A Tourist’s Guide to Chennai

Chennai is a fascinating city that blends both tradition and modernity. Although I am often frustrated by the frequent power cuts, blistering heat (around 38-40 degrees Celsius on average), lack of proper infrastructure, street poverty, pollution, mosquitoes, and impossibility of crossing roads, the city is at a very convenient location for accessing many sites of cultural and historical importance. For anyone spending time in Chennai, here are my recommended weekend getaways:

Pondicherry: Pondicherry is a former French colony three hours from Chennai where you can walk down cobbled streets, receive an elephant’s blessing at the Arulmigu Manakula Vinayagar Temple, and enjoy pain au chocolat on the French promenade. Other highlights include Paradise Beach, where you can unwind under palm trees, wade in the refreshing water or try various water sports, and Auroville, an experimental township built around a gold ball.







Bangalore: Bangalore is a comfortable 6-hour train or bus ride away, and flights are cheap (around $25 one way). The weather is 10 degrees cooler, which feels amazing during the summer. In Bangalore and the surrounding area, you will find excellent shopping and many different entertainment options, whether you enjoy amusement parks (Wonderla), gardens (Lal Bagh and Cubbon Park) or places of scenic beauty (Nandi Hills). Pictured is the Vidhana Soudha, the ornate state government building.


Mahabalipuram: Mahabalipuram, a seaside town en route to Pondicherry, boasts gorgeous cave sanctuaries, a shore temple, and Descent of the Ganges, a giant open-air relief. Mahabalipuram was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.



Kanchipuram: Kanchipuram is around 1-2 hours from Chennai and reachable by bus. Considered one of India’s holiest cities, it is home to five famous temples with awe-striking architecture (Kailasanathar Temple, Kanchi Kamakshi Temple, Kamakshi Amman Temple, Sri Ekambareswarar Temple, and Varadaraja Perumal Temple) and also lovely silk factories. I am a huge art fan, so I hired an auto driver for around 400 rupees ($6.50) to provide a tour of the temples (and local wildlife).






Within the city of Chennai, there are many beaches (Elliott’s Beach for people watching and Covelong Beach for swimming and surfing), high-quality restaurants (our favourites include Social, Crimson Chakra, That Madras Place, and Amethyst Café for upscale dining), and temples (the Kapaleeswarar Temple is a must!). If you have time to take a long weekend, I would also recommend scheduling a bus trip to the backwaters of Kerala. Several people from our office are from Kerala and it is supposed to be exquisitely beautiful (just avoid the monsoon season).



Bless Your Guru

Pallav teaching about garment quality checks.

Pallav teaching about garment quality checks.


“I’ve been waiting 20 years for this to happen.”

You could hear the sincerity in Nive didi’s voice. The crickets were singing their evening songs, the frogs croaking loudly in the distance, as time inched closer and closer to ten o’clock in the cluttered little second-floor office at the Jatashankar campus.

Holding back tears, Nivedita stood amongst a circle of weary-eyed producers adorned with brightly colored measuring tapes hanging gently from their necks- all looking at her admirably and intently- clinging onto her every breath, patiently awaiting the next words to roll from from her mouth.

Crumpled sheets of scrap paper lined the tiled floor, and curly cues of pencil shavings were sprinkled on top the thin layer of dirt built up by the twenty (+) pairs of bare feet that walked in and out of the office doors for the last six days. It was the last day of a week-long pattern-making workshop taught by designers from the National Institute of Design and the National Institute of Fashion Technology, and the exhaustion on the Kumbaya producer’s faces read as clearly as the darkening creases under their eyes and the pencil marks that had rubbed onto their forearms.


Each day began the same way;

8-9 am: Get ready and grab breakfast at the mess at Neemkheda center.

Breakfast at the Baba Amte center is usually a toss-up between my personal favorite bright yellow poha with halwa, idli with sambar, chola puri, aloo parantha, (the always puzzling option of) chow mein with ketchup, and ever addicting sweet chai.

9-10ish am: Leave Neemkheda campus in a seemingly empty Traveller van with Pushpa didi, Seema, and Ira for Jatashankar campus, but on the way there, pick up:

  • Dhanna bhaiya in Beekhupura
  • Sapna didi and Biplub bhaiya in Punjapura
  • (break for the winding roads of the ghat to reach the top of the hill)
  • Gita didi, her sister Ranjana didi, and Chetna didi in Bagli

10ish am: Arrive at Jatashankar office with a packed van filled with the new recuits Seema and Ira, seven Kumbaya producers, and little ol’ me.

