mercredi 24 décembre 2008

MingalarBar in Malaysia

Photo: Soleiman of Maulana Plaza at Seri Kembangan, Malaysia

Mingalabar in Malaysia

This has been a wonderful day in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur to be specific.

Just another day in Paradise, someone will quip.

After a lazy morning, after the deep sleep of yet another busy day in KL, we made our way to Maulana Food Court, hoping that our good friend Soleiman from Tanjore would be there.

He greets us warmly and says something in Tamoul, which I cannot understand. Boleh Tamil, Boleh Melayu, Boleh Urdu he goes on childishly and soon we are seated at the table with a spread of south Indian food in front of us.

He began talking excitedly, in a mixture of Tamoul and Malay and other indecipherable languages, the gist of which was: please take me with you, I am an Indian Citizen and I am getting tired. I promised him something or other knowing fully well that our conversation would be forgotten the minute I left his place. He makes sure that the Te Tahrik is hot and hovers around in between his social engagements with his various regular customers.  As we leave he shouts in Tamoul, what I thought it might be any way, Please come tomorrow, I will be waiting here for you.

With that piece of human interaction, everything from then on until the end of the day was one good human interaction after another. We reached the Guinot Facial/Beauty Salon in time, for the owner to start working on my face. She has been trained by the Guinot facility in Paris and has been a beauty therapist for more than twenty years.

The bottom picture is the one after, and you can notice the relaxed face.

Went over to the Bakin Boys Café next door to Kunikinuya Book store which by the way is the best bookstore in all of Malaysia.

Was writing a few postcards for friends near and far, and soon enough it was time to get MunChing from the Beauty Salon. She comes out chirping with handful of presents. We had to rush over to Bangsar where she had an appointment for hair cut at 5 30 and through the rush hour traffic of KL, we were there just in time.

A Cut Above is a Malaysian concern of attention to Hair, fingers and toes.. with an array of services offered and a plethora of workers busily attending to the middle class yuppie clientele. Another moment in time of KL life captured.  GS was the name of the Chinese lady assigned to do my pedicure, as she had done an excellent job on my previous visit. She was all happy and greeted me warmly, not quite understanding how I was back here so quickly. This pedicure outshone the last one and my feet had never felt so good. A tall lithesome recent graduate of Cosmetology school attended to my fingers and within the hour, I came out of there, fresh in my new facial, with feet and arm relaxed to match the face. Truly a sensory load of welcome proportions. The attention given to Pedicure and manicure is much better than some of the above I had received in the USA, especially from the newly mushrooming Vietnamese dominated Nail Salons all across the USA.. These ladies graduates of a local cosmetology school, after a two month course, and with a natural talent to pay attention to the details of the nails and toes, had charms in their hands and fingers as they massaged the our toes and fingers. I was truly truly happy with my pedicure. A slight limitation in communication because of the language, I noticed that English is widely spoken among the educated ones, but the majority of Malaysians do not speak English, as is the case in Singapore as well, beyond basic communication. I am poor by this, since I could have learned so much about their lives talking to them but had to be content with gathering tidbits of information on their lives so far away from my own.

Content with the state of physical affairs, it was time to move on to the next destination, MIZU Japanese restaurant. Like Japanese restaurants in Paris, only the name and the menu are Japanese, all the workers are from somewhere or other with scant knowledge of the Japanese cuisine.

But the ambience was welcome, the change from good to better Chinese food and incredibly tasty Tamoul food, was a questionable challenge. Ah well, one has to live, and to Mizu we would go.

Very attentive staff, the supervisor of the waitresses seemed to be a local Chinese, with no particular distinguishing features. But the waitresses were demure, one could mistake them for Indonesians but there was gentleness in their faces. I was to find out what it was, which made me sad and delighted at the same time. 

Food began arriving one by one, in the Japanese sensibility, food presented well and inviting. Looking at the kitchen and the numerous staff there, there was a little concern that none of them were Japanese, but the fear was dispelled by the first bite, which reminded me of japan and its cuisine. What is the chef is from some other country and hopefully he would feel good that he can produce some good Japanese food for the hungry mobs of KL.


I had noticed the very efficient young waitress and began imagining about her life. What if she was an Indonesian? Had she left her husband and young child behind to come over to Malaysia? While I was very happy to be in Malaysia, would they be able to say the same? Did they want to come to Malaysia or are they here because of the economy situation at home.

During the entire dinner, she paid attention to us with the efficiency which was evident in her rapid gait and the pleasant smile which never left her face.

When she brought over the next dish,

I had the courage to ask her, where are you from?

Myanmar. Stunned and pleased, I gave her the immediate reply,


That brought a further lighting up of her smile.

So this young girl, a Bamar by the look of it, has come to KL to work as a waitress. I had no doubt that she had been to one of the many universities in Yangon, if she is from there, as it looked as if she is a city girl. I am glad that her older mother will be happy and be able to gain merit by feeding the monks who come by the house; the school fees she could now pay to educate her younger brother, and perhaps save money for that mingalason ceremony for a wedding in the future. In the meantime, she would be isolated with other Myanmar people, as this place Bangsar seems to be a gathering place for the workers from Myanmar.

I called her over, respectfully handed over my card, in which I had written my Burmese name, U Aung Khant, under my name. She profusely thanked me, Jesu Tin ba de, I told her.

