Posts for category ‘NPR’

Interview on NHPR: Word of Mouth
| March 25, 2010 | 2:32 pm

This month Mother Jones published a story of mine about surrogate mothers in India. Today I New Hampshire Public Radio interviewed me about the article on their show “Word of Mouth.” Listen to the interview here

I’ll post a link to the story in Mother Jones once they post it online. In the meanwhile you can check it out on newsstands across the country.

Finalist for the Livingston Award in International Reporting
| May 4, 2008 | 4:29 am

A couple days ago learned that I have been selected as a finalist for the Livingston Award in International Reporting for my piece in WIRED titled “The Bone Factory: India’s Underground Trade in Human Remains.”[link] Every year 50 young journalists are selected as finalists by a star committee of veteran media players. The wikipedia entry on the competition says that “the Livingston Awards are among the most competitive and prestigious reporting prizes in American journalism.”

My name on the list of finalists is wedged between two reporters for the New York Times and shares space with some of the best up and coming journalists in America. So, I know it’s cliché, but it’s an honor just to be nominated. The winner gets a $10,000 cash award, and a trip to New York to mingle with the panel of judges. The awards will be announced on June 6th.


Also, just in case you missed it. I had another story on NPR a few weeks ago, but didn’t end up posting about it on this blog. It is about a new transgender talk show host here in Chennai who is stirring up the community with provocative questions about sex and marriage. Check it out here: “Transgender Talk Show Host Tackles Taboos in India.”

Back to India for the Children of Immigrants
| March 6, 2008 | 3:58 am
Preetha Narayanan moved back to India for a year and a half on a scholarship.

Thousands of Indians born in America have found a new home in the land that their parents abandoned. This week for NPR I reported on a new trend among second generation Indians to return to India in search of opportunity. Part of the draw is that Indians born and raised in the states often feel conflicted over their identities–on one hand they feel like they feel set apart from the American mainstream, while on the other they aren’t sure how well they they fit into India, either. Inevitably, when they move to India, many in the second generation find that they have more in common with other Americans than they do with local people. And some people, find that disheartening.

But there are some clear advantages to moving. In addition to new visa schemes like the PIO and OCI cards that allow people to cross borders and work without too much government hassle, returning Indians also find that they can seriously advance their career. S. Mitra Kalita, a newspaper editor at Mint in Delhi, says that simply moving to India threw her into the ranks of senior management almost immediately. It would have taken her years to get to the same position working at newspapers back home.

And it’s not just the second generation moving back. I’m increasingly meeting people here in Chennai and Bangalore who have been educated in the United States and even worked there for a few years who have decided that moving back makes a lot of sense. In the 1970s and 1980s most people assumed that moving to America would lock them into the west–returning wasn’t even on the table. Now, it seems, many people are able to bridge both worlds.

Here’s the story on NPR:

Carnatic Music Season
| January 27, 2008 | 12:06 am

Every year thousands of classically trained musicians descend on Chennai in hopes of making a name for themselves. There aren’t a lot of venues for south Indian music and dance, but if you want to make a living through music then the first pre-requisite is to be a smashing success during the local concert season.

In December I traversed music halls across the city and met legendary musicians and up and coming artists for NPR. Listen to the radio story here.

The Bone Factory: India’s Underground Trade in Human Remains
| November 28, 2007 | 10:17 am
Manoj Pal: Dom and Cadaver Deflesher

It is pitch black and raining when I first meet Manoj Pal: a man who makes his living defleshing rotting cadavers. I am a hundred kilometers outside of Calcutta in a small village called Purbasthali where police confiscated more than 100 bright white human skeletons. The bones they found were on their way along a two hundred year old pipeline for human remains. The smugglers route begins on the banks of Indian rivers and ends in the sacred halls of medicine in Western countries. The skeletons Pal prepared could have fetch as much as $70,000 on the black market.

Manoj Pal is grunt labor for the industry. As part of the dom, or grave tending, caste his job is the most grim. Day and night he recovers bodies from a nearby cremation ghat. He binds the corpses in mosquito netting and soaks them in the river for a week. When the bodies are waterlogged and mostly consumed by fish and stray dogs he scrubs off the remaining flesh, dumps the bodies in a boiling solution of caustic chemicals and lets them dry in the sun.

Before he was arrested Pal’s boss, Mukthi Biswas would sell bones to a medical supply company in Calcutta called Young Brothers for a few thousand rupees. From there the bones were wired together into free hanging skeletons and sold both domestically and abroad.

