Saturday, December 25, 2010

Saint Ishwar

Today is Christmas Day, which we traditionally associate with St. Nicholas. But after Christmas this year, for me this day will bring to mind another saint, Ishwardada.

Ishwar Patel is Jayeshbhai's father, and he is nearing his last moments on earth. His health has been steadily deteriorating since earlier this year. Since that time Jayeshbhai has dropped all of his other work and focused on Ishwardada in various capacities. Earlier this month he and many other volunteers organized a huge gathering of friends, family, co-workers, and well-wishers at Sughad in honor of Ishwardada and his life's work as a pioneer of the sanitation movement in Gujarat. "Mr. Toilet", as he's called, was also honored by the release of his biography, which had been in the works for some time.

It seemed that Dada was holding onto his health for that event, because shortly thereafter he was hospitalized and has remained in bed since. Today I went to Sanjivani hospital to pay my respects to Dada and give love to Jayeshbhai and Anarben.

Dada was in room 407, but rooms 408 and 409 had been cleared out because so many people kept coming through. I walked into 408 to find Jayeshbhai seated with several other visitors. I gave him a big hug, saw sadness, fatigue, and that constant flame of joy in his eyes. We sat and as we passed around bananas (which were brought especially for him but he insisted on sharing), he told about Ishwardada's state. He is in deep pain, but remains alert and vibrant. Jayeshbhai keeps feeding him updates on things going on outside. At Manav Sadhna, people are making efforts to clean the ashram and the surrounding area, in his name. There are small acts like the kids who walked from MS to the hospital, picking up trash along the way, then hand delivered flowers from money they had saved to other patients at the hospital. Jayeshbhai asks Dada about the future of MS, whether they should take it big. Dada insists, "Keep doing small things." Yesterday the hospital was swept and cleaned from top to bottom by volunteers. Today the hospital was freshly painted with bright colors and artful decorations, and all patients were served tea and biscuits. People are in Dada's room 24 hours waiting on him, massaging his legs and back as he has remained upright for the past 10 days. The nursing staff has been made a part of the family. So many wonderful acts, big and small, happening around Dada even as he lies on his deathbed. Jayeshbhai says it is Dada's final act of service, giving so many others the opportunity, inspiration, and occasion to serve.

Then all the people who have been streaming in to see Dada, at all hours. He is in so much pain yet refuses no one. Famous, powerful, politically connected, they all come in to pay respects. But then there are the armies of everyday people, rickshawwalas, sweepers, farmers, who come as well. Some come for appearances, others come out of emotional connection. With the admiration of people from all walks of life, so diverse, Jayeshbhai remarks how we are witnesses to the invisible ripples Dada has created over his 50 years of service, now made visible.

We are sitting there and Jayeshbhai is chatting about all these things, then the doctor walks by. He gets up with a somber face and goes to talk with him, and Anarben joins. We can overhear the conversation: Dada is doing worse then yesterday, it really doesn't look good. Jayeshbhai walks back into the room silently, deep sadness in his eyes. He sits back down in silence. After a few minutes he spontaneously gets up with conviction and tells me to come with him.

I'm only writing this post because I never want to forget what happens next. He takes my hand and leads me into Dada's hospital room. We have to take masks from the boy guarding the door. Once we enter it's humid and hazy. Dada is upright on his bed with pillows and people flanking him all around. Jayeshbhai goes up to him and gives what I can only describe as a shower of love. Pinching his cheeks, rubbing his hands and legs gently, getting Dada to stroke his face, sweet talking. Just over the top love. He introduces me to Dada, a bit about my work, how I come from California and Charityfocus. I touch Dada's feet and tell him everyone back there are thinking of him and send their best wishes.

Jayeshbhai continues the love barrage. Ishwardada mentions that today is Christmas. Good memory! Yes, Jayeshbhai responds, a day for Jesus, such a compassionate soul. He goes on about Jesus but at this point I stop listening and tear up. Jayeshbhai has just heard the worst news, that his father's end is near. He could be upset, depressed, fearful, self-pitying. But there is only one unflinching response: love.

I walked out of the room after Jayeshbhai and Ba insisted that Dada bless each of us in the room, with a touch on the head. I said goodbyes and walked out of the hospital, my head spinning. Since the past several months till today this son has totally devoted himself to serving his father, to do anything to make him happy. And there's really nothing he hasn't done. It was an incredible model of the heights we can reach in loving and caring for our parents in the final stages. I am so thankful to have witnessed it, it was such a valuable lesson. I resolved to take what I had seen and apply what I can when the same occasion in my life arises.

UPDATE: Ishwardada passed away the next morning, Dec. 26th

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


This past weekend I visited the 8th Annual Sattvik Food Festival, held at IIM-Ahmedabad. The event is the brainchild of Prof. Anil Gupta, the visionary founder of SRISTI.

There was delicious food, interesting art, and the grassroots innovations of rural people on display. I had two highlights for the day. One was having Guptaji glide past me through the festival, with entourage in tow. Whenever I see Guptaji, he always has a group of cronies following him around who he leads around like a tour guide while throwing out occasional wise words and deep observations. There's always a funny contrast between his khadi-clad loose charismatic presence and the stiff FOBs with nerdy clothes and glasses with hands behind the back, trailing behind him. The other highlight was visiting Samadbhai, an incredible organic farmer, who had a stall at the festival where he was selling his organic peanuts, peanut oil, grains, etc. At his stall, I bought a bag of roasted salted peanuts, and left some extra behind to pay forward a bag for the next patron. Samadbhai's daughters, who were manning the stall at the time, were confused, and after stumbling through an explanation in Gujarati, amused.

More images from the day below:

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Flagship Festival

For the last few days I was on the outskirts of Anand at a remarkable farm for the Third Biennial Organic Farming Convention. It was hosted by the Organic Farming Association of India (OFAI) and Jatan, OFAI's Gujarat branch. I planned my trip to India around this event, as it promised to be a blockbuster. And it didn't disappoint.

Kapilbhai, Sarvadamanbhai (the owner of the farm), Minaben (Saravadamanbhai's wife), Dhartiben, Manojbhai, Claude Alvares of OFAI, and the countless others behind the scenes put on the finest event I have ever attended in India. The thing that set it apart from anything else like it was how deeply the organizing team couched the event in the principles of organic farming, sajiv kheti, sustainable agriculture, or whatever you want to call it. First of all, the whole event took place on a farm itself. Eight hundred organic farmers from around India and the world, all together on one of the most advanced biodynamic farms in all of India. What better place to talk shop? Second, from the bamboo forest auditorium to the organic food to the composted waste to the eco-friendly toilets to the simple tent accommodations, everything was set up with nature in mind. Nature as a partner and not as a servant. Be smart about waste, create systems of recycling, use what nature provides. If you are for sustainability but then you organize an event in a hotel with plastic water bottles and non-local unhealthy catered food, within four walls with the AC blasting, you're not much for walking the talk.

And it wasn't just the facilities, but the spirit of the whole event that imbibed the values. Much of the work setting up, cooking, serving, cleaning, etc. was done by volunteer groups who had come in from around the state, including girls from a school in Surendranagar interested in farming. All the food was donated by Gujarat's organic farmers. Sarvadaman told me how fanatical he was about every detail being right, even having the staff wake up at 5am the morning of the event to sweep the main entrance till it was spotless. Why? Because it makes a difference. Also he tells how on the first night when the delivery of blankets was running late, he stood out in the cold shivering with everyone else, the President of OFAI, to show the attendees that they were in it together. How Kapilbhai was given assurance by a few anonymous friends to not spare any expense for this event, to make it the best it can be and the resources would be there as needed.

