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Reconstructing Human Migration TIME Hero Dr. NamPerumalsamy Good Samaritan R. Ramaiah

Contents July 2010 | Issue No. 8 Editor

Nandini Murali Assisted by

Ezhil Elango Media Relations Officer Coordinator

Joel Powel Abraham Sivakasi Projects Abroad Pvt. Ltd., Reporters and Designers:

Alicia Szarzynski Allen Worwood Brittany Shamess Catherine Gerst


MADURAI MESSENGER No. 17, T.P.K Road Pasumalai Madurai – 625004 Tamil Nadu India Tel. 0452-2370269 Cover Photo: Alicia Szarzynski Cover design : Alicia Szarzynski


03 Coming to Terms with the Past COVER STORY

04 The Great Human Migration 07 A Search for One’s Roots CULTURE

08 In the Name of God 10 Poetry in Stone PEOPLE

11 Dr. P. Namperumalsamy: A Vision for Vision WEEKEND WANDER

13 Toronto: Celebrating Diversity MAKING A DIFFERENCE

15 R. Ramiah: The Gift of Faith BOOK REVIEW

16 The Bookseller of Kabul: A Look at Afghanistan from the Inside Out FILM REVIEW

17 Raavanan: Old Wine in a New Bottle

Editor’s Corner

Coming to Terms with the Past I live in an avian paradise. From October onwards, the winged visitors frequently fly past my house. I crane my neck skywards to see a dazzling formation that rivals the world’s best air shows. As the birds slice through the azure blue sky, I wonder…. About many things, most of all, the mystery of life. Where do these avian journeys originate and where do they end, if at all? Are the birds obsessed with their destination? Or are they content to just fly with the flow; savoring every moment; with an inherent wisdom that the journey is the only Path; the only Way. What are the birds are seeking? Is it just a refuge from the barren winter? Or is it something more— the soul’s deep yearning to traverse the cosmic highway of life in search of a higher reality? Often, I too wish I could travel as lightly as birds do: spread my wings and soar, float, flip and flop, with a lightness of being…. Ultimately, all journeys are journeys of the Spirit. Recently I was in the Silent Valley Forest Reserve in Kerala. I walked into the unknown, both literally and metaphorically. Being a seasoned city dweller meant I had to negotiate the jungle terrain in the absence of road maps and directions. Along my wanderings, I also learnt to trust my instinct; to listen to my inner wisdom; to just be. This brings me to another interesting aspect that manifested during my sojourn in the wild. As I walked along, I felt I was part of the environment. Wayne Dyer in Manifest Your Destiny uses the term “environorganism” to describe this feeling of interconnectedness and inseparability of the organism and environment. Rather than viewing ourselves as organisms in the environment, he invites us to view ourselves as extensions of the environment and inseparable from it. Such an organic world view reveals our connection with everything around us—to the five panchabhutas or the five elements: earth, water, wind, fire, and sky. Nothing like a foray into the forest to experience such awareness. I love to wander… travel, seek… it is my basic need to explore and express myself. Doing so I begin to discover myself and confront aspects of myself that I was unaware of or even refused to acknowledge. Which is why I was amazed to know that the need to journey is deeply human. About 70,000 years ago, our human ancestors migrated all the way from Africa via the East Coast of India to Australia. The discovery of the ancient gene marker M 130 in 14 people in a village near Madurai provides scientific credence to the fact that we live in an interrelated and interconnected world: part of One Family. Borders and divides are creations of the mind and isn’t it time we realised that this is the Maya that keeps us separate and apart not only from others but ourselves too?

Nandini Murali

Madurai Messenger July 2010


Cover Story

The Great Human Migration The ancient gene marker ‘M130’ discovered in 14 people in Jothimanickam village outside Madurai proves that the first human migration out of Africa into India took place 70, 000 years ago. Brittany Shamess and Allen Worwood unravel the complex genetic mystery. have been in high demand by other researchers interested in India. To avoid complications, h o w e v e r, Pitchappan had declined to share the samples with other scientists until one fated day in Oxford. While at the university as a guest lecturer, A Series of Convergences Pitchappan met As we sat down to talk with immunologist a young scientist Dr. RM. Pitchappan, a driving force working for behind the discovery, we realised Spencer Wells. how remarkable it is that one gene Wells, a mutation has proven to be the missing r e n o w n e d Immunologist Dr. RM. Pitchappan, School of Biological Sciences, MKU puzzle in the greatest human journey g e n e t i c i s t “Everything was done in two weeks, and just how fascinating it is that the and anthropologist, had previously it was very fascinating,” recalls Dr. discovery was made. As Pitchappan asked Pitchappan for his Indian Pitchappan. The research had been puts it, “All discoveries are accidents,” DNA samples and been refused. completed so quickly because Wells and this one is certainly no different. Nevertheless, Pitchappan met with had struck gold with Pitchappan’s DNA Wells again in Oxford after the chance samples. Jothimanickam, the very Talking with Dr. RM. Pitchappan, we encounter with Wells’ colleague. village that had fascinated Pitchappan get a first hand account of how this so many years ago was found to be the amazing discovery came together. DNA: The Missing Link home of 14 people with the M130 gene. The story begins in the 1980s, when Wells was working on a human migration Why is the M130 gene marker so Dr. Pitchappan was researching the project and was tracking the first human important? M130 is a mutation that immunological basis for tuberculosis migration out of Africa. Archeological can be found on the Y chromosome. and leprosy at the Madurai Kamaraj evidence proved that our ancestors The Y chromosome is responsible for University. After collecting DNA left Africa and traveled to Australia, but male sex characteristics and certain samples from various populations there was no archaeological remains to sections of it pass from father to son in Madurai and its surrounding area, suggest that they traveled across the without any change. M130 is one of Pitchappan became fascinated by coast of India. Wells was stumped and the most ancient gene markers and is Jothimanickam village, where one in needed Pitchappan’s DNA samples carried by descendents of the African two of its inhabitants have the gene to see if perhaps evidence of the migrants. Essentially, the identification disposing them for both tuberculosis coastal migration remained in the of the M130 gene in the surrounding and leprosy. Little did he know, in genes of India’s people. Fortunately, area of Madurai proves that the first a few years time the genes of those Wells’ second meeting with human migration to Australia was same inhabitants would lead him into Pitchappan convinced the scientist embarked upon via India. It also means a completely different field of research. of the significance of the project and that the 14 people with the M130 Pitchappan agreed to contribute his gene in the Jothimanickam are direct Owing to the comprehensive nature Indian DNA samples to the project. descendants of the first settlers in India. of Pitchappan’s DNA samples, they

