Wednesday, July 29, 2009

If I Were a Twit

@theorganicindian: I get blood circulation problems when I'm in India. Limbs fall asleep frequently. Inexplicable medical mystery. Ideas, doctor readers?

@theorganicindian: TOI = Times of India. But also TOI = theorganicindian. Who do you turn to first for breaking news from South Asia? Yeah I thought so.

@theorganicindian: At my gym ppl wait around as trainers rack their wghts and practically lift their bar when spotting. U cant even work out w/o a servant?!

@theorganicindian: American franchise that would dominate in India #212: Taco Bell. Think on it.

@theorganicindian: Fav daily routine so far: listening to rap on my ipod in rickshaw to work. Contrast b/w what I see and what I hear is tremendous

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bhavnagar: Where the Buffaloes and Blue Bulls Roam

This weekend Pareshbhai and I went out to visit two villages in Bhavnagar district. Our goal was to meet with farmers to discuss the DSC radio program: what they liked, what they didn't, how they'd like to see the program evolve in the future. We also wanted to get feedback on Avaaj Otalo, the phone-based information service I'm working on with DSC. I've put a slideshow below with plenty of captions to explain things. After you start the slideshow (big play button), hit the pause button and use the arrows to flip through, so you can actually read the captions. Hope you like!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Uppar Chadavo

Last weekend I attended a meeting hosted by Yuva ("Youth") Unstoppable, an org that claims "young people are not useless, but used less". They facilitate some unique service opportunities in many cities in India, all in the small acts of kindness paradigm. Last year I was blown away when I joined some of youngsters for a meet-and-greet at a nursing hospital in Ahmedabad. It was amazing to me how much love they put into the service; it wasn't something they were doing just so they could pad their college application. They were there to genuinely connect, which I didn't expect from teenagers. And the response from the elderly people there was tremendous.

Yuva is trying to start a movement with young people around the country by asking to give just 2 hours/week, focusing on serving underprivileged children. I really like two things about their setup: one, that they have people commit 2 hours regularly, which is small. But when you take 2 hours x 52 weeks/year x 3500 youth around the country, you've turned micro-actions into a tidal wave of impact. The other thing I like is that the service opportunities are off the beaten path. In Ahmedabad, there are a number of ongoing projects: give school lessons to slum kids, bring lassi's to police officers working on busy intersections, play with and do lessons with kids at construction sites (while their parents are working), pick up trash for street sweepers at busy intersections, etc. There is the act of service, there is the humble connection to the underprivileged, and there is the statement-through-action, made in busy public spaces.

At the meeting, Amitabh, the founder of Yuva, gave an impressive speech. He started with a great story of something that happened to him on his way to the meeting. He was stopped at a busy intersection when a street-seller boy came up to his car. Wanting to do something for him, Amitabh told the boy to put his hand over his A/C vent, to cool off from the hot day. He loved it! The boy's name was Papruj. As Papruj was enjoying to cool air, Amitabh had to move, but he didn't want to leave the little dude hanging. So he pulls his car over to let Papruj cool off for a little while longer! He'd be late for the meeting, but he was putting a smile on Papruj's face. When they were pulled over, Papruj called over some of his buddies and soon Amitabh had a bunch of little hands sticking into his car.

Yuva is all about energizing youth and trying to fire people up. In fact, Amitabh told the story of the origins of Obama's "Fired up, ready to go" slogan in South Carolina. And this after starting the meeting with everyone standing and yelling the Yuva anthem: We are young! We are productive! We are good-looking! We are dynamic! We are hard-working! AND we are creative!

Finally, I liked Amitabh's concept of a culture of "laddership", which means that Yuva members (Yuva-ites) should generate opportunities for others to achieve and to celebrate when they do. He also introduced the "Uppar Chadavo" ("lift others up") campaign as a way to foster this culture. Always be looking for ways to make others around you shine.

Unfortunately I didn't get to go out and serve that day, but hopefully soon. Fired up!