I think all of this was exactly what Kapilbhai had in mind when he agreed to mastermind the event. He wanted to set the standard for what an event like this could be. Which is the same mindset he has for everything he does. He is uncompromising on quality. The man has incredible integrity of work, unparalleled work ethic. I salute him, as did Sarvadaman and others, for making this what one visitor from U.K. called a "flagship" event for India.

As for me, I love attending such farmer gatherings, especially with Gujarati organic farmers, of whom I know many and most know me. At an event like this I am treated like a prince; I walk around and farmers come up and greet me, show me love and appreciation, which I try and give back. It's why I do what I do. On a more practical note I was there to co-announce with Kapilbhai the launch of Sajiv Samvaad, a new organic farming-specific phone line we will be launching together. Farmers calling the number will be able to listen to a primer on Sajiv Kheti ("living agriculture"), ask questions and get responses from genuine organic farmers, get updates on news and events on the organic farming movement in Gujarat, and a new thing we are trying is a voice-based market for farmers to connect with organic retailers to buy and sell produce.

There were so many other great memories from this event, I've tried to capture them in the photo diary below. Be sure to flip through and read the captions at your own pace. Anjoy!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

American-born Confused FOB

I'm back in India and ready to continue the adventures! I was in California the past two months, visiting friends and family, meeting with my advisors, enjoying Cali food, weather, roads, and other amenities. Thus the lack of posting. I'm now back in Ahmedabad for what will be my final trip to India before graduation. Will it be the final chapter of this blog? Unclear. But what is clear is that I intend to bring it for you, my gentle readers, over the next couples months.

Couple stories/reflections from my trip home:

I had quite an experience boarding my flight home from Ahmedabad airport's new international terminal. I had to bribe my way to the gate.

I was carrying two bags filled with stuff to take back to various people, and when I got to the check-in counter I discovered that both bags were overweight. The attendant said I would have to pay a $50 fee per bag. But he suggested I transfer stuff from one bag to the other so that I would only have to pay the fee for one of the bags. So I went back to the waiting area to do that, when a boy who was working behind the counter approached me. He had heard that I was overweight and said he would help me so I wouldn't have to pay fees for either bag. He went back to the counter and brought out a cloth handbag, and told me to put stuff into it. I could carry that handbag with me on the plane, so I could check in both bags under weight. So he helps me do that, taking my bags back and forth to the counter to make sure they were within weight limit. I got the feeling that this boy had done this before, it was a way for him to make money on the side. I asked him how much I had to pay him, he said don't worry, check in the bags and walk toward the security line and he'll come by to give more instructions. He was all hush-hush, he could get busted if airport staff found out. Suddenly things felt very Jason Bourne. I persisted about the price, and he said $20. Steep, but still saves me $30.

I get back in the check-in line, and the boy, from behind the counter, motions me to cut the line to go to the same counter I was at. The staffer managing the line looks the other way as I cut. The same attendant at the counter now sees both bags underweight, and notices the new handbag. He knows what went down. He could have busted me for my carry-on luggage being overweight, but he looks the other way as well. A multi-person scam; everyone gets a piece of the action.

Then I start walking slowly toward the security gate, and the boy comes up casually behind me, and whispers in my ear, "meet me in the toilets", and walks by me and into the restroom. I get out a Rs.500 note ($10) and palm it in my right hand.

In the restroom, the boy is in front of the mirror, fixing his hair. I walk up to his side, pretending to wash my hands. And then I hand him the money discretely. I totally felt like I was doing a drug deal, it was so fantastic. He takes the money and walks out of the bathroom back toward the counter. I walk in the other direction. The deed was done.

Later on in security I got harassed about all the masalas I was carrying, maybe they thought it was gunpowder. They took a sample and put it through a gunpowder-testing apparatus. With all the bribery and gunpowder, it took me 2.5 hours to make it to my gate. A nice farewell from Ahmedabad.

Other thing I wanted to note is my feeling being back home. First off it was weird coming back for just two months and then heading back to India, it was like I was visiting America from India instead of the other way around. Continuing the trend from last year, I felt like a fish out of water in my own homeland. It seems like as I feel more comfortable living in India, I proportionately feel less comfortable living in California. I'm not an ABCD any more, but also not a FOB. Maybe an ABC-FOB. But in any case, it's a bit scary as I no longer feel totally comfortable/at home in any place.

I guess it's the cost of being international. The pros definitely outweigh the cons.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Seven Khands

Anjali and Neelam run a school in Ranip for some of the local kids, which the kids themselves have named Patangyu ("Butterfly") School. The school is sort of like an after-school program where the kids (aged 9-12) are tutored but also do and learn holistically through activity, art, environment, and reflection. Yesterday both teachers were out of town so Nimesh and I filled in as substitutes. Nimo had a vision of doing a lesson about the world's geographic and cultural diversity. Expand the kids' thinking beyond their immediate surroundings to realize that there is a vast world beyond.

Every day at 5pm Patangiya school kicks off with a clean-up session. The kids sweep and organize their "classroom" which is basically a huge backyard and patio of a house which Anjali and the kids took over, located nextdoor to Jayeshbhai's house. After clean-up we gathered in a circle and said a prayer, and then introduced ourselves. There were about 8 kids. Nimo then kicked things off by asking everyone to describe where they were currently located. One by one the expected responses were thrown out: India, Ranip, Ahmedabad, Gujarat, Patangiya School. But no answer in terms of geography beyond India; it was as big as the world got. But then Nimo reminded about other places, like America. He pointed out that even bigger than countries there were continents. One of the kids said "Oh yeah, we are in Asia khand". Neither Nimo and I had heard the word for continent in Gujarati, but here was one of our students educating us. Yes, we are in Asia khand. Then there is Africa khand, Europe khand, North America khand, Australia khand, etc. There are seven khands across our earth. We showed them on a map and had the kids try and memorize them.

Then we had the kids grab paper and colors and draw a map of the world, anchored by the seven khands. They came up with some beautiful renditions. We had them carve out India from the blob they had drawn for Asia khand. Then within India, carve out Gujarat. Then, put a dot for where Ahmedabad is. Then, Ranip. A dot within a dot! Such a vast world, we are just a small speck of it.

After the drawings we brought the kids inside to show them some videos. Nimo began by flashing faces on the computer screen: black, white, asian. The kids had to guess which khand the person was from. It was funny hearing the kids yell out "Cheen" (China) for when a black face was shown. They loved guessing Cheen.

The point of showing the faces was to show how different people look from around the world. Then we tackled diversity from another angle, through a language they could easily understand: dance. Nimo had a bunch of videos of traditional/ethnic dances from around the world, and we showed them one by one. We asked the kids to reflect on the movements, even the clothing/costumes. Why were the people form Europe khand wearing so many heavy clothes, while the Africa khand people wore so little? It must be hot in Africa, and cold in Europe.

Finally Nimo ended with a video of Bob Marley's "One Love" performed by musicians from around the world. The lesson: unity in diversity, "Ek Prem". The world is so vast, there are seven khands, and we are just a blip on the map. And there are people of all shapes, sizes, and colors, and their dances are so different. And yet we are all part of the human race, we are all citizens of the globe.

I really enjoyed learning with the kids. I was most struck by their enthusiasm, their curiosity, their thirst for knowledge. I had an impression that kids in the Indian school system were sucked dry of those attributes through the emphasis on rote memorization, but it was alive and present with these kids. I also found the kids quite disciplined and well-behaved (as far as 10-year-olds go). And finally I was impressed by how they behaved and looked after each other as a family, brothers and sisters. All of the kids lived in a nearby slum. After class when they departed to walk home, the group waited for the last kid so they could walk together. Of course they had their inner fights and teasing and what not, but they also showed a lot of love and caring for each other.

