Monday, July 5, 2010

Morning Tea

July 1st was Nipun and Guri's wedding anniversary. In celebration Jayeshbhai asked everyone in and around the MS ecosystem to do small, random acts of kindness in their honor. I was part of an especially hard-core group whose act was to serve chai to people at the Ahmedabad train station, Kalupur, in the middle of the night.

We began at 12am at Jayeshbhai's where we woke up Nipun and Guri to kick off their anniversary with a cake cutting, which was presided over by idols of all the major religions (a la their interfaith wedding ceremony). After they went to sleep we went to work making chai in a huge vat in Jayeshbhai's kitchen, simultaneously trying to stay awake, get in high spirits for the task ahead, and also keep quiet to not wake up the couple.

The tea was ready by about 2am (I fell asleep on the couch while the others powered through), and then we set out for the station. There were about 10 of us. Once we got there we started by standing in a circle, holding hands, and said a prayer. I like how that grounded us and added a sense of sacredness to what we were about to do. Then we split into two teams, each with a kettle of tea, setting out to gift people a late night refreshment.

While the other group set out for the periphery of the station to offer to the rickshawwallas, my team went into the station itself. We wanted to go onto the platform where trains were coming and going, but the police officer at the security entrance did not let us through. We explained as best we could that we were simply trying to serve with no strings attached, but the guard refused. So we made due with roaming around in the front lobby of the station, where a hundred or so people were huddling about in groups on the floor. We started to ask people if they would like tea. At first there were just confused looks and refusal, and some of our group began getting a little restless and frustrated. But then our first cup of chai was accepted, then another, then another. Things were starting to pick up when another police officer who was watching us called us over. "You can't do this, you will have to leave," he said sternly. We tried to explain that all we were doing was offering tea to anyone who would want it, and that we considered it seva. "You call giving away tea seva? That is not seva," he said. Considering what we were doing as an act of kindness was completely off his radar, a paradigm he had no familiarity with. He started to threaten us, saying he will end things forcefully if we don't leave immediately. The tension had clearly escalated, so we left.

Some in our group got really rattled by the cop, upset and confused. Why are they hassling us? Why don't they get it? We are never going to be able to serve all this tea. Should we just give up? Go somewhere else? Frustration, doubt, fear. It was a surprise to me that these emotions came up, since for some reason I had it in my mind that doing random acts of kindness in India was much easier than in the U.S. Back home, where we organize hear the homeless or similar events, you expect these emotions, some level of fear for new volunteers, and confusion for those we encounter, because you assume it's a sharper shift for our me-first culture. But in India? People should be seva veterans, it should be smooth sailing. But here we were at 3am in a train station with a jug full of chai, getting hassled by cops, rejected our offering by a half dozen people, wondering whether we were crazy for what just 15 minutes ago seemed like a holy act. To me it was a realization that small, random, radical acts of kindness is a language that is a challenge to speak no matter where you are in the world.

What was remarkable was our group's recovery. First, we realized that the cops were just doing their jobs. What if we were lying to them about free chai, and were actually trying to sell? Even worse, what if we were trying to do harm to people with spiked tea? The more we thought about it, the more we felt that the cops were not at fault. So we let that go. And we kept on going, one cup at a time, eventually catching the spirit back. We soon had given away all our chai, and received gratitude and many smiles in return. After the chai, we stepped it up by buying 26 packages of biscuits from a vendor in the station and offering those out. For the biscuits, I walked around with an open package for anyone and everyone to take, only I made a point to always be eating one myself to assure people that they were safe. I ended up eating a package of them, even though I don't particularly care for Indian tea biscuits, especially at 4am. Brutal.

The recovery from the cop run-in was complete at the end of the night when Parul, one of the volunteers with us, reported successfully serving tea and biscuits to a police officer in the station. Persistence pays off!

There were a few small stories from the experience that stuck with me. The first is about Meghna, who was serving in my group. Watching her in action was incredible. When you try to do an act of kindness for a stranger, the most crucial part is creating context for the act with the person you are serving. Even a well-intentioned act, if not set up properly, can lead to mis-interpretation and/or suspicion. For example, what didn't work was going up to a person and asking, "Would you like some tea?" They can interpret that so many ways. Maybe you are trying to sell, maybe you are trying to play a prank, maybe you're just some nut with a jug. The person has little basis to assess the offering you are making, they don't know you. The key is to create context and comfortable report simply and quickly. What worked for me was starting by explaining who we were and why we were serving: "We have two close friends whose marriage anniversary is today. These friends have served others in many wonderful ways. In their honor, we have come here to do a small act of service. Would you allow us to serve you a cup of chai?"

What does this all have to do with Meghna? Well, she is the queen of context. It was amazing how effortlessly she was able to connect with people and bring them in. She is such a caring person, people can just feel it. I loved watching her and studying how she engaged people, how she spoke, her smile, her fearlessness. She had no hesitation approaching the poorest, sickest, dirtiest. And all with boundless energy. What an inspiration.

One rickshawwalla, after having his chai, was moved enough to help us clean cups for the next recipients. Pay-it-forward!

Last thing I'll share is this picture, which is of us serving tea to a chaiwalla! It's like selling water to a well. But he accepted our offering and enjoyed it. Hopefully it was up to his standards.


  1. hey Neil, just wanted to let you know I am reading everything you post and thoroughly enjoying it!

  2. What a great idea! I hope I remember to do something awesome like this when I get married :D

  3. Neil, What a cool thing to do :). It's so great that you guys found a way to recapture the energy after you interaction with the police. We had a similar thing happen when we were doing some RAKs in London's Hyde Park and it can definitely be a bit rattling. I also really liked your remark about creating context and a comfortable rapport - I think that's the key.