The Hindu, 14 July 2013. The Ministry of Telecommunications will disconnect telegram services from Monday.

“For decades, they delivered news to people across the country. But with the advent of technology and newer means of telecommunication, they will be edged out in a couple of days as the Ministry of Telecommunications has decided to disconnect telegram services from July 15.”

The end of the telegraph service. The end of one more era that resonates in my memory as part of my growing up, and as part of my family and an older generation.

The telegram was always part of my childhood. It signaled big events and brought joy or grief to our family. But the nature of the telegram was to anticipate bad news since the telegram more often brought news of the passing away of a relative. Whenever the postman shouted “telegram” at our front door, especially if it was late in the evening, there was always a feeling of dread. My father would always be the first to rush out and he would even ask the postman what the news was before signing for the telegram, to reassure himself that it wasn’t bad news. Then the postman would curve open the telegram to peek inside, and tell us it was not anything dreadful.

When my father passed away, I took the task of going to the Mylapore telegraph office and sending telegrams to inform my sisters and others. It was one of the most heart wrenching moments of my life. Until then, occupied with a number of tasks that morning like visiting my close relatives, informing the parish priest, etc. I had been composed, my grief quite well-hidden among the funeral chores. But as I stood at the telegraph counter and wrote up the forms for sending the telegrams, I could not help but break down. The realization that my father was no more with us finally hit me when I wrote the message of his passing away and the addresses of those in my family and handed them across the counter, as grief along with a thousand memories passed through me.

The telegram was a part of my summer holidays especially those I spent away from Chennai (or Madras as it was still then called). My eldest brother-in-law J. John Vincent worked in the telegraph office in Palani. During my summer holidays, ‘Vincent Mama’, as we used to call him, would come to Madras to accompany me (and also sometimes my other elder sister) back to Palani to stay for a few weeks with my  sister’s family. Some evenings, after about dinner at nine, mama would head to his office for the night shift, his house being located very conveniently right across the street from his office. Often I would walk with him, as he prepared his “vethalae-pakku” (betel leaf and areca nuts) and then lit a post-dinner cigarette.

I would sit with him in the telegraph office, with the rest of the building dark and quiet, as the two telegraph rooms were the only one open at that time of the evening. He would take forms from people and send telegrams, tapping on the morse key. He would joke to me, “ta, tada, tada da, …” imitating the dot, dash, dot, stutter of the morse keys. I was impressed when he explained how he had memorized all the different words in morse code. Often people would tell him in Tamil the news they wished to send. He not only needed to translate but brevity was all important: he had to string together the fewest words possible as every word cost the person money.

When things were quiet, and most nights they were, we would adjourn to a nearby room with a carrom board, and he and his colleague would smoke and play carrom and which I occasionally was asked to join as well.

Vincent Mama passed away some years ago, the result of too many years of smoking “wills plain” cigarettes, the non-filtered strong-smelling cigarette that he loved. He passed away almost as soon as he retired, leaving my sister in a great deal of shock as they both had plans to do many things together including travelling once he had retired.

Those long summer evenings of my school days are filled with memories of the telegraph office where he worked, where I would sit and watch, fascinated by not just the machine and its morse code, but also the people who came to send telegrams.

Vincent Mama’s birthday was on 19 July, in just a few days from today when India is shutting down its telegraph services. Its fittingly so, as we always remember Mama and his work in the post and telegraph services (often saying proudly that he had  a “central government” job), and helped people to send their family news through the telegram.

Ta, tada, ta da da.

Thailand’s floods … aftermath

The floods are over. We have lived through Thailand’s worst floods in almost half a century. All of Oct and Nov we waited tensely for the floods to descend on our home on Bangkok. We bought and stocked up on provisions, moved things to the 2nd floor, sealed the house and moved to Rawin’s grandparents on 22 Oct. A few days later, the floods peaked and hit the outlying areas of Bangkok. In Nov, our house and surrounding areas were considered at risk.

After weeks of tense waiting, by mid-November, the waters finally came around and flooded the nearby roads and some of the streets of our house in Bangkok. It was perversely a relief to know that the waters were finally all around us. Our house remained dry. We have been more fortunate than most people in central Thailand and Bangkok. We are totally grateful for this.

Now the floodwaters have finally decreased in many areas and people have been returning to their homes and fields to assess and repair the damage and try to return their lives to some semblance of normalcy.