My wandered back to Yangon, not only my Yangon but my father’s Yangon, he who fought till he nearly died for someone else’s country, the teak house where he might have eaten in yangon where I ate a nice lunch with Wut Yee on my last visit. A painful longing, a desire to return to a country which is not my own but which has adopted me. The cruelty of th government and the genetleness of the people. Burma will always be close to my heart.

A tear trickled down my cheeks, yes I told myself, I am Aung Khant and I am Burmese, and this little sweetie is a young relative of mine. All I can give her in her isolation and exile in Malaysia is my best wishes, a genuine basket of good will for her. Just to let her know, that Burma has brought us close together and that we may once again breathe that pure air of Burma, even though we might never meet each other again. A brief cameo of our lives, on this day in Malaysia, where I felt that people around me, has elevated me to a paradise, a sensual pleasure of a day passed in the company of so many good people… this country is inhabited by people who belay all the stereotype hyped up in the International Press which I had believed wholeheartedly until I met MunChing one day in April who explained to me this Malaysian Dilemma..

Apart from my much needed conversations to Paris, which is my lifeline, I was also able to speak to a friend from KT, Ross, who though born and brought up in Colonial Malaya had left Malaysia in the late fifties and now has returned as a foreigner to his land of birth.

All in all a  very nice day in Malaysia…

24th December 2008

27th to Madras

6th January 2009 to Paris

9th January 2009 to Miami…. Etc etc  and it would be a while before the winds would bring me back to these shores again..



The Ordinary Opera of the Oppressed

An Ordinary Opera of the Oppressed

There is no order, but the chaos of insides shine. Irreverently dressed, their lack of education shining through their very dull faces.  They think noise is symbol of happiness, they talk loud, and even the Chinese Opera is set to the thumping House Music.  The Brandy flows. Brandy is an after dinner drink, to digest, but here what needs to be digested is their everyday sorrow, the innate desire to be free that is inherent to any human being. Young and old alike, are chained to their culture of poverty.

The meeting of the Secret Society

The dinner was on the 30th anniversary of the Malaysian Association of Chinese Chefs... that title itself gives out their innard weaknesses... Would there be Malaysian Tamoul Society of Murtabak Makers?  And the invocation and encouragement from the speakers were to be united and that it is the Big Brother that will help you, be a big brother..Trying to moralize about natural values... you cannot bring in caring about fellow human beings as part of a society membership.

They sat uncomfortably, uniformly they looked unhealthy and uncared for, their faces etched deep with sorrow and worry, the younger ones spared of the wrinkles. Eager to join the happiness circle, they symbolically stand up, in a circle and with some shouts, drain a bottle of Brandy.. drain, not enjoy the drink, the whole bottle has to be drunk. And there is the newly found camaraderie...edging each other on to drink more, drain as quickly as possible large glasses of brandy and water..

Noise, Noise, Noise everywhere. There is no finesse in this life, no attention to the details of the finer things in life.

Food arrives, systematically and quickly. Without civility, they dive in, procure for themselves their portion of shrimps, mushroom, baby pig, sea fish cooked to perfection, glutinous rice, jumbo shrimps that take an effort to peel, artificial cakes and lychee and water…

The serving of food finished at 10 45 pm and within minutes the place began emptying up. There is no reason to stay up, the food is finished, the stale jokes and friendly reminders of the society rules, they are all gone... men swaying like palms under a strong wind, and burly madams struggling to find their own directions. There were e young people, most of them bland in their appearance, trying very hard to find their footing in this conglomeration, staring at the blank space in front of them.  Waitresses worked diligently, expecting no thanks, and no gratitude, plates full of food came and went. You do expect to eat well at the annual meeting of the Chefs..

The culture of Chef of Chinese Origin didn’t come through; each individual dish was as singular as the particular chef who produced it. The culture of poverty, came through, the state of poverty of their origins now obscured by their polyester clothes, and the bundle of dollars in their pockets. A good example of what one wit said: Money does not buy you class. Regardless of your financial and professional status, money cannot bring you into the upper class. Money cannot eradicate the crassness of ordinariness. I imagined the children of many of these people, now studying in Australia or some other western country, refusing to come home for the fear of drowning in the rigidity of this culture of poverty. They could proudly proclaim the genius proclivities of their offspring.  In distant lands, the children of Chinese chefs, cease to become Chinese, they forget their Malaysian geography except on special occasions; now hanging in between the rejection of their original self and waiting for the acceptance of their new selves from their new country men. Culture is not a replaceable commodity, one builds on what one has, not pick and choose as if out there is a supermarket of choices. Those who reject themselves join the culture of shame, thus the children of chefs, give up their fear of the culture of poverty and instead choose the culture of shame, defending undependable beliefs which have no principles.