Back to the Kheti

Editor's Note: The theme song for this post is N2Deep's classic Back to the Hotel. Except that you have to substitute the word 'hotel' for 'kheti'. Like, "Back to the Khe-ti daa naa naa naa naaaaaaaaa". Listen to the song so it plays in your head as you read. Thank you for your attention on this matter.

This post is long past due, but two weekends ago while in Delhi I did my first farm visit since being back in India. That's right... I was "Back to the Khe-ti daa naa naa naa naaaaaaaaa"!!!!!!!!!!!!

The farm is run by an NGO called Farmers First Foundation. I came to know about it through one of the directors Amandeep Gill, a wonderful guy who was a visiting scholar at Stanford last year, but originally works in the GOI's Ministry of External Affairs in nuclear proliferation issues. The farm is a collaboration of a lot of heavyweight organizations connected to the government. My impression was that it brought together some of the best agricultural minds the GOI has to offer. The result was an impressive 4 acres south of Delhi with every sustainable agriculture toy you could imagine. I'm going to give the grand tour through pictures mostly.

Partial panorama of the 4 acres:

A structure for collecting and storing cow waste (urine and manure) for eventual application on the field.

The Indore method of composting. Straight out of Sir Albert Howard's playbook:

Vermicompost... this was phenomenal:

Fodder is being grown right now to feed the cows, along with nitrogen-fixers. Veggies will be going down sometime later.

Chickens! Used for manure (very high nitrogen concentration in chicken manure). Once they build up the flock, it will be viable to sell the eggs also (roughly 1 egg/chicken/day). Check out the black beauties on the second pic.

Bee-keeping. This is expensive to start up, but highly lucrative (honey production) and ecologically beneficial (pollination) once the trees get established.

Silage container. Used for feed in the cold months. Fits about an acre's worth of fodder when compressed. It becomes soggy.

A (fully gifted) tractor. The implements were borrowed by neighboring farmers. I told Amandeep that the value of the tractor will be appropriately amplified once those farmers use the tractor for their own farms.

Amandeep showed me the cows last, which he said he saved for the end because they are the "heart of the farm". Well said. Any ecologically balanced farm must have both plants and animals. Cows are the bedrock. They provide nourishment to the soil, the plants, and humans.

These are some studly Haryani buffaloes:

Indigenous breeds (forgot to note the exact name... anyone know?). Amandeep's daughter instructed, "To pet the cow, you must show it only love, not fear":

The little ones:

Interesting story about the cattle feed shown below. They supplement the fodder from the farm with grain they get from Delhi retailer outlets. Those outlets often poke open bags to give samples, and grain spills on their floors. Amandeep buys up the grain they sweep up from the ground for the cattle feed. Nice. Later I heard from Pareshbhai that in Gujarat that is done as well, except people eat the swept up grain.

All-in-all this was a very impressive farm. The way it was organized and laid out, but also the spirit of sustainability behind it. I had two main criticisms. The first one was, how does this farm serve small farmers? One dimension is the accessibility. Traveling to model farms like this isn't easy for farmers... who would come there to learn? The second dimension is the farm system itself. As I mentioned this farm has all the best practices and facilities. All of the toys (compost facilities, storage, animal quarters, etc.) were designed by experts in their respective fields, and probably at considerable expense. The farm is basically like a showroom of the heights that can be reached in sustainable agriculture, all here in one location. But what can a small farmer take from this? Are there cost-effective implementations of the facilities shown? If not, then the farm is educational but not implementable. It would be nice if it were both.

The second criticism I had of the farm was about the perimeter stone wall that surrounds it. I mean, a wall?!?!! It felt so out of place given the spirit of what was within it. No organic farm should ever be walled in. This farm is a treasure that is for all to behold. As my dad would say, 'Born Free'!

Daa naa naa naa naaaaaaaaaaaaaa

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Organic Indian In Your Mailbox

Due to the overwhelming demand (OK, it was just Raju), there is now a way for you to receive posts on this blog to your email inbox. Just go over to the sidebar and click on the "Subscribe!" link and follow the instructions. Once you're a member of the google group, you'll start receiving emails.

