Tuesday, September 30, 2008

wow, they voted it down

Here are some pieces I liked on the crisis, bailout, and future path of the financial system:

-- Great guidelines for whatever emerges (and beyond): Jamie Galbraith and William Black in The Nation, "Trust But Verify."

-- Worthwhile read by Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post on the financial spiral.

-- on the failure of traditional economics: "Bankrupt Economics" by Robert Samuelson

I do expect more banks -- around the world -- to fail. While those with deposit insurance should be better off, emotions may be so frazzled that even it won't calm enough folks down everyone.

The US does appear to have joined the Third World. I don't understand how the "flight to quality" still leads to US govt obligations though.

Monday, September 29, 2008

India Isn't Shining

This is the view down the street from our house. You can see a new housing development (this one called "Long Island", and in front the housing for the workers. This is actually better than much of the housing for construction workers. I'm curious to see what happens when the building project is completed.

Many articles lately talking about how the benefits of India's boom haven't reached the vast majority of the Indian population. The Asian edition of Newsweek (Sept 22, 2008) had a picture of Prime Minister Singh, with the title "India Isn't Shining." This is a play on the "India Is Shining" theme the Indian government has used in international fora to promote the nation and its recent successes. It talks about India has not taken advantage of several once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, that reforms have stalled, and puts the blame on the Prime Minister.

Today there is a great -- if depressing -- article from the BBC on the lack of progress for the vast majority of Indians despite the boom. It cites an Indian government report that 863 million live on less than 20 rupees -- about 50 cents -- a day. Think about that. It is staggering. My only complaint with the article is that shows a picture of an apartment building in Mumbai with a label about slums that I wouldn't classify as a slum. Minor point.

Sometimes it seems like no one here is willing to listen to this kind of criticism, that they are intoxicated by the flip side -- the enormous wealth creation and boom in the upper and middle classes, which really is remarkable as well. But increasingly it is hard to ignore the inequity -- what with the Nano controversy, the hacking to death of a manager of an Italian owned firm outside Delhi by laid off workers, and the recent vote against establishment of an SEZ (Special Economic Zone) near Mumbai (I think). Today's Hindu had a nice piece talking about the need to address broader social issues when thinking about SEZs, as well as the perils of following the advice of the West without reflection.

I'm sure I will write about this many many more times. Without more attention to basic education and shared growth India will burn rather than shine.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Some pictures from around town

Amartya playing at school:

Here are some pictures from around town:
This is the wall of an overpass -- that I call the Argentine overpass because of the way that the wall is painted like the Argentine flag -- that is near the Bangalore Baptist Hospital on Bellary Road.
A broader image of the overpass. The banners flying above are BJP banners put up for a visit by party leaders last week. You can also see (although not very well) the TINY entry ways and tunnels for the cars. They are constructed as a single lane for cars, not big enough for a small truck. Where are the trucks or buses supposed to go?
Along one of the new highways we see lots of Reliance signs that are lit up at night (I wonder how?). They are everywhere. However, direction signage is much harder to find. Of course, even if there were good signage, you still might have folks making right turns from the furthermost left hand line I suppose.

Newly paved road. This happened overnight right before the BJP Leadership meeting here. This area is a bus stop, with a similar area on the other side of the highway, but no way for the people to get across safely.
In order to keep drivers from using the access roads, these new barriers are being placed along the road. Here the access road is actually is fairly good shape, and as broad as it is everywhere.

A sign of the times

The new India: Plus size stores. Progress?

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dizzy from so much to think about

So many things to comment on, so this will probably be lots of short comments, and even more disjointed that usual.

-- The collapse of the bailout package. That doesn't strike me as so bad, as it's not clear that what is being proposed is so good, but the politics around it, and the idea of folks screaming at each other at the White House, is pretty amazing. I loved Paul Krugman's op-ed today in the New York Times with the unbelievably accurate title "Where Are the Grown-Ups? I liked Jamie Galbraith's "A Bailout We Don't Need" in yesterday's Post makes some good suggestions, although I disagree with him on his point that regular banks' loans are illiquid but not worthless. Yes, loans on the books used to be illiquid but not worthless, but the problem here is that we know that the assets are certainly worth less than their book value. More frighteningly, we don't have a clue about all the risk out there, and what the assets are worth, except that we know (1) the assets and all the derivatives derived from them are worth less than book value now and for the foreseeable future, and (2) individuals who are in pain as a result of the burden in terms of their mortgages seem to be ignored, and banks don't seem to be writing down those assets. Okay, so maybe that is similar to past payment problems as Jamie argues. Another good piece is Steven Pearlstein's "Gut Check" which argues that we either can teach Wall street a lesson or try to prevent a financial meltdown, but not both at the same time. Washington Mutual's failure is another domino, although not totally surprising. It really does make me dizzy.