I'm hoping to work with the kids more when I come back to India next time. One of the things some of us have discussed is teaching through sports, which I couldn't be more excited about. We are specifically thinking about soccer. It's a sport that doesn't require too many resources/space to play, is inclusive of girls, teaches teamwork and other skills, and is really really fun. Can't wait to kick it around with the kids some time soon.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Gandhi Day

It is really special to be in Ahmedabad on Gandhi Jayanti, so close to Gandhiji's ashram. There are always special celebrations and events in honor of Gandhiji. This year there were two at the ashram that I checked out.

In the morning, I took part in the Kisan Swaraj Yatra kickoff. The Yatra's aim was to raise awareness across the country about the troubling practices and policies in India today that threaten food security, environmental health, and farmer's livelihoods. Starting from the Gandhi Ashram, the bus yatra will pick up farmers, farm workers, activists, students, consumers, and others from 20 states till it reaches Rajghat in New Delhi to have the voices heard by the central government.

Kapilbhai was the chief coordinator of the yatra in Gujarat, and he organized a rally and speeches at the ashram, which among others featured the legendary Gujarati farmer Bhaskar Save. Then everyone climbed aboard a fleet of vans and jeeps and set off. As I saw Kapilbhai and others march off on their mission for farmer's "self rule", I thought of Gandhiji's Dandi march.

Later in the afternoon there was a program which brought schoolchildren from all over Ahmedabad (and beyond?) to the ashram for a music concert in honor of Gandhiji. The kicker was that the performing orchestra was an ensemble of musicians from around the country as well as a group of guest musicians from Mexico. For the past few years, on Gandhi Jayanti this program has been a joint endeavor with the people of Mexico to stand together in celebration for Gandhiji. So there were some musicians from Mexico at the ashram to perform, along with the Mexican ambassador, and there was a live two-way webcast to Mexico City where people had gathered around a statue of Gandhiji to remotely participate in the event. Just an incredible idea, Gandhiji would have been happy to see it. I also kept thinking about how much Pancho would love it :)

I also think Gandhiji would have loved the music. The orchestra, with a medley of Spanish guitar and tabla and other instruments, played some of his favorite bhajans and other inspirational and devotional songs. The music was out of this world. I was with Nimo and we both really felt the vibe, we couldn't help but dance and sway to it. There was one Mexican woman with the most amazing angelic voice, she kept taking it higher and higher like she was piercing the sky with her voice. When she wasn't singing, she was dancing along to the instrumental with a Mexican/salsa 4-step. The open air, a pleasantly cool night, the spirit of Gandhiji, the love from strangers from across the world who don't know Hindi but understand the language of Gandhiji's universal message, it made for a really special atmosphere. I'm thankful to have been a part of it. Happy Birthday Gandhiji!

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

House Hunting

MAM and I are in the market for housing in and around Ahmedabad. We are both looking for something a bit out of the city center in order to get peace, quiet, clean air, and open, natural space (there is also another reason that Meghna will have to share with you herself :)).

As we were discussing buying houses over the last few weeks, a humongous housing show came to town hosted by Gujarat Institute of Housing and Estate Developers (GIHED), held at the Gujarat University convention center. So the other day Madhu, Meghna, myself, and Jigo went to go check it out.

The show featured all of the prominent builders in Gujarat, each with booths set up sporting their generous site maps, modern floor plans, and attractive female agents in tight outfits hawking glossy, optimistic brochures. Each builder uniquely communicated the same messages of style, luxury, aspiration, elegance, and the latest buzzword, eco-friendliness. Apparently, every single housing development in Gujarat is eco-friendly. One builder was not only eco-friendly, but also carbon neutral. Most if not all the booths had green in their color scheme. The new Gujarat!

I got quite swept up with what I saw at the show. They were selling a dream, and I was buying with impunity. I excitedly talked to Jay (who serves as my financial advisor) back home to tell him that MAM and I were going to be visiting some housing developments outside Ahmedabad in a couple days, that these builders were for real and building some actually high-quality homes in well-planned out locales, that buying in Ahmedabad at this point in time is a can't miss from an investment standpoint. In my mind I was thinking we could go out there, fall in love with a choice 3-bedroom flat, and close the deal right then and there. Like I was shopping for a new sweater.

It was a different story when we actually went to visit the housing developments. We drove out a few kilometers from the city into Chankheda, which is at this point still a small village. Beyond the village were all the housing developments, one next to the other in a huge, flat, barren, featureless field. As we were driving toward them I got uncomfortable. The whole scene felt wrong. I had one image in my head earlier, but was seeing something else now. In my mind I had pictured a lush green tract of land with a modern housing complex nestled in the middle, with conveniences like food markets, stores, gardens, schools, even restaurants around. A proper community. But what I saw was just housing, laid out like military barracks on an open tract of land. I was expecting to see Palo Alto in Gujarat, but what I found was the Gujarati version of Palo Alto.

The homes themselves were nice enough, pretty much true to the shiny floor plans back at the housing show. But look out the window and you didn't see roads and gardens and quaint shopping centers, all amidst abundant nature. You saw just housing; complex after complex to the horizon. There was no personality to the place, it was all anonymous and standardized. It was factory manufactured living.

I realized quickly I was a sucker for falling for the eco-friendly propaganda as well. There was nothing to indicate that the builders had accounted for sustainability in their building plans. I mean, they wiped out all the trees in the area to make space for more housing units. What looked like central gardens and greenbelts in their brochures were in reality afterthought patches of grass off to the side of the complex.

My conclusion: these builders were not interested in building homes, they were interested in building housing. They wanted to squeeze every rupee out of every square foot of land, and the best way to do that is to cram in more units. There seemed to be no regard for quality of life. The sad thing is that at the moment people are buying this dream in droves; the housing market all over Gujarat is red hot. In a way it's understandable because it's the only option available if you are an upwardly mobile Gujarati looking to live the good life, unless you are one of the cream of the cream rich members of society, which I found out later is what it takes to have a home amidst actual nature.

In the end, we all pretty much decided to pass. While building up to the visit we were full of talk of the promise of living in the outskirts of the city, after seeing the reality our comments eventually started turning much more appreciative of the place we currently were living in, our apartment in Keshav Nagar. Sure it was a bit noisy and didn't have the cleanest surroundings, but at least it was a community. Felt like a home. It was a place to live, not just to exist.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Health care, a la carte

Editor's Note: Like last year, I came back home from India being totally behind with blog posting. So I'll be posting a few retroactively, with the following being the first in the series. Anjoy!

Getting health care in India is very different than in America. Because of the health insurance system, in the U.S. I always feel like my health care is not in my hands. It's controlled by entities in the foggy distance; there are these big institutions that know all about my medical history, control how I interact with my doctor, give their permission and approval to do anything, and require me to update them when I have availed any service.

Not the case in India. If you want to see a doctor, you just call one up and make an appointment, or better, just show up to his office. And he's not going to ask you what coverage you have and to fill out this or that form. He just sees you like you would go to a barber for a haircut. No strings.

It's all very raw, very street. That's exactly how I described my experience last year when I had to get my elbow stitched after falling off of a bus, walked into a local doctor's office, laid down, stuck out my arm, and got sewn up with no anesthesia and no doctor's gloves, and walked out an hour later for Rs.150 (post mortem: The doctor had told me that my stitches didn't need to be removed because they would dissolve on their own. After weeks they were still there and so I had them removed. Now that patch of skin on my elbow is all gnarly coagulated looking and I feel a pain every time the skin gets stretched. So yeah, I paid Rs.150 for stitches, and I got what I paid for).