10:30am: Join the rest of the Kumbaya team including Vikas, Pappu bhaiya, and Shankar on campus and begin!

10:30am-2ish pm: Learn and practice a number of new patterns, ranging from lower bodice to sleeves to collars and more — with a quick break for chai and biscuits in between.


2ish–3ish pm: LUNCH. Clear the office floor, placing newspaper on the tiles for placemats and share an explosive meal of sabzi, daal, roti and chawal from Sharma Auntie’s place (guaranteed to set your mouth on fire with each handful of food).

3pm: Continue learning patterns and practice, practice, practice!


5ish pm: Break for chai and evening snack. (The best part of the entire training included the snacks!! To make our designer guests feel most welcome, we all reveled in the spoils of cachori, sabudana, pecora, or scrumptious samosas nightly.)

8-8:30 pm: Finish for the day, pack up, and make the journey to Neemkheda, unloading producers at each stop on the way back.

Rest, and repeat!

Over the course of this six-day long workshop, we learned about body measurements, three basic skirt patterns, front and back of a basic top bodice pattern, nine neckline patterns, five sleeve patterns, six collar patterns, grading sizes, fabric manufacturing, elements of fashion, upcoming trends, and new innovative techniques to propel the Kumbaya brand forward.

So I know what you must be wondering… how and why was I learning about pattern making, fashion design, and trends at an NGO in the middle of rural Madhya Pradesh?!

Well, I asked myself the same exact thing. Halfway through the workshop, as I stood hunched over a rickety table, steadily holding down a French curve with one hand while gripping a pencil in the other, I never thought I would be using a French curve for anything outside of the architecture studio in Addams Fine Arts Building on Penn’s campus, definitely not for anything regarding garment design, and especially not in a village middle of India.

But I absolutely loved all of it. For six days, I absorbed each and every lesson about body measurements, patterns, colors and fabrics- diligently observing, asking questions, taking notes and marking up diagrams in my little red notebook.

As someone who has always been interested in fashion design and always jumps at the opportunity for self-expression through all sorts of clothing (around campus you can often find me in a mix of wacky thrift store finds including, but not limited to, oversized denim jackets, colorfully printed button downs, and breezy long skirts), this had been an unexpected dream come true. For me, it was a fun opportunity to learn about something I would have otherwise never found the time and energy to do back home, but on that last night of the training, as Nivedita stood in the middle of the office, searching for the right words to say, I recognized the significance of that moment for Kumbaya.

When Kumbaya was bred from local village women’s interests and desires to learn stitching and patchwork, Nivedita would have never imagined that they would arrive at this moment 20 years later, completing a workshop taught by top-notch designers with the brand’s most skilled producers. In an area where there is no rich history of any marketable handicrafts, Kumbaya has grown to become a respected and well-known brand throughout India- not just for the model of empowerment, but mostly for the high-quality, immensely popular products (a couple of weeks after my arrival I came to know that Obama himself owns a patchwork bedcover made by Kumbaya, but that’s a story for another time!). The fact that Pallav, Deepti, and Kavita had come to the middle of Madhya Pradesh from their urban landscapes to strengthen the skills of the producers and push the level of design meant that Kumbaya had successfully established itself as a competitive brand ready to keep moving forward.

She watched with burning joy as some of her producers, women who cannot read or write, proudly mastered and understood the skill of pattern making within a day of the workshop. To observe that the hard work from the producers, supervisors, the sample master, cutting master and accounts team had reached such fruition completely overwhelmed Nive with immense pride.

It was a full moon on the final night of the workshop, “Guru Purnima”, a day to give blessings to your Guru:

 “Pooja moolam guror padam;
Mantra moolam guror vakyam;
Moksha moolam guror kripa”

“The Guru’s form should be meditated upon; the feet of the Guru should be worshipped; his words are to be treated as a sacred Mantra; his Grace ensures final liberation”

As Nive didi finished with her final sentiments, the producers walked towards her and lined up in front of her. One by one they bent down towards the ground, touching her feet, blessing her for her guidance. She blushed with deep red embarrassment and humility, urging them to stop, but she looked to them and they looked back, understanding that the respect and pride was mutual among the team.