-- But then we have the circus about whether there will really be a presidential debate or not. Can this really be happening? Maybe if McCain were showing true leadership, but yesterday it seemed like things just got worse and worse. I can't see how McCain can't show up though.

-- On a dramatically lighter note (at least to me, if not to J.K. Rowling), the Delhi High Court ruled that the "Hari Puttar" does not infringe on the rights of "Harry Potter". International IPR fights seem light now given the financial crisis all around us.

-- The International Herald Tribune has an interesting article today by Anand Giridharadas entitled "A feminist Revolution without the liberation"

More articles to point to on views of the financial crisis and the US election from here in India, hopefully later or tomorrow.

One more point on US government debt

Okay, so US govt debt rates are really low, which would seem to imply low risk, but is that really the long run reality? However, yes, I'm aware that rates are amazingly low, making USG debt cheap cheap cheap. I just don't think those rates are sustainable for the long run, although it is clear right now that the Fed will pump as much money into the markets as they need to stay liquid in the short run. At some point, though, the holders of our debt, especially in light of a depreciating currency, are going to ask for a return, don't you think? Or is my brain so warped by looking at what has happened over and over again in Latin America. Next on to more on India.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What's the risk-free asset now?

I think that part of the terror in financial markets right now is that the system has lost its bearings: if everything is priced off US govt debt as the "risk-free" rate, and that debt suddenly takes on risk (which seems reasonable when you think of $1 trillion rescue that needs to be financed on top of the endless war), what is the appropriate risk-free anchor in the world?

Time to cry for America

Now I'm worried. President Bush gets on television, and instead of inspiring confidence, makes one panic. I would expect long lines outside of banks tomorrow, or at least folks on-line transferring money around like crazy. Not the big guys, but the normal people whose money probably falls well within FDIC guarantees but who are spooked by the whole panic, and will feel even less secure now than before the President's talk. I thought that the Northern Rock (I think that was its name) failure in the UK last year) was abnormal, with the pictures of Brits standing in line to take their money out -- not the norm, as that's something you expect to see in Argentina, or Mexico -- but we probably will see pictures like that tomorrow (Thursday) too, this time in the US. What a sad state of affairs.

And Mr. McCain wants to postpone the debate because of the crisis. Huh? Isn't this what being a leader is all about -- thinking about crisis, coming to a position, discussing it? When you are the President, you can't tell the terrorists, or the Russians, or the Chinese, or the Mexicans, or even the Canadians, "hang on a bit, we need to take a breather here. We're not ready." This kind of behavior makes me want to cry. What happened to America the superpower? We don't even seem like a mini-power at this point.

(There seems to be some problem with the timing of my postings, it is around 11 p.m. eastern time in the US as I write this)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Great map

In a break from financial turmoil and dizzying economic change, here's something fun: a great map showing the economic output of the states of the US in terms of other countries, for example, New York's output is equivalent to that of Brazil, or California's France, or Alaska is Belarus.

Churches attacked in Karnataka

Lately there have been attacks on Catholic churches -- always referred to as Christian, not Catholic -- in the Northern state of Orissa, and now here in Karnataka, the state in which Bangalore is located, and Kerala. The Christians blame Hindu fundamentalist activists who feel that under a BJP (the ruling party here, with a Hindu fundamentalist tinge) government, there will be no punishment in such cases. Some reports say that police have been nearby and even watching during the attacks. I don't know what the real story is, but it does seem odd that such attacks seem more prevalent when the BJP is in power. Some policemen were quoted as saying this was just a theft of gold, but in addition to throwing stones at statues and stealing gold, the Eucharist was taken and thrown all over the floor. That seems more like a religious hate crime than mere theft.