Back to the Secret Society

There was an entertainment of some sort but the majority of the invited people, customarily ignored those who were at the podium, but focused their attention to the food and the ever present Hennessey VSOP bottle, now strutted through the crowded on the feeble hands of a Chinese female barely out of her teens. Older women were joining their husbands or men of their choice, in a less lady like fashion, drowning the glasses in one deep draw... echoing the laughter of the men folk. They squatted on the chairs, with their legs widely spread, in their cheap Chinese made jean shorts or other attempts to cover the overflowing flesh. There was a smell of poverty about them, now cheapened by the strong fragrances made in China, sold at a fraction of the original price of fragrances from the west. Mimicry and copying, something everyone can do with a great deal of confidence. It is this confidence of mimicry, rooted fundamentally in the imagination of the migrant soul, a circle of desires to keep the daughters in proverbial chastity belts and darkness of a lack of freedom. Call upon the culture when it is convenient to you; insist to your daughters about the filial loyalty and the cultural norms of children towards their parents. Cut their wings, let them not learn to fly, keep them in the cages of the culture of poverty…


It is a great privilege for me to witness this, as a cultural anthropologist, to make note of the sad trends of the immigrants who are allowed to self perpetuate themselves since there is no majority culture, only this culture of poverty, no majority culture into which aspiring young birds with their wings cut off could escape to...

How wonderfully they have blinded their eyes, spoiling the desire to see beauty, damming up the flow of emotions. No niceties, no politeness, just secret and at times clandestine liaisons . and they grow old.

In this large reception hall housing hundreds, I was the only non Malaysian, and more over I was the only non Chinese, thus affirming the exclusive nature of this society of chefs, the Malaysian Minor Mafia, not worried about the rules and regulations of their petty government, existing as a separate unit within this well segregated and already divided country. There was not a single non Chinese, except this observing Anthropologist.

As with everybody else, we also got up and left. At the Car Jockey (Valet Parking), unsteady men got into larger and larger cars, with their wives firmly buckled up in front, off to the safety of their suburban homes. May the Spirits guard them, this salt of the earth... Bumi Manusia, as Pramoedya Ananta Toer would say…steeped in their materialism which has left them no time for individualized knowledge and the desire to know more...

Our car slid out of the garage of the Pudu Branch of Hai La Ton Restaurant, steadily made its way over to the house, past the villages where the immigrants from China had settled down, that now remains parchments of the experience of the Chinese immigrants, written with sweat the unending struggle, with no one to interpret their hieroglyphically  lamentations..

mardi 9 décembre 2008

First Snow Fall for the Season..while I am here..

The Morning After the Snow Fall....Photo 5
Dinner at the Blue House . Photo 4
By 10 pm it was snowing hard.  photo 3
Vida, an UmonHon, mother of my good friend MiHu.   photo 2
PPray for the first snow of the season, say the Indians.  photo 1

How many times already I have looked at those pictures that arrived from Havana today , I know every single spot of those photographs.. I could feel the wind on my skin, as I recalled the tender moments that I had passed in the various places depicted in the photographs..

Earlier during the day I had been feeling a sensation of profound sadness at the plight of the Indians. The community I had come to see, had no water supply and they had to survive on hauled water and bottled water because of E Coli contamination! This in 2008 and in the First World..But then again, Indians had always lived a life outside of the mainstream of this country and it is that beauty of closeness to their originality that brings me back, among other things, to the isolated communities of Indians in the USA.
The sadness took me to yet another time when my body was very tired, and emotionally drained after my repeated trips to Japan in 205.  A sense of feeling perpertually an outsider, unable to understand what was happening with an intense desire to get out of there.. which I did , three years ago never to go back.
Very sympathetic conversation with Paris and ending up in a higher note of joy and comprehension and the joy of appreciation of good things in life..

I received an absolutely gorgeous email from my good friend Sandra from Melbourne..

Cuba is nostalgia for me,
 the photographs brought on such nostalgia, in fact it was more than nostalgia, it is that painful sensation of longing of having had something, one feels that one is on the brink of loosing it or the sensation of feeling that you had already had lost something you never had..

I feel so high at this moment, while writing this .. as if I have taken some drug.. even though what all I have had this evening, as follows…

It had begun snowing and Indians have taught me that one must always say thanks for the first snow, it clears the earth of disease and illnesses and suffering. A patient of mine arrives to repair the electric wires in the library he is constructing in this Blue House, as a sanctuary for me when I am here. I was surprised that he would venture out knowing that it would be snowing hard tonight. But every now and then he comes and attends to the Blue House..
After he and his companion left, I was pondering over the bottle of Malbec which I had been looking at jealously, but I am not in the habit of drinking alone…
I decide to open it..  and there is a knock on the door.
It was Vida.. mother of my good friend MiHu who is in Australia at the moment. We sipped wine and talked about the Indians and their way of thinking and feeling and I could learn so much. Indians are natural teachers, and she told me so many things.  Keep your ears open, Indians had told me, and you would hear a lot..

There is a radio streaming station at but I think it is only in the USA and what it does that it streams the music that you like to hear.. I have requested a chanel which plays Cabo Verde music and similar music mainly from Brasil but also Cuban oriental music..right now they are playing one of my all time favourite songs..Manha de Carnival..

I am overcome with such nostalgic feeling, that it is absolutely divine.. no drug would give me this ecstasy..It began with the telephone call from Paris, my patient coming to repair the electric wires, wonderful and spiritual conversation with Vida, a telephone call to Kuala Lumpur to wish Mitexi (the other daughter of Vida0 who is coming home today.

When Vida left , the snow fall had intensified.