Over the course of one’s life, it is not uncommon to ask the question: Who am I? Unfortunately, this question has proven to be particularly challenging, and people often struggle to find a definitive answer. Today, thanks to the genius that is genetics and perhaps a little bit of luck, scientists have managed to answer at least one aspect of this multifaceted question. After discovering the ancient gene marker ‘M130’ in 14 people in Jothimanickam, a village outside of Madurai, scientists were able to confirm the first human migration out of Africa that took place 70, 000 years ago. That is to say, scientists have been able to verify that every single human being has the same ancestors from Africa.


Madurai Messenger July 2010

Cover Story families in the world have a single father. The only differences are colours and languages.”

Mr. Virumandi Andithevar

One of the 14 people to have the M130 marker is a 32-year-old senior systems engineer, Virumandi Andithevar. It was extremely interesting meeting him as he is a proud, direct descendent of the very first settlers of India. It must have been a monumental occasion when one’s entire existence is newly defined in an instant.

From Disbelief to Acceptance

Virumandi says, “Suddenly being told that you have this gene is shocking. Myself, I was shocked.” However, along with this magnificent revelation, there was a genuine downside for Virumandi. When he initially became aware of the gene marker, he was not well received by some people. “During that time everyone was looking at me like I was another species. Some would say very bad curses.” Fortunately, with the help of Dr. Pitchappan and Wells, Virumandi and his acquaintances were ultimately able to better understand what this marker means, and he has since then become somewhat of a celebrity. Dealing with his new found fame quite well, Virumandi has been quick to understand the social significance of the discovery.

Unity, the Only Reality

When asked what these findings meant to him, Virumandi responded, “All the

Casting the Net Far and Wide

As Arun Kumar, one of Dr. Pitchappan’s assistants explained to us, “Populations have been sampled either at random or by village and particular caste system.” In fact, Virumandi isn’t the A saliva sample is obtained from each only person to realise how person and taken back to the laboratory exciting this discovery is - for genotyping. While thousands of finding the M130 marker Indians have already been sampled, in the Jothimanickam Arun Kumar is confident that they will village initiated a series soon reach their goal of thirty thousand of fascinating research samples, roughly one thousand from projects. When all each state of India. Such wide-ranging of the samples were samples will be of incredible value for collected and analysed, understanding the diversities in India. Pitchappan, Wells and Pitchappan explains that the DNA their team of researchers samples will give us information on published the first article the origin of the dispersal of people in on coastal migration India, how the cultural developments in the PNAS journal probably occurred, as well as where in 2001. The scientific expansions, isolations and migrations article was published in 2001 and occurred. In fact, they have already is titled The Eurasian Heartland: been able to determine that a huge A continental perspective on expansion in the human population took Y-chromosome diversity. It details their place in India thousands of years ago. scientific research and explains how gene markers can expose historical Along with the Genographic Project, migrations and patterns of settlement. two insightful documentaries have emerged out of the M130 discovery Genographic Project in Madurai. In 2003, Wells released The article was incredibly well received Journey of Man and in 2007 and even raised considerable interest The Story of India was broadcast from National Geographic and IBM. by BBC and presented by historian In 2005, The Genographic Project Michael Wood. The documentaries was launched as a global research have different focuses, but both project to map how humans populated interview Virumandi and draw the planet - it is led by Wells and attention to the M130 marker’s funded by National Geographic historical, anthropological and social and IBM. Eleven laboratories spread significance. Additionally, since the across five continents have been set findings of the Genographic Project up to collect samples and analyse have yet to be released to the the DNA—one of them in Madurai. public, these documentaries have been immeasurably important in The Genographic Laboratory is located bridging the divide between science at the School of Biological Sciences and the public understanding of it. at the Madurai Kamaraj University and is headed by Pitchappan. His Taking Science to People research centre has received one As Pitchappan puts it, “Science is million dollars from the Project and one thing, but taking science to the has been able to purchase state of people is something different.” Wells’ the art equipment, computers and documentary does an excellent job other field technologies. “Before we of answering some of the questions didn’t have the technology to handle the public might have. For example, all of this data,” explains Pitchappan, an explanation for the lack of but once the high quality equipment archaeological remains in India is given. was installed they became capable of It is suggested that ancient cities have testing DNA samples at a much faster been lost to the sea on the coast line, rate and collect even more samples. or even that cultural changes, like the Madurai Messenger July 2010


Cover Story British occupation may have played a role in the disappearance of evidence.

they had to. Their lives were at stake and with that knowledge, remarkable feats of stamina and endurance allowed them to travel hundreds of miles before finally reaching India.