While reading the newspaper, I was struck by other religion-related news: two groups of Hindus fought with each other because each was disturbing the other during their rituals, of course the background on the bombers in the Delhi bombings of last week, and then, sadly, the death of a few women in a stampede here in Bangalore to get rations (food, clothes) which a wealthy family had donated as part of Ramadan (here called Ramzan).

Goldman and Morgan Stanley as BHCs

I haven't seen the details, only the news flashes, but I interpret Goldman and Morgan Stanley's conversions to bank holding companies (BHCs) as a signal of their need for funds to continue, so that they don't meet the fate of Lehman. Conversion to BHCs opens up Fed facilities to them, as well as bringing them into the bank regulatory scheme. Now let's see what the regulators do with them!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Interviewing at the Indian Institute of Science

I spent most of Thursday interviewing job candidates at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science (IISc). The dynamics were completely different than interview dynamics in the US, and some of the rules of the interviews help me understand why there is such job churn and turnover.

The organization with jobs to offer pays a fee to reserve a day for interviews. The placement office collects resumes from interested candidates, and provides a list of their names, majors, and GPAs, along with the stack of resumes.  The organization makes a presentation with a question and answer session. At this point, or even before the presentation, some firms will give the candidates a test.  And then the candidates mill around and wait to be called for interviews. It's not clear who is supposed to make the interview schedule, as you don't really know who will show up or not. In our case, we had 28 candidates on our list, about 18 or so attended our info session, immediately afterwards we had only 5 that were interested in talking to us (!) but by the end of the day we had interviewed about 20 candidates. However, at least 7 or 8 or them had not attended our session, nor were on our list of pre-candidates.   The oddest part of the process for me is that the rules of IISc recruiting is that you need to make the offers at the end of the day, and let the selected candidates know what their compensation package will be.  No call backs, no "let's see how the candidate blends in with the other personalities." Once a candidate receives (and presumably accepts) an offer, then they exit the pool of candidates.

Some things about these rules seem fair -- you avoid everyone chasing a few (generally the best)  candidates that you get in US schools, you help everyone get allocated through the process -- but it seems like a rushed process which leads to suboptimal matching. No wonder there is such turnover in the formal job market, there is insufficient time for exploration and matching of skills, interest, and approach -- on both sides.

Perhaps we had a batch of unrepresentative students, with all the stars already taken, but no one asked us a substantive question, no one appeared to have visited our web site before to get a better sense of who we were, no even even asked if we worked on Saturdays! 

Friday, September 19, 2008

"the end of capitalism in the US" ????

Watching Treasury Secretary Paulson was far more reassuring that listing to Pres. Bush. The BBC, on which I watch international events here in India, said we perhaps were seeing the end of pure capitalism in the US. Well, we haven't have pure capitalism in the US for a very long time. But this certainly is a big step in the other direction. To watch Mr. Bush decry partisanship when he has invoked it repeatedly, and to watch him say that the government needs to intervene, makes me wonder if we have been catapulted to a parallel universe, and the answer is that yes, we have. I was fairly calm about all of this until this morning -- somehow hearing about the ban on short selling of financial stocks as well as the guarantees on money market funds shocked me out of complacency.

Some of you probably don't know that I have been teaching a course on International Banking for almost 15 years. In it, we regularly talk about the silly structure of US financial regulation (both before and after Financial Modernization that repealed Glass Steagal) and how the rapid movement of capital around the world makes any kind of national regulation less effective. In the past few days I've gotten lots of emails from former students talking about discussions from our class over the years, which is tremendously gratifying. Unfortunately, this is a hard problem to solve both economically and especially politically.