And once again looked at the Cuban  pictures.. more intensely at some and humourously at others, like the black flags with stars in front of the american interests section in vedado.. and the photo of Hotel Nacional seen through the legs in stripped tights…

Started preparing the dinner I had begun. Vida had brought some soup which tasted good .. but I prided in the fact that even being so far away from everything, I could drink a good red wine from argentina, have homemade Indian soup, and of course the salad I had made : avocado plus the ingredients.( taught by MiHu)

My stomach is full, my mind is full and my soul is full…
What else can a man want?  In the short span of an evening, in an isolated village in the middle of this vast Turtle Island they call USA, I had touched all that places that matters to me most:  Paris, Havana, Melbourne  and the people who add lustre to my life…
The Argentine Malbec was not bad either…

My heart is firmly tethered to Paris, my soul is with my friends in Havana and Baracoa and my spirit is with the UmonHon people among whom I am at present.

December 12th   UmonHon Nation to Paris
December 15th   Paris to Bombay to Cochin
December 19th   Cochin to Kuala Lumpur………………Love to all of You…

samedi 6 décembre 2008

Israel and the Family of Jewish People

. The general perception from outside about a visit to Israel, concerns itself with Security, Terrorism, religious and national fanaticism and the brashness of its inhabitants.

I was reminded of a line from Jacobo Timerman, author of a worldwide best seller, Cell without a Number, Prisoner without a name. A journalist, outspoken critic of the military government and a good argentine citizen until his death, after his return from exile to his native land, and the city of Buenos Aires.

As a child, he recalls, he wanted to know why, so he asked his mother. Why do they hate us, mama?

 The thoughtful Ashkenazi mother of young Jacobo replied.

They dislike us, because of they don’t know us.

This visit, I consider to be a personal gift from someone special, has made me admire Israel and Israelis a little bit more, have a desire to delve more than just superficially into this Mediterranean country. Then again, it is not just any other country. It is Israel. I am not a tourist while I go sightseeing, I am not a stranger even though I don’t understand the conversations in the resurrected, ancient language, Hebrew.

I have learned to look at them as relatives, this nation of mainly Jews, immigrants and refugees (900 000 Jewish refugees from Arab countries have been absorbed into Israel, but there are no refugee camps in Israel), here the American Indian saying, Mitakuye Oyasin, resonates well. We are all related, Indians say, and I felt it, while walking through the streets of Haifa, for the first time this sensation of mitakuye oyasin, more than in any of the countries I have visited, including the lands of my birth, infancy and adolescence, I can look at every one of the citizens, the dark haired guy serving up the lunch at the multi branched coffee shop near Hotel Dan Panorama, the blond slightly overweight cleaning lady, the enthusiastic  sales people in shops regardless of what they sell, the taxi driver, so on and so on, and say without shame or guilt or patronization: we are all related. Mitakuye oyasin.

Historic, biblical, polemic, manmade, monument to human endurance and audacity, Israel is all of that plus the healthiest food in the region, a mixture of European and middle eastern cuisine.  Arab restaurateurs ,  Druze coffee makers, Ethiopians serving Hummus, fresh vegetable salads, abundance of fish and seafood, weather a near perfect transition from summer to autumn, blue skies to sit under or stare at, and almost all adolescents and young men are fit and lean, you cannot expect them to defend the country if they are overweight. 

This is not the first time I had come to Israel. Nor the first visit to Haifa and the Siman Tov family. Israel had to protect its borders and with aircrafts now filling up the skies of the traveller, they had to institute stringent security measures.

 Here they have one important asset.

The Israelis.

Before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the US soil, the airport security in the USA was worth  a laugh. Chewing gum, the lowly paid, privately contracted security agents, paid scant attention to the handbags or to the person, or the identification papers. Even now, with streamlined procedures for security check, most of the TSA employees who are charged with guarding the borders, are not philosophically plugged into the security apparatus, for many it is a job, the ambience is not one of pride or cooperation of protecting the country. Impatient Americans often bark at the TSA agents, whose profile is an unclear one, and because it was put together hastily, the effectiveness of individual employee is questionable, even though, the structural process of screening, taking your belt and your shoes off and putting your liquid beauty products into plastic bags have had an effect on the personality of those impatient travelers, now more than ever frustrated by the fact that up to 1/3 of all flights are delayed, for other reasons than security check.

Still, I am yet to feel that the TSA transmit the sense of pride and sensation of protecting the country, rather than the echolalic noises of young but unfit men and women, going through the process of oiling the structure, which has had a deterrent effect.

Let me tell you about my first experience.

Paris Airport.

Terminal 2 A

El Al Israel Airlines

At the end of the corridor, their check in gates are isolated from the American Airlines and  other long haulers. As we entered, a young woman, could be attending an university, asked us to follow her to the desk, four or five such security desks were against the wall, opposite the check in desks. A slightly older woman was supervising the many young workers, all of them Israeli. They were talking to one another, asking questions and quipping in Hebrew.

My travelling companion has an European/French passport. The Israeli security agent  takes mine. I noticed that she was not wearing any name tags. Made a mental note that  these young workers must speak at least three languages: Hebrew, French and English.

Transaction of symbols

These are not young French Jews, these workers were all Israeli. You noticed that not a single one was overweight.

She opened the conversation with a pleasant remark

Has the process of checking in been good so far?

Yes, we have hardly begun, I told her, she smiles while looking at my Australian passport.

Arab or Muslim sounding last name. indistinct first name.