Recently I was sick and had to get some blood tests done. I used a service called Green Cross, which is basically a consumer pathology lab. They send over a dude with a bag full of needles and vials to your house. He takes your blood, sends it to the lab to have whatever tests you want on it done, comes back later that day with a full printed report with a doctor's number for referral, and takes your money. And all actually on time, and all at affordable cost (basic CBC blood test costs Rs.170 all in)! It is such a delightful service.

And it's unlike anything in the US because it is health care a la carte. There was no doctor or institution telling me how I should interpret my blood test, or even that I should have gotten a blood test in the first place. Self-diagnosis. I look at the report which shows my health reduced down to numeric scores, and see if things fall within the given arbitrary ranges. Then I can go online and find out what it all means, and even walk down the street and buy my own medicine. No doctor necessary. It's like going to the barber shop, sitting in the chair, grabbing the scissors and cutting your own hair as the barber just stands idly by. There are no people or institutions that are gatekeepers to your health care needs. It's all up to you.

It's both empowering and scary. What the hell do I really know about my hemoglobin count? It all seems a bit dodgy because you're dealing with something (health) that I've come to believe an expert should be consulted for. After all, in the U.S. kids spend thousands and give a decade of their lives to be able to put on a white coat and be an authority. Can it all really be bypassed? On the other hand my experience with doctors in India is that they don't really tell you much you don't know, like they work from common sense more than any specialized education. And usually the conversations are you speculating about what's wrong with you and what you should do about it, and the doctor just agreeing with anything you say. Madhu was on the phone with his doctor and even prescribed himself medicine. The doctor just said, "Yeah that's cool".

On one hand it's the way it should be. Our health is our own responsibility, and doctors are not magicians. On the other hand, one's health is a pretty risky thing to be mucking around with, and there is a need for specialized expertise. My feeling: bring on the a la carte health paradigm, as long as I have access to insights about my urine like this:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Not Your Average Farmer


I am proud to announce that my first-ever magazine article has been published! I was invited to write for Interactions magazine, which is published by the Association of Computing Machinery (ACM) and has the vision of providing "timely articles, stories, and content related to the interactions between experiences, people, and technology." Granted the magazine is no Salon or New Yorker, but I still consider it an honor. Although it's geeky and quite academic, I enjoyed writing for the magazine because it was less restrictive than typical scientific writing. I could write in the first-person and add a bit of humor, and it could be about a topic that is not necessarily scientifically interesting, but interesting nonetheless. In the end I'm quite happy with how it turned out, hope you enjoy!

Not Your Average Farmer: Designing for Lead Users in ICT4D Research

Sunday, September 19, 2010


We have a wide selection of "Cold Drinks", including...

Only. In. India.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Multivariate Bridges and Metaphysical Mangoes

Last weekend Nimo came to the group with a problem. On the main pathway between a slum in Ranip and Manav Sadhna, a stream had built up due to the persistent rain we've been getting lately. The stream was pouring through the passway from a storm drain that also contained waste water from the locality. The issue was that kids from the slum trying to get to MS had to cross the stream daily or more with no proper way to walk, and between the water's filthiness and the pressure it was rushing with, it was becoming a dangerous situation. Rumor even had it that one kid had climbed a parallel drinking water pipeline to cross the stream and had fallen from a considerable height.

So our Sunday project was to go down to the stream and fashion together a safe walkway across the water. Nimo had prepared 3 sandbags that he figured we could place over a bed of well-placed rocks that we could collect from around the stream. Seemed straightforward, but that's about where it stopped being so simple.

We got to the slum in the morning around 8. Our team consisted of myself, Nimo, Anjali, Jeego, Jesús (a volunteer from Spain working with MS through Australia-based Arichtects Without Frontiers), and Sachi. We also recruited some of the local kids to help. They were overjoyed to see Nimo and Anjali, I think half of them thought we were just there to play. We were, but the game was going to be carrying around heavy rocks and wading around in filthy water for a few hours.

When I got down to see the stream for the first time, my mind turned quiet. This was not going to be a rinky-dink Sunday morning project. This was a serious stream, clearly a hazard for a kid, an adult carrying supplies or vessels, animals, or any other entity trying to cross. Building a durable bridge was going to require some smarts and creativity. That was my first reaction. My second reaction was that I wish Jay was here, because he has a lot of smarts and creativity, especially for engineering puzzles like this. If he was there he would have MacGuyver'd the optimal solution. Alas.

At this point, the elements of a multivariate calculus problem began revealing themselves. First, there was the practical issue of our bridge solution. Clearly we needed something that was sturdy and safe. Couldn't be too high in case someone falls, can't be too low to be pounded by the water. And clearly we had no money, so it had to be cheap. A local man living right next to the stream said straight away, rocks and sandbags were going to fail. The pressure of the stream built up in the afternoon, and with any decently hard rain the structure would get washed away. He even pointed out the remains of previous ill-fated attempts scattered on the banks a bit down-river. Go ahead, he said, spend your morning doing a bunch of heavy, dirty lifting. It will be a waste of your time.

I agreed, we needed a better solution. Talking to some of the local boys, I found out that there was a cache of wood in the slum, kept by one of the kid's fathers. I went with two of the boys to go to check it out. We got to the home and on top of the roof was piles and piles of long, straight bamboo. Now we're getting somewhere, I thought. There were even some ladder-like structures fashioned out of the bamboo with some twine. Build two of those babies, I thought, lean one off of each bank, anchor where they meet down in the middle of the stream with rocks and sandbags, and you could have a simple v-style bamboo bridge.

I really wanted to just take the wood down with the boys and be on our way, but of course it would not be so simple. Vinubhai, the kid's father and keeper of the bamboo, had just gotten back home and needed to know what was going on. I explained what we were doing, and he seemed to generally be on board with using the bamboo. But, he said, I had to go over and get permission with his brother a few houses down. So I go over there, and there's more smiling and explaining. Then I get sent back to Vinubhai, who has now decided to come with us and assess the stream himself. And with him a third relative joins. So we head back down, no bamboo in hand, but more people from the slum. New variable: the community must be bought in.

Vinubhai looks things over and agrees that bamboo could work, but we would need longer pieces to stretch all the way across plus 5 meters of additional slack for support, proper fastening, mounting, etc. Then the money issue. Who's paying? And now that money is in the conversation, more expensive solutions are tossed out. What about a steel-based solution? Which introduces another variable: bridge security. If we use steel, someone will attempt to steal it, it fetches a high resale price. Even if you try to anchor it, theft will find a way. So, the bridge will require spending, but it can't be too expensive. Then another variable: animals. If they step on your bamboo bridge, it will surely collapse. You have to keep room for animals to cross separately, or build with the assumption that cows will be passing through as well. Then another variable: longevity. Is this a short term or long term solution? Maybe we just build something to last the winter, and then take the time to raise money to get professionals to come in and build something legit. But then what if that doesn't end up happening? We're stuck with a short-term bridge for the long term. Then another variable: environmental-friendly solution. If we get professionals to do something with concrete, it's not as sustainable as bamboo. Earth-impact should be accounted for. Then another variable: community engagement. How many people do we want to involve? The more that come to the table, the more opinions and less chance of consensus. But you need people in the community to feel a sense of ownership over the solution. Ideally they should contribute to it themselves. But then if it gets to be too big of a deal, and the government or media catches wind, then the bureaucracy machine could get involved, and that could lead to more overhead and delays. Peepli live. And then people will propose more and more elaborate solutions, requiring more money and deeper involvement from more people. Didn't we already bring up the money variable? Vicious cycle. Wait a minute, what are we doing here again? Building a simple bridge across a simple stream to simply walk!

