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.