The chronicle of a lonely do-gooder family doctor who survived.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Funeral

"Vasu-ana, what are you still doing here?" I was sitting in Shireesha's uncle's house in the village and was surprised to see that Vasu hadn't left for Chennai yet. The birthday party had been the day before and most people were planning on leaving early to get back to the city in the morning. Shireesha and I were going to stay and relax in the village for 2 more days.

"You hadn't heard? Your uncle Munreddy died last night. He is your wife's, mother's, mother's cousin. Very inauspicious for travel. Everyone is staying for the funeral today."

"You can come," my uncle Mohan Reddy said with his loud and authoritative, yet broken, English. "Come, see our tradition for
preparation of the dead person."

"I don't know..." I said reluctantly. As a tall, loping, very Caucasian person in a remote farming village, my appearance at public events usually tended to become the focus of such events. During my first trip to Proddatur, I had to be rescued with a tractor from a mob of children who were closing in on me quickly when I went to watch the Sankaranthi rabbit hunt.

"No. Is okay. He is family. You must come to see how we make funeral." Mohan-mama is a large, jolly man with a heart to match, but past experience had sometimes left me unsure if his overtures were not particularly culturally appropriate. This is a man who, when his daughter was married, had built a castle to host his guests. Literally a castle, complete with turrets and towers and gates, in a town where many houses have dirt floors and people still draw water from wells. He and his wife moved out of the castle shortly after the wedding. But it's that combination of audaciousness and generosity that makes him well loved by everyone, including myself.

Considering the funeral, I remembered seeing the cremation pyres in Varanasi 4 years prior. While it was completely mind blowing, it was also unseemly, and gawking at the burning bodies there made the discomfort of the stares I r
eceive in the village trivial by comparison. But this was the village. And it was family, I tried to convince myself. And I knew that whatever was involved, it would a pretty unique experience. In the end, though, I decided I was still just a tourist, not a cultural anthropologist and since I had never met the man, I should respect the solemnity of the event and stay away. Not wanting to let down my uncle, who was clearly excited about taking me to this event, I said "Well, we'll see what's happening later, but if I am not back here by 2, then go without me."

At about 3 o'clock, my wife and I decided we'd walk back to her uncle's house to have lunch and hear about the funeral.

"Can we take the short cut through the alley? I hate walking along the main road, people are always staring and wanting to come up an
d talk to me."

"Okay, it's this way," my wife said.

As we turned down the alley, we could see some kind of tent placed in front of a house and as we got closer, it was clear that a crowd was forming. "Oh crap" my wife said, "It's the funeral."

Before we could turn around, we'd been spotted by my uncle who was beaming with a wide smile as he stood up and waved me over. He asked the man sitting next to him to get up and offered me his chair. Right. In. Front. I supposed that the explanation that we were taking a short cut to go to his house to see him wasn't going to get me out of the funeral gracefully.

"Where the hell ar
e you going?" I said to my wife who was leaving me on my own.

"I have to go inside with the women. Good luck."

At that point, there was nothing I could do but be gracious, humble, and awed by the turn of events that led to this suburban California boy becoming a front row witness to a traditional Hindu village funeral.

After a period of time where people paid their respects to the deceased in the front room of the house, the undertakers began to construct a bamboo stretcher. One man brought a live chicken forward. My uncle narrated. "They will bring one hen. That hen will be tied to the man." He looked intently at me and put his two fists together, as if to explain, then raised his arms to the sky, opening his hands wide.

The body was then brought to a chair in the front yard where the man's sons ritually bathed him with several buckets of water. He was then wrapped in a brand new dhoti and laid onto the bamboo stretcher, about 2 feet in front of me. "Now you will see them spread the spices." The body was anointed with turmeric, red powder, and some type of oil and then covered in flower garlands. A small fire with incense was started on the ground at the man's feet and one by one starting with the man's surviving mother, sons, and followed by the remaining friends and relations in the crowd, each person held their palms over the burning incense and then touched the man's feet.

