What a difference two weeks make

October 29, 2006

from July 2001 

Rebels Attack 2 Crucial Airports in Sri Lanka Riot Anniversary.”  That’s how the New York Times reported it.  I was dumbstruck as I read on.  The international airport just outside of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, was attacked early Tuesday morning by members of the LTTE separatist group.  I had just been through that same airport twice less than two weeks ago on a short side-trip from southern India.  I was startled upon arrival, as were bussed across the tarmac from our plane to the terminal, when I saw a young soldier, large automatic rifle slung across his front as he stood by his sentry post and watched us pass.  He seemed pleased as our eyes met after mine had widened at the sight of the gun.  A few days later, more accustomed to the police and military presence everywhere, the only thought I had as I crossed the same stretch of tarman to my flight was “Poor guy.  What a job, standing out there for hours on end under the hot sun, in a wool beret, no less.”

But what echoed in my ears as I read this morning’s news were the words of one of the two men who drove me to Bandaranaike International Airport in the middle of a hot, humid Wednesday.   At each checkpoint on the road leading up to the airport, a young soldier in blue and navy fatigues peered into our minivan, and viewed the driver and his partner’s identification cards, while another soldier checked under the body of the vehicle, and several others stood around, surveying us.   I commented to Ganesh, the grey-eyed, thirtysomething
man  seated in the front passenger seat, about the number of times we had to stop on this road.   He scoffed, shaking his head, and said, “If Prabhakaran wanted to hit this airport, he could.”    (Veluppillai Prabhakaran heads the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.)

How right he was.  

According to news reports, somewhere between 14 and 20 members of the LTTE attacked a Sri Lankan Air force base and the adjoining international airport in the inky darkness of 3 a.m.  In addition to blowing up several military planes, the group also attacked several commercial aircraft belonging to Sri Lankan Airlines’ fleet, and the losses to the company are estimated at $350 million.  

On TV, I saw all that remained of one Airbus: a black hull tenuously attached to the still-white tail section, emblazoned with the red, green and orange logo, a fluid figure I had mistaken for a chili pepper or tamarind pod.   I later discovered it is intended to be a modern spin on the previous logo, a peacock.  The larger, center swath of red is the bird’s body, and the smaller splashes, green on one side, orange on the other, are supposed to be the wings.   I seemed to recall reading about the national carrier having some accidents over the last few years, one of which was suspected to have been caused by an LTTE bomb, so I thought my odds might be slightly better on the harried and overworked Indian Airlines.

I was only in Sri Lanka for a few days and consciously avoided being the first to bring up the subject of the ongoing Tamil-Sinhalese war, purposely hanging back to see if and when others would discuss it.

My hostess, part of an affluent and influential Tamil family, spoke about the situation my first night in Colombo.  As we ate dinner by kerosene lanterns, waiting for the evening’s power cut to end, she told me that the land on the Jaffna peninsula in the north is very poor quality, so the Tamils, the majority population
who live there, have always had to work twice as hard just to get by.   “But in the south,” my elegant, sixtieish dinner companion continued, “you could eat a mango, throw the seed over your shoulder, and two years later a mango tree would pop up; the land’s so fertile here.”

On the forty-five minute drive from the city to the airport , Ganesh, originally from Jaffna, told what it was like for him, as a Tamil, to live in Colombo.  He came to the capital to look for work, as the war had killed off most job prospects up north.   Now he had a business as a contractor, doing various house repairs, and he also had a travel business, taking tourists with this driver and minivan sightseeing around the island nation.   Tourists from Europe and Australia, scared off for several years by the war and its fall-out around the
country, were just starting to come back this year.

Ganesh complained of being stopped and harassed by police, like many other Tamils, he said.  “If you ask me where I am from, I will tell you I am Sri Lankan.   But they,” he continued, motioning outside the window, to indicate the Sinhalese majority who  live in the south and west of the country, “want me to say that I am Sri
Lankan Tamil, just like they will say they are Sri Lankan Sinhalese.”

“Look at this,” he said as he handed me his weathered i.d. card, the plastic laminate curling off the edges.  I looked at his picture and the text, scanning the curves and curlicues of Sinhalese script.   “Do you see my name there?” he asked.

“This is only in Sinhalese,” he explained, taking the card back. “No Tamil, no English, the way everything is supposed to be.”   As he said this, I recalled the street signs in Colombo, how they had indeed contained all three languages.