Also while you're looking over there take a look at the 'Favorite Posts' section for posts that I either I thought came out well or which generated an especially energetic response from fans of this blog. I'd particularly recommend "The Hole" which is probably my most famous post. In it I eloquently make the case for Indian toilets as a superior technology to American toilets. Needless to say it generated controversy. Anjoy!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Stuff Indian People Like #2: Riches-to-Rags Stories

I’m currently reading Gladwell’s Outliers, where he talks a bunch about how people become successful. His thesis is that as much as we like to believe in the Horatio Alger story of the modest lad from underprivileged circumstances rising up to success, fame and fortune by his own genius and/or hard work, it’s not the whole truth. The real story is that there were a lot of fortuitous circumstances and environmental advantages along the path for successful people that allowed them to achieve what they did. For example, Bill Gates was one of the few students in the country in the 60s to go to a high school with computers, and happened to live next to a university that eventually let him continue to hone his skills using their facilities. If it weren’t for those and a half-dozen other turns of fate, he probably wouldn’t have gone on to do big things in the computing industry. Gates himself calls it luck.

Anyway, American society tends to be obsessed with the idea of bootstraps, of going from nothing to something. In India, I think people are more enchanted with the opposite. They love the riches-to-rags story.

I hear these sort of stories all the time. Someone or other made his fortune in industry, or trade, or some clever invention, or through the IT boom. And then he realized that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be so he decides to be a philanthropist, or go back to the land and start a farm, or start a bunch of schools for high achievers in his family’s village locality. I don’t know exactly what it is, but my guess is that this story appeals to the part of Indian culture and spiritual tradition that values renunciation. Giving it all up is seen as heroic… it’s what the Buddha did. Conversely American culture is about excess and getting mo’ everything.

As far as the riches-to-rags stories in India, it’s nuts to me how people give a mulligan to a guy who was exploitative and greedy in his most productive years as long as he eventually realizes he’s erred in his life and makes an attempt to recalibrate by thinking about someone else for a change. And that when he is old, gray, and lonely. Never mind that he stepped on a bunch of people in his life before waking up. Sure you’re trying to fix the problems you helped created, but good lookin' out!

Maybe no person better epitomizes riches-to-rags than Chairman Gates. Indians love him. I think his legend has grown leaps and bounds since he’s decided that he’s going to be the richest philanthropist in the world. It’s ironic that the Gates Foundation has decided that its top priority isn’t development, but making sure they spend the vast reserves of cash they were endowed as quickly as possible. So they have millions tied up in huge foundations that are pretty much just like them, with a pittance remaining to fund smaller experiments on the ground that often produce impressive results. They also apparently have managed to blow $258M in India with nothing to show for it. Of course I can’t rant without acknowledging that I am seriously biting the hand that feeds me (my funding for these 6 months comes from none other than the Gates Foundation), but as my friend Rikin of DigitalGreen pointed out, it may be too little too late.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Mind is Slower than Nature

A thought from meditation:

The mind is slower than nature. It always plays catch-up. We use our mind to observe, analyze, understand the world around us. The way we do this is to use our reasoning abilities, which is essentially a pattern-matching exercise. Knowledge is the recognition of patterns in the world. At the same time the world is zooming by. As I type this sentence there are a billion chemical reactions going on in my body.

The mind can never keep up. Worse still, when we convince ourselves that we can understand nature, we end up going against the grain, stopping to figure this or rationalize that. We stumble and struggle trying to keep up. You miss the whole flow of life in an attempt to capture it.

I think a less stressful way is to try and tap into the flow of nature, which really means letting go of the pursuit of patterns. This is what you practice when you meditate. If you can master this, then you are riding the waves of life on a surfboard, instead of floating to shore in fits and starts.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Inverse Slumdog

Over the weekend I watched a Hindi movie called “New York”. Going in, I was warned that it was going to be a bad one. But I was not prepared for what I witnessed.

‘New York’ is the tragic story of Sameer a.k.a. Sam, a young South Asian-American going to college in NYC with all the potential in the world gone awry when he is pegged as a suspect in the 9-11 hijackings. Never mind that Sameer’s Indian, an American citizen, and has all kinds of alibis… he’s brown damnit!