Two Indian clarinets and a drum started blaring music as those in attendance completed their blessings. The man's sons gathered round the body and raised the stretcher to shoulder height. With the musicians leading, the gathering then formed into a procession that led down the alley.
I marveled at the fact that all of this happened within hours of the man's death. They were taking the deceased to the outskirts of the town for cremation. My wife and I decided to peel off from the procession at this point, as did many of the attendants.

"Are you sure you don't want to see them burn the body?" my uncle Mohan said.

"No, that's okay. This has been quite an experience for me."

Mohan-mama smiled. "Is this how they do in America?"

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Meenakshi Temple, Madurai

All over southern India you can find barefoot pilgrims from all walks of life travelling along the roads. Usually they are recognizable by their matching colored lunghis or the markings on their foreheads, sometimes they carry banners or sing songs. The decision to put your job and family life on hold and walk barefooted to a sacred temple is actually fairly commonplace and pilgrims come from all socioeconomic groups. The major destinations in southern India include the Venkateshwara Temple in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, the Ayeppa Temple in Kerala, Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India, and this place, the Sri Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.

The temple city has existed since antiquity but the current temple was built in the 1600s. There are references to the town and the rituals celebrated there in the writings of ancient Greek historians and many of the rites have been
performed essentially unchanged continuously for over a thousand years.

The temple has 12 of these towers, called gopuras, the largest of which is 7 stories tall.
They are covered in small individually painted sculptures of various deities or other figures from Hindu mythology.

The temple is believed to have over 3 million sculptures.

Ceilings are painted with colorful mandalas.

Detail of gopura sculpture.

Bathing tank for ritual cleansing prior to worship.

Friday, January 18, 2008


Just a quick stop in Chennai, India's fourth largest city (aka Madras). I was prepared for the worst, but actually with Sankaranthi going on all week here in Tamil Nadu the city was relatively empty. Shireesha's giving a talk here at a hospital that has an affiliation with the University of Washington. We got a tour of the hospital but alas I was not able (or comfortable) to take pictures. The government hospital that takes care of much of the HIV in the state is a 100 year old facility that once functioned as a tuberculosis sanatorium. It was just about as uplifting a place as it sounds. I am constantly amazed at how much smarter the doctors in India are, they don't have CT scanners, they can't get labs drawn every day, and each fellow carries about 50 inpatients on their service, relying almost entirely on their physical diagnosis skills and their brains.

Although I did get out to the hospital and to Marina Beach, I spent most of the day in bed with chills and stomach cramps. It had to have been something I had at the four star hotel in Hyderabad which is ironic I guess. The only other times I've been sick here were at Domino's pizza in Bangalore, and following an all night whisky drinking binge where we ate lamb that was barbequed on the street (I deserved that one).

Here's Shireesha and our driver Madu at Marina Beach which is this enormous public beach in Chennai, about 1/2 a km wide and 10 km long. This beach took the full brunt of the tsunami but fortunately there weren't many people out when it hit, so the fatalites were in the dozens here instead of thousands as it was elsewhere in Tamil Nadu.

More at Marina Beach

We're headed to the hill station of Kodaikanal after this.

PS. The thing I miss most about home is the internet. For a country that touts its high tech infrastructure, internet access here remains hard to find, slow, and relatively expensive. I may decide to finish blogging this trip from home.


I'm sitting in the Hyderabad domestic air terminal and every muscle in my body bears the fatigue that only 4 days in urban India can bring. We came here by overnight train and have been enjoying 4 star hotel service at the Taj, an indulgence we usually grant ourselves midway through an India trip just so we can get a hot shower, some A/C facilitated sleep, and a real cup of coffee, not the sweetened condensed milk stuff that everyone here likes. Since we're in Hyderabad, this hotel is stuffed with American business people toting laptops. I feel smugly amused that staying in this hotel is the most luxurious thing I'll do all year while it's probably the most adventurous thing most of these other guests will ever do.