I spent three months piecing together the path that human bones take from Calcutta to the Western world for WIRED magazine. I found suppliers and buyers in well respected companies and universities across the United States. When I brought this to the attention of police in Calcutta they told me that they do not view grave robing as a serious crime. On the rare occasions that the police catch a grave robber, they mostly just let them off with a slap on the wrist.

The bone business dates back to colonial times when British doctors needed a steady supply of human skeletons to stock anatomy classes in England. Before they had set up a reliable system for preparing human skeletons on a mass scale there was an extreme shortage of bones available for study. It drove some British doctors to rob graves in their own neighborhoods. Some cemeteries were so notorious for skulduggery that there were frequent fist fights between grieving families and shovel-carrying medical students.
A bag of leg bones confiscated on the Bhutan Border

But with the advent of colonialism doctors began to look to Calcutta for fresh body supplies. By the mid 1800’s Calcutta Medical College was sending hundred of bodies abroad every year. The trade continued to flourish until the 1980s. At its peak every aspiring doctor in the world bought a box of bones along with their first year’s medical textbooks for about $300. Calcutta was exporting more than 60,000 skeletons a year making it a multi million dollar business.

But it couldn’t last forever. In 1985 rumors began to surface that the bone dealers had run out of skeletons in Calcutta’s graveyards and were killing children for their skeletons. Child skeletons are rarer than adult skeletons and fetched a higher price on the market. A man was arrested for exporting more than 1,500 child skeletons. A member of the legislature accused him of murder and put the nail in the coffin for the legal industry. By 1986 exports had all but stopped. The 13 original bone exporters all seemingly shut their doors. Medical schools in the West began relying on model skeletons for their anatomy instruction needs.

What no one knew was that at least one company was still exporting human bones. They had rekindled factories across West Bengal and had clients all over the world.

The most active bone exporter is Young Brothers. It’s a medical supply company that sits between one of Calcutta’s most active morgues and its largest cemetery. In 2001 neighbors complained that the warehouse stank like the dead. Some people reported seeing bones drying on the roof. When the health department chief Javed Ahmed Khan heard the reports he raided the facility and found bones boiling away in cauldrons and export invoices for orders all over the world. It was proof that the business was violating the export ban. But when Khan took the case to the police the owner of Young Brothers, Vinesh Aron, only spent one night in jail. The case was thrown own over a jurisdictional dispute and the business given a subtle nod that it could continue.

Since then Young Brothers has been more discreet about its business affairs, but it hasn’t exactly shuttered his doors. In October I met Aron’s in law in yet another medical supply company in Chennai. He told me that Vinesh Aron is the only man in the family with “guts”. To prove it he pulled a fetal skull off the shelf and offered to sell it to me for $400.

In the meanwhile bones are still being smuggled though illegal channels in Singapore and Paris. I found a reseller in Canada who says that he still sells Indian bones across North America.

For more about the global trade in human bones check out this month’s issue of WIRED magazine in a story called “Inside India’s Underground Trade in Human Remains“. I have also produced a shorter radio segment for NPR titled “Into the Heart of India’s Underground Bone Trade“.

For more photos of the bone cache check out these two galleries: mine and NPR’s

Can a tattoo stop a bullet?
| November 13, 2007 | 12:50 pm

Today NPR is running a story a trip I took to Thailand last week where I searched out several famous tattoo artists who have mastered the art of Sak-Yant. The tattoos they put on people’s back are said to be able to stop bullets. At the end of one interview with Ajarn Sua blessed me. Then he took out a standard issue box cutter and started slashing away at my arm saying that his blessing had protected me from harm. When I left there were lots of cat-like scratches on my arm, but no blood.

Click here to listen to the NPR story

Click here for more photos

For centuries Thai soldiers have covered their bodies in protective tattoos called Sak Yant. Today, the ancient ritual is booming and thousands of people, in Thailand and beyond, are flocking to master artists to have the powerful designs inked on their bodies.

The Wat Bang Pra Buddhist temple, about 30 miles west of Bangkok, is one of the most highly esteemed locations for Sak Yant. Dozens of monks and master artists, who have spend years perfecting the art, can be found there.