Now, a look at what happened. Granted Bangkok and most of the central Thailand provinces that form a large floodplain do receive northern run-offs every year. As an ecological activist pointed out recently in a detailed presentation in Chiang Mai, floods happen every year. A number of provinces in the lower north and central Thailand suffer damage to crops, orchards and rice fields as well as homes and property. On occasion, some people are also swept away by fast-flowing rivers and lives are lost. And every year, the government doles out compensation to farmers and families. And life goes on … until the next year’s floods.

So in 2011 what was different? At least three major factors. One, the sheer volume of water was a lot higher than in the previous years. Two, this was because of a lot more rain: the 2nd monsoon rains usually lasts for several weeks in July/Aug but this year continued all throughout Sept aided by a couple of tropical storms. Last, the large volume of water did not all come from the rains, but 4 dams in the lower northern region stored then released their “excess storage” water around the same time that the northern run-off was reaching the central plains.

In a rare moment of political candour, the Agriculture Minister admitted that he had ordered the dams in the lower north to store water despite being in “excess” of capacity for irrigating rice fields in the central plains. When the rains did not stop, the 4 dams were forced to release a large volume of water suddenly and very late in Sept, rather than releasing smaller volumes starting from Aug, making the entire situation far worse than it could have been.

Then when the flood situation worsened, there came the complete and gross mismanagement of the disaster relief operations mainly featuring misleading information (and cover-up of the extent of flooding) and administrative quarrels and cock-ups.

Infighting among bureaucracies, and between the ruling Pheu Thai Party government’s Ministers and the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (headed by an elected Governor from the opposition Democrat Party) – Petty quarrels continued on whether a letter had reached the relevant minister’s office or not, or about borders and administrative jurisdictions.

The lack of up-to-date information on the volume and timing of the flood waters and what often seemed to be a “people will cope with it as best as they can” attitude – Sometimes communities were assured they were completely safe, then suddenly given orders to “evacuate within 2-3 hours”.

Misleading official proclamations (more often soundbites) that only made situations worse – For instance the Science and Technology Minister Plodprasop Surasawadi (who gave us the infamous Night Safari and the Salween timber logging scandals) telling a press conference not to worry, he will use 1,000 speedboats to propel the floods into the sea through the Chao Phraya River.

But then at least he was around albeit either being really useless or at best providing tragi-comic relief. But some other politicians went completely missing from the action not giving a rat’s arse whether the rest of the country was drowning or not. Most notable was deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubumrung (he later popped up along with a secret decree to sneak the fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra back to Thailand), who disappeared from the public eye for almost the entire month of October when the flood disaster was at its peak.

Flood relief was not always reaching everywhere and everyone on time, leaving large areas of people waiting and waiting – Many supply trucks were hastily covered in banners and signs by opportunistic politicians more interested in advertising their names and getting political mileage out of relief efforts.

Among these watery ruins, bickering and political delinquency, the newly elected Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra ran around in boats and helicopters, giving out relief packages, holding meetings and trying to secure some vestige of leadership but often giving the impression of someone not fully able to cope.

But there were also some very good things. The Thai media has been doing a great job, especially television, taking up the slack and providing updated information and analysis. Many TV reporters went everywhere, working from 6 am to midnight, getting interviews, doing analysis back at the studio, providing maps and data, taking calls from people who were stranded without food or water, and TV channels even rushing their own relief supplies to many areas. Many newspaper reporters wrote heart-wrenching stories about farmers and communities, and a few even about their own experiences in evacuating from their flooded home.

And of course, many newspaper cartoonists had a great time.

For once, the Thai army was a big help to people rather than relying on its usual method of staging coups or shooting civilians. The army’s large cadre of young soldiers often waded neck-deep in waters pulling and pushing boatloads of people, distributing supplies using trucks and helicopters and providing technical know-how in building sandbag barriers.

Then there were the hundreds of people helping each other, friends and neighbours and students and many others who took boats and distributed food and water or volunteered to put up sandbags or repair flood barriers through the night.

So what happens now? The clean-up after the flood waters has begun.

And the clean-up in terms of governance and accountability? Well, a few things that could take place (in a perfect world probably) where decision-makers would show or take accountability for their mistakes, lessons would be learned, and preparations put in for the next potential natural disaster.

At least one official, the Agriculture Minister, would be asked to resign. Or even better, is it possible to charge him with criminal negligence causing several billion baht damage to crops, industry and property, and culpable homicide for the loss of more than 500 lives in the floods? The many politicians who went missing in what was arguably one of the worst flooding disasters in Thailand’s recent history would have to explain where they were and why they did not help, and be penalised for their truancy.

A complete stock-taking of dam operations would begin, especially their water storage and release plans, and how these decisions are now made given that the period and duration of the monsoon rains are not as predictable as before.

