Don’t worry, B positive

My very latest batch of photos can be viewed here. If you have any trouble, then try again while logged out of Facebook. If you’re still having trouble, double check that your computer is switched on.

I conducted several interesting interviews this week. First, I went along to observe the interrogation of Mr Jose, a 62-year-old man with one kidney and a penchant for donating blood, of which he has given away 153 pints since the ’70s.He only donates to state hospitals, and generally only to the one in which he was born; only once did he do so elswhere, when he was stopped on the street and asked to donate urgently to a jaundiced baby.

He’s a full-time volunteer collector of blood, with over 3000 ‘clients’. He gives speeches at schools and colleges about the importance of donoring, though he is “not allowed” to visit the institution of which his wife is Principal and whose money supports him! She also refuses to give blood.

When listening to a speech by the politician Periyar (forever immortalised in Madurai’s Periyar Bus Station) many years ago, Mr Jose was inspired to become one of India’s very few atheists. He also reflected back on the days when the government would pay donors 10 Rupees and give them an egg and some vitamin tablets for their trouble. He always refused this, and the scheme was quickly abandoned because it encouraged the diseased, elderly etc. to give blood under false pretences.

While we were talking, he received a ‘phone call from a person desperately seeking very rare B-negative blood. Meanwhile, various Red Cross staff turned up with cameras and eyes on stalks to gawp at and memorialise the two white boys in their office block!

Facing sharp competition

The other interview, with a third-generation knife and sword manufacturer, was the basis for my ‘serious’ magazine article copied at the end of this post, with the one italic addition being a somewhat more flippant, bitter and blog-like outburst which I was unable to restrain. The article involves Indian gangsters and is, if I say so myself, worth a read!

City life

Life in the city is even more perilous and bustling than life in slightly more rural areas. The other day, I had to wait 20 minutes to cross a road. The next day, things were much easier; a policeman instinctively stopped four lanes of heavy one-way traffic when I wanted to pass.

In stark contrast to this deference to foreigners is the Gandhi Memorial Museum, with displays written in exquisite English with a very, very heavy anti-British slant. “And thus it was that British rule began, over a century of slavery, degradation…” – it was like reading about the Exodus! Gandhi’s bloodstained loincloth from his ‘assassination’ range was also on display, and for a free museum, that’s not bad. Or so I thought. A visiting group of schoolkids, on the other hand, seemed much more interested in myself and the other foreigners than in the exhibitions. They swarmed round asking me my name and begging me to photograph them and to give them pens. (Perhaps I shouldn’t have said that my name was “WH Smith”…)

While I was there, my camera decided to pack up, so I popped into a photography shop to ask for help. Firstly, they all gathered round and looked through all my pictures and admired them. Then they took a few shots of each other, and finally came up with the helpful diagnosis, “Ah, yes… camera has problem.” I also asked for an SD-card reader so I could transfer photos to a computer. The first one they offered me was 800 Rupees [almost £12], so I requested something cheaper. They huffed and puffed and then brought out a model for 60 Rupees. Sold!

While visiting the famed Meenakshi Temple (which has a customer charter including, “maintaining a documented Quality Management System in compliance with the ISO 9001:2008 standard requirements,” something which every 1000-year-old place of worship should!) I had to pay a 50 Rupee foreigners’ camera fee. As I wandered from room to room, seeing the elephant, and statues, and devotees devoting themselves in all sorts of bodily contortions, I came upon a group watching a painted man wearing nothing but a loincloth sprinkle oil over a god, chanting some ancient Tamil verses. When he saw me, he broke off the stream of ancient Tamil to check, “You already buy camera ticket?” which contributed to the ambience no end.

‘Next time on the blog’ teaser trailer…

“They are all mother f***ers. Queen Elizabeth Taylor; Charles. Both of them. But Diana was different. I often think that if Charles had not married her, and if I lived in England, and if it were not for the political reasons, I would have married Diana.”

For this particular lunatic and more, tune in next time!

It’s competition time!

The winner of my last post’s undeclared challenge to spot the… erm… let’s say, deliberate mistake was my own dear mother, who pointed out that the word ‘frangilating’ doesn’t actually exist. Whoops. 