As Indian cities go, Hyderabad is nice. Only 6 million people and many were back in their villages for the festival of Sankaranthi. I'm reading this fantastic book, The Age of Kali by William Dalrymple, a chronicle of the changes brought upon the subcontinent since Independence and Partition and the chapter on Hyderabad describes a vastly extravagant city state of noblemen, wealth, and beauty that persisted until the early 20th century. All remnants of this have now been bulldozed, graffitoed, or neglected but if you really squint your eyes and use your imaginatino you can just imagine the brightly colored onion domes and vast parade grounds, now occupied by bland, underfunded governmental departments that have allowed things to fall into disrepair.

As I said though, Hyderabad is nice. Wide streets, a little development going on here. Our guide is the wonderful hadjiboy (blog), who was open enough to meet up with us and then came over the next day to show us around. Hyderabad was a predominantly Muslim city and at the time of independence, its ruler, the last Nizam, who was the richest man in the world at the time, refused to relinquish power and flee to Pakistan with all the other Muslims. The city retains a flavor that is distinct from the rest of India with mosques everywhere and all the other older building employ typical Muslim architecture. We were here for the festival of Sankaranthi and there were thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of kids standing on their roofs flying kites.

See how quiet the streets are for the festival?

Depending on how things go with health care system in the U.S., I may have to relocate, so it's good to see how much I might make as a family physician in India. 10 rupees is about 20 cents.

Saturday, January 12, 2008


I am sitting in a small, dark concrete room full of Shireesha’s uncles who are cracking jokes loudly, almost shouting at each other in between cackles. They are teasing my wife because I had asked how to make Andhra-style chicken. The idea that, on most nights, my wife gets home from work at 8 o clock and we order in, thus precluding me ever seeing anyone cook South Indian food, seems as incomprehensible to them as most of the things I’ve seen since arriving here would seem to my family back home.
Making Andhra-style chicken

The town we’re in has almost as many people living in it as Seattle, yet it isn’t marked on most maps of Andhra Pradesh, the state we’re in. The 8 hour drive that brought us here is the polar opposite of the bland sameness that characterizes interstate road travel in the U.S. The highway teems with more drama and entertainment that the Las Vegas strip on New Year’s Eve. Even between villages, there are never fewer than 500 people, and several of (what would be considered in the U.S.) exotic animals, within my direct view. I pass giant white temples with intricate carvings and 40 foot statues. Women and children carrying loads of crushed rock on their heads in an effort to widen the highway, a 2 lane road with at least 8 lanes of traffic – a pedestrian lane, the livestock lane, a bicycle lane, the auto rickshaw and motorcycle lane, and the lane for cars and buses which carries our motorcade – a large SUV with tinted windows followed by 2 shiny Mercedes Benz sedans. I want to roll down the windows to explain that we’re no mafia or government, we just have an uncle who is a very successful land developer. But rolling down the window to reveal my very Caucasian face would probably create an even bigger scene and I am glad I am in the car with the tinted windows. We pass a line of camels which are apparently raised as food by the local Muslim population.

Now I am on the roof of Shireesha’s uncle’s house at sundown. It’s perfect weather – 80 degrees, dry and slightly breezy. I look out across the town and further over the plain and I can smell the cooking fires. I hear the sound of 1000 birds and roosters crowing. The incessant sound of car horns is thankfully distant enough that it is drowned out by the Sanskrit chanting being broadcast by one of the temples in the town. I came up here to have a moment alone to write but I am interrupted by a woman on the roof next door. “Excuse me sir, where is your home?” in perfect English. She is going to the U.S. next month, having just married an NRI who works for FedEx in Pittsburgh.

Earlier today I walked the one block here from the uncle’s house we’re staying at and was followed by a group of 20 or so children in school uniforms, one of whom was nearly pushed into me, apparently dared to make contact. “What time is it?” After I give him the time he asks “What is your good name?” After I answer, I hear a dozen children’s voices whisper to each other “John. His name is John.” I won’t take out the camera just yet. Last time I did this, 20 children became 100 and I had to be rescued by Shireesha’s uncle on his tractor.