Another stock-taking would begin of the infrastructure development, both past and planned, especially construction of large industrial estates that are situated right in the flood plain channels and that have drained wetlands and swamps, and blocked canals and natural river run-offs.

Also a closer look at what works and doesn’t (and why) in disaster prevention and mitigation, and how these can be improved.

None of this has happened so far.

No one is holding their breath.

The year of living in intimacy … and imperfection

Two weddings including a trip to India. The birth of my son. Contemplating this year leaves me with the “is this really happening to me” feeling in a good way. Suddenly it seemed everything fell into place in life in a compressed space of time. While this was the wonderful episode of life in 2010, the struggles for me as a husband and parent were also going on in the background.

Managing to travel back and forth between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, doing a film on Mekong fishing were the livelihood stuff. Trying to spend as much time as possible with my son watching him grow was the life stuff. In the middle of both, was the effort to get our marriage going as my wife and I learnt intimacy.

Though we had spent time together, we had never really lived together and we were sharing a space that soon also had our son in it. Saying that we were at hand and watched our son grow can mean something wonderful to people who hear about it, but we think only those who have been parents to a new born fully understand and appreciate the miracles, misapprehensions and misunderstandings that it brings to the relationship.

Having to wake up in the middle of the nights is sometimes not quite the worst thing in the world. There are other worse things involving bickering, late-night emotions, terse replies that leave each other feeling bad until we meet again. But its also good to realise that all of above actually happens (thank god) only about 5 percent of the time. The rest of the time we’re quite contented in many imperfect ways. We cook for each other burning the occasional omelette, take trips around Bangkok with our son and get caught in traffic, enjoy our evening walks showing him around the trees and birds in our condo, look for toys and shirts anticipating what we’re going to get him when he grows up. When my wife comes back form work, its often with a beer for me, and I bring back steamed corn for her. When she is out working all day, I set aside my computer and take care of Rawin; we switch at night as I start work and she plays with him. Striving for imperfection or at least giving ourselves up to it has helped us forgive our imperfect selves and brought us a measure of intimacy.

Here’s thanks to 2009. And looking forward to more intimacy and imperfection in 2010 and the many years ahead. Cheers!

Rawin … from Tagore

We started looking for a name for our baby when Tuk was about six months pregnant. In Thailand (and unlike India where it is actually illegal), doctors are free to tell the parents the sex of the baby upon request. Actually we had preferred to not know and did not plan to formally request our doctor. But once while doing the ultrasound scan, he casually asked us if we wanted to know; as we paused and looked at each other in some confusion, he told us that it was a boy, and that he was very healthy. It wasn’t a big deal after that. It also meant we could start searching for a name.
Our search for names extended to Thai, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu and even Persian. With just one scoping condition: that it should begin with the sound of “ra” – thus similar to our names Rajesh and Ratchaneewan. A month before our son was born, we had whittled our selection down to a “top 3”. But we were still not totally satisfied with any of them. Until one day Tuk and I were chatting and she asked me “why not Rawin?”. We both liked it at once. It struck me as being inspired by, and also sounding like, the first part of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), the famous poet, writer and philosopher of India whom we both liked and who was also well-known in Thailand for his song “Gitanjali” (which is translated into Thai).
Rabindranath (or also sometimes Ravindranath) is most well-known as a poet but he was much much more. He was an extraordinarily creative and versatile person bringing out sublime prose and poetry and plays as well as songs, music and painting. He was also active in the politics of his time being a reformer and critic of colonialism. His writings reflected his critical perspectives on topics ranging from Indian nationalism and identity, to caste, ethnic and religious conflicts and violence. In the early 1930s, he lectured and wrote poems and dramas criticizing India’s “abnormal caste consciousness” and the practice of untouchability. An important aspect of his life was his contribution to religious and philosophical literature through his collection of essays like “The Religion of Man” and the very beautiful and touching “Sadhana: The Realization of Life” (see excerpt below). The essays in “Toward Universal Man” also show him as a social and political theorist.
Tagore was a musician, a vocal performer as well as composer. Apart from writing eight novels and four novellas, he composed more than 2,000 songs. He developed a new style of vocal music which is called, after him, Rabindra-sangit. His “Gitanjali” or “songs offering” about divine and human love is his best-known collection for which he won the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature (becoming Asia’s first Nobel laureate). Two of his songs are the national anthems of Bangladesh and India: Amar Shonar Bangla and Jana Gana Mana (Thou Art the Ruler of All Minds) respectively.
In 1922, Santiniketan (abode of peace), the school he had founded at Bolpur in 1901, was expanded into the Visva-Bharati University with a curriculum that emphasized social reform, international unity, and rural reconstruction.
Tagore traveled widely across Europe, North and South America and Southeast Asia including Japan and Indonesia. His writings after his travels in Southeast Asia were compiled in “Jatri”. He visited Bangkok on his way home to India from Java and Bali in 1927. Following that visit, he wrote poems on the “Buddhist spirit of Siam” and the maitri or fraternity of the Borobudur of Java. In Bangkok, Tagore was received by the King and Queen of Thailand along with two other members of the royal family: Prince Damrong (a collector of Siamese art) and Prince Chantabun (publisher of the Siamese Tripitaka). Tagore gave lectures in Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