Paying for all of this will be yet another of the sad legacies of this Administration. But I think that they probably did need to propose this kind of massive intervention. Now that I am an old person, I actually have lived through (and, in some cases, worked on) several of these financial crises and bail-outs. I was also out of the US (that time in Mexico) for much of the discussion on the Savings and Loan bailout, but I was working in banking during the first Latin American debt crisis, working at the State Department during the Mexican peso crisis, and working at a small firm providing analysis to the financial services industry during the Asian crisis, and one does see certain parallels. But each time, as soon as the crisis passes and the next boom occurs, the need for substantial reform seems to recede. Several times now we have heard about how the credit rating agencies either were villains (or, in rare cases, saviors); how regulators have been asleep yet are expected to be the saviors; how you need an overwhelming response (which I actually believe) in order to prevent a panic; how capital markets are far more important to "save" than anything in the "real" economy; and how the end of world is near. As mentioned in a previous post, I hope that we are least able to use some forensic accounting to figure out what happened, but we clearly need to find a better way to align the life of rewards and payments. If we can do that, hopefully the financial sector will return to its important yet not inflated role in the economy, and allow other sectors to attract (and reward) talented people who are producing things for the good of society.

I'm looking forward to seeing the details of this rescue plan. And yes, you'll get more comments on my Chennai trip some time soon, although I probably will write about my fascinating day interviewing job candidates at the prestigious Indian Institute of Science.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Failure Tax?

The idea of compulsory insurance for catastrophic risk in the financial system, as outlined in a piece by Jonathan G.S. Koppell seems like an idea worth investigating, pronto! Too many (actually any) too-big-to-fail firms would/do cause far too many resources that should be strengthening our health, education, and infrastructure systems; this would be a way to make the financial services sector absorb some of those costs. I'll be on the lookout for more of these ideas, any of you that have any, let me know!

The NYTimes covers the Nano land controversy

Good New York Times article on Sept 17 with an impressive picture about counterprotests in Bengal, in support of the Nano project.

On the land issue, I think that one way to help might be to let the farmers share in the benefits of the growth on their former land. Why can't they give the farmers shares in the firm as well as some money?

The harder issue is how to prepare Indians for the new economy, as the existing system is doing a bad job of it for the majority outside the tiny slice that is actually part of the globalized economy. This issue of education here is one to which I will return over and over I think. Tomorrow I'm going to the Indian Institute of Science, one of India's premier universities, to interview job candidates. Should be interesting.

Various levels of playing "chicken" - financial crisis, driving in India, engaging in any economic trasnaction here

For those of you who aren't American, playing "chicken" (at least one variant of it) involves two cars driving at each other from a distance, and the chicken is the person who veers out of the way not to crash first. It is terrifying (I suppose, I am far too "chicken" to even consider watching it, let alone playing it), but it presumes that self-preservation will win out in the end and a crash will be avoided. Driving in India is a constant game of chicken, and it appears that engaging in many economic activities here is as well. But at the global level, we seem to be seeing this in financial markets around the world, centered around the game on Wall Street. There the question seems to be how the Chinese (specifically those entities managing their huge fx reserves) will react. Other Asian sovereign wealth funds are also relevant, but the overwhelming size of the Chinese funds makes the rest look small (even if we are talking about hundreds of billions of US$).

On the AIG nationalization, wow, who ever would have thought that would happen, even under the clueless Bush govt. I don't think that nationalization is so bad, benefiting from profits as well as losses, instead of the losing one sided proposition of recent reality where profits are private and losses are socialized, BUT I certainly hope that this is accompanied by a few things:
-- a serious look at the books to figure out what happened and who was responsible (maybe going after some of them to get back some money?,) -- something that needs to happen across the board;
-- a serious revamping of financial regulation. I think we need something like the UK's FSA, so that we don't have the OCC fighting with the Fed's regulators fighting with the state bank regulators fighting with state insurance regulators fighting with the SEC and on and on. However, we should learn from the FSA experience and clarify the Treasury-Fed-regulator relationship. But certainly someone in Washington needs to revamp insurance regulation, which is a mismash of state regulation as part of this.
-- more transparency on capital market transactions all around, on compensation, and some sort of deferred compensation that is tied to the life of an instrument, not just to its creation and sale.
-- a rethink (really hard) of how not only to regulate, but also capture the financial state in terms of accounting when markets are moving so fast. Mark to market makes sense sometimes, but how do we reconcile this with such volatility?