Brand new passport with only one page used. ( the other passport which had seven years of life left but none of its 62 pages empty, had been carefully exchanged for this brand new, computer imbedded Australian passport.

In the USA, crossing over into the Texas territory from the Mexican state of Coahuila, the overweight, less aware border TSA agents, look admiringly at the shiny passport but their eyes are looking for place of birth: Malaysia? Then they ring the bell. It might not occur to them that the passport is not Malaysian and the holder has no visible Malaysian cultural links. Human robots they become without the education necessary to be astute security agents in a world where human movement is taking place at  exaggerated numbers, at much higher rate than the immigration of the people. Americans are used to immigrants but not to travelers.

Back to the Israeli young lady.

Is this the only passport you have?

I thought, this is a clever question. I could have any other passport since in recent times most western countries began permitting second and third nationalities.

Yes this is the only passport I have, I replied, which happens to be the truth.

No obvious questions of other security workers, such as connecting your place of birth and your nationality and confusing it; the place of residence which could be more than one or transient. What would you ask the CEO of Nissan, a brasilian of Lebanese origin educated in france, who lives in Paris and Tokyo and travels to New York. Does the question where do you live have a meaning there? It is only by understandinging  what is different that you could detect the level of normalcy.

Noticing the discreet star of david that I wear, she asks me in Hebrew and then in English, do you speak Hebrew?

Ani lo daber Ivrit, anee yehudi mi Australia.

I don’t speak Hebrew, but I am a Jew from Australia.

So you did learn to read Hebrew? Did you learn it with vowels?

With that symbolic transaction, cementing another relationship, the questioning took another tone and direction.

Why are you going to Israel?

I had the wedding invitation ready in my hand. I am going to Haifa to attend the wedding of my friend Shimon Siman Tov. And handed over the invitation. She looks at it, scrutinizes the names and says, excuse me, and goes over to her supervisor.

She comes back, apologizes, then asks, do you know the brides family as well?

No, just the groom’s family. She was impressed with the fact that I had brought with me the original wedding invitation rather than a copy, even though I did have a copy with me.

Original! She smiles.

Being a cultural anthropologist, I am well aware of the importance of symbols in our lives. Most of us know the symbols of our own culture. Even jews may not be aware of  the symbols of Israeli life.

For example, while Jews living abroad tend to wear and display, symbols of their jewish affiliation, such as stars of david or the symbol Chai, in Israel that symbolism is redundant. Reminded me of the “wannabee” Indians wearing feathers where as the real Indians wore feathers  only on appropriate occasions.

Do you remember the parsha of your bar mitzvah? She asked.

I have not been very good at remembering my religious duties, I answered. Which would ring resonant with most Israelis, since the majority of Israelis are not religious and do not follow strictly most of the religious practices of the Jews. To be jewish, is more than belonging to the religion, it is belonging to the people. We say Am Israel Chai… Life to our people, Israel.

It is true, I had been fairly observant when I left Australia for Sweden but in the past ten years, symbolically marked by the death of a very close friend of mine, Irena Glaser of Miami, I have become less and less observant, even of the big item holidays, such as New Year and Day of Atonement, let alone Simcha Torah and Succoth and Purim.

This young lady was very polite, very professional. None of that  personal power trip, the less intelligent security agents elsewhere demonstrate, whether they are selling you a computer or checking you in for a flight .

Do you have a Hebrew name?


Your family name?

Chakkingal  in the local language, meaning the place where oil is being pressed, in Hebrew it is Kovesh.

Disappears for a little, comes back and apologizes and says, I will finish very soon.

No more than ten minutes had passed. Quick and efficient, a good representative of Israel, a country which cannot afford to be lax or inefficient.

To do business with a people, learn how they fight, then you would understand they think and behave, says a contemporary French philosopher. To do business in China, study the Chinese pattern of collective responsibility. American individuality is reflected in their fighting methods as well. Turks, valiant, rich and powerful, lost their empire quite quickly because they lacked discipline and order.

Here at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, waiting for flight LY 324 on the morning of 5th Oct, there was no lack of order, no confusion.

For my own curiosity, could you tell me a little bit about the history of the Jews of Cochin?

I realized that it was a symbolic question, but as Shimon was to say later, she asked the wrong person. There have been three distinct migrations from the Holy land to the coast of Kerala, one during the time of King Solomon and soon after the destruction of the temple; the Sephardic migration after the 1492 expulsion from Spain and there have been integration of local people into the community throughout the ages as happens everywhere where the Jews have lived.

She looks pleased.

Leads us to another corner, where machines are set up to check the luggage, not the huge ones, but they swipe and insert the paper into the machine and wait for the green. Each and every one of the bags to be checked in is opened and a thorough swipe with her wand and within five minutes, things are pasted to our passports and our luggage and we were in line to check in our bags.

This young lady, was slightly less friendly but she had a much more manual job to do. No questions from her.

I looked at the security stickers. My name in Hebrew, F circled, perhaps indicating the person who checked me.

The luggage check did not involve taking every single item out and wondering what use it might have.

Within forty five minutes after the taxi had left us at the curb, we had

Cleared security

Opened our bags for inspection

Checked our bags in and gotten our boarding passes..


Oh, the pleasant young girl who questioned, did ask, have you been to Israel before

Yes, of course

When was the last time?