As a suspected terrorist, the FBI, led by agent played by Irfan Khan, hire Sameer’s best college buddy Omar to spy on him and bring him in. Omar, reluctant to turn on a friend who he knows is innocent, later finds out that Sameer actually has become a terrorist after being falsely held in a Guantanamo-like detention facility for 9 months. After that episode, Sam decides it’s time to get payback from the country that screwed him.

Sameer is played by John Abraham, the latest Bollywood beefcake. He looks like an Indian incredible hulk. The guy is massive. Some of the movie’s best scenes were of him showing off his versatility as an actor. In one scene he demonstrates his physical prowess by beating one of his college chums in a mad dash footrace through the halls of their Hogwarts-esque college as the whole student body cheered them on. In the next scene he was sitting stoically in front of a chessboard and checkmating the school chess champion (he was Chinese). After Hulk won, he even offered to start again three moves back to give the guy a chance… how generous!

There were a number of impossibly absurd parts of this movie. First of all, since it is still a Bollywood movie, there was no way there wasn’t going to be a love story. So they cram whimsical songs and scenes of touch football in the park at college in between adrenaline-pumping action with C-4 explosives and torture scenes. What a mess. My favorite part of the movie was when Sam comes out of Guantanamo ready to become a terrorist, and goes to Brooklyn on a tip from another inmate. He goes into a bread shop with two hardcore Arab-looking guys behind the counter and asks for ‘New York’s best brown bread’. That’s the code to say he wants in on the terrorism. But the Arab guys need to test his persistence so they just pack him a loaf of the bread and charge him $3.45. But Sam won’t be denied. He goes back day after day asking for ‘New York’s best brown bread’ until they finally let him in. He had shown he was worthy to be one of them, one loaf at a time.

My second favorite scene was the very end after Sam and his wife get gunned down by the FBI on the rooftop of the building he was about to blow up. Their precocious young son, Daniel (pronounced Donny-yell), is adopted by Omar, the friend who turncoated on Sam. And Irfan Khan, the FBI agent who masterminded Sam’s framing and ultimately his bloody death, walks off into the sunset with Omar and Donny-yell , hand-in-hand to have a pasta lunch (Irfan hates pasta, but he made an exception). All’s well that ends well!

This movie was grade-A garbage. But the next day I thought about it, and realized that in fact this movie should go international and be seen by every American that watched (and loved) Slumdog Millionaire. I enjoyed Slumdog, but my Mom didn’t. She was bothered by the fact that the movie took one aspect of a vast, complex society, and amplified and glorified it to make it seem like that was what India was all about. She felt offended that India was portrayed in such a skewed way. Sure there are slums and crime and corruption, but that’s not what defines India. It’s fine to show this to people who have a deeper context of Indian society, but not to the uninitiated. I agreed with her point, but it didn’t hit home until I saw ‘New York’. This movie is the American version of Slumdog. It takes some negative aspects of post-911 America (the profiling, the torture), and blows it up to make America out as a cold-hearted police state that will turn on its best and brightest in a flash. It says that America’s terrorism problem is rooted in its own prejudice, and that it takes really good people and turns them into terrorists. All of this is probably true, but it’s by no means the whole truth. The portrayal is incredibly skewed.

I walked out of that theater wondering what the hell that crowd full of Indians had going through their heads. My reluctant conclusion was many were thinking, “Now I’ve got America figured out… I knew that’s how it works there!” Perpetuating stereotypes through propaganda made palatable through hip songs and pretty faces.

And this is why I highly recommend ‘New York’ to the world’s moviegoers. If it ever made it to the U.S. it would flop like a fat man in a pool, just like Slumdog did in India. And for the same reasons. But that’s exactly the point. Here’s to hoping that Slumdog re-releases as a 2-DVD package with ‘New York’.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

It's Kinda Like a Big Deal

Welcome to the Third Installment of The Organic Indian! I am writing to you live from Delhi, where I landed the day before yesterday. My first thought when I landed was, "Shit, here we go again," thinking ahead to the generous servings of heat, hard work, and homesickness that lay ahead. But as I was driving in the prepaid taxi from the airport, another thought came to me: "Let's do this!". I felt a gust of confidence. I have been here before, and it's always been an amazing experience. I'm ready for another big serving of amazing.

