Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Infinite Inspiration

Recently I finished one of the most inspiring books I have ever read, Infinite Vision by Big Sis Pavi and Suchi. Reading the book now was very timely for me personally as I try to build an organization trying to bring about social change in India. But that's at the surface level. At a deeper level I learned about the nature and personality of a deeply spiritual person driven by the cause of human welfare. How he lived, how he thought, how he acted.

Aravind, in my mind, is the pinnacle of so-called social enterprise. It represents the heights an organization can achieve in terms of excellence, growth, and notoriety as it relentlessly pursues compassionate service to the poorest of the poor. The first few pages presented a bold and improbable claim: Aravind had worked out a model in which the more they went out of their way to serve the poorest of the poor, the better it was for business. Sounds like a parlor trick. How can you earn more by optimizing yourself to reach those who have no money?