Despite the clarity of the documentary, we still had several unanswered questions. Firstly, the term ‘coastal migration’ raises a multitude of Still, we must ask: Given the fact that questions in our minds. How did our people settled into India 70, 000 years ancestors, with nothing but their feet ago, how on earth has the gene marker to carry them, manage to travel all the survived all of those years? Again, way from their homeland to India and Arunkumar provided the answer. The beyond? Why did they leave in the first Jothimanickam village is quite isolated place? Were they forced to leave, or and practices endogamy. That is, they was it voluntary? only marry within their particular caste in the village. Because of this ancient In Search of New Horizons tradition, the genes and their markers According to Arun Kumar, there were of the Jothimanickam people have climatic problems due to the Ice been preserved and kept relatively pure. Age. Drought had caused the sea to recede 40 kilometers and there was It is obvious that Arun Kumar is no longer any opportunity to eat sea very passionate about the genetic food – humanity was on the verge of significance, but also extremely happy extinction. So basically, the theory is about the significance of the findings that humans were forced to look for in terms of anthropology. “It is an new horizons as the new climate made answer everyone wants to know: where it difficult for them to find adequate did I come from? So it is very exciting food. The answer to ‘how’ they made to know what route my ancestors the move is incredibly simple: because took to get where we are today.”

Mr. Arun Kumar of the Genographic Project


Madurai Messenger July 2010

Genetics throws Light on Human Evolution

As journalists, we simply had to put the question to him, are there any doubts? Any disputes over the findings? Arunkumar was resolute, “The discovery of the M130 marker in India proves that people migrated from Africa to India. There is no archeological evidence to suggest that humans passed through India to get to Australia, but the DNA proves that this migration did in fact happen.”

A Mammoth Trek

The significance of these findings should not be downplayed, nor restricted to historical importance. While Africa is the birthplace of humanity, it can now be said that India nourished humanity. It is in this wonderfully fertile country that our ancestors came to before venturing out into Australia, Europe and other parts of Asia. It is here that our ancestors rested after their mammoth trek from Africa, regaining their strength by feasting off the fertility and sustaining nature that is India.

Cover Story Furthermore, the importance of these findings span further than just India.

The World’s a Family

As Pitchappan puts it, “Humanity is the same.” We have this notion that race exists because we can’t see past skin colour; but in reality we all share the same DNA on the inside – we are all one people. The differences in our skin colour are merely evolutionary traits, occurring over time according to the whims of the climate – It is only natural that one should have darker skin to avoid damage from the hot sun, and hatred. Humanity could do well to lighter skin to allow in more sunlight take a look at the Genographic Project and trigger vitamin D production.” to remember just how much our ancestors had to endure to populate Regrettably, the very differences the planet; to understand the meaning bestowed upon humans to ensure behind the saying “We are all products their survival are now the reason of our environment”; and to reflect on behind so much strife and irrational the fact that we are all one big family.

Allen Worwood Somerset, UK Brittany Shamess Ontario, Canada

A Search for One’s Roots Alex Haley’s novel Roots is an epic tale, and since it’s release over thirty years ago it has come to be regarded as somewhat of a classic, with the hugely popular T.V. adaptation being viewed by over 130 million people in America. In the 700-page historical novel, Alex Haley literally traces back his own roots, starting in 1750 in Gambia, and ending with the funeral of his father. It is a story on a monumental scale, as within Roots Haley manages to encompass over 200 years of history. This is definitely not a piece of light reading, as the author’s language is incredibly detailed and has a multitude layers, from Kunte Kinte’s trials to Haley himself being at the centre of it all. Haley‘s masterpiece is definitely worth the undoubted hours of concentration required as this is a painfully emotive book, but it is also enlightening and educational to some degree. Since it’s release, Roots has received many a criticism in relation to plagiarism, an allegation which has been proven to be correct, due to the fact that Alex

Haley was ordered to pay 650,000 dollars for copying passages of the book from the novel, The African. Do not let this deter you from reading it though, just keep in mind that it is more for your reading entertainment than for historical enrichment. On that basis, Roots is a fantastic read. The contrast between the start, when you are told about Kunte’s life, growing up as man from the village of Juffure, and from the moment that he is enslaved is truly heartbreaking, yet the lives of his descendants are truly inspiring. Such feelings of love, duty and their way of life are dramatically altered by his enforced slavery, replaced by fear, anger, and pure injustice. It is shocking to think what humans are capable of, and how much ignorant damage we can do. Haley’s writing is a pleasure to read, such avid description really allows you to visualise every moment, Kunte’s trip from Africa to America being the standout part, as his journey is terrifyingly sickening while being simultaneously engrossing.

Madurai Messenger July 2010

Roots is a fascinating adventure to be taken on, as you are given a truly indepth insight into the African culture, the struggles that the African people have had to endure, while also seeing the history of humans in a whole new light.

Allen Worwood Somerset ,UK 7


In the Name of God Brittany Shamess reports on the centuries old cultural practice of piercing young boys’ ears in Soolakarai village, a custom done out of reverence to the presiding village deity, Ayyanar. After being instructed to remove your footwear before walking into the forest near the Soolakarai village, and staring in awe at the hundreds of majestic clay horses lining the pathway to the Ayyanar Temple, one cannot help but think, “I am entering a sacred space.” Or at least that’s how I felt as I walked towards the temple to meet two priests, Ayyappan and Chinnaiya with regard to a unique cultural practice in their village – piercing every young boy’s ears.