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Here We Go Again


I actually found out about SalaUno when one of their co-founders commented on my CASI blog post about Aravind. A year later and here I am in Mexico!

Originally posted on gabyborja:

It’s been over a year since I did my internship in Aravind and once again I find myself interning in another organization that is working to eliminate needless blindness—SalaUno. SalaUno is an eye clinic in Mexico City that follows the Aravind model for reaching out to those in need of eye care.

SalaUno is a for-profit organization that started operating in August 2011. SalaUno aims to eliminate needless blindness by providing low cost, high quality eye care in the most efficient way possible. While walking through the clinic, I was able to gather many similarities between SalaUno and Aravind. The patient flow in the SalaUno clinic is identical to that of the patient flow in the Aravind hospitals. Like Aravind, SalaUno’s processes emulate that of a factory’s assembly line to ensure a streamlined process for the patients. SalaUno’s many similarities to Aravind certainly brought back many memories of last summer…

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Sudev & Ahmedabad – Post # 4

Dear Readers,

L.D. Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad

L.D. Institute of Indology, Ahmedabad

I recently spent a week in Ahmedabad consulting script specialists at the L.D. Institute of Indology, meeting retired history professors Makrand Mehta and his wife Shireen Mehta, and identifying resources that I will depend on during my year-long dissertation research visit in 2015.

The L.D. Institute of Indology contains over 50,000 monographs and thousands of rare manuscripts from the subcontinent. I met Dr. Preeti Pancholi and showed her some materials written in old-cursive Gujarati from the MS University of Baroda. We discussed ways to read the 18th & 19th century writings and exchanged contact information so that we could arrange a subsequent meeting in 2015.

With Professor Makrand Mehta

With Professor Makrand Mehta

I also met octogenarian Professor Makrand Mehta and his wife Professor Shireen Mehta. The Mehta’s taught history at Gujarat University and have written extensively on merchant cultures, business history, western India, and industrialization in the 18th & 19th centuries. Professor Makrand Mehta let me browse his library collection and photocopy materials related to my research. He also had a lively discussion with me about “merchant cultures”, and urged me to go beyond materialist-Marxist readings of my evidence. We talked about the ways that histories of the household and family across generations could be one way to better understand how the social and economic worlds of merchants merged.

- Sudev

The Right Attitude to Rain

[This post was meant to come up a couple weeks ago. Updates at end.]

“Let the rain kiss you. Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops. Let the rain sing you a lullaby.”

From the article

From the article

I’ve never understood American attitudes towards rain. India loves the idea of rain, and the coolness in the air and on the skin, and the smell of damp earth. Every year with the first storms children dance in the rain and the radio plays love songs. This year, the monsoon is late in coming – it’s been the driest monsoon for 113 years. Everywhere in India, parched lands and thirsty animals await the rain. It has been coming in light showers, in mists and droplets, not in the swift lashings of storm needed for the growth of the paddy & the wheat & the millet. This drought is an agricultural and economic tragedy. In Pune, thousands of farmers have marched on the city with bullock carts, demanding water. The water supply has been cut 12% all over the city with perhaps more to come, and many days, even the office doesn’t have running water.

Infrastructure in India has been a lot on my mind these past couple of days. Yesterday, we watched the annual government budget. Much like the first rain, the budget is an event in India. I remember my whole family (all accountants) dragging our box of a TV into the living room and the office staff coming to watch the government ministers lay down the country’s agenda for the year. This year, though, we had to watch it in a bar. The power was cut all day at the office, but since I had to create a report of the budget by the evening, we headed back to the bar we’d left just a few hours ago after the World Cup semifinal. (Needless to say, the manager was a little bemused). So here we were in the lobby of an air conditioned five star hotel while business ground to a halt all over the city due to a lack of power.