“That’s all we want: to be equal.”   He continued, gesturing with his hands for emphasis, his voice raising slightly, “I don’t want a separate Eelam.  I want one Sri Lanka.   But I want us to be equal.”

Ganesh told me a story I had heard several times already during my short stay in Colombo, about an incident that happened just a few days back, where a young Tamil woman and her husband were stopped late at night at a checkpoint in the city.   The husband was ordered by the police to go get tea for them.  While he was gone, his wife was raped by the six policemen there.

We were almost at the airport, on the two-mile long road punctuated by three army checkpoints.   As Ganesh handed his i.d. card to the first young, serious soldier who stopped us,  I couldn’t help but notice as he examined the card and its owner, how his features shifted and stiffened, just slightly, but enough to notice.  He gestured toward me and Ganesh explained I was headed for an international flight.  I looked out at the blue figures circling our van, all with steely expressions.   As much as I was struck by the physical beauty of the country – red soil, lush greenery and flowers everywhere, colorful statues of Buddha, Hindu gods and Christian saints lining the roadsides – the ride to the airport, coupled with a stop at a police checkpoint the night before, made me glad to be heading back to India.

More than two hours early for my flight, I anticipated even heavier airport security checks than when I left Madras for Colombo (three luggage inspections and one pat-down by a female guard), but I was wrong.   After one x-ray scan, I checked in and my bags were gone.  Later, when the flight was called for boarding, I walked through the metal detector and it beeped, prompting a young woman in a security uniform to step toward me.

“Oh, ” I said, holding out my right hand to show her a heavy silver bangle on my wrist,”it must be either this or the coins in my pocket.”

I expected to be asked to remove both coins and bangle to walk through the detector again, but she just said “Oh, ok” and smiled, waving me on.   “Great security,” I muttered to myself, as I headed out to get the bus to the plane.  A full bus had just departed, and an airport official came over and told myself and the other passengers who had gathered “The plane is right over there.   You can walk to it if you don’t want to wait for the next bus.”  And off we plodded across the tarmac in the July afternoon sun.   “Is this wise?” I wondered, musing on the safety of allowing passengers to wander around airplane docking areas like we were.  “Probably not, ” I concluded, as I glanced at that lone soldier standing by his sentry post and climbed the stairway to my Indian Airlines Airbus.      

Sergeant Anthony

October 28, 2006

Are you the kind of person who examines the name and photo of your cab driver on the permit inside the plexiglass while he drives you to your destination?  Do you look at police badges too?  If so, you’ll notice there are still quite a few cops with Irish and Italian names, the two major immigrant groups whose sons joined the NYPD in droves after disembarking in New York harbor.  You’ll also see quite a few Castros and Garcias, as another large immigrant group joins the blue fold.  But what about Indians, or Indian-Americans?  You never see the name Chatterjee or Chopra on an NYPD badge.  Or do you?

While rushing through Grand Central one morning, as a cop walked past me, I noticed the black letters engraved in the shiny badge: J-A-G-N-A-T-H.  It turns out there are police officers who have roots in South Asia after all.  Further research revealed that the number of Asians in the New York Police Department increased from 5 percent in 2000, up to 6 in 2002.  Though the data is not broken down to indicate what percentage of those officers are from India or of Indian origin, unofficial estimates are 20.

Given how the Asian Indian population in the U.S. increased by almost 106 percent between 1990 and 2000, and that in the New York City area, according to the 2000 Census, the number of Indians doubled and grew faster than any other Asian group in that decade; you might wonder why this group isn’t better represented in the NYPD. 

There could be several explanations.  In the 1960s, the majority of Indians coming to the U.S. were often doctors, arriving to fill a need here, much like the many computer professionals since the mid-1990s.  Meantime, back in the 1980s, working class Indians started arriving in larger numbers, and they found jobs in small grocery stores, as taxi drivers in the NYC area, and also in motels and hotels around the U.S.

It’s not difficult to understand the lack of interest for first generation emigrés given the low salaries and risks that police work entails. 