Sacred Space

The temple itself is modest. It is made out of natural materials from the area and takes on the appearance of a small hut. Everyday Ayyappan and Chinnaiya, two of only four people allowed to enter the temple, offer sacrifices to Ayyanar and prepare him meals presented on a purasai leaf. I was not allowed to enter inside the temple but the area surrounding Ayyanar’s abode is a stark contrast to the simple exterior of the hut. Breathtaking and daunting

Ayyanar‘s Soldiers


Ayyappan and Chinnaiya

statues of spirits tower over the temple, protecting Ayyanar. Their intricate clothing and menacing faces, painted in the most vibrant array of colours, make the peaceful greens of the forest appear dull. Their hands tote spears and knives, evoking a feeling of reverence and fear. They stand ominously beside monstrous horses, whose legs loom above us as I sit down to listen to Ayyappan and Chinnaiya explain why their ears have such large soolams (piercings).

iron bar to dig for edible roots. Unfortunately, while digging for his food he unknowingly pierced a statue of Ayyanar that was buried underground. Blood spurted out onto his face and he immediately became paralysed and soon died. For hours, the dog walked back and forth from his owner to the village, eventually succeeding in getting the people to follow him. When they saw what had happened, an old woman from the village became possessed by Ayyanar and relayed a message from the God. She informed the people The Origin of the Practice that Ayyanar was now deaf and that Male ear piercing is an obligation to all boys and men should pierce their Ayyanar that the people of the 1000 ears to recognise what has happened. -year old village abide by. They believe She also said that those who disregard that hundreds of years ago a man was the rule will face disease or death. The out hunting for deer in the forest with village listened. They immediately built his brothers and dog. When he be- a temple where the statue had been came hungry, and had been separated perforated and have been piercing the from his brothers, he decided to use an ears of all boys since that very day.

Madurai Messenger July 2010

Culture dreds of years; some of the horses are nearly decaying, while others are still vivid in colour. Furthermore, every year the village hosts a festival in honour of Ayyanar. Ayyappan speaks with pride as he reports that the festival draws in hundreds of people who come to watch the priest become possessed by a spirit and walk over a plate of nails without injuring himself. This year, he adds, the village saw an addition of 237 new horses because of the festival. Just before I leave Ayyappan eagerly gets up to assist two young girls who have brought offerings to Ayyanar. I leave the sacred space, fascinated by the commitment the village has towards their tradition and feeling privileged to have witnessed one of the many reasons why India is such a beautiful, diverse and unique country. One of the horses near the temple

Brittany Shamess Ontario, Canada A Young boy from the Soolakarai village

Decades ago, the soolam was performed by piercing a small hole and inserting heavy earrings or by cutting out a small muscle – the method which was unmistakably used on Ayyappan and Chinnaiya. Today, however, the young boys are taken to the hospital where the doctor pierces a small hole with a gauge only slightly bigger than what is normal for Indian girls. The modification in the piercing size was agreed upon so that the young boys and men could avoid social stigma when leaving the village and acquire jobs and higher education abroad.

Upholding Tradition

What is interesting is that despite the

need to reduce the size of the piercing for societal reasons, Ayyappan and Chinnaiya maintain that the village has been more than happy to continue the practice throughout the generations. It may be performed out of fear of disease and death, but it is not a suffering and has actually benefited the village in some ways. The temple has become a tourist attraction, where people come from all over to see the temple and pray to Ayyanar. In fact, this is the explanation for the hundreds of clay horses. Worshippers of Ayyanar will bring the god a horse (his preferred mode of transportation) in hopes that their prayers will be answered – the tradition has evidently been performed for hun-

Ayyappan‘s Soolam

“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.”

-Jawaharlal Nehru

Madurai Messenger July 2010



Poetry in Stone Catherine Gerst gives us a glimpse into the livelihoods of sculptors Raas and Suresh for whom sculpting is a means of livelihood and not just an art form the market. For instance, Rass says it is quite common for the neighbouring shop owner to offer Rs.10 more to his workers. Hence it makes better economic sense and safeguard his business interest to take them as partners and share the profits. The competition is fierce in this market.

Raas As one walks along TPK Road in Pasumalai, a neighbourhood in Madurai, one sees rows of stone carving workshops. Amidst the deafening noise of electrical saws precisely cutting stones which are rough and hard, the stone sculptors work from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm in blinding dust. Sculpture, a Means of Livelihood Raas, a sculptor, has been running his own stone workshop for the past 20 years. Like all beginners, when he was just ten years, he polished stones carved by the others, thus completing the final step of stonework. He then teamed up with a sculptor until he decided to acquire his own business. “Sculpture is not a passion, just a way to make money,” says Rass, his betel nut stained teeth clearly visible as he breaks into a smile and his eyes sparking with joy. Today, however, he hardly sculpts stones and even when he does; he only works on small ones. When business is good, he makes Rs. 3000 in a month after having paid his workers. He has two workers who are also his business partners. Even this has been a calculated move to ward off the poaching for workers that is so widespread in


Breathing Life into Stone January is a good time for business. This is the month of Thai Pongal, a harvest festival widely celebrated by Tamils, which is an opportunity to receive favours from the gods who are invoked. At this time, the inhabitants of the four or five districts around Madurai city flock to Meenakshi Temple and Raas’s business gets a boost. Ganesha and Kali are part of its stock. The stone carvings of gods and goddesses are purchased by the priests thanks to the donations from the faithful. Sometimes but rarely it is just a single person who will pay and donate the statue to the temple. Once complete, the sculpture is transported from the workshop only after a ritual pooja is performed. During the ceremony, all the people present in the workshop make offerings of coconuts and bananas to the god or goddess. At the temple, the deity is entitled to another pooja, this time performed by the priest. Stone: A Risky Business The deafening noise of the saw stops awhile and is replaced by that of a hammer driving a giant nail into the wall. Until recently, the saw was not used and stone work released less dust. Now, however, the sculptors breathe in heavy dust made of mineral l which can enter through the nasal airways. Pulmonary diseases, such as asthma and worse, silicosis, can develop after years of stone working. The workers know what they face, but, Madurai Messenger July 2010

Raas says, “Wearing a mask would prevent them from clearly seeing the shape of the stone.” Suresh, Raas’s partner is 22 years old. He has worked since the age of 13 years and earned Rs.5 a day by polishing stone. He then launched into training in sculpture. “Basic sculpture lasted only three months”, he says. He is a creative person, most of the time he cuts without drawing templates. Like the others, he

Suresh inhales considerable dust on a daily basis but seems happy with it. There are, however, other hazards associated with stonework. Three months ago, a circular running saw Suresh was holding in his hands slipped and cut his chest. A long scar gashes his chest. Although he has since recovered the treatment and hospitalisation was expensive. The gods he sculpts watch over him.