The man whose acquaintance with the world does not lead
him deeper than science leads him, will never understand what it
is that the man with the spiritual vision finds in these natural
phenomena. The water does not merely cleanse his limbs, but it
purifies his heart; for it touches his soul. The earth does not
merely hold his body, but it gladdens his mind; for its contact
is more than a physical contact–it is a living presence. When a
man does not realise his kinship with the world, he lives in a
prison-house whose walls are alien to him. When he meets the
eternal spirit in all objects, then is he emancipated, for then
he discovers the fullest significance of the world into which he
is born; then he finds himself in perfect truth, and his harmony
with the all is established …
When man’s consciousness is restricted only to the immediate
vicinity of his human self, the deeper roots of his nature do not
find their permanent soil, his spirit is ever on the brink of
starvation, and in the place of healthful strength he substitutes
rounds of stimulation. Then it is that man misses his inner
perspective and measures his greatness by its bulk and
not by its vital link with the infinite, judges his activity
by its movement and not by the repose of perfection–the repose
which is in the starry heavens, in the ever-flowing
rhythmic dance of creation.

From Tagore’s “Sadhana: The Realization of Life”,
Ch 1: The Relation of the Individual to the Universe.

Mr. Daniel

Burma/Myanmar. Rangoon/Yangon. My father’s birthplace in  Burma/India where he lived, worked and then died. Thailand my home now and where my son was born/India my home always and where I was born and the rest of my own family lives. The slashes we bear, the dichotomies we carry around, as identities slash labels slash etc.

Today is 22nd July, my father’s birthday – Rayar Doraisamy Daniel, or R.D. Daniel as he liked to be known.

Last year on this same day I was standing on the former premises of the Post Office building in Thingangyun district (pronounced Thenga’jun) in Rangoon, Burma. Thingangyun district was where my father was born. The post office building was where his father worked as a post master general. Then when my father was about 14 (around 1930s), he left Burma along with his younger brother Raju and his parents.
I still don’t the exact place where he was born, or the year or date when they left Burma, or even why and, even more importantly, exactly how.

I tried finding the house he lived in when I was in Burma last year but did not succeed. The closest I came to was that when I visited the church (St Joseph’s Catholic Church) which sits opposite the old post office, an old man who worked there perked up at the mention of my father’s name. He said that a “Jun uncle” in a Tamil family  who lived nearby used to often mention his childhood friend “Daniel” who had gone back to India. When I eagerly asked if I could go visit Jun uncle, the man said he’d passed away about 10 years ago. I was visiting the place at least ten years too late. The Catholic church folks were Tamil but offered scant help. When I asked about looking at birth records, the young strapping looking parish priest took me aside and waved at a rubble of bricks and stones on the grounds. “We’re building this enclosure and we need money”, he  smiled slyly and said. What an oily Tamilian weasel for a priest, I thought.
Conjecture about the reasons for  my dad’s  family leaving Burma draws clues from the period that they left, ca 1930. At that period, there were anti-colonial fused with anti-Indian riots in Rangoon.  Rangoon during that particular period was not a particularly favorable place for Indian migrants to live and make a living in.
How then did they leave? Back in Madras, when I was young, my father used to talk about how he and his family and relatives  “walked” all the way back to India: from Rangoon all the way up  the north of Burma then crossing across to  Calcutta and then down to the south of India. They walked. Thousands of stories certainly lie hidden behind that deceptively simple description: “we walked”. With the backdrop of an incipient civil war,  anti-Indian riots in a city they had come to call home, and the beginnings of the British withdrawal to fight a larger world war that was fast looming, my dad’s family left Burma with whatever clothes and bags they could carry … and walked back to their  homes and relatives in South India.
More of course needs to be discovered so that one day Rawin Daniel can get ot know more about his Indian grandfather who was born not that far from Thailand this day.