But that’s changing.  Starting around 1990, several men who had either left India and come to New York as young children, or who were born here to Indian parents, joined the NYPD.  One sub-group of that population are four policemen whose roots are in the southern Indian state of Kerala, a particularly green and lush region, a part of that country known for the abundance of coconut found growing everywhere and used liberally a cooking ingredient.  It is also as the place in India with a high percentage of Syrian Christians, who are easily identified by family surnames like Anthony, Thomas, and Abraham.  One of those four men is Sergeant Thomas Anthony.

Tommy Anthony’s mother and father came to the U.S. in 1957 and settled in Brooklyn.  Mr. Anthony completed an MBA at NYU and went on to run a seafood business.  Mrs. Anthony is a professor in microbiology who still teaches today at New York Technical College in Brooklyn.  They arrived in the U.S. with a young daughter and later had another daughter and one son, Thomas.  In 1984 they moved to Woodmere, Long Island.  Thomas recounts a pretty typical suburban childhood aside from one year during high school when his father thought that an Indian education might do him well, and sent him to stay at an uncle’s in Bombay.  However, it became complicated, he explains, for the Indian school’s administration to reconcile the differences between his Long Island transcripts and their requirements, and he ended up back in Woodmere a year later, his graduation from high school slightly delayed. 

Thomas recalls that like almost any young boy, he dreamed of being a fireman and a policeman and even a cowboy.  At age 19, he volunteered and joined the Woodmere Fire Department.  (All Long Island fire departments are made up of volunteers.)  “I’m an adrenaline junkie,” Tommy says and laughs, “I enjoy the excitement.  Besides, the way I see it, the fire department, and the police department too, are all about public service, like the Kiwanis or Lions Clubs, but with fire trucks.”  In 1993, Thomas applied and was accepted into the NYPD, starting out in the Transit Police.  While grateful for the experience, he recalls “It’s not what I really wanted to do.  You’re on foot all day and the world goes by very slowly.” 

Two years later he transferred to the Special Operations Division, to a homeless outreach program.  He expressed frustration at seeing the same people falling back into the same situations, never making their way out of drug or alcohol addictions.  He left that department a year ago, and notes that in the time since he left, the department’s approach to the homeless has changed and more are arrested now, for things like aggressive panhandling, urinating in public and trespassing. 

For the past year, Thomas has worked at Highway Patrol 1, in the part of the NYPD responsible for traffic accident investigations, DWI enforcement, and now, in this post-9/11 time, using radiation detectors at truck checkpoints.  He readily admits: “You’re not gonna get rich in the police force, but you make a lot of friends, you’ll be at parades and the MTV Music Awards, a lot of high profile events.  Plus, there’s a certain prestige to the clout you have; I mean, you’re running the city really.”

He says he hasn’t had a hard time as an Indian-American in the NYPD, a group that has faced a lot of criticism in the past for the treatment meted out to minorities.  Tommy says: “It takes a strong personality to be a cop anyway.  You have to have a lot of chutzpah to deal with things.  On top of that I have pretty thick skin and I like sarcasm and jokes.  So if one of the guys says to me ‘Hey, Tommy, does your Mom wear sheets?’ I’ll come right back at him and say ‘Didn’t your Momma teach you anything in that trailer when you were growing up?'”  

When he’s not on duty or serving on the volunteer fire department, where he was promoted to captain in 1998, Thomas is out on his motorbike, his jet ski or his boat.  “I love to be on the water, with the smell of the sea, just relaxing.”  He’s single and lives less than two miles from his parents in Woodmere, who are mainly retired now.  His daschund lives there too and Tommy makes frequent visits to see all three of them.  At 36, after living his entire life in New York, he speaks Malayalam fluently, though he hasn’t been able to write the curvy figure-eights of the script since he was little boy.  His mother still makes lots of savory south Indian dishes from Kerala, brimming with coconut and fish.  “She’s no macaroni and cheese girl,” he says with a smile.

Thomas will be taking a promotion exam and later on would like to do intelligence work.  He is in touch with several other Indian-American cops, and while he may officially be a member of the Asian Jade Society, the only organization for NYPD members of Asian origin, he doesn’t seem overly involved or concerned about his status as one of a small ethnic minority on the force. 

Tommy guesses that as more and more second and third generation Indian-American children grow up here, more will be bitten by the adrenaline, or public service, bug and join the force.  He says the job is challenging and rewarding.  “I meet 15 or 20 new people every day, and you take away something from every interaction.” 