Catherine Gerst Paris, France


Dr. P. Namperumalsamy: A Vision for Vision Allen Worwood profiles Dr. P. Namperumalsamy, Chairman, Aravind Eye Care Systems, Madurai, who has recently been cited by TIME magazine as among the top 100 most influential people in the world. The most fascinating aspect of human nited, he never looked back. journeys is the exultant heights that one can reach, and the belief that any- “My first intention was to get out thing is achievable. of Medical school as early as possible so I could earn money That is why it was truly a delight as a to support my parents.” And Dr. writer and as a person, to meet Dr. P. Nam would have probably done Namperumalsamy, the current chair- exactly that if it wasn’t for Dr. G. man of Aravind Eye Care Systems, Venkataswamy, (known as Dr. V) Madurai. His particular tale is not who was Nam’s teacher throughabout individual success, but is about out Medical School. Venkatasthe deeds that he has done through wamy’s youngest sister Dr. G. Aravind, and the good he does every- Natchiar was also at the Medical day. School, and she was in the same class as Namperumalsamy.

Small Beginnings

Dr. P. Namperumalsamy (popularly A Pivotal Moment known as Dr. Nam) is certainly from “He wanted me and his younghumble beginnings. est sister to get married, and that changed my entire career.” Getting “I am from a small village with only married to Venkataswamy’s sister was 1000 people... my parents were farm- a pivotal moment for Nam, as through ers.” Dr Nam’s father had a basic edu- his bonding with Dr V, Nam’s career cation, while his mother never went to really began to take shape. school. This is why his father was determined to ensure his children had the Through Dr. Venkataswamy, Nam beopportunities that they didn’t have. In came involved in Ophthalmology, and order to get their children to school, Dr. he was soon intrigued by the various Nam’s parents had to take out loans, subspecialties within Ophthalmology constantly borrowing money, and Dr. while studying at Madras University. Nam himself had to get scholarships from the government in order to go A Challenge All the Way to Medical School. Up until the age of “It was a challenge from the beginning.” sixteen, Nam and his three sisters had Back when Dr. Nam started Ophthalto walk three miles to school and back mology, there were a multitude of difeveryday, “We couldn’t afford bicycles.” ficulties, as the services for eye problems were extremely basic in India and A Passion Ignited had only just started to develop. Dr. Medicine wasn’t Dr Nam’s first choice. Nam had met several experts from the “At first I was inclined to be an engineer. West while at Madras University, and I did mathematics at school because they inspired him to study abroad, speI was good,” but after listening to one cifically in the U.S. of his father’s friends (who was an engineer) Nam was convinced to go “I wanted to go forward in ophthalmolto medical school instead, which was ogy.” Through all of the contacts he what his dad wanted him to do. It was had made Dr. Nam was eventually only after Nam started Medical School given the chance to study at Boston that he became genuinely interested in University, a prestigious institution in medicine, and once that love was ig- America. It was in Boston that Dr. Nam Madurai Messenger July 2010

Dr. P. Namperumalsamy

specialised in the retina and the vitreous, and everything that he absorbed he took back to India, where Dr. G. Venkataswamy, started Aravind Eye Hospital (AEH) in 1976. It is obvious that Dr. G. Venkataswamy has been a significant influence on Dr. Namperumalsamy, as they have known each other for over 40 years, and throughout that time Venkataswamy has been Nam’s teacher, brother in law, colleague, and most significantly, his friend. In Nam’s own words, “He emits qualities without even teaching them.”

A Meteoric Rise

When AEH was first formed in 1976, Dr. Namperumalsamy was Professor of Ophthalmology and Chief Medical Officer until 1997, when he became the Director of Ophthalmology until 2005, and finally, he reached the very summit by becoming the Chairman of Aravind Eye Care Systems (AECS) itself, a post he still holds today. During almost thirty-four years, AECS has helped over 2 million Indians with their sight, and


People every single one of those people has had their surgery for free.

Accolades All the Way

This is because of the unique system that has been in place in AECS since its origin. The idea is that the wealthier people will pay a much higher price for eye treatment because they can afford to, while anyone that doesn’t have the money are simply asked to pay what they can. This means that AECS has been able to help millions of people, who without AECS would eventually go blind. This is one the most colossal acts of good that humans can carry out, and Aravind has rightly been awarded many humanitarian awards for its prodigious efforts, most recently the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize for 2010, a globally renowned prize for monumental acts of humanity.

Aravind Philosophy

the doctors, if not even more invalu- rate in India, and is one of the counable. try’s main problems. “The paramedics help the doctors – that is the key to the success of our institution.” There are four paramedics for each doctor, and having them present increases productivity substantially, resulting in almost 300,000 operations being carried out each month.

Institution; not the Person

Dr. Namperumalsamy has been individually acknowledged for his contribution to eye care, being given the Padmashree Award by the Indian Government in 2007, the Lifetime Achievement Award by the All India Ophthalmological Society, and being named in TIME Magazine’s top one hundred most influential people of the century.