Watching the budget

Watching the budget

Obviously, I had an interest in what the finance minister had to say about water supplies and power. But because of DICCI I also have a specific interest in how the Budget will affect MSMEs, industry, ST/SCs, and entrepreneurs. Well, the budget promises universal sanitation, power, primary education especially for the girl child, foreign investment, etc. And especially relevant to DICCI, it promised large set asides for the welfare and encouragement of ST/SC populations, as well as several funds to encourage entrepreneurship. DICCI hopes to help the government in the implementation of these schemes (I’ll attach the report I wrote about the budget to be sent to the members)…(Ok I don’t know how to do that)

I want to believe that this #budgetofhope, as it is called on Twitter will be actionable and impactful but already there are sceptics.

I am so very interested, more than I ever thought in these matters of public policy. Yet politics in India can be such an ugly business. So I guess we’ll wait, for the rain and for change and progress.

UPDATE as of July 24 – The rain at least has come. Don’t know yet about the change, but I am hoping for it…

A farewell

Originally posted on 200 Wanderlust Days:

I only have one more day left here at Chirag before I leave for Delhi. One day. I can’t believe that I have spent more than two months here, inhaling the fresh mountain air, hiking, having all the time in the world to just talk with people and learn about the both curative and preventative aspects of rural health (and the culture and lifestyle of Kumaoni’s, more than anything!). And I guess this will be my reflection post on what I have learned, how I have changed, and how it will affect my future, as well as a thank you to all the incredible people I have met during my time here (not to be too sentimental).

Before this experience, I had never worked or studied outside of the United States. All recounts of health in other countries and cultures were absorbed through the medium of a lecture or book…

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Week 10: Are we really almost done?


A local shop in Madurai and an example of the vibrant colourfulness of india that I love and will miss

Wow I can’t believe we’re heading into the final week of the internship. Even now, I still feel surprised by new experiences and lessons that India is showing me each day. I think I will really miss the traffic-stopping cowherds, the casual elephant strolling down the street, and the steaming cups of chai prepared conveniently by the roadside. I came to India this summer with a burning desire to explore an exotic country while doing something meaningful at the world’s most efficient ophthalmology hospital, both goals which I have happily achieved. At Aravind, we have successfully completed 3 projects, 1 of which was a research project on shared medical appointments, a system of seeing patients that offered multiple dimensions of interaction; both patient-patient and patient-doctor. We gave a presentation to many of the senior management, doctors and researchers of SMA at London and even designed and carried out a pilot study in the glaucoma clinic! It was a proud moment to see our suggestions actually being carried out in the hospital. On a broader level, I find it amazing each day how Aravind is able to stay true to its benevolent missions of “preventing needless blindness” through maintaining the highest quality of eye care while minimizing costs and being completely financial sustainable all at the same time! There are lessons to take home by everyone, from the inspiring and relentless spirit of the hospital workers to the beautifully designed and financially sound model that forms the basis of one of the most impressive eye care hospitals in the world.


Me playing with a cataract surgery training simulator. After this experience, I had a much stronger admiration for the skillful Aravind surgeons who could perform cataract surgery in under 5 minutes!

To supplement the work that we doing at Aravind, I have also been attending daily yoga classes at Sivananda Yoga Centre, where I learned the art of flexibility, zen, and where to buy the best cakes in Madurai. My co-interns and I have also become experts on the food-scene in the city, exploring a different restaurant every evening for the duration of our internship. Our knowledge of places to eat and of local dishes impresses even the most local of locals, such as where to find idlis that are as soft as clouds and the best non-veg restaurant to try a beautifully cooked rabbit biriyani. I think we also win the prize for most-travelled CASI interns of all time. Right off the bat, Zach, Abhi, and I took it upon ourselves to visit as many places as possible in India, including Cochin, Munnar, Ooty, Coimbatore, Mysore, Bangalore, Kodaikanal, Rameshwaram, and a handful of other impressive cities, towns, and hill stations in South India. This weekend, I am taking my travels to the North, where I am excited to see a new side of the country.

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One of my most memorable cultural experiences was wearing a sari and attending a south indian wedding

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A typical south indian meal featuring a large plain dosa, a vada, and some chutney and sambar on the side

Now that the internship is wrapping up, I am getting very sentimental about leaving my new friends and the city that I currently call home. At my yoga class last week, my instructor asked me whether I could make it to a big ceremony occurring in 2 weeks. I told her that I was leaving, to which she responded, “So when are you coming back?” I could only sadly shake my head and tell her that I did not know. All I know is that I will definitely take it upon myself to come back to India and to relive the colorful experiences from this summer.