I could not remember

A few years ago.. I said. Then thought to myself, in the years after 2000, I have been to Argentina about fifteen times,  to Burma around the same number, Cambodia and Vietnam and Brasil about five times each; so I can forgive myself for not remembering which year I was in Israel last.. add to that I had a 12 month period in 2005 when I visited Japan ten times.

You know that we are on High Holidays now, did you celebrate it?

Yes, I was in Paris for Rosh Hashanah and I broke the fast in Lisbon on Yom Kippur, I didn’t have the mind to tell her that I was travelling overnight on Yom Kippur to Lisbon from Miami!

I broke the fast at a Portuguese restaurant with a typical Portuguese sea food meal at the walking street near Praca dos restauradores in Lisboa, Portugal.

Quickly through passport control. The police officer looks at the passport and then at you, and within thirty seconds that interaction is finished and you are standing in front of the x ray machines with your shoes and belts on, but with the computer out of the bag…

Civilized, the French

You feel that the security people who are at the gates here were there to serve you.

No shouting at the top of their lungs, no liquids, no shoes, no belts, take off everything removable you are wearing, no cellphones, no change…

Quick and pleasant, a compliment to the French

The flight was slightly delayed, it gave us an opportunity to have café and pain au chocolat, and boarded leisurely on to a full flight ( they had oversold the flight and wanted to know whether we would give up our seats for the reward of a return ticket or 400 Euros, No, I was quite eager to reach Israel)


Brand names are very important for business, of course.. Virgin Atlantic Airlines for example, the jumping Kangaroo on Qantas tails, EL AL has a good one with the blue star of David…as you entered the final stages of boarding the aircraft, you saw the symbols for Continental, American Airlines ( I am Platinum Frequent Flier on both these), Air Canada, which has also a recognizable symbol.. there was a slight difference to the ambience of the EL AL parking lot..

There was a tank with two soldiers fully armed guarding the plane. There were other policemen and army people patrolling the area around the departure lounge..

I felt very very safe and thanked the young Israelis for keeping Israel and the mischpochah safe…

Later I thought I would write a short note to EL AL in Paris:

Dear Sir,

What I saw at the security point for El Al at CDG on 5th October, was courteous, professional, discreet and respectful.

I am a Frequent Flier ( Platinum Elite on Continental/Skyteam and American Airlines/Oneworld)

And it was quite gratifying to see young Israeli men and women protecting the traveler and Israel.

Toda Raba.

Medical Anthropology, Marginalization and MI CUBA

Medical Anthropology is not about medicine,  but about Society. It is a tool in which we can divert the gaze of the academics who focus on rituals and symbolism to the more fundamental causes of suffering and violence in our societies, in a predictive manner, so that the information collected from societies and cultures would be useful not only to understand the exotic nature of human thinking but also prevent the all the more prevalent abuse against human beings, usually exotic people, who live marginalized in oppressive societies:  Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia in case of American Indians, and also the seemingly integrated aboriginal populations of Canada, USA, Aotearoa and Australia, who have much in common

Marginalization happens to every one, they don’t have to be exotic. Women who are partners of men with emotional, psychological and addictive problems, even though they may not share a common culture, but become marginalized, especially if the economic situation is unsteady. We always talk about human rights in Colombia, but what is the root cause of that? It is the same root cause of violence in Mexico, Peru, Honduras and other countries in the hemisphere.

No one pays attention to the fact that majority of the Mexican immigrants are paid less than normal, but they emphasize the fact that very few Mexicans graduate from American high schools where they reside, but they don’t make the connection. 

I still remember very clearly, one of my first visits to an Indian Reservation, and discussing the possibilities of Diabetes Prevention. Of course the discourse was strictly on technical terms: low fat food, more exercise, such as is continued to this day. An elderly Lakota man got up and said: Outsiders think Diabetes and Alcoholism are our main problems, but for us, the main problem is lack of employment. Give us jobs and you would see how quickly Diabetes and alcoholism disappears. At that time, I was also working with Alabama-Coushatta tribe of Texas, an anomalous cultural entity in that, they are deeply Presbyterian but they never lost their language. Also they had one of the highest rates of employment among the Indian tribes and one of the lowest rates of alcoholism. The connection did not go unnoticed by me but to this day, the linear thinking of the western mind, look for cause and effect, and expect correction of deficits and deficiencies, with money put into mechanical projects which produces very little result.


Miami with its Cuban connection has always been endearing to my heart. I still get a nice feeling when the plane lands in Miami. My love affair goes back to the day in August when I arrived here to pursue graduate studies, and then became part of the university medical/hospital system for many years. I wouldn’t have believed that it was an artificial system, the artificial city we lived in , breathed and slept in . Long hours in the hospital, cafeteria food, hours and hours in the Medical Library, and friends from all over the world who shared the same time and space.

I would have met thousands of people at this artificial ambience (during my 5 years there), virtually thousands, but I do not have a single friend from those days. We spent so much time together, perhaps not because we wanted to , but we did not have any choice.