This week’s challenge is to create a witty, apt and amusing headline for the blood-donor story. The writer of the best entry will receive a free sample. Here are some initial thoughts:

  • It’s in the Blood
  • Lifting the lid on a modern-day Dracula
  • I’ll have a Pint, Please.
  • Well That’s a Bloody Lot!
  • Give Away your Needeless Blood

The blunt edge of metalwork

At the age of 76, Balu Chamy Asari is the oldest sword-maker in Thirupachi, but his son expects to be the last generation to run the business.

About an hour outside of Madurai, the flurry of the city dies away and life becomes more traditional. A funeral is taking place by the roadside. School pupils stop and stare at the group of foreigners driving past. Even in the workshop which was our destination, small children and their mothers shyly peeped round the curtains at their visitors.

Balu Chamy Asari learnt metalwork from his father, and passed on the skill to his son Vijaya Kumar (32). Together, they forge six gleaming new swords and knives every day in a small workshop buzzing with all stages of the process: the hammering out of strips of iron into blades; the carving of the wooden grips and handles; the temperature-treatment of the knives to ensure strength and prevent brittleness. While most of the products are made to a standard size, a regular knife being about 40cm long and taking two hours to make, the workshop also accepts special orders – recently, they broke their own record fashioning an 18ft sword for use on a statue in the nearby temple.

To manufacture a knife takes around two hours, and usually involves at least four people. Beating plain pieces of metal into shape requires two men to wield a sizeable hammer, and one of them must then sharpen the resulting blade using a stone. One man heats and cools the piece to make it hard-wearing, while another shapes and decorates the handles which are added to the final product. It is not merely a family-owned business; knife-making requires teamwork and co-operation throughout the entire process.

The operation is not without its hazards. Vijaya Kumar spoke candidly about the “many accidents” that have occurred. Flying sparks have entered eyes, jagged pieces of metal have been propelled across the room, and red hot blades are unsafe at the best of times.

However, Balu Chamy Asari and his son are more worried about economic risks than physical ones. While the mechanisation and efficiency of agriculture is the aim of many charities and politicians across India, it has put the knife industry into what is expected to be a terminal downturn: a farmer with a tractor or combine harvester no longer needs a hand-tool for gathering crops. (It is worth noting that Vijaya Kumar’s products have some other markets as well: “Gangsters and local rowdies will sometimes buy knives,” he explained, “but usually just for protection, because gun sales are restricted. Only a few come here wanting to kill.” [SO THAT’S OK THEN.] For this latter group of clients, a specific model of weapon optimised for “throwing and killing” is very much sought-after.)

A further stumbling block is the availability of raw materials. The craftsmen take pride in using the very best quality metal, but this comes at a cost. Obtaining charcoal, of which huge amounts are required to keep a fire burning all day long, is also difficult; in fact, it is often necessary to resort to fetching handfuls of leftover ash from home-cooked meals, thus giving the family’s female members a small role in the business in which they otherwise take no part.

Historically, there was much more work, often more illustrious than simply furnishing farmers with equipment. The surname ‘Asari’ relates to a caste traditionally occupied as ironsmiths. In the 1800s, the Maruthu Pandiyar brothers commissioned weapons from Thirupachi to use in their battle against the British army, and even today, there are sporadic orders from rich mansion-owners for decorative swords, it being a sign of wealth and taste to display such items in glass cases in one’s home.

Vijaya Kumar studied the craft of metalwork between the ages of 13 and 18, but his own children are now studying hard at school, and he is “not encouraging” them to join the family business. He lamented the “low profits” that the firm is making, and predicts that a day will come very soon when “the trade will be no more.”

Nevertheless, for the present, the workshop continues to produce and sell swords and knives of all shapes and sizes, some fetching up to 650 Rs. The craftsmen consider themselves to have a special edge over the 15 competing establishments in the village, the “main difference” being that all their products are heated in a fire and then immediately cooled in water, giving them a particular strength. Another advantage is the ownership of a compressed air machine, used in place of large leather bellows as an energy-saving device when the electricity is working. Finally, the clay oven is shaped with three small humps on top, representing the prongs of a trident, and a traditional way of bringing luck and blessing upon the enterprise.

For at least some of these reasons, Balu Chamy Asari and family continue to receive custom from all parts of the Madurai area, and at least for the moment, they are resisting the onslaught of the tractor.

Advance publication of an article written for the Madurai Messenger issue of March 2011.

One Response to Don’t worry, B positive

  1. Sandra Webber says:

    I love the Meenakshi Temple story, so funny!

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