Coconuts and Chilies

Today Debouda joined Bhaburam and me at the garden. Debouda used to live at Matrikunj as a caretaker and now he is my next door neighbor, living in the downstairs half of Shelter, my apartment. He and I practice our French and he tells me stories about his boyhood days in his village in Bengal. Debouda reminds me a lot of my American grandpa, who shuffled around the house with a kind heart full of quotidian wisdom.

the ‘New World’ flower

We picked up some coconuts on our walk. If you ever see a fallen coconut on the ground, give it a shake. If you can hear the slosh of the coconut water inside, it’s still edible.

I got to try my hand at husking a coconut, which is actually really difficult. Keeping your fingers out of the way, you must aim well with the curved blade of the scythe, cutting the outer shell into strips that you yank free from the harder, inner shell.  With a lifetime of practice, Bhaburam can shell one in less than a minute flat. Debouda and I were more than a little slower. I now have two coconuts on my kitchen table, ready to meet their last violent smash.

Debouda trying his luck


The tiny green fruits of a wild eggplant


I take my after-lunch naps in this treehouse-esque grass hut, with a grass mat and a pillow. The first level of the hut is used to dry grain and spices. Pretty awesome.

 Bhaburam bringing my pillow

 The day’s bounty was beautiful. Debouda and I harvested two buckets of chilies and some lemons. The green ones are eaten as a garnish and eaten raw. These green chilies quickly turn into the fiery red ones, so they must be picked before they turn.

Venus told me that you should never give chilies to someone from your hand, for it breeds angry quarrels. Feeling daring, I ate some of the red ones in my salad last night. No angry fights yet, but I’ll keep you posted.



The Rupee Rise

Along with millions of Americans, I have been quite glum about our country’s current economic status. But I read an editorial in The Hindu (Sept. 27, 2011) that checked me a bit. Over the last few months the rupee has drastically weakened against the dollar. When I arrived in July the rate was Rs. 45 to the dollar, and now it has risen to Rs. 49.60, “perilously close to the psychologically important Rs. 50 mark.” Great if you are a foreigner living on dollars, not so great for the rest of the country.

Even with the US’s “lower-than-expected growth, …high unemployment and fractious politics,” the dollar continues to be in demand. With the Euro shaky, risk-averse exporters and investors in India are turning to safer places to “repatriate the money to safer destinations,” leavign the dollar as one of the only options.

(Almost every bill has Gandhiji on it 🙂 )

Such a sharp increase in the rupee threw everyone off. It will be increasingly difficult to maintain stability, discouraging the return of investments recently lost.


I read an interesting story from Germany about an alternative currency called the Chiemgauer, named after a region in Germany. Started by a high school teacher as a classroom experiment, the currency slowly caught on with businesses and community members. Apparently, it retains better purchasing power within the region than the Euro. The Chiemgauer supports non-profits that promote cultural, educational and environmental activities. One of the goals was to create jobs to students, or volunteers that would be granted an allowance of Chiemgauers. Businesses accept 100 Chiemgauer at face value and can exchange that for €95, losing 5% for commission but earning more by attracting Chiemgauer members to their products or services.

You could create currency to any closed sustainable system, whether that be a village, a cooperative, or a city. It keep the money in the local economy, and enhances the relationships between customers and businesses, promoting credibility in business dealings and the creation of products with integrity.

A currency that is controlled by the people instead of going to a centralized government or bank? But then who would be in charge to make sure the money was kept safe and managed properly? It could never work…



Sweet Blossoms

I spent yesterday at Matrikunj, the organic garden, and it was lovely. We spent part of the morning working on the documentation project, me on my tiny laptop and Bhaburam with his endless stories and insights on the importance of nurturing the land. Bhaburam and I toured a different part of the garden that I hadn’t seen yet. We scoped out a crop of tall banana trees that were just starting to bare fruit. Banana plants are the coolest. Every part is used, even the stem. Each banana bunch has one large dark red flower attached to it. Banana blossoms are eaten as a delicacy, in stews or raw. The hearts of the flowers have medicinal blood purifying properties, increasing hemoglobin levels, and also help relieve menstrual disorders.


You can see the multiple generations of trunks, standing one beside the other. The grandmother’s grey trunk limply stands, decaying into fertilizing groundcover for the younger plants. The mother tree stands beside her, and then the younger ones, bright green with massive leaves, heavy with with green bunches of bananas. Bhaburam says he keeps up to five generations before trimming them. If this display of multi-generational family love doesn’t make your heart soft, I don’t know what will.