I met just one of them, recently at the meeting. An Ecuadorian, who was selected to come to Miami on the promise that he would go back and strengthen the faculty of medicine where he had graduated, inculcating new knowledge and methodologies. He is still here, 20 years later, part of the conservative and oppressive system of Disease Care, apart from the selfish fact that he has made lots of money, he has contributed nothing, he has done nothing and he has betrayed his country, betrayed those invited him to come here. I fully agree with Fidel Castro, if the educated ones wish to betray their country, then they will have to pay a price, since it is the materialistic dream that drives them to betray their countries of origin.  Perhaps in the future, it would be possible to live in two different countries and work under two situations, one to make money and other to spend money and thus achieving a balance of sorts.

This is the artificiality of Life

Where Literature does not exist, when you mention Literature to a doctor, what comes to his mind is the medical journals published independently or with the help of drug companies in this country.

As an exercise, I used to ask my students ( in Medicine, you teach someone just a year behind you) to write poems or at least recite poems.

I said without shame, if you don’t know the opening verses of Poema 20 de Pablo Neruda, don’t go on telling me about your latin American heritage.

In Cuba, a well read country, on evenings when we had nothing better than our company to content with, we used to outdo one another with first and last lines of well thumbed books .. but from memory

Books of Gabriel Garcia marquez was my forte… On the day he was going to be murdered, Santiago Nasser… I would drone on..and someone would say.. How did the following story end, and would name the story and someone would chirp in…and we would all laugh with contenement.  The sheer pleasure of having read and remembered, and regurgitate for further pleasure, in a country where there is very little instant pleasures other than sex between consenting adults


vendredi 5 décembre 2008

The Bald Men of Sind... I have Sind

Historical Past and Modern Endocrinology

General Napier of the British Army in the employ of the East India Trading Company, with a meagre resource of 500 european and 4500 “native” soldiers faced a formidable army of Sindhi Warriors in the Province of Sindh. There were 26000 soldiers ready to annihilate the Infidel from England.

Napier was a brilliant soldier and he defeated the Sindhis not once but twice.

For those of you acquainted with one of the more Christian prayers, you would understand the pun, when Napier telegraphed London


Bald Men of Sind, Can they grow hair?

Darwin and the 'toothless men of Sind'

In 1875, Charles Darwin described an ectodermal dyspasia affecting the members of a Hindu kindred near Hyderabad:

"I may give an analogous case, communicated to me by Mr W Wedderburn, of a Hindoo family in Scinde, in which ten men, in the course of four generations, were furnished, in both jaws taken together, with only four small and weak incisor teeth and with eight posterior molars. The men thus affected have very little hair on the body, and become bald early in life. They also suffer much during hot weather from excessive dryness of the skin. It is remarkable that no instance has occurred of a daughter being affected...though the daughters in the above family are never affected, they transmit the tendency to their sons: and no case has occurred of a son transmitting it to his sons. The affection thus appears only in alternate generations, or after long intervals."

In 1989, they found children belonging to three closely related families with a mutation of the Vitamin D receptor and the classic picture of Vitamin  D deficiency Rickets. I am not saying that the Bald Men of Sind had Vitamin  D  receptor anomalies but it is interesting to speculate..

Vitamin D receptor mediates the biological actions of 1,25 Hydroxy Vitamin D, lacking which, there would be abnormalities in the ion homeostasis, leading to OSTEOMALACIA, RICKETS, HYPERPARATHYROIDISM .  These people also are noted to have alopecia ( that is why I began this note with the Bald Men of Sind!)

Replenishing these people with Vitamin D, the direct action corrects the secondary hyperparathyroidism, osteomalacia and Rickets but alors, not ALOPECIA..

It seems that ALOPECIA is due to impaired Vitamin D receptor action in the keratinocyte component of hair follicle, thus requiring another pathway!

Alas.. for the Bald men of Sind, they won’t break bones or have bowed legs but will have to wear a Toupee!