One of the things I like best about spending my summers in India is writing this blog. For those who are newly visiting this corner of the blogosphere, the main thing you need to know about this blog is the intended audience: my friends, family, and occasionally my future children; and that I try to be real to what I'm feeling at the time. I don't really care about being thorough with my facts or politically correct or whatever (I proofread posts minimally). As I've said before I reserve the right to take back anything I say on the blog. Often when I sit down to write I am thinking of someone specific in the audience. Sometimes I write to my brother, or sometimes to Joachim, or sometimes to my parents and cousins and aunts/uncles. I try and give you a sense of what's going on with me, the things going through my head and heart, etc. both as a way of staying connected but also to keep a record of formative times of my life. I also try hard to entertain and be funny. That is still a work in progress.

It's fun to see the names of the people I email every year to kick off the blog. Many of the names are the same, but there are always new people in the mix. You kinda get to see the rolling group of people who come in and out of your life. This year I've sent the word out to a bunch of people from school (hi guys!). As always, feel free to pass on the link to anyone who you think would be interested in reading.

This trip to India is special because I will be here through the fall. Yes, 6 months! I have taken a temporary leave from school to stay till January. The main reason for the extra stay is for me to crank out most if not all of the work in India I need to get done before I propose, prepare, and defend my PhD thesis. I will be concentrating my time on work I began last summer in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, with an NGO called DSC. We built and piloted a system for farmers in rural Gujarat to access agricultural information through an automated phone system. One of the most interesting parts of the system is that it has a voice-based question and answer forum. Farmers call in and post questions, listen to the Q&A of other farmers, and can also answer questions of other farmers themselves. The initial response to the system by farmers was very enthusiastic, so the goal this summer is to take the project to the next level... we want to make the system available to all of rural Gujurat. More on that as we roll along.

One final story that I have to leave you with. My mom dropped me off to the airport in San Francisco. On the 2-hour drive from Sac, we got to talking about raising kids, and she told me a story from long ago that I had never heard. My mom's first job ever was working at Security Pacific Bank as a teller in Fremont, CA. My parents lived in Livermore, and there was only one car. So my dad and her would drive into the Bay together, he would drop her at a bus station, he would continue on to his office, and my mom would take the bus the rest of the way to the bank. When she started, she was a timid, shy young woman straight off the boat from India. She hardly spoke English. When she started at the bank, there were two women there that really took her under their wings. One was the branch manager, named Linda. My mom told me that one time early on a customer who she was helping starting getting irate and impatient with her, and started hurling abuses. All kinds of vulgar stuff. So Linda comes over and asks if there's a problem. Customer says that he doesn't want to deal with my mom anymore, and wants to talk to someone else. Linda replies that she is confident that her employee is helping in the best possible way, and that anyone else he talks to would offer the same exact service. The guy continues to abuse. So Linda tells him, "Look, either you can calm down and speak to her, or you can take your business elsewhere." So the guy cashes out the $80 left in his account and walks out! My mom still remembers the way Linda stood up for her... those kinds of things stick with a person. The other woman mom worked with, Alice, was Chinese. When my mom started, her English was weak. Alice told my mom, "Look, when I first came to this country, I was just like you. I will make sure that you learn English, I will take care of you." My mom never forgot that either. So much so that years later when she ran her own check cashing business, she hired a small, frail Mexican girl named Rosie who had no qualifications to handle money, spoke no English but had something inside of her that reminded my mom of herself. "Just like how Alice took care of me, I knew I had to do that for Rosie." I was floored. Here I was, about to pull the old pay the Bay Bridge toll for a stranger trick to show off to my mom how I know about pay it forward, and she drops a story about how she has been living it.

Blessed. That's how I felt as I kissed my mom goodbye at the airport. So I start these 6 months in India knowing that I'm riding the good karma of having two amazing parents, and you all, my amazing friends. I look forward to the adventure.

And yes, this blog is a big deal:
Third time's a charm baby
After 2 classics, another stripe up on my arm baby