The sugar cane is at its peak now, so we harvested some and sat in one of the  Bhaburam showed me how to scrape off the top layer with a scythe, and then your teeth to pull off the next layer to get at the chewable the sugary fibers underneath. I have only had sugarcane once before, in Hawaii, but it was already cut and bagged, not exactly the same as chopping it down yourself.

Lada, a friendly Matrikunj worker, helps clean the canes for pressing

I could only manage about two sections before the sweet became too much, but Bhabuji chewed his whole piece of cane like it was going out of style. Later in the afternoon we made juice with the rest of the cane, putting the sticks through a metal handcrack to press the juices. We drank the golden juice with nimboo, squeezed lime. Needless to say, it was beyond delicious, and very worth the sore arms.


In the News…. September 26, 2011

One step forward…

From The Hindu:

Saudi Arabia: Yesterday King Abdullah announced that women will have the right to vote and run for public office in the 2015 elections. Very exciting news! Women’s groups in the country had been using the momentum of the Arab Spring to stage protests, especially around the ban against women driving. The government has gone easy on these rebellious women, not wanting to inspire a similar uprising like their neighboring countries. Power to the people.

And another backwards…


United States: Georgian Troy Davis was executed last week for allegedly killing an off-duty police officer, even though hundreds of thousands of people petitioned against the execution.  Apparently seven out of the nine jurors changed their verdict after the trial, saying that police had pressured them for a conviction.

In related news, Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry is a big advocate for the death penalty. Under his leadership Texas put 234 people to death.

A Ride to the Dairy

On Saturday I went for a cycle ride with my new friend Somdutt and some ashramites that regularly take small sojourns. We went to a small dairy right by Auroville, about 10 km outside of town. We played with the baby calves and the farm dogs and watched the sun set behind the fields of growing grain.  One of the calves was very mischievous and kept taking nibbles on our pant legs. It loved to have its head scratched, as its horns were starting to grow and were, understandably, very itchy.

My companions asked me if the cows in India are sweeter/prettier than in America. I laughed and said that I thought in this case beauty was in the eye of the beholder.

The ‘Nibbler’ on the right

I was amazed to hear that the ashram has not one but six dairies. Somdutt used to work at the dairy we visited. He said that dairies go through different production levels in different seasons, and with such a large and steady demand for milk and yogurt they need to have that many to ensure there will be enough.

 This one was the cutest

It was lovely to ride outside the city, and now that I know the way, I can start to cycle to the organic gardens and Auroville on my own.


Yesterday I was walking down the stairs at the office and I saw a butterfly in the stairwell, the color of sweet lime. She was trying desperately to get outside, banging over and over against the glass door. She did not understanding why she couldn’t get outside when she could so clearly see the outside. I stopped to help, trying to gently scoop up the bright insect. I cupped her gently in my hands and took her out to the balcony. She rested a minute on my finger and then darted off, flying away into the garden below.

Sometimes we try to do things our way, over and over, and then we don’t understand why we end up worse off than we started. It is difficult and scary to trust in the Divine, an unseen force, as sometimes we are cast into darkness for a while before reaching the sweet freedom of realizing our true path and purpose.

Death to the Mullet

Today I got the first haircut I’ve had today in the last four months! Those of you who knew me in my faux hawk days, will know that I used to get my hair cut all the time. I am dutifully growing it out, but I had had enough of having a mullet.

Haircuts here are about 300-600 rupees (about $5-10), but I hate paying money for something you can do yourself. At the co-op I used to cut everyone’s hair for free. So fun!

Thanks to Trupti for the help!

“This bodily appearance is not all; The form deceives, the person is a mask; Hid deep in man celestial powers can dwell.”

-Sri Aurobindo, Savitri

The Sri Aurobindo Press


Yesterday I went to check out the Sri Aurobindo printing press with Sushanto. I cycle past it every day, and am always curious to discover the technical secrets of book publishing. The society produces compilations of Sri Aurobindo and the Mothers’ writings, as well as books on spirituality, education, and self-discovery. The books printed here get sent to the Sri Aurobindo centers all over the country and around the world, in dozens of languages. Once the society’s new website is launched, their products will soon be sold online. The day I came they were working on next year’s spiritual diary.


The tour did not disappoint. I saw the many steps it takes to make a beautiful book. I saw the metal plates that are created to make each folio, the machines that stitch the folios together, fold the sheets perfectly, and the one manned by three people that puts the glue and cover on the spine. For hardcover books, the ashram makes beautiful handmade paper, which I am told is a bit of a chore to make, especially in such large quantities and sizes.