Shireesha's family historically have been farmers and all of the brothers still own land. This is Shireesha's uncle Bakthanath standing in one of their fields. Here, they are growing Chana Dahl (garbanzo beans).

This is one of the bigger temples in the village.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Bangalore Taxi

It's the little things that strike you about this place. I think this speaks volumes.

Internet access is a little spotty but will try to post more later from Hyderabad.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

I am going to India this Saturday. This will be my third trip with Mrs. Sour Puss. In getting my stuff together, I came across my travel journal from my first trip in 2002 which contains these random observations:

"The village is crazy -- I'm the center of attention and it's not always good. Like there's preconceived notions of who I am and I don't exactly know what they are. I guess all I should do is smile and be comfortable."

"Charan says we are celebrities in this town. I should dress in Indian clothes...The first temple we went to [in the village] was the Sai Baba -- very new and bright. All eyes on me the whole time. I don't know who Sai Baba is -- some saint "who did good things for the people." I made the left hand mistake with the priest, accepting the offering of coconut oil...I heard a gasp from everyone in the temple."

"I keep making these cultural mistakes and I don't know how forgiving people are of them. I was definitely the center of attention [at the harvest festival in the village]. Everyone (especially kids) was staring at me. I made the mistake of approaching the kids after taking their pictures and showing them on my digital camera. Very quickly, I was mobbed and couldn't get away. One of the relatives came and had to rescue me with his tractor. After climbing in and getting above the crowd, I was driven to the other side of the field. All the kids followed us and stood about 2 feet away from me, every once in a while a shy kid in broken English would ask 'What is your good name, sir?' One kid asked me for my autograph. Later that day, I was told by Charan that I probably shouldn't go to the dance presentation, he cited 'security concerns.' "

"The poverty and ill health at Chipadu was astounding.Yet the curiosity and eventually generosity of everyone shines through. At the church I ponder what an incredibly spiritual place this place is and how utterly spiritually dead the USA is. This is why we have so much misery, illness, and crime and why we export it to the rest of the world."

"Q: Why do they have police at all of the traffic lights?
A: Because if they didn't, no one would obey the traffic lights."

"The crowds got thicker, the pushing got harder, and all I could think of was what a powerful, scary force religious zealotry is. These people believed they were in the actual physical presence of God and were freaking out! We only saw the statue of God for a few seconds."

"I love the fact that you hear a lot of ambient music everywhere here. Either the call to prayer from the mosque, some Rajasthani cultural program down the street, the bagpipers @ the Lake Palace, or random drunk Indian guys."

Will post more later from India, hopefully.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

New Year's Resolutions

Ok, so I have decided to run a marathon. This is a plan I actually concocted 2 months ago, but since I have managed to stick with the training program, I guess I will make it an official resolution now. Matt and Ben are going to do this with me, you can check our progress here.

I got inspired by my sister really, who not only completed the 2007 San Francisco Women's Marathon, but managed to raise a couple thousand dollars for leukemia research in the process. My sister and I both were never really very gifted athletes, both of us grew up slightly chubby in typical American style and both of us realized the benefits of exercise somewhat later in life. So if she can do it, I can do it. I have also received regular encouragement by participating in the Metafilter monthly running challenges.

I have always enjoyed running short distances. It's a fairly efficient work out for someone who doesn't have a lot of free time and it allows me to listen to loud punk rock music without anyone interrupting me. But I have never attempted longer distances, probably my longest previous run is about 4 miles. After two months of training though, I completed 9 miles yesterday, no stopping, no serious injuries (unlike Ben). It is so amazing to me that somehow I was able to actually do this. I never imagined it possible and I still have doubts that I will be able to stick with this without something getting in the way.

So assuming no injuries, we'll be running the 2008 Vancouver Marathon in May.