At this point our team was less interested in vetting the issues and more interested in doing something, so we cut all the crap and started gathering rocks. As big and as many as possible from the surrounding area. Meanwhile Jesús embedded in the stream to receive the rocks from an assembly line of workers and fashion them into a sturdy foundation. This was grueling work, standing knee-deep in rushing water ripe with bacteria and fecal matter. Once we had gathered most of the big rocks around, we found discarded burlap sacks and filled them with smaller rocks. Then, one of the youngsters came up with a genius idea... lead pipes! There were a few laying around the banks, and a few that we dug up. The nice thing about the pipes was that they don't absorb the full force of the water pressure. You set them parallel to the stream so water can just rush through. So the bridge took the form of a rock/pipe medley, and was looking great. One more pipe and a bunch more rocks and we may have something. Until...

Another local man living near the stream arrived on the scene and took particular exception to us using the pipes. These pipes belong to me, he claimed, you cannot use them like this. And then just like that, as we are working on one side of the bridge, he wades into the stream and dislodges a pipe from the other side, sending it rushing down the stream. Later we are able to talk him down and even get him on our side to help build the bridge according to (of course) his own pet design, but the damage had been done. Now we're scrambling to make due without the pipes, racing against the rising tide as the morning gets older.

And we are losing the race. The rocks don't seem to be holding well enough with the rising tide, and the sandbags instantly get punctured and flimsy once we set them down. In the end we had something of a bridge, but it seemed mildly worse than whatever was there for walking before we got there. An illusion of a strong bridge is more dangerous than no bridge. So along the bridge we did our best to dislodge what was loose and strengthen what was strong, and left it at that.

There was much food for thought from this experience, but I'll focus on two personal key takeaways. The first is the insight that in life there are rarely simple solutions, and there are a lot of complicated problems that are deceiving. I came in with the expectation that building a bridge is a self-contained problem, mostly involving engineering the right physical solution. But really it was a people, money, motivation, even political problem, at least as much as it was technical.

Second takeaway was a question to ponder: When performing actions, is the right intention enough? We came to the slum on Sunday morning with the more or less pure intention of serving the community in a small way. The problem was we were carrying a slingshot into a war where everyone else had Uzis and grenades. In retrospect it was naive to think we could come in with a few sandbags, a shovel, a bucket, and a few hours of time and expect to come up with a satisfactory solution. I told our team how I thought we should either have come with everything we would ever need (hundreds of sandbags, thousands of long thick bamboo, rope galore, a concrete machine, a suitcase of cash) or nothing at all (just to observe and understand, to come back later with proper preparation). Anything in the middle would be half-ass. And what about the fact that we walked away leaving the situation we came to fix 5% better off, plus-or-minus 10%? This was my mind's competitive, ambitious, practical impact side, yelling impatiently.

But then there is a case to make for simply acting with a pure intention. This is the long-view, million-lifetimes side of my mind, calmly whispering. Sure we only brought a slingshot, but we showed up to fight with spirit and fearlessness, didn't we? It's the William Wallace way. And just our presence there surely mattered. We showed ourselves and others around that we cared. The ripples that pure-intentioned presence creates is hard to either capture or predict. One of those kids with us, taking a lesson in determination and seeing things through, could have gotten the inspiration to do so. Or a community member, observing how much outsiders care, could start caring more herself and eventually act.

Where do these two sides of mind reconcile? I think the middle ground is paved by qualities I have come to learn about and appreciate through meditation: patience and persistence. There is not a quick-fix solution here - be patient. You want there to be a successful outcome, you don't want to develop a half-assing habit - be persistent.

On that Sunday morning, though we weren't able to bear fruits, we did plant seeds. As Goenkaji says, you can't plant bitter neem and expect to get sweet mangoes. You reap what you sow. One thing I know for sure we accomplished that day: we planted a forest of metaphysical mangoes.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Friday, September 3, 2010


This summer Tap and I opened up an office in Ahmedabad, our own space to keep our servers and work from whenever we are here. The office is property of Tap's father-in-law, who generously let us move into the prime location in Navrangpura. I absolutely love it, a place to call my own, and it lets me live out the cliché of a computer technologist starting a new venture from humble garage-like beginnings.

When I first moved in, the office was spartan and a bit unkempt. We had our server on a plastic table with plastic chairs, the walls were barren, and there was a stubborn ant problem. Save for a decently comfortable couch and an A/C, the place had nothing interesting going for it. This was not lost on a certain few roommate-neighbor-friends (who for security purposes will remain nameless) who came and visited the office over the last few weeks. Amongst those friends, a particularly articulate one said how the office was great, but needed 'pizazz'. Yes, I thought to myself, you are tiny, but you speak the truth.

I didn't think much more of it until earlier this week after returning from my trip to Madhya Pradesh. I got back from the airport in the evening and went straight to the office to take care of some pending work. As I opened the door to the room, it was dark so I couldn't see anything. But a zen-style bell attached to the door chimed to welcome me. That got me mildly confused, but when I switched on the light I realized what had happened. While I was away, my office had been pizazzed:

The walls had posters with inspiring quotes, there was a framed picture of Gandhiji and Kasturba above the desk, a huge "Be the Change" canvas, a map of India, some inspiring trinkets here and there. I didn't notice it that night because it was dark, but in the porch/otalo area out front, some lovely flowers had been planted along the pathway:

Seeing everything that first night, I couldn't stop smiling. I had come to the office to do work, but all I could do was smile. I wrote exactly that in an SMS to my roommate and neighbors (who, again, for security purposes will remain nameless). Later I asked each of them whether they happened to know who was behind this wonderful act, but they were conspicuously silent. Verrrry interesting, because silence is not the strong suit of certain individuals. So be it, my friends, I only wish you the best in the future as what goes around inevitably comes around. I have tried not to compromise your identities here, but only so much is in my hands. May God protect you.

And so I am left to offer my gratitude to all the silent angels of the world (including those living at Shreeji Krishna Apartments, Keshav Nagar, Ahmedabad). Thank you all, for bringing a smile to my face and the warm embrace of noble friendship whenever I sit down to work in this space.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


Last week I was in Madhya Pradesh visiting PRADAN and Digital Green, two organizations we have partnered with to provide voice information services like we have in Gujarat for PRADAN's operations in Dindori district (you can read about last year's visit here). I went there to co-facilitate an orientation on the voice system we had set up, which they named Unnati Kisan Seva (Unnati means "progress", also the name of the farmer's cooperative they had recently formed; kisan seva means "farmers' service").

With me in MP were Rikin, a good friend and founder of Digital Green, and DG's CTO Saureen. Both had flown down from Delhi to attend the orientation and also get updates from the field on their own collaboration with PRADAN. As a quick summary, PRADAN is an NGO working in several states in India to develop comprehensive livelihood enhancement programs in rural areas. They work on agricultural productivity, natural resource management, self-help group promotion, and other related programs to improve livelihoods. Digital Green is an innovative organization that has developed a technique for disseminating technical agricultural information in rural India using locally produced videos. They have a process developed in which they train local people in villages to produce films, organize screenings, and provide follow-up support to farmers in their area in adopting the practices in the videos. The kicker is that the videos feature local farmers themselves demonstrating the practices, which they found to be more effective than traditional agricultural extension where outsiders give top-down advice.

The day we got to Dindori we went out to to observe video production and a dissemination (i.e. a screening of a locally-produced video). I was thoroughly impressed with what I saw. The farmer being filmed for the video was a quintessential lead farmer: innovative, confident, eager to share. I was happy to learn that out of 10 videos they produce in Dindori, 6 come from first-time farmers, so it is a pretty diverse group. The dissemination, held in a church, was really well attended, and the trained local person tasked with hosting the video screening and providing support (called Agriculture Specialists, or Agri-SPs) was patient and thorough. The screening started with a recap of what was shown in the last screening and updates on whether anyone adopted those practices. Then the film was played once with the Agri-SP interjecting and emphasizing key points every now and then, then the film playing one more time uninterrupted. After that there was review of what was seen and learned in the video, and some encouragement to adopt. I later talked to Rikin about how I thought the key to these videos was striking a balance between showing something substantial (big enough so that a clear benefit can be realized) and digestible (small enough so that the practice can be readily implemented). It seems that DG has developed an effective feel for taking highly complex practices like SRI and breaking them down into self-contained sub-practices, each with their own immediate and independent benefit.