I need to think more and harder about this, but want to get this up before it is all too old news.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Watching Wall Street from afar

I can't say that I'm sad about the collapse of Lehman, not so much because I don't like Lehman (actually, one of my favorite ex-students works (maybe now it is worked?) there), but because I think that the financial sector needs to fall flat on its face to get asset values -- and payment packages -- closer to reality. The financial sector has distorted so much of the rest of the economy -- through inflated asset values, lack of transparency in derivative exposure, pay packages so out of line that all kinds of talent that could be (and needs to be) applied to other areas goes off to it -- that no rescue package seems to me to the right policy. The bad part, however, is that the rest of the economy will be socked by it, and many of the folks who got all that money for all those years are long gone. Some of them will lose in the current crash, and that is how it should be. This would be a fun time to be teaching my Banking class. I will draw on a quotation from Allen Meltzer, not my favorite economist, generally " Capitalism without failures is like religion without sin. It does not work."

The view here seems to be a grave concern about a slowdown in the US economy and the effect of fewer contracts from the financial services industry for the service export industry here. I think that one thing that is overlooked is the effect of lower oil prices leading to fewer flows from the Gulf, and a slowdown there's effects on the Indian economy.

The happenings in the financial sector certainly merit more analysis, but I'm just too tired to write more now, or even link to insightful analysts elsewhere. Hopefully tomorrow.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Bombs in Delhi

Saturday night in India. A bunch of bombs in Delhi. Most of them seemed fairly low tech, placed in small garbage cans. 20 are dead so far, more are expected. More scarily, many bombs were found that hadn't gone off.

We are fine, and far away from Delhi. But Sub was across the street from one bombing here in Bangalore a few years ago. And remember, we moved from Washington, one of the biggest terrorist targets in the world.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Trip to Chennai, part 2

Here are some pictures from our trip, with just a little commentary.
Barely out of Bangalore, we stopped at this bakery for a snack.
While all the fruit enticed me, Sub didn't think the place was clean enough to have a juice. That happens far too often.

Our trip was made longer because we got a flat tire.
Amartya, of course, wanted to help.
This could be Mexico, don't you think? Until we pan over and see the signs and the temple.

Odd geological formations, we'll have to learn about the region more. This is just into Tamil Nadu, outside of Hosur.
One of the amazing things was to see rest stops along the highway, with relatively clean toilets (both of the Turkish and Western styles), a dramatic change from only a few years ago, where the bathroom was likely a field in back of a shack.
And the snack bar is labeled in Tamil, Hindi (quite a step forward in a state known for its Hindi-hostility), and English. The food was okay, a bit spicy for me, but served on a banana leaf on top of a plate.Just as surprising, and pleasant was the view across the way: wind turbines being transported. There is a big plant outside Chennai.

I missed the good photo op here of the guy with his herd of goats, but at least you get a sense of the size of these blades here.
Here's more of the kind of scene one expects to see in South India: an elaborate Hindu temple, with colors that wake you up.In the South, one also increasingly (?) sees the influence of the Gulf, and the money from it. Here's a shot of an eatery right outside of Chennai. Note the mosque on the side. Apparently this is a chain in Oman, now spreading to India. Outside of Chennai, which is becoming the center of the auto industry for India, earning it the nickname of the "Detroit of India," there are some huge factories. Their products (i.e., cars) need to be transported, and below you can see some of the trucks used to do so. These trucks line the highway for miles and miles. There seem to be inadequate parking/storage spaces for them.
I also worry about their stability. Look at the little wheels. Okay, I wanted to get these up quickly. More reflections on the trip will follow this weekend if I find time. So much to say!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

September 11

Remembering that day and feeling very sad -- for what happened that day, and so many things that have followed. Roger Cohen has a piece entitled "In the Seventh Year" in today's New York Times which captures my feelings, written in a style out of the Bible, talking about the seven years since that day and the actions and attitudes which have dominated since, ending on this sober note: "And it become plain at last what had been wrought -- but not how the damage would be undone." I wonder if everyone really does realize what has been wrought. It's sure easy to see it from this side of the world.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Road trip to Chennai, part 1

No writing for the last few days because we took our first road trip of our stay -- driving to and from Chennai, allowing us to see a bit of rural Karnataka (not much) and Tamil Nadu. Many things to say on all fronts here, from news that occurred while we were there (the NSG waiver for India) to why we went (Sub's grandmother died, so we went for the 13-th day rituals) to observations along the way (rural Tamil Nadu looking like it is benefiting from the boom, lots of Catholic churches and Islamic mosques and connected schools to both). I'll try to tackle several of them today. This posting will address the first two, later today I'll try to post comments on the trip itself and what we saw, which was really interesting.

