets must be – probably somewhere in some government officer’s pockets!!!

But jokes apart- addressing sanitation issues in rural areas is a very challenging task. Despite a lot of sensitization ( called “software” activities) people are  reluctant to use the toilets. In Tamil Nadu it is a rather peculiar situation where people come forward to give their names for toilet construction because they see it as an entitlement that is due to them but when it comes to usage it is a different story……!!! Sometimes people are resistant to  relieving themselves so close to their houses. People  often complain about the smell from toilets being a factor that puts them “off’ having toilets near their homes. But that is an issue that is well within their control because if kept clean no toilet would smell.

Usage however is not always a problem. I remember in the same district there were atleast two villages under this project where toilet use rates were very high. When we analyzed the reasons we found that there was an industry coming up nearby with a lot of buildings which were taking up all the open spaces around the village. People were unable to get privacy that a vacant plot offered and with no such open spaces being around close by they were forced to use the toilets. We also found some of the families living in semi urban areas near the district headquarters using the toilets that we had constructed.  Similarly, communities who lived in forest areas were found to be preferring toilets because of the fear of the wild animals around.

Culturally we Indians are a strange lot.  Open defecation as an issue does not seem to affect us when explained from the point of  health and hygiene. There are a lot of theories about education and its correlation with toilet use. In practice I find it is all nothing but theory. People will continue to defecate openly as long as there are opportunities to do so and get away with it. I guess we don’t mind making a mess as long as it is not our responsibility to clean it up. I am in agreement with V.S. Naipaul when he says “Indians eat in private but excrete in public”.  If only we took as much care with our shitting as we did with our eating habits we would be a much cleaner nation

Saturday, July 9, 2011 11 comments


It was a hot afternoon. There was the usual power cut for two hours. The generator assured power only for the major plug points into one of which I had connected my lap top.  I was frantic to complete the analysis of data that had come in from our grassroots partners. As I looked through the data I found that most of the fields had been left unfilled. In fields which had been filled the data appeared to be vague or incomplete.  I finally gave up trying to sift through the information and called one of the project managers of the NGOs we were partnering  with asking him why the data was of such poor quality.         “ Madam… there was so much of information to collect and fill in - almost 5000 profiles…”  he offered by way of an explanation. Was the time line then unrealistic I wondered? No- because it was information that was over due by a month and if they had not been able to complete collection and entry of data even one month beyond timeline that they had agreed upon then there was something that was wrong with the attitude..

Reflecting upon this I wonder if this attitude of compromising on quality of anything because of the quantity handled is a nation wide malady?

Let us take for example the quality of education in the state of Tamil Nadu. If you look at the enrollment data you can see that the figures are very high but a survey done on the quality of education ASER 2010 showed that attainments in terms of basic literacy and numeracy skills among students was really low.  Then what about the high marks being scored in the public examinations we might wonder? But the question is what do the students who score those high marks actually know about the subjects in which they have scored those subjects? If the system itself is geared to camouflage attainment of quality then it is really a self defeating attitude!

Take the case of air travel. Today most major airports are as bad as railway stations. Unfortunately, one cannot jump into a plane as easily as one can on a train. There are a lot of procedures like check in, security check , boarding etc to be followed. Most of this requires assistance of airline staff.  I have seen a steady deterioration of service even in private airlines over the last decade that I have been travelling by air. Is it again a case of inability handle quantity?

As a country that has a huge population I think quantity is something that one cannot do away with. Whether it is education, health, travel or anything one has to be prepared to handle large numbers. Human resource in a country like ours is never a constraint. Even non profits which cannot assure good salaries have a “ huge battalion”  in terms of field staff. Governments are all supposedly over staffed and the number of doctors must be equally high as also teachers. So why are we unable to handle numbers?

Are we overworked or overburdened when it comes to handling numbers? This is not always so. I think somewhere there is the feeling that larger the quantity the less likely a person would be to notice quality. I remember a scene from a Jaspal Bhatti serial called flop show in the early 1990s where one of the characters who owns a sweet shop asks his assistant to mix the rotten potatoes with the good ones while making the filling for the samosas - “ we make hundreds of samosas in  a day and so who will notice if some samosas are bad and people fall sick after eating them?” But methodologically speaking if an entire population of samosas is bad then any representative sample would also show up sufficiently large numbers of bad samosas.  So, we try to hide that by manipulating the methods of what defines a good or a bad samosa. Exactly what is happening with teachers giving 100% marks to all students and we have large number of students who get 100% marks!

Is excellence in delivering anything such a challenge? I don’t think quantity is the issue. We would do this even if we had to deal with half the numbers .  If the census of India can complete a mammoth task like the  counting of every Indian within one year then obviously it is possible to deal with numbers. If we can develop electronic systems to count votes cast in an election and declare a winner within a matter of days then definitely quantity is not a problem if we really come to it.

Somewhere I think it is the importance we attach to what we do. Census is obviously important as also election results. But quality in terms of health care delivery may not seem to be as important to doctors and other health care personnel. Similarly providing quality education may not figure much in the list of priorities for many teachers.

And so why am I blaming a poorly paid project manager in a small NGO in some obscure village of a district in Tamil nadu for the poor quality of data? I guess I should learn some clever way to camouflage it or push it up – and there ends my headache!!