October 27, 2006

Duke University Primate Center’s most eligible bachelor is still without a mate, and it’s hard to figure out why.  He’s got long, muscular legs, chestnut eyes that blaze when they focus on you and soft, lush fur that ranges from white to gray to orange depending on which side of him you see.   Romeo is a nine-year-old Diademed sifaka from Madagascar.  

Sifakas are just one of the many kinds of lemurs living, and increasingly dying, or more likely, being killed, on the African island nation that has been so badly deforested its red soil can be seen from space as it bleeds into the ocean.  The Diademeds gets their name from the crown of black fur at the top of the head that contrasts with the white fur framing their black faces and muzzles. 

Romeo’s a lanky sort of lemur, about the height of a small child, and his strong leg muscles lift him with grace as he bounds from branch to branch, with an occasional sojourn on the ground.  Like most lemurs, he’s unafraid of humans, and actively curious about the ones he comes in contact with.  He’ll approach you, doing that gliding sideways hop that sifakas do, examine you with his eyes, maybe leaning the cool palm of his black hand on your arm as he studies any object you might be carrying.  If he wants to play, his mouth will open enough that you can see his pink tongue (but not his teeth, since that would be threat) and his eyes will seem to brighten.  Conversely, a quick toss of the head backward is a deliberate threat, and several of them in succession means you might want to come back tomorrow.  

Romeo relocated to Durham, North Carolina when he was only five months old.  His mother, Titania, was darted by Dr. Ken Glander, then director of the primate center, who was out on an expedition to find the endangered Diademed sifakas, and bring them back to Duke for observation and breeding.  Romeo is one of the many kinds of lemurs found on Madagascar, and like the rest of his prosimian relatives there, his kind are threatened with extinction.   People are so poor that they keep burning tracts of land to clear it so they can grow rice, the mainstay of their diet.  As the land burns, the trees that provide the likes of Romeo and his cousins with leaves to eat are destroyed.  On top of losing their homes and food sources, lemurs, especially the larger sifakas, are hunted for food.  In fact, the Malagasy name for Romeo’s particular type of lemur translates as “it takes two days to eat them”.

Romeo and Titania came close to missing the boat, or plane as it were.  Dr. Glander had been searching for Diademed sifakas near Andasibe, a town north of the capital, Antananarivo, for seven days.  The expedition had begun well enough.  Three days into it, Ken had found and caught one young male, later christened Oberon, who he held in a kennel back at the hotel.  But by the end of seven days, Ken was in the last thirty minutes of the hike back to town, feeling dejected and all prepared to release Oberon, since a single male lemur isn’t much use when you’re hoping to breed them.  And then all of a sudden Ken spotted Titania up in a tree and took aim.  As the tranquilizer took effect, the female Diademed slid down the trunk and into Ken’s arms, and that’s when he discovered Romeo clasped across her stomach, like a small orange fanny pack.  

The group of four primates, one human and three prosimian, embarked on the 22-hour pilgrimage back to the home of the Blue Devils.  On transit in Paris, the Air France pilots and flight crew joined Ken in heated belly of the plane to see how their special Malagasy passengers were doing.  Titania was holding Romeo in a motherly hug as Oberon peered out, bright-eyed, from his kennel.  “They were in better shape than I was,” Ken comments with a laugh.  

All three Diademeds seemed to adjust well to life in North Carolina until an inability to digest the calcium in their Monkey Chow slowly killed Oberon then Titania, leaving Romeo an orphan at age two.  Subsequent missions to find a mate have been unsuccessful, but the Primate Center continues to search.   

What Romeo may have missed in motherly love after Titania’s death, he got in huge quantities from the Primate Center staff, especially the techs.  They are the people who care for the Duke lemurs, feeding and observing them, cleaning up after them and helping the vet to care for them if they fall ill.   The girls especially will visit his spacious indoor/outdoor enclosure – almost the size a New York City studio apartment – and offer him the flowers from the mimosa trees on the grounds.  He gently accepts all offerings, holding the green stems upright – much like you or I would an ice cream cone – his flat black thumb wrapped around his fingers.  Romeo then quietly chews the fluffy pink sprigs, while basking in the glow of his admiring female fans, like Hugh Hefner at the mansion.


October 27, 2006

Welcome to my non-Filmiholic space, for anything and everything except Indian cinema.