With voice-based information services like Avaaj Otalo, Rikin and I both see a potential complimentary technology to video-based information dissemination. With voice-based information access, the Agri-SPs can share common problems and experiences, quickly escalate questions from farmers to agricultural scientists working with PRADAN, and have more steady communication with the central PRADAN offices. With these goals in mind we soft-launched UKS in July.

To kick things off formally, we held an orientation for all the Agri-SPs last week. My framing for the orientation was to have it accomplish 3 goals for the Agri-SPs: awareness (about UKS and the nuts and bolts of how to actually use the automated phone service), utility (establish the need for UKS with Agri-SPs and articulate concrete benefits to using the system), and ownership (engage with the system as their own, create a sense of team amongst all the stakeholders, and put faces behind the process to bind the system together).

The orientation brought together about 40 Agri-SPs. We all sat in a hall in the PRADAN office and began the day with a lovely poem read by Archana, the head coordinator of PRADAN in Dindori. I don't remember the name of the poem, but the gist of it was a message of empowerment: "When you tell yourself you cannot do something, you hurt yourself and others. You can do anything you set your mind to". It was like a Hindi folk version of Nas 'I Can', and I thought it set the tone wonderfully.

From there Satyam (the DG coordinator in Dindori, an absolutely awesome guy) and I led the group through a full day's exposure and orientation to UKS. I'll just summarize what we did with a couple noteworthy observations. First, in the phase where we wanted to establish UKS as addressing a real need and providing actual benefit to the Agri-SPs, we tried to elicit ideas about what those were from the group itself. Better if the group comes to the conclusion that they need UKS for X, Y, and Z reasons themselves, rather than us telling them what they should think. Good idea in principle, but this ended up more or less failing. The group had difficulty articulating their own needs, and when they did, they were not what we had in mind. Another noteworthy observation from the orientation was when we had the group get hands-on with UKS by dialing the number, navigating around on their own phones, recording messages, listening to messages, etc. As my work on this project has gone on over the last couple years, I regularly get suggestions from people on ways to improve the system with new features. "Just add the ability to search through messages, that will be fantastic!", or "People should get SMS sent to them as alerts about new content", or "People should be able to upload videos". For all of those people, I wish they would have attended this orientation and watched this group of relatively savvy rural Indians call an automated system and navigate a few measly prompts to just record a message. They were confused, lacking confidence, at times completely lost. It was a vivid reminder to me why our system is so simple. If the goal is to broaden access, the barrier to entry for first-time/new users must be extremely low. They should get value from the system even if they are confused, hoping that over time they will learn how to use it. But losing them from the beginning through overly complicated interface would be a fatal mistake.

My favorite part of the session was at the end, when we summarized UKS work flow and its ecosystem of stakeholders. I had prepared this diagram to illustrate the work flow, but it really didn't come alive until Archana had three people stand up and play the roles of the various stakeholders, acting out how the system would work in a playful way. It was funny and light-hearted, and I think it helped humanize the whole system. In my mind that is key.

Despite the challenges, the orientation as a whole was a success. The group enthusiastically approved UKS with a roaring round of applause and they even had me cut a cake to celebrate the 'birthday' of UKS. Though I felt satisfied with the outcome of the orientation, I am cautious about the uptake of UKS going forward. It will take sustained effort from all stakeholders to make it all gel, which can only come with the right incentives and motivations. In fact over the summer the feeling has been growing in me that the next big question guiding future research on Avaaj Otalo should be the non-technical, human-focused aspects of making the system work. What motivates people to really engage with the system, both for information consumption and production?

This visit was a great chance to spend time with Rikin, whom I really admire. Here's a guy who graduated from MIT and started out wanting to be an astronaut, came to India to work on a bio-diesel venture, spent six months in a village in Karnataka working on agricultural extension, started DG based on what he learned, and has not looked back since. I consider Digital Green to be one of the few real success stories amidst all the recent hoopla around information technology applied to rural development in places like India. Rikin is now starting to get some recognition in broader circles, which is absolutely well-deserved. As my own work has started to gain momentum, people often suggest that I tie up with large agricultural companies, phone carriers, the government, etc. to really scale up and take the project to the next level. I'm usually quite cautious about such things, because to me it's not where your work goes, but how you get there that matters. It's why ten times out of ten I would choose to work with someone like Rikin, who may be doing something smaller-scale but does it with values and commitment that I align with. In Dindori, we've tried to do things the right way; I'm interested to see what fruits that will bear.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Finding Nimo

There is certain music that defines periods in your life. For me, my college years have a very vivid soundtrack, a set of songs that when I hear them I automatically go back to my glory days living on Highland Place on the north side of UC Berkeley. One of those songs is called 'Blood Brothers', by the hip hop group Karmacy:

Brace yourself if you haven't ever heard this song. It's a rap. In Gujarati. Karmacy is a group of 4 ABCD's who have both a love and talent for hip hop music. When I was in college, Amit gifted me their album, 'The Movement'. It immediately blew my mind. All my life I had listened to hip hop, but the voices, the stories, the context, were all foreign. Black culture wasn't something in my personal experience, I was a participant from a distance. But then here was Karmacy's music that not only had the undertones, the cadence, the brashness, the spirit of hip hop, but also came from a perspective that I could directly relate to. It hit close to home, like music I would have made myself had I pursued a hip hop career.

The song Blood Brothers was especially influential to me. Let me emphasize again: it is a rap... but in Gujarati! It really was a clashing of worlds in my mind. For all intents and purposes it sounded like any other high-quality rap song I had listened to. But it was in Gujarati! I couldn't get over it, and I kept listening to it, all throughout college.

Fast forward to this summer in India and I catch wind that a dude named Nimesh Patel has been volunteering at Manav Sadhna. And then I get some vague details about how he is a rapper. That was enough, I knew immediately. It was Nimo from Karmacy, the lead lyricist in Blood Brothers. When I met him the first time, I didn't know what to expect, but I was excited. My main goal was to tell him how much his music meant to me, and my secondary goal was to get him into in a freestyle session. The first goal was sort of achieved, the second one failed altogether. The thing I didn't anticipate about Nimo is how incredibly humble the guy is. He would barely accept my praise for his music, though he was appreciative. The other thing is that Nimo has moved on from Karmacy onto other ways of expressing his creative talents. He is working with MS kids to put on street plays and other types of performance arts. So yeah, the freestyle session didn't quite happen, but I still have hope.

So why do I bring this all up? Two reasons. The first is to rub it in Amit's face that I am friends with Nimo from Karmacy. Yes Amit, Nimo and I are friends. 4 lyfe. Second reason is a fun story that happened recently about Blood Brothers. Last weekend a bunch of friends, including Nimo, were on our way back from a weekend in Pavagadh celebrating Maddog's birthday when we stopped off in Nadiad to visit Santram mandir. We got a tour and hung out, and after dinner met with some kids who were attending school there. For entertainment, Nimo gathered 20 or so kids around and busted out a verse from Blood Brothers! I was mesmerized, I didn't even think to reach for a camera to snap a picture (really kicking myself about that now). It was awesome, and though I don't think the kids got it they were loving it. But no way they loved it as much as I did. Yes Amit, I heard Nimo perform Blood Brothers live.