First, on the news front. Saturday was full of special programs on Indian television about the "Indian victory" in obtaining a waiver from the Nuclear Suppliers' Group to be able to engage, legally, in nuclear-related technology trade. The headlines included things like: “End of Nuclear Apartheid”, “nuclear isolation ends”, “victory in Vienna”, “Nuclear gold for India”. For those who don't follow this (like me, generally), India is now the only country that hasn’t signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) who has this right. This is a huge deal here, with loud voices on both sides. There are many many articles one can read on this that can be easily found. In general the critics argue that the negotiation within India wasn’t done by consensus, and has been highly divisive; that many assurances given by the Indian government don't seem to be correct, or at least conflict with statements by the US government; and perhaps most seriously, that the deal is bad because it crimps India's strategic ability and limits its foreign policy options, compromising India's sovereignty. Both right and left disagree with the deal. Why are folks positive about it? They argue that it allows India access not only to advanced nuclear technology, but also other dual-use technology that had been limited before; that it formally brings India into the nuclear club and negotiating table; and that it (along with the accompanying 123 argreement still to be ratified by the US) heralds closer US-Indian relations -- itself one of the negatives cited the critics too. I'm not a non-proliferation expert, but I certainly see the risks of the NSG and the US saying okay to India while harassing others. On the other hand, any kind of power, including nuclear, is so important for India to develop given the constant shortfalls, that bringing more of this trade out into the open, as opposed to under the table where I have to believe it was taking place, is probably positive. Again, I'm sure I will have more thoughts on this going forward.

Next, the family stuff. We were in Chennai to attend the 13-day ceremony after Sub’s 96-year old-grandmother’s death. She was the first person in Sub’s family that I met, as she came to visit him in Pgh in the early 80s before I met his parents, and before I came to India. She was a tough lady, who had lived a extremely privileged and luxurious life in some stages, and a difficult life in others. She lived under Japanese occupation in Malaya, where her husband had been invited by the Sultan of Johor to build the causeway across the Strats, along with many of her children. My mother-in-law, however, had been left here in India with her grandparents, and the war cut off information as well as people flows between the two regions – both then part of the British empire. Her life would be a great movie – born into lots of money, living the high life as part of an earlier Indian migration of a skilled emigrant than now, hiding in the jungle from the Japanese, saved by virture of the fact that the Japanese needed to use her husband's engineering skills for themselves, living well again, but then returning to India after independence and losing much of the money. She was used to having her own way, and imposed her will upon her children throughout their lives. She had been in a vegetative state for the last 7 years or so, so her death is not as sad as it might be otherwise.

Treatment of widows in India varies greatly, and has changed a great deal over the years. She wore white saris after her husband died, but I don’t think considered the much older tradition of sati (where the wife threw herself, or was pushed, onto her husband's funeral pyre). The movie Water tells one story, and I heard lots of stories about how widows are not allowed to eat food other than rice, not allowed to go out, and basically not allowed to live. This puts my interpretation of my father-in-law's 1000 moons ceremony, where my mother-in-law wore clothes similar to those of a bride, as it was her good fortune to have a husband who survived this long, in perspective. Anyway, as usual, there seemed to be many interpretations of the "correct" way of doing things and living. This many interpretations approach extended to the answers I got when I asked about a lot of the rituals that were occuring around us.

The day after she died, her body was burned, with the electronic pyre lit by her son. For the next 10 days, what he and the family could and could not do was determined by tradition that no one seemed to be sure of, other than the parade of priests who would show up on their motorbikes (see photo below).

