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.