One afternoon, a group of men – many already covered head to toe with tattoos — discuss, in the courtyard, how best to use the canvas of their skin. The dirty, dilapidated campus, covered with cobwebs, may not immediately invoke an aura of prestige, but these Sak Yant devotees are less interested in the buildings than the designs that will soon cover their bodies. Many have traveled from far reaches of Thailand. A tattoo from this temple, they say, can protect them from danger or even death.

Chakkrapad Romkaew, one of the devotees, says that his first tattoo altered his outlook on the world, made him braver and encouraged him to become a soldier. His back is covered in elaborate geometric patterns and Buddhist prayers. In a week he’s being sent to the south of Thailand as part of an anti-terrorist squad. He wants to get another tattoo so, he says, he will be more fully protected before the bullets begin to fly.

“There are so many dangers waiting down there,” he says. “Before I got a tattoo, I never wanted to be a soldier. But when they got into my skin, my desire to be a soldier got stronger.”

The Process

Master artist Ajarn Sua prepares to place a tattoo on the young soldier by sharpening a two-foot-long needle. Often, the tattoo is simply a series of dots created when the needle passes through the skin. After the pattern has been drawn, the monks rub ink into the wound and say a prayer to empower the charm hidden inside the tattoo.

There are hundreds of traditional designs, many of which revolve around animal figures. One of the most powerful, according to the tradition, is a tiger that spans the whole of a person’s lower back. An unprepared person can suddenly find that their whole life is turned around after being inked, a monk named Suntotn Prapagaroe explains.

“If a person has a tiger spirit, he will act like a tiger. He cannot control himself, the spirit controls him,” Prapagaroe says. “He will spread his hand like this, and roar.”

Although the tattoos may ultimately protect believers from suffering, pain is an inherent part of the process.

“It’s like being jabbed by a needle a thousand times,” says Paul Davies, a British Internet entrepreneur who also has come to the Wat Bang Pra temple for a tattoo.

Modern Technologies

Not all Sak Yant masters rely on the traditional needle methods. The master Ajarn Sua, who has a studio just north of Bangkok, says that a number of people coming to him for tattoos have urged him to adopt the electric tattoo needle.

Modernization does not necessarily mean canceling out tradition, however. After inking one man’s back, Sua places his hand over the man’s face and forces his head backwards. He draws a ritual knife across his neck and then stabs him lightly in the back.

“No person with this tattoo will ever be hurt by bullets or knives,” he says.

The Parlor to the Stars

Although Sak Yant has existed for thousands of years, it began to expand in new directions several years ago due to one extremely famous devotee: Angelina Jolie. In 2004, the actress flew to Bangkok to meet with venerated tattoo master Ajarn Noo Kanphai, who placed a large tiger on her lower back — and a string of Thai script on her left shoulder.

Ajarn Noo’s studio — known as the parlor to the stars — contrasts sharply with the Wat Bang Pra temple. Simple worn walls are replaced with photos of high rolling Thai celebrities and American CEOs. One recent afternoon, two well-known Thai comedians and an actor from the Cannes film hit Om Bhat waited for designs.

Tattoos, Kanphai says, can give a person courage to face the difficulties of their life. They can multiply wealth and protect from harm. “Many people have come to me with drug problems, but after I give them a tattoo, the problems go away,” he says. A tattoo can really change your life.”

Survivors of Acid Violence Speak Out
| August 22, 2007 | 12:21 pm
Haseena Hussain at the CSAAAW protest in Bangalore

Last week a young woman from Mysore was doused with a bottle of hydrochloric acid and then forced to drink a mixture of acid and alcohol. No one was surprised. Her husband had abused her for years, she had even lodged a series of complaints with the police in the months before the final attack. Two days ago Hina Fathima died in a Mysore hospital.

Acid violence is increasingly common across South Asia and cases like Fathima’s are common enough that they often don’t even make the front page of local newspapers. The Campaign and Struggle Against Acid Attacks on Women, or CSAAAW, has recorded 61 acid attacks in Karnataka since 1999. While most of the women die from their injuries or from suicide some survivors have come out to try to change local laws that make acid cheap and easily available at any corner grocery store. The women who do survive often have to bear terrible medical costs and often lose their eyes, noses, ears and any semblance of facial expression.

Last week I traveled to Bangalore to meet with the founding members of CSAAAW and do a short story for NPR about the prevalence of acid violence and interviewed key people in the campaign. So far the government isn’t really taking the problem seriously. They contend that only a handful of women who are victims of these attacks are not a pressing enough problem. The state sponsored fund meant to pay for the women’s medical care is hardly enough to cover the costs of two or three patients, let along the scores of women in the state who desperately need treatment.