Fast forward again a couple days later, and I'm in my gym Parsana working out. I have my headphones on, but I catch a note of the music playing on the gym's stereo system, which they typically play Bollywood stuff on. But when I take off my headphones to listen closely, I recognize the song immediately. Blood Brothers. Playing in my gym. Nimo, there is no doubt about it, you are officially famous!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Perfect Farmer

A couple weeks ago I went out 4 hours by car from Ahmedabad to Bhavnagar district to visit a very special farmer, Hirji Bhinradia. Hirjibhai is one of those few real visionary farmers, a thought-leader, an influential voice for his community and Gujarat as a whole. I went to his farm to do some voice recordings for an experiment I am working on, but after we finished the recordings, had a huge meal with 3 different forms of dairy products, and took a brief nap, we went out to visit his farm.

Hirjibhai is a very progressive farmer. He doesn't use chemicals, and believes in the concept of a farmer as a steward of the land. When you are driving through the farms surrounding his village, you can immediately pick out his farm because it is the lone one surrounded by a lush, dense grove of trees. You can make out a progressive farm first and foremost by how many trees it has, how closely it looks resembles a forest.

Hirjibhai's 40 acres have wall-to-wall drip irrigation. Drip irrigation is a fundamental technique for water conservation. Hirjibhai has had drip installed on his farm for 23 years, the first one in his area to have it. He got it so long ago that at the time the government subsidy for drip didn't even exist; it's now a very common scheme. Hirjibhai had to apply for it retroactively and even had to re-install lines to be eligible.

Of course no holistic farm system is complete without animals. Hirjibhai keeps cows for two main reasons: personal dairy consumption and manure. His farm does not take any outside source of nitrogen, he uses a combination of manure and carbon from his farm, and has a vermicompost operation to decompose into fertilizer. Very simple, very effective. Hirjibhai remarked that there are many composting methods, but most are labor intensive. With manure-based fertilization, the cows do all the work. My favorite thing to do is to smell the compost produced by earthworms. Shit never smelled so wonderful. It's black gold.

Hirjibhai has a simple white cloth stretched around each of his plots. It's a technique he picked up from a TV program on countermeasures for wild pigs. The cloth makes the pig unable to see the crops. It thinks nothing is there, not even trying to knock the flimsy cloth over.

Hirjibhai's main crop is cotton. He intercrops with sesame, which I had not seen before:

Hirjibhai's cotton is from BT seeds, which is the one and only reason why he is not certified under the Jatan Certification System, the organic certification I developed with Kapilbhai in 2007. Kapilbhai has taken a strong stand against BT, saying that a sajiv kheti farmer rejects it categorically. Hirjibhai is not so hard-lined. He told me that he uses BT because it works with his farm system. He does not use any of the heavy chemical pesticides that BT cotton almost always require (which is of course Monsanto's business model). He told me that pest problems for any crop aren't so much about the pest as they are about the environment in which the crop grows. Give a crop a healthy environment (soil, sun, air, and water), and pest problems are automatically averted.

As we were walking Hirjibhai and his wife Godhavariben picked some okra from a row for dinner that night. I joked to them that in America people go to huge supermarkets to do what they are doing. Watching them made me realize how backwards I had it. I'm looking at this couple picking fresh vegetables from their farm for their dinner that night, and I consider that radical.

If I had to pick out the number one most outstanding feature of Hirjibhai as a farmer, I would say hands-down it is the way he conducts himself with his wife. It is clear by every way they interact that there is mutual respect, they listen to each other carefully, they are considerate, they are mutually supportive. Godhavariben is herself a schoolteacher in their village, so she's no slouch. But beyond that they are a team, a partnership, which I rarely see amongst couples in rural Gujarat (let alone anywhere). I would like to believe that it is a secret to their farm's success.

As I was leaving to go back home, Hirjibhai and I called Kapilbhai, who had first introduced me to Hirjibhai. When I told Kapilbhai how impressed I was with Hirjibhai and his farm, he replied, "Yes, he is the perfect farmer". High praise coming from Kapilbhai, especially given that they disagree on fundamental issues. But I felt what Kapilbhai feels, that Hirjibhai is one of those rare diamonds in the rough. Interacting with such farmers brings me a lot of joy and strength, they are the reason I do what I do.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Family inside joke

"InstaCash, please hold onnnn"

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Stuff Indian People Like #5: Rituals

Most of us are aware that this is true from the context of the Hindu religion, which has a multiplicity of gods that are everywhere and in everything, so there is always this god or that to pray to for any situation that you are facing in life. Word is Amir Khan's latest film even satirizes this point.

But as I've alluded to before, if you look around Indian society, rituals have penetrated so many everyday things as well. Recently I've been writing a bunch of checks from my personal Indian bank account. To properly write a check in India, it's not enough to write the name, date, amount, and then sign. You also can't make a single typo and scratch anything out, or else the entire check is void. Plus you have to make sure you write 'only' after the amount and cross out any unused space, write "A/C payee" in the top left corner with two diagonal lines around it to double-ensure that the check will be deposited, and cross out the "or bearer" line to triple-ensure. And since the bank still doesn't believe you want to actually transfer money to somebody, you may get a phone call to quadruple-ensure. I swear, I got an "Are you absolutely positive?" phone call from my bank asking to process a check I had written. I was dumbfounded.

Because of all this I get so nervous when I write checks, which is ridiculous because it's just writing a check! I'd be surprised if I've had to re-write more than 5 checks out of the hundreds or more I've written in my entire life, but in the last 2 months I've had to re-write 2 out of 5. I think the thing that gets to me is in the back of my mind I feel like the bank is looking for any excuse to reject rendering the service they exist to provide. That makes me annoyed, which makes me flustered. I get this feeling repeatedly while doing everyday things in India.

Another ritual I've been engaged in recently is signing up for services with a phone company. For the past 2 months I have been trying to upgrade a phone line we subscribed to with Airtel for our research project. Note that I am trying to upgrade, meaning I want to pay Airtel more money than we currently do, but even for that they are falling over themselves in ineptitude. The ritual works as follows: every day or so I call up the Airtel representative that has been "working" with me, telling him how we needed the upgrade a month ago and asking what the status is. Then the rep apologizes and assures me he's trying his best, giving me one of a rotating list of excuses: he's been sick, he's waiting on approval from his boss, his boss has been sick, there is a death in his family, there is a death in the family of his boss. Then he ends by promising he'll get back to me within a day with a resolution. Every day he makes that promise, and like clockwork every day he breaks it. The craziest part of all is that this guy has to be aware that after 2 months of this natak, all he has produced is a raggedy trail of broken promises. And yet he continues the ritual, each day with a zeal that makes me kinda sorta believe that maybe this time he means it.

I was talking to Anjali about this and she said this is standard operating procedure in India. You have to follow up with people multiple times to get what is seemingly a simple job done, even if it is the single job that person is trained to do. So really you can't delegate work in India in the traditional sense. You still have to keep that ball juggling in your own hands because you have to remember to remind people to do their own work.

In Anjali's experience with Gramshree, it took 9 years for a shift to occur, where the group of people just below the top management took initiative and could be relied upon to carry out work without follow-up. She said it has to do with how people are educated here. People are trained to fall into line, to conform. Out-of-the-box thinking is not valued. There is an intense culture of bureaucracy and hierarchy, and I think in such an environment people are dis-empowered and lose personal drive and initiative. People are always at the mercy of some looming superior or the other, it's like a glass deewaar. And perhaps people eventually come to depend on that deewaar to nudge them forward.

