OnPoint by Keith Ng

12

D38: Hippy Death Ray

India has found my Achilles Heel - a lethal combination of heat and humidity - and has hit me with a remorseless bout of heat rash. During my convalescence, I've been cowering in the air-conditioned fortress of my hotel room, scratching everywhere but in my notebook.

Am I too late to blog about the underclass? Are they still there? I have a poor connection to the New Zealand zeitgeist here, but I'll add my two rupees worth to the debate.

There is a huge wallop of situational irony in writing about the deprivation of people living in state homes and eating nutritionally dubious food when, walking 50m down the road, I can find a dozen people sleeping on the street, including many children. One family of three - a mother and two skinny children, both about 8 or 9 years old - were sleeping on a hand-pulled wagon. There are often small, blanket-covered lumps on the ground, and you wonder whether there's actually a person underneath, and whether they're alive.

I know, I know - social conscience doesn't reach this far. But it does put New Zealand's problems into perspective, anyway.

So... Key's trying to turn a social malady into a national crisis? How terribly Leader-of-the-Opposition of him to do so.

But for once, this is not an issue that ends with "and this will add an extra $?? million to the economy". And National isn't gunning for the underclass vote here. Of course he's still politicking, but at least he's talking about governance beyond economic management, and about politics beyond the pork-barrel variety.

The aim is to galvanise voters around - get this - an common ideal. Or a common fear.

That's the question. Is he really interested in helping those who are left behind, or is he just afraid of what the underclass might do; does he want us to strive for a Kiwi ideal, or does he want us to fear the poor?

It's natural that he'd have a stab both ways, but he needs to decide which one it is, and in so doing, decide which kind of politics he wants to pursue.

The proof will be in the policies, not the rhetoric. But if he proves genuine and he steers away from fearmongering, I think that Key has an opportunity to inject some long-absent idealism into the political arena.

And if that frames the agenda for the next election (rather than tax-goddamn-cuts), then Key would already have done the nation a significant service.

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I've stopped being surprised by India now. Not that India isn't surprising, but I think my faculty for surprise is dulled - as have my regard for personal safety.

After a month of constant death-defiance on the roads, I've become blasé about a pair of oncoming buses on both sides of the road. And after that, drinking tap water - to the shock of my traveling companion Svenda - just didn't seem so bad-ass anymore.

There is a small temple around the corner of my hotel. There was a small elephant outside it the other day. We gave each other "what are you looking at" looks, and moved on.

Had French onion soup - was full of pepper and spices. Had some tea - it was full of chilly. Had chicken soup, donuts, etc. You get the point. Man the tiger prawns were good, though.

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Have been doing a story on eco-housing and renewable energy in a place called Auroville - a community that follows the teachings of The Mother blah blah Divine Consciousness blah blah human unity etc.

They're an enclave of people from around the world who built a community from the ground up. Starting from barren ground, they've reforested the area and put up everything from shacks, to stylish hippy eco-buildings to death rays and time machines.

They're probably backed by the Hanso Foundation.

I didn't get to see the death ray. It's a 15m diameter parabolic solar dish that aims sunlight into a central receiver, which transfers the energy into the control centre below, cleverly disguised as a kitchen. The solar bowl is used for cooking, they claim.

It's currently closed for repairs, but I hope that they'll demonstrate its awesome power when I come back in March. I'll buy a puppy for the occasion.

The centre of the city is dominated by an enormous golden sphere. Enormous. It's just a giant time-machine in the middle of nowhere. Again, it's closed for repairs, but they tell me it's a "meditation chamber".

I'm come back for those later, but they did have some other cool stuff.

For example, a scum pond with water splashing around. Impressed? The algae is supposed to be able to purify and desalinate water *and* be harvested and burned afterwards as fuel.

They also showed me solar water heating systems which used glass evacuated tube (double layered glass tubes which uses vacuum in between to retain heat). The tubes heat water to 60 degrees but were cool to the touch. The system in India costs around $500 - 40% less than conventional systems which used a lot of copper.

And finally, a landscaped garden that was actually a sewage treatment plant in disguise. Every building has a series of tanks where waste water flow through. The first two primary treatment tanks are hidden, but the other two looks like a flower garden and a lily pond. Neither looked - or smelled - like they had shit running through them.

I spent the day riding around on a motorcycle (no helmet - gasp!) with a French woman, who showed me all the places. She later invited me to her amazing custom-built house, which was naturally air-cooled through some ingenious design features.

Her husband worked for an oil company, she later noted in passing.

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On my way back, I passed by a giant temple with a very angry, 20m tall god with a skull at his feet. Passing through the mouth of a giant tiger, I walked down to the dark basement, topless. The walls were lined with meditating figures. A young acolyte/priest took a plate with an oil lamp and a small bowl of red powder, walked to the altar, waved it around, and beckoned me to come. He anointed me with a spot on my forehead.

I am now holier than thou. I think.

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