“It is not about me. The institution is more important than the individual”. Dr. Nam is not absorbed with singular glorification, rather, it is Aravind, and the service it gives to the visually challenged that is paramount in his thoughts. Nam maybe proud of what Aravind have achieved so far, but what really matters is that they continue to cure the visually impaired, as the battle against eye related illness is one of the biggest problems India faces.

According to Dr Nam the main difficulty that AECS had to overcome was human resources. The most trying task is to find people who are like minded like himself, people who are motivated not only to study, but to help the community. So that is why as well as teaching the post-graduates ophthalmology, Dr. Nam also teaches them the Aravind philosophy, which he has inherited from Dr. G. Venkataswamy. “Dr. V always worked for the community, “We have played a major role treating not just for the money. It was always people affected by cataracts... but about the people.” For Dr. Nam, the there are still other issues.” For exparamedics are just as important as ample, diabetes has an alarmingly high

“There are many reasons for this, junk food, genetics and lifestyle changes,” are all contributing factors. The best way to tackle it in Nam’s eyes is if institutions like Aravind do everything in their power to increase awareness of these diseases, and to educate people about problems like glaucoma.

Handing over the Reins

Dr. Namperumalsamy retired not too long ago, as his responsibilities as chairman made it hard for him to carry on doing surgery, a change which he finds “terrible.” Even though he may have itchy feet, Dr. Nam believes that the next generation is more than capable of taking the reins. “The time has come for me to give directions... if you keep doing surgery then the juniors can never develop’. Even though he is incessantly swamped by his duties as chairman, Nam still finds time to talk to patients and teach upcoming doctors every single morning. Dr. Nam’s vision for the future is to take AECS forward once again, as a new Proteomics section has been opened, with the aim of finding parts of DNA that can be susceptible to certain diseases. Despite all that Dr. Namperumalsamy has achieved: the awards, the milestones, the priceless gift of sight to millions, he is not finished; he is still determined to keep up the toughest of wars, the unrelenting attack against the colossal magnitude that is blindness in India. If deeds could be counted, weighed and measured, then Dr. Namperumalsamy will most likely be the richest man I’ll ever meet.

Allen Worwood Somerset, UK

Allen Worwood and Catherine Gerst speak with Dr. P. Namperumalsamy


Madurai Messenger July 2010

Weekend Wander

Toronto: Celebrating Diversity Brittany Shamess captures the vibrancy of Canada’s largest city, Toronto; a city brimming with global cultures and creative energies. Photographs of the Toronto skyline provide no insight into the vast cultural diversity and distinct characteristics of Canada’s largest city. In spite of its modern skyscrapers, the infamous CN tower and the large shopping malls, Toronto is much more than just another “Western city.” The city is home to a vibrant community that draws its life source from the array of cultures and passions that have been brought together into one unique cosmopolitan. With a multitude of ethnic neighbourhoods, a thriving art community and an active and conscientious population, Toronto is certainly the most unique Canadian city.

The World in a Nutshell

As one of the most multicultural cities on the planet, Toronto provides the

opportunity to travel the world in only a few hours. One can browse through endless varieties of silk in the textile shops of Little India; listen to joyful exclamations of ‘Opa!’ while walking the streets of Greek town during the summer months; discover exotic herbs and natural remedies in Chinatown; or enjoy the visual experience of wandering through Little Portugal, a neighbourhood characterised by its brightly painted buildings and houses. Alternatively, if one hasn’t the time to cruise from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, there’s always Kensington Market for a taste of the world at an even quicker pace. Immigrants from all around the globe, including China, India, Vietnam and the Caribbean have opened up restaurants and shops in Kensington, making it one of the most eclectic and fascinating neighborhoods in

Toronto. On any given day, Kensington is crowded with people rummaging though the best vintage stores in Toronto, enjoying exotic meals at the quaint restaurants, finding hidden wonders in the boutiques and art stores, and mingling with friends over a cup of coffee on the patios of Kensington’s charming coffee shops. One of the most amazing things about Toronto is that some of its greatest treasures can be enjoyed without spending money. The Distillery District is a perfect example of this. Only opened ten years old, but already regarded as Canada’s leading arts, culture and entertainment destination, the district is a collection of Victorian Industrial buildings that have been transformed into a one-of-a-kind village. Here, creative minds come together to feel inspired and share

Toronto Skyline Madurai Messenger July 2010


Weekend Wander new ideas in the many galleries, studios and theatres. In fact, walking into one of the stores is not even necessary when just being in the district is a sensory experience all on its own. The elegant stone roads and picturesque brick buildings provoke a feeling of romance and tranquillity that complement, almost paradoxically, the creative and lively energy that flows out of every inspired visitor of the Distillery.

A Crowd outside the Art Gallery of Ontario

stands outside of the music venues, local artists welcome friends and colleagues into the art studio for their latest collection, young adults rush into taxis to beat the line at the trendiest club, and the second wave of street musicians open their instrument cases in the hopes of catching the passerby’s attention.

The Distillery District

The City that Never Sleeps

Even when the sun goes down, Toronto doesn’t sleep and a dynamic nightlife rises up. Street vendors open up their hotdog and sausage

There can be no doubt that Toronto is an inventive and vibrant cosmopolitan. It is a city for everyone, where diversity is celebrated and new ideas are welcomed with open arms. There is always something more to discover, friendly people to meet and new places to explore. So if you’re in Toronto and only have a limited

Downtown Toronto


Madurai Messenger July 2010

amount of time to enjoy the city, I suggest that you go without the visit to the CN tower. Instead, opt to admire the tower from afar and utilise it as a compass for when you navigate through the streets. Because to truly enjoy Toronto is not to view the city from above, inside a tower – it is to enjoy the wonderful riches of the world and feel the creative power of humans that is ever so evident in this wonderful metropolis.