I have a theory that the hierarchies and associated rituals that are deeply rooted in Indian society are a by-product of over-population. When you have so many people, creating structures and uniformity is a coping mechanism for getting things done. Have millions and millions of students applying for a limited number of college seats? Create a rigid set of standardized tests and only let in the top X scores. Have too many bank checks to process? Create a bunch of quarks to check-writing that give more chances to reject the check. The positives are that the system moves and the imposition of standards and protocol gives the perception that there is quality control going on. The negatives are that the system by definition does not adequately serve everyone, and the people become ritual-oriented, a trained population of hoop-jumpers.

As with most things, it seems the antidote is a revolution in how people think, which can come from a revolution in how people learn.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Trishna recently posted an incredible valedictorian speech from an American high school student arguing that her own education to date has been a training in being a worker, trapped within a slave system of repetition, not a human being.

Read about other stuff Indian people like here.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


Friends, I have gotten several inquiries recently about why I haven't been writing lately. Jay passed on a message from Babumama reminding me that Big B posts to his blog every day.

The main reason for the lack of writing is that over time I've learned that when I don't have anything worthwhile to contribute, it's better to just shut up. Typically for this blog I wait for posts to write themselves; whenever I try to force them to the page I end up with something...well, forced.

That said I have been inspired to write something recently, and while I work on the post (promise it will be ready soon!), I thought I'd share some ramblings from another venue I write to from time-to-time. Amongst some of the CharityFocus coordinators, we have been using an internal Twitter-like tool to share reflections and updates with each other, mostly under the prompt, "What are you learning?" As with all things CF, it's all about the journey, and this is a fun way for us to learn from each other's journeys, 1000 characters at a time. Below are some of my recent posts to the CF-Twitter, as an appetizer for more to come here on TOI:

Aug 8
One of my favorite conversations with people is the benefits of meditation and how it has positively changed my life. Sometimes I clutch for the right language to precisely describe the virtues one develops through regular practice. Recently I was sitting in a rickshaw in India and a word came to me: gumption. Wikipedia defines the word as "courage, also known as bravery, fortitude, will, and intrepidity... the ability to confront fear, pain, risk/danger, uncertainty, or intimidation…". When you meditate, you practice seeing things through all the way. You practice resilience of mind, intense engagement, holding your mind steady against the hard gusts of thought-winds. When I played competitive soccer, a phrase we used a lot was "get stuck in." Meaning, get lost into the game. Surrender to it wholly, with intense focus, and absolutely don't disengage. Meditation is a practice of developing mental gumption, of "getting stuck" into the present moment.
Aug 7
Malcolm Gladwell: When Wayne Gretzky (greatest ice hockey player of all time) was 2 years old, his parents sat him in front of the TV to watch hockey matches and when the games were over, he would burst into tears. At that age he could hardly walk, let alone play hockey, but he already loved this thing so much that for it to end was the end of the world. So what is talent? Typically we associate it with ability, but what if talent is about being in love? A far more appealing notion of genius than a high IQ is that it is an extraordinary love for a particular thing. What separates us from the genius is that the genius loves what he or she does more than we do.
Aug 2
Some new research that shows poor people are more generous than rich people: The researchers imply that poor people may adopt generosity as a coping mechanism, but perhaps it's deeper than that. When you are incapacitated in one realm, you build other muscles (blind folks usually have great listening skills); poor are doing much more than cope and rich also need to do much more than indulge :)
July 22
Just learned about the remarkable story of Barbados. A Caribbean island comparable in terms of history and resources to Jamaica 40 years ago, now has twice the median income of Jamaica, is thriving economically, and has over 95% literacy while Jamaica remains poor and lacking in education. The difference? Years ago Barbadian economy had financial crisis, and country's leadership made a decision against status quo historically by exercising monetary restraint and asking its population to spend less. Labor leadership stepped up and asked people to accept massive wage cuts under slogan "Save Barbados". Business leadership recognized labor's patriotic sacrifice and decided to accept a lower profit margin. Through mutual trust and solidarity between government, business, and people later formalized as the "Social Partnership", the country came out of crisis and real wages are now higher than before cut. And Barbadians are actually happy with their political leaders!
July 21
Reflecting on this week's thought on status quo and leadership ( Our internal status quo becomes apparent during meditation. The mind is so noisy, so chaotic. The status quo is to entertain any thought. The status quo is to disengage with the present moment, to roll in the past or roll in the future. The status quo is inattention. The status quo is to react to temporary discomfort. To go against the internal status quo is to keep the mind still, to not identify with temporary sensations, to experience them with greater awareness and patience than you thought possible. Going against internal status quo is discovering new vistas of personal strength and capability. That is self-leadership.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Rhythm Riders

Last night I went to a tabla concert put on by Rhythm Riders, a local troupe of musicians and dancers. The event was on Guru Poornima, which is a day where students are to show appreciation to their teachers. This group of artists have been putting on the concert for some years now, in honor of their Guruji a well-known tabla composer named Divyang Vakil.

The concert featured Heena Patel, a fellow Berkeley Alum who has been studying tabla under this Guruji for over three years. Heena's story is really remarkable and inspirational. She graduated Berkeley Engineering at the top of her class, but wasn't sure what to do next. On a lark, she followed Nipun's suggestion to go to Manav Sadhna and volunteer. Once in Ahmedabad, she started doing some impressive work with MS but one way or another discovered a deeply embedded passion for music and the tabla in particular. She immediately took it up in earnest. Fast-forward 3 years and she now has become a full-time tabla artist, practicing 8 hours (!) a day to become the first-ever pro female tabla player from Canada. To me, Heena's an awesome example of following your Inner Voice. She was going on a certain path that did not resonate, then found one that did and completely dove into it. Whenever I meet her I can't help but feel Berkeley pride. My school produced such a person!

Besides Heena, the concert featured artists from beginner to professional. It was my first tabla concert, so there was a lot to take in. I had a few observations that were unexpected and/or surprising to me about the art of tabla:
  • The tabla isn't played so much as it is evoked. When these artists play, the distinct impression is that they aren't using an inanimate instrument, but rather working with a living musician with its own temperament. The artist is co-creating music with the tabla. I got this impression based on the facial expressions as the artists played. There was a lot of squinting and cringing, like they were twisting the tabla's ear to get it to sound right. Also in between sets the artists would tune their drums with a small metal hammer that they would tap on the tabla and then listen for the sound. When they put their ear to the drum after the hammer tap, it was like the music they were trying to play was in the tabla, and they were trying to find it. The other analogy I thought of as I watched was that the artist was riding a "tabla train". Meaning the tabla's intrinsic nature is for music to flow out of it, like scent from a rose, and they were just along for the ride.
  • Tabla musicians express showmanship in creative ways. Since they are sitting and their hands are completely occupied, they have to come up with alternative means of adding flair and personal touch to the performance. Heena, for example, was all about facial expressions and head nods and a *huge* smile. Once in a while she really got into a riff and would swing her hair around wildly. Some of the dude tabla players did the same, it made me finally understand why Zakir Hussain's hair is the way it is. Also, at the end of a riff the artist would put his signature on the performance with a last bang and let his hand go flying in the air. BA DA BAAAAM!
  • Advanced tabla playing isn't about calm soothing music, it is much more aggressive and intense. They weren't performing music as much as they were putting together beats. Naturally for me, I immediately began to hear the hip hop in the rhythms that were being created. It was like a freestyle rap, only using taal instead of lyrics. Virtuosity was demonstrated through the unconventionality of the beat circles (like 5 and a half which goes, 'one two three four five one-and-half one two three four five one-and-half …' with the one-and-half spoken extra fast) and the speed of play. These guys were speed demons, their hands became blurs as they played.
After the concert, I heard more than a few people say how watching it made them feel the urge to take up musical instruments themselves, which in my book is the highest compliment to the artists. As for me, it further added to my regret that I missed the class Zakir Hussain taught at my school on the music of India few years back. Come back Zakir!