Rayar Doraisamy Daniel. Born: 22 July 1914. Passed away: 29 January 1986.


On 10th June 2009 at 1.43 pm our son was born weighing 3.1 kgs. I still relive that early morning when we drove to the Ramathibodhi hospital in the Bangkok traffic trying to be calm, chatting of this and that while trying desperately to not think of the worst – that all may be lost. Tuk had complained of pain the previous night but we both became anxious when she found herself bleeding in the morning.

We rushed to our respective pregnancy books and decided to immediately leave for the hospital. My anxieties were soothed by the fact that things went so smoothly from the minute we landed at the hospital entrance. And I cannot thank enough the government hospital and its wonderful nurses and doctors. Entering the hospital, Tuk walked to the wheelchair stand where a staff came over with a wheelchair and then we all three went to the sixth floor maternity ward. Tuk was asked to get to a bed behind a green curtain while they left the filling of forms to me and another nurse.

The nurses and doctors went about their work calmly and professionally. By now my heart was beating loud enough for them to admit me into the cardiac seizure ward. Our doctor walked in after a few minutes and chatted with the others. Then he went and checked Tuk. I had one eye and ear on the closed green curtain with Tuk on the other side while helping the nurse fill in our forms, now even more openly thinking of the worst, asking whether our son was going to make it, praying, weeping inside for everything to be alright.

A few minutes later our doctor (a cool dude) walked by and, as I waited to see if he would explain anything, he cheerily spoke to me as if wishing me good morning: “oh for sure, the delivery is today, … for sure”.

So. It was going to happen. Almost 11 days in advance of the scheduled date. I hung around hoping to see Tuk. After a while, she walked out clothed in the hospital green robe. I was still trying to figure out what was going to happen when we were told that Tuk would be taken inside to the delivery room and I wasn’t allowed there. Tuk wondered aloud to me if she should just ask for a c-section and get it over with. I was almost going to say yes just so we could get this unbearable suspense and waiting over with, but I then asked her to wait on a bit. She nodded and then walked down to corridor into the rooms.

The nurse told me that it was only the beginning of labour and it could take more than ten hours sometimes before they could tell me anything. They told me to go home and rest and gave me the ward telephone number to call and find out the status. Since men were not allowed to hang around there, I had to leave but of course I couldn’t go home really not while Tuk was there waiting and god knows what was going to happen. Tuk’s friends called by now and they told me a place to have coffee and a bite to eat.

I wandered off downstairs totally lost, surrounded by the hospital buzz of people and announcements trying to find somewhere to sit and collect myself. A small park and a coffee shop. Thank god. I tried breathing calmly and medidating, thinking of our life together which already seemed to have been filled with so much of everything, pain and joy and anguish and anxiety.

I called my close friend Sunil who advised me to go to his place and eat and rest rather than wait around. I couldn’t decide at first, waiting around near Tuk seemed the best thing to do. But then there was nothing to do there and so I took a taxi to his place. Suddenly while inside the taxi I had the urge to fling myself out and rush back to the hospital. What was I doing? Why wasn’t I near Tuk? What if she needed me? I had to grip the seat and eventually made it to Sunil’s place without completely losing my mind. A shower and food and some conversation greatly helped. We checked with the hospital every hour. They told us to check later in the afternoon.

But by 1 pm I was feeling refreshed but also anxious at waiting around so far away, and left Sunil’s place and come back to the hospital. I went straight to the 6th floor ward to check. I wasn’t sure what would have happened, probably nothing although it had been more than five hours. When I went to check, the nurse looked up the screen.

Yes, Tuk had brought us a baby son to this world at 1.43 pm, the boy and mother are well. Gosh. I couldnt believe it, and kept peering at the screen dumbfounded. Deo gratias as my father used to say. So this is how it feels. We have completed one part of our journey together, Tuk and I. I was wondering what to do next, hanging around trying to be inconspicuous in case they asked me to leave again.

Then I turned round and suddenly Tuk was wheeled out in the bed and was near me. We held hands and she looked up and I smiled at her and said “congratulations mum”. Tears immediately welled in her eyes. I’ll never forget that moment as she smiled at me, lying there in her green robe, tired and a bit dazed, but her eyes tender and brimming with tears. I wiped her eyes and cheeks and we then smiled and held hands.

I started telling everyone starting with Metta her older sister and our closest friend and companion. I still hadn’t seen the baby our son. But that could wait. He was fine they said and had been taken to be checked and would be brought back in a few hours. For now, we were relieved and happy and together again.