jeudi 4 décembre 2008

Among the UmOnHoN people

   with a Macussi Indian Child in Southern Guyana
   The world Chocolate  is an Indian word..Aztec Xocalatl
The journey to the Indians is always arduous.. first of all there is the trip to the USA.. My flight from Paris had to take a detour over Spain and Portugal and Azores and then go north to Boston and come down to New York, adding two hours to the trip. ( I am sure there was bad weather along the northern, more usual route from Europe). The flight was near empty and the journey was monotonous. I tried to read ( Tim Parks: Dreams of Rivers and Seas, it so happens it is a about an anthropologist but set in India), but couldnt concentrate, the food was just average.. even though the Air France Lounge at CDG had Moet and Chandon... a good start to the journey. The arrival at New York Airport was civil and without pain. The long wait, the night already dropping before 6 pm and the intense darkness through which yet another three hours of journey to a town where the temperature on arrival was MINUS 6 degrees Centigrade.. past midnight.. nearly a day to get here..Checking into the hotel, I ask myself.. why? and on waking up, I realize that I am going to the Indian country and there would be so much joy and contentment waiting for me and not to mention laughter and genuine affections.. My association with American Indians have been one of the best gifts in this life for me.. Thank the Spirits.. 
Next morning, reminded that I am in America, Food is a problem, stock up on some organic food for the few days I am in this country. Huge Car at the Rent A Car, they are being kind by giving me a huge car, I ask for a downgrade, but i need a car with a radio so that i can listen to BBC radio while driving up north to the Indian reservation.
The time goes quickly, the road is straight and without much to look at. The trees are bare of their leaves.  BBC World Service.. and The Economist.. you can keep yourself informed.  Not even the NPR, which is the best of the lot available in the USA can hold a candle to BBC or the Economist when it comes to its coverage.. Just different tunes I suppose..
The item on BBC world news said that by all reckoning Somalia is the most undernourished country on this planet, a pathetic honour. The world focuses on Pirates on the Gulf of Aden, but one hundred thousand Somali are at risk of perishing. No food, Little Rain, Poverty making them eat the animals they need to survive..War lords and no law of the land..
Just one blink, my mind goes back to Seattle where I was less than one month ago.. one of the common sites at the Seattle Tacoma Airport is the number of Somali people working ( another airport where their presence is felt is Minneapolis).. but these somalis are far away from the borders of malnutrition.. malnourished indeed but all were obese or overweight.. what is the lesson? a people who have undergone undernourishment and a mechanism to protect themselves during the times of famine, have no protection in the land of plenty.. I was told by a professor from University of Washington that Somalis have the highest rate of obesity, Diabetes and hypercholesterolemia among the migrants of that part of the world.. Poor Somalis.. so much suffering , whether in the Horn of Africa or Seattle.. 
That made me think, all non european people who have undergone some form of mass extermination: American Indians, Somalis, Cambodians.. when they are resettled in one form of another.. the degenerative diseases of the Europeans descend upon them.. High Cholesterol, Obesity, Diabetes.. There has to be a relationship to the Trauma!  but how to find out its contribution? at least it would give us a way to attend to those people who have suffered the trauma, now have additional physical and emotional burdens of western diseases...
Tomorrow at the Clinic of the American Indians, one after another of the patients would come, with cheerful faces, hearty smiles and wonderful stories.. It is difficult to imagine the difficult life they lead in their own land, now disposessed and disenfranchised.. descendants of another genocide by the European arrivals less than three hundred years ago.. 
Time to go to bed and be fresh for the Indian patients...Just to spoil them, not the milk chocolates of the usa or uk, but Le Roux from  Quiberon, the best chocolatier in France.. a little bite..

mardi 2 décembre 2008

What a Lovely Day in Paris

I had to make a couple of changes of Metro and suburban trains to reach the home of Dr Keuky. As always a pleasure to see him and the time went quickly disucssing the drafted document  by Daniel Liew and Yong Mun Ching for the Five Year Plan of Cambodian Diabetes Association. After the meeting I was glad I was going to Kuala Lumpur after giving the presentation in Cochin on December 19th. I had been invited to Calcutta and it would have been great especially in light of the literature I have been reading, but in Calcutta there is no chance I can do anything for Cambodia but in Kuala Lumpur in the company of MunChing something good will come out for cambodia and Diabetes there.
After leaving Dr keuky's house i went to the EDF DiversiTerre Foundation near the Metro Sevre Babylon where they were holding an exhibition on Rapa Nui, Ille de Paques.. Easter Island. it was in September 2003 that I visited Rapa Nui on an impulse and for the next eighteen months my life took a different direction, with various meetings in Buenos Aires, Bangalore, Pondicherry, Yangon and finally in Tokyo, Takaoka and Hokkaido. Felt a little nostalgic about the faces in the photographs and thought about the first rapa nui graduate of medicine, Carolina who should be finishing her studies now in Cuba. It would be nice to see her settle into the Hospital in Hanga Roa and administering care to her friends and relatives. Such is the gift of Cuba.. I am sure there are more students from Rapa Nui studying medicine in Cuba at the moment..
Feeling elated, Dr Keuky, the thought of returning to Cochin, a reunion with MunChing and Daniel.. i wanted to finish the last few chapters of Amitav Ghosh's book The Calcutta Chromosome.
I was so engrossed in the book that in one short trip i missed the stations TWICE!  the book is exciting in content, intriguing in its direction, enchanting in its historical associations and a biting commentary on the current social situation. Amitav Ghosh has written a number of tomes:
my favourites have been The Glass Palace (history of Burma and the Indian national Army woven into it), The Hungry Tide about the Sunderbans and the excellent recent novel The Sea of Poppies.. nothing short of excellent.  When a writer can transport your mind into another state of equilibrium and excitement, it is the best medicine, better than all the anti oxidants in the tea in China!  I am taking this book to KL so that my friends there can read it.. 
I had asked Romesh Menon, owner of Dal Roti in Fort Cochin after Arvind Adiga had won the Booker Prie  this year for his White Tiger, why such a resurgence of writing in India in recent years. My dear Chap, he swelled with pride, India always had great writers, it is only recently the publishers started taking a chance on them, and they are now laughing all the way to the bank..
here is an excerpt from the book  The Calcutta Chromosome
for what we have here is a biological expression of human traits that is neither inheerited from the immediate gene pool, nor transmitted into it. It's exactly the kind of entitty tthat would be hardest for a conventional scientist to accept. Biologists are under so much pressure to bring their findings into line with poiltics: right wing politicians sit on them to find geners for everything, from poverty to terrorism, so then they'll have an alibi for castrating the poor or nuking the Middle East. The left goes ballistic if they say anyting at all about the biological expression of human traits: it is all consciousness and soul at that end of the spectrum

Good Read  Highly Recommended
A visit to Rapa Nui  Isla de Pasuca Ille de Pacques  Easter Island  is good for a traveller
Good to have a friend like Mun Ching

A Bientot...