Brittany Shamess Ontario, Canada

Making a Difference

R. Ramiah: The Gift of Hope R.Ramaiah, a fifty-year-old mechanic and father of three, manages to give the gift of hope to people on the street each and every day, writes Alicia Szarzynski

He starts from Kochadai and cycles through Bypass Road carrying tea and bread in order to bring back smiles on the faces of starving people. Everyday, he cycles 20 kms and personally delivers one hundred meals, including a cup of tea and some bread. He helps all people whom he passes by on his way: senior citizens, children, the mentally challenged and people with leprosy. Each meal costs Rs. 10, which amounts to Rs. 30 000 per month. Ramiah personally finances the expenses, and is supported by his friend Manikandan, a reporter with The Hindu.

his engagement and he is never demotivated. He just takes a break once a week, but he makes sure that someone else steps in for him. The heat, the rain and even his daughter’s marriage has not kept him away from his social commitment. Indeed, for his daughter’s wedding R.Ramaiah was duty-bound to be present beside her at 10 am. But the call of social service was irresistible. Hence he decided to deliver tea only to one person but instead went along his usual route!


In May 2000, when he went to his office, R.Ramaiah discovered a weakened old man, sitting in front of a hotel in the Bypass Road in Madurai. Overwhelmed, he spontaneously offered to help him. The poor man then told him that as he had been starving for last three days, a cup of tea would be helpful, R.Ramaiah raced to the closest shop to get the man some bread and tea. After he hurriedly ate his meal, the old man blessed him and asked him if he could help his family and friends. From that moment that onwards R.Ramaiah began his involvement with the deservibg and needy. The chance meeting was a turning point which continues to motivate him even today.

All in a Day’s Work

On a small bike, R.Ramaiah cycles through the streets of Madurai every morning, from 6:30 am to 8:30 am, before he goes to work in his office.

R.Ramaiah helps poor people everyday

R.Ramaiah giving tea to a destitute man

A Brighter Future

R.Ramaiah hopes to find more people and finances in the future, to be able to increase his daily supply of meals from 100 to 500. He plans to establish a trust, called Mangai Mercy Trust and make it llegally eligible to receive financial contribution from overseas. His burning ambition is to build a house for the destitute, take care of them and give them a better quality of life.

Initially Ramiah’s family did not understand his social commitment and his involvement with total strangers. Friends too suggested that he discontinue the act of charity and cautioned him about the risk of contracting leprosy from infected people. Undisturbed, Ramiah however, continues with his mission because it is a meaningful expression of social commitment and concern for others.

Alicia Szarzynski Lons-le-Saunier, France

A small man, a big heart

Through his little deeds, R.Ramaiah feels really useful, proud and happy to help society. He never gives up

Madurai Messenger July 2010


Book Review

The Bookseller of Kabul: Afghanistan from the Inside Out A Nostalgic Portrayal of Afghanistan as seen through the eyes of an Afghan Family With the revealing nature of its storyline and the unusual circumstances in which it was written, Asne Seierstad’s non-fiction The Bookseller of Kabul is certainly worth the read. In this captivating book, the reader is privileged to an intimate look at the lives of a real Afghan family as Seierstad recounts the events she witnessed during her four­-month stay in Kabul.

and that his store had been looted and a family and the mood of an entire his books burnt twice over – first by country. Seierstad’s brilliant dialogue the Communists, then by the Taliban. brings the characters’ hopes and After getting to know the bookseller, dreams to life as we hear about secret Seierstad was eventually invited to desires to attend school and longings his home for dinner where she met for a different life or a different his family – one of his wives, his sons, Afghanistan. Her heavy words also sisters, brother and mother. She was capture the struggles and limitations captivated by the family and realised felt by all in their post-Taliban lives. what a unique opportunity it would The reader cannot help but empathise be to live with them and document with Khan’s youngest sister who is the experience. Khan agreed to her effectively a slave to the demands proposition, and on February 1, 2001 of her older family members, or with Seierstad moved in with the family and Khan’s sons who are not allowed began writing what would eventually to attend school and must instead become The Bookseller of Kabul. work long hours. Alas, the fears and hopelessness that invade Afghanistan Eloquent Narrative are horrifyingly obvious throughout the book. Seierstad immersed herself in Afghani culture. She wore the burka when leaving the house, slept in Khan’s four room house with his family, tagged along on a religious pilgrimage and even assisted preparations for an Afghan wedding. That said, the book itself is written as though Seierstad isn’t present. Instead, she offers a simple, yet eloquently written narrative that lets the Khans tell their stories. The reader becomes privy to the patriarchal reign of Sultan over his family, the Asne Seierstad The book was made possible submissive life of the Afghani woman, after Seierstad befriended Sultan the numerous proposal and marriage The Bookseller of Kabul is an Khan, a bookshop owner in Kabul. customs, as well as the great lengths illuminating book about life in Seierstad was in Afghanistan as a that families go to in order to preserve Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban; war correspondent after the 9/11 their honour. Additionally, the reader and it is truly unlike anything you have attacks and had been living with the is educated on Afghanistan’s past. ever read. In less than 300 pages commandos of the Northern Alliance Interwoven in all the stories is a history Seierstad has managed to produce an in the desert by the Tajikistani border. of Afghanistan and the legacies left astonishing and one-of-a-kind glimpse Once the Taliban fell she left for behind after the many regime changes. into the lives of an Afghan family while Kabul and stumbled upon Khan’s at the same time, capturing the mood bookstore, finding the bookseller to And yet, the real strength of Seierstad’s of a poverty stricken and war-torn be refreshingly intelligent. And having book is not found in the astonishing country. just spent six weeks living with soldiers, stories and their knack for satisfying Seierstad was more than happy to chat curiosities one might have had about Brittany Shamess with the interesting man. She learned Afghanistan – the strength of The Ontario, Canada that he had been imprisoned twice for Bookseller of Kabul is in the author’s the crime of selling banned literature ability to capture the emotions of