Most of the burden seemed to fall on the son, who couldn't eat certain things (or at all some days), and who had to sit with the priests and listen to the chants and prayers. I didn't see this, but supposedly one priest is supposed to be the one housing the dead woman's spirit, and he eats a ball of plain rice with nothing to drink everyday for 9 days. Then on the 10th day (or maybe 11th), the ball of rice doesn't even have salt, as salt is what binds us to the earth (is it?) . Needless to say, someone else is doing the cooking related to the priests. After the rice with no salt, some necessities -- ghee, honey, rice, and a few other things -- are wrapped in one of the dead woman's favorite saris to accompany her soul to the other world and put in the sea. Somewhere along the line her ashes are put in the sea too. This is where folks go to Banares, especially in the north, but I don't know where they go here -- the really polluted Adyar River, or the really rough Bay of Bengal that is at the end of the street? -- but getting these things into water seems crucial. Then on the 13th day, the priests purify the entire family, as well as new clothes, and the family is allowed to end the serious mourning period and recommence life. When one prays in this community, you pray to three generations before you, and on the 12th-13th day, the dead person becomes part of the past generation, not the present. First fire and incense are lit. Then water is poured over the principal mourner (the son in this case, see photo), and then sprinkled on the rest of the family. Close family members pay their respects to the main mourner and receive new clothes.
As part of any Indian ceremony, there is a namaskar (sorry if I'm butchering the language), or bowing at the feet, of the someone important/older. After such a salute, a new set of clothes is given, here symbolizing life moving on after death.

Here you can see Sub's uncle bearing the marks of the ceremony, in his traditional garb, including the thread. I wanted to take more pictures of the ceremonies themselves, but (in a very Western way) felt like it would have been disrespectful.

Afterwards, everyone eats, with food similar to that served at a wedding (see the photos). I'm sure I've missed important parts of this, and grossly misinterpreted others, but I didn't get the same story twice when asking for explanations, and most folks said they didn't know exactly what everything meant anyway.

Buckets of food, waiting to be served. The extended family (not even so extended) attended -- about 75 or 80 people).
You need to be sure to have enough rice for South Indians. Most of this huge bucket actually got eaten!
The living room of the house in normal times.

The living room converted to an eatery. Note the banana leaf plates.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Ganesha Chaturthi

No school for a day, and other things seem to be closed for several days. It is a Hindu holiday Ganesha Chaturthi when folks set up Ganeseha altars (as seen below), and then later submerge the statue (called an idol) in water. Special food is prepared and shared, including some yummy coconut and jaggery (like Mexican piloncillo I think it was called) goodies.

This was more elaborate and surrounded by people last night. You will see the banana leaves, a key part of all pooja installations. These are a lot easier to get here than at the temple in Pittsburgh or Washington! Below we zoom in a bit closer. While these seem fairly elaborate to me, this is nothing compared to some of the bigger installations I've seen around town at both formal temples and impromptu sites. Turning to another major religion here, we are now a few days into Ramadan. Driving through some predominantly Muslim areas at mid-day is certainly easier now. You can really tell the difference.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Efficiency in India - a case study

Here's an article (in Portuguese) from the Brazilian magazine Exame about the dabbawallas of Mumbai, one of the great examples of Indian efficiency. These 5000 guys pick up and deliver hot lunches to 200,000 people working around the entire city of Mumbai, a huge metropolis. They are used as a case study at Harvard (and then, by extension, at other business schools around the world). I wonder if they are taught as a case here. There certainly is a lot to learn from them about succeeding in this chaotic and seriously resource-constrained environment.

One of the things I'm on the lookout for is any article about India in Latin America or anything about Latin America here. Any and all suggestions are welcome, as right now I have a hit or miss technique -- some browsing, some Google alerts, but a lot comes down to chance.

Buying farm land abroad

The Economic Times has a front page article today "Govt, India Inc plan to farm land abroad: To buy huge tracts in South America, Myanmar & Africa to grow crops that'll be shipped to India".
A few comments:
-- the on-line version has a different title, and far more information than in the print edition (what one would expect, a bit, but a big disincentive to read the print edition for me);
-- India should expect to hear some requests for reciprocity in terms of land ownership and import/export of foodstuffs given that it is quite restrictive in those areas right now. It also should expect to see a lot of debate about export taxes in these countries (especially Argentina and Paraguay).

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Vogue in/on India

The New York Times article (in Sept 1's Business section) on the criticism of a Vogue photoshoot placing luxury goods next to extremely poor folks, or showing them using them is worth a read to get a sense of the contrasts of modern India today. The comment that folks are showing off their wealth rings especially true, as we are surrounded by lots of people who seem to be doing things for show much more than for need. This will be a common theme throughout our stay here, I'm quite sure, as it is so striking.