The real danger of acid violence isn’t only the effects that it has on victims, but in the role that it plays in Indian society as a threat. The mainstream media often shows angry men threatening their lovers with acid. Many women I know live in fear that they could be targets of some acid wielding assailant. For 18 rupees anyone can buy a bottle of acid that is 32% concentrated–it’s a weapon that just about anyone can afford and ruing someone’s life is as easy as splashing it in their face.

Click here to listen to the NPR story

I have also posted a small gallery of photos that I took while at the protest that show the range of activists and survivors who have come out to support CSAAAW. I am thinking of taking another trip up to Bangalore to take more photos of these women.

If you want to get in touch directly with CSAAAW contact Sanjana at

Vannakkum You’re on Rainbow
| August 7, 2007 | 1:22 pm

I love the radio in Chennai. When I’m driving around the city I always tune into FM rainbow and listen to a daily game show called Aantakshri. The game is really simple. One caller starts singing a few bars of a song. They stop and then repeat the last sound from the last line of the song. The second caller starts singing some other song that starts with that last sound. It’s sort of like musical chairs, but with singing.

A few weeks ago I convinced the good people at NPR that it would be a good idea to let me play parts of the show on American national radio. I interviewed the show’s host and a couple other people around the city about why a show like that would become so popular. I also dropped in on a sound studio in the Amirami Mega Mall in Purusawakkam that lets people come in off the street and get a a quarter of an hour of studio time to hear themselves sing. I took some photos of the sound booth, it’s pretty professional, check it out.

The show aired today all across the United States. If you missed it you can download it off the NPR website here. One word of caution for the Tamil purists who read this blog: when I was setting up the sound for the piece I didn’t have any popular Tamil music on my computer, so the background music is all Hindi.

Dadua Slain. Is Banditry on the Wane?
| July 27, 2007 | 12:41 am
The only known picture of Dadua

I did a short interview for NPR yesterday on the last stand of the feared bandit Dadua in Uttar Pradesh last week. Special forces surrounded the dacoits position and lobbed grenades at him and ten of his armed colleagues.

I’m interested in doing some more research on banditry in India. Unlike the various revolutionary movements across South Asia, there is something romantic–if unnerving–about the dozen or royal dacoits who have spend decades resisting the government. Unlike the Naxals men like Dadua, Veerapam, and Man Singh didn’t have grandiose political aims, but were unwilling to live by conventional morality. It almost that the most powerful dacoits in India are the inheritors of India’s long dead feudal traditions.

Dadua survived in the ravines and jungles of Uttar Pradesh for so long because he fashioned himself as a patron of the rural downtrodden. He got the vote out for political parties, and paid dowry money for families who could not afford to get their daughters married off. He was half-magnanimous monarch and half cold blooded killer with over 150 murder cases attributed to him by the police.

Man Singh, the notorious bandit king who was gunned down in a similar manner by the police in the 1950’s, has risen to god like status in Madya Pradesh. Today a score of temples in rural areas include his bust along with the pantheon of Hindu gods. Even 60 years after his death local people see him as a benefactor.

Yet the central government seems to be stepping up operations against bandits and I wonder if soon there won’t be any place for these sorts of figured in India’s IT future.

I’d like to find out more about Dadua. Perhaps I’ll take a trip up to UP and visit the temple he consecrated.

Listen to the NPR story here:

We’re up to our Ears in E-Waste
| June 20, 2007 | 9:17 pm

There is an E-waste problem in Chennai. For the last year I have been poking around back alleys where half naked people break old computers, cell phones and electronic gear into small bite-sized pieces in order to harvest the gold and precious metals inside. When they burn the junk in huge piles in Guindy and Velichery everyone downwind gets exposed to a potentially toxic cocktail of lead, cadmium, mercury and dioxin.

Yesterday afternoon a story I wrote on the issue aired on NPR. It’s my first full-fledged radio story and it looks like I’m going to be covering quite a bit of India with a microphone in the next year or so. You can listen to the story here.

I’ve written on E-waste before for .net in a story titled “India’s Great Techno Trash Heap” and have another version of the piece that should show up in the UK some time this month.

I’ve also taken a ton of photo of the computer smashing industry that you might want to check out.

Here’s a gallery from last week that I took for NPR.

Here are about a dozen pictures from last year that I took while working for .net.