Madurai Messenger July 2010

Film Review

Raavanan: Old Wine in New Bottle While the film has the razzle dazzle of glamour and technical wizardry, the absence of a genuine story leaves the viewer disappointed, says Allen Worwood certainly been given the full works in terms of expectation. With a mega all-star cast and with the legendary A.H Rahman reverberating through your eardrums throughout the film, this has all the makings of a classic, and it has been depicted as the biggest blockbuster to hit India in recent history. The films are based on the famous Sanskrit epic, Ramayana. It would not be an exaggeration to say that almost every one in India grew up while being told the timeless saga and this is one of the main reasons that the movie has garnered so much attention. A Let Down Abhishek Bachchan in the Hindi version Raavan

If Mani Ratnam’s latest film, Raavanan, was capable of living up to the monumental hype that it has been at the centre of, then it would truly be an epic. Released on June 18, 2010, it is a first. In a daring and ambitious move, Ratnam has not only had the film made in Tamil, but in Hindi (as Raavan) and in Telugu. This bold thinking is ultimately seeking to maximise the potential viewing audience, but with a slightly different cast in Raavan a lot hinges on who is playing the part of Veeraiya, or in Raavan Beera Munda. It is interesting to note that Vikram plays the part of Veeraiya in Raavanan and the opposite role of Dev Pratap Sharma in Raavan, his depictions of each lead role are vital in the deliverance of the films.

With all of that being said, it is a terrible disappointment that Raavanan simply doesn’t stand up tall in the face of such expectation. From the offset, it is clear that the script doesn’t do justice to The Ramayana, as each scene has been haphazardly mashed together, with all the action and glorified stunts failing to cover the countless fissures that are painfully evident in the storyline. Add to that the fact that the roles of the characters have all

been radically changed from those in Valmiki’s masterpiece, then the films seem to reek of commercialism, and Raavanan can be seen as a lousy attempt to entice the West while staying gravitated to Indian roots. The entire production lacks subtlety, the moments of violence end up being clumsy and vulgar, with everything from the burning policeman to the climax being poorly done. There is simply too much of a difference between wannabe Hollywood and Bolly/Kollywood and I don’t think you can’t get away with that when retelling one of the oldest and most renowned stories in Indian history. Strong Points There are, however, a lot of strong points in the production. The acting for one is incredibly powerful, with Vikram (Veeraiya), Aishwarya Rai (Raagini) and Prithviraj (Dev Prakash) all more than efficient in their roles. Through their raw feeling and indomitable on-screen presence, you are able to feel what they feel; the flashbacks in particular are frighteningly strong, and you are naturally able to empathise with Veeraiya’s plight with compassion and heartache. Prithviraj gives an accomplished performance as

In the build-up to the release, Ratnam’s latest installment has The battle between Prithviraj and Veeraiya is scintillating Madurai Messenger July 2010


FILM REVIEW Abhishek Bachchan’s crack at taking on the hero Beera Munda just seems to be a tad tame, in light of Vikram’s showing in Raavanan. Their subsequent duel in Raavan seems to be much weaker than that of Raavanan. The areas that Raavanan undoubtedly excels in have to be the aesthetic and musical aspects. The settings in the film are staggering: from the forests of Karnataka to Kerala and Ooty, the sights in each scene are wondrous, mountains, waterfalls and the intimidating jungle all setting you up for an exciting ride. Ratnam is able to show the beauty of India, the scenery being breathtaking from start to finish, giving the story the ideal foundations with which to explode from, adding that vital ingredient to any film, drama, and a sense of importance. A.R. Rahman once again delivers a mesmerising, heart pounding, incredibly moving soundtrack, the title song ‘Veera’ is pure musical gold. Each song is able to merge with the scenes fluently, adding to the suspense and tension.

Dev Prakash and his portrayal of a remorseless police officer is unerringly accurate and clinical, resulting in the battle between him and Veeraiya being captivating throughout. Differently Orchestrated As strong as the casting is in Raavanan, upon seeing the Hindi version, it is clear to see that there is a lot of difference in how the roles are orchestrated. The quality is still good but the dynamics and the interaction between the main characters definitely contrast with Raavanan, which I believe is for the worst. Undoubtedly Ratnam’s decision to cast Vikram as Veeraiya in Raavanan and Dev Pratap Sharma in Raavan is a risky choice. The roles are polar


opposites, Veeraiya being almost animalistic, as he is supposed to replicate the demon Ravana in the Sanskrit tale. This seems to suit Vikram, his muscular, bullish presence seemingly made for the role, and he plays Veeraiya easily, with natural effortlessness. When he has to tackle ‘Dev Pratap Sharma’ in Raavan however, he simply doesn’t suit the role; the characteristics required are not in his comfort zone, and this is patently obvious every time you see him on-screen. Having Vikram as Dev Pratap Sharma also affects the relationships between the other characters in Raavanan. His and Aishwarya Rai’s marriage lacks authenticity and compassion, while

Madurai Messenger July 2010

All things considered, the Ramayana remake is definitely an attractive proposition for the mainstream, evidenced by its huge takings in barely a week after being released. The monumental efforts of the modern film industry result in some amazing visuals and exciting, no-holds barred scenes, but, if you are looking for a genuine story, for a realistic screen play, you will be left sorely unsatisfied.

Allen Worwood Somerset, UK

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I live in an avian paradise. From October onwards, the winged visitors frequently fly past my house. I crane my neck skywards to see a dazzl...