I saw the giant Heidelberg machine, a German printing press that has been at the ashram for decades. Sushanto told me that once the machine was broken. A worker came to unlock the building in the morning, and noticed in the corner of his eye saw some small gnomes all around it. When he looked again they were gone. The gnomes were its caretakers, coming to fix the broken machine. I wonder if they spoke Deutsch?

A Heidelberg machine


A Masala Story

I made a simple tomato curry to share with people at lunch. Trupti asked what was in it and I was scanning my brain for the ingredients…balsalmic vinegar, onion, chicken masala… “Chicken??” My table mates gawked at me in disbelief. I didn’t know what to do, all I could feel was a terrible sinking feeling in my stomach. I didn’t understand why a box of spice would have meat in it. You put it on the meat… They explained that there could be meat in it as part of the flavoring.

Having unknowingly poisoned my friends, I left lunch feeling guilty, ignorant and despondent for several reasons. Primarily, I am so thankful for how much people have done to make me feel included and welcome here and then I go and feed them meat. I felt very ignorant as I enjoy making food for others, and knowing the difference between vegetarian and non-vegetarian should be simple. And I try as hard as possible to be conscious and respectful of Indian cultural practices.

When I make mistakes that directly affect others it’s the worst. Opening the steam cooker on myself was just stupid, but at least no one else was damaged collaterally. A Titus Andronicus I was not prepared to be. (Look it up.) Then I went home and checked my spice jars. I only have two, chicken and garam masala. I realized I had used the spice I always use, my favorite jar of garam masala. All that strife had been for nothing! When I said chicken out loud unthinkingly, I then fully believed that that’s what had happened. Why did I say I had used chicken masala? Why had my memory failed me? I don’t know, but it is just one more example of how the workings of the mind are limited, at times faulty, and should not be relied on for everything.

The mistakes that we have committed…had to be…For all that happened was necessary…to lead us to something beyond what the mind imagines… It is not a question of being down-hearted or grieved or in despair if you have made a mistake, for every mistake can be corrected; from the moment you have found it is a mistake, there is an opportunity to work within you, to make progress and be very happy!”  -the Mother



Our newest fave rave at the society is an afternoon game of badminton at the local social club. For a $4 monthly membership fee we have access to the badminton and tennis courts. Rahti, Bini, Kaushal, and Trupti are all about it.

Having grown up a soccer player, my hand-eye coordination is a bit wanting, but my serve is improving and it feels good to break a slight sweat before dinner. As the blue sky fades to violet, the court lights buzz on and you can watch a few bats swooping low, showing off in the hunt for dinner’s insects.

Members Only



Rahti and Bini, resident BFFs


In the News…Sept 20, 2011

Santiago: The youth of Chile are in uproar. Their leader is a 23 year old named Camila Valeijo who is shaking the country, organizing protests and demanding corrupt and/or inept political leaders to step down. She is only the second woman ever to lead the University of Chile’s student union in 105 years (!).

Chilean student leader Camila Vallejo sits among a peace sign created from empty teargas canisters used by police against protesters.

(Photograph: Roberto Candia/AP)

The protesters’ top target is the unpopular President of Chile, Sebastien Pinera. Students are calling for broad education reforms, more healthcare spending, and the need to address unemployment. These initiatives are amazing when you consider that Chile’s military dictatorship was toppled only 21 years ago, in 1990. Here’s a look at the protests in photos.

When I feel let down with the general apathy of America’s youth, I am rejuvenated to discover that the youth around the world are taking their future into their own hands. Rather than identifying with a generation on a national level, we should consider ourselves members of this global generation.  I am relieved to know that this fire still exists, burning deep within to rebel against the institutions that kept us seemingly safeguarded when we were small, and then we slowly realize that these same structures are often a mess of greed and shortsightedness.

You have as much power as you take. Strangely, the more you push, the louder you squawk, the more people take your demands seriously. The youth have the energy, the hope, and the unabashed courage to push national leaders to do better. It only takes a few that are crazy enough to go for it.

I can only smile sardonically at the perpetual paradox of student protests. Do we not learn in kindergarten to share with others, to have patience and a loving heart? Why do we demand more from six-year-olds than we do from our chief ministers? When we reach secondary school, we take history, science, philosophy and literature classes that feature the works of the few people who questioned the status quo. Then why are students who are taking the initiative of change rewarded with tear gas and arrest? I can only hope that history will remember these bold youth more fondly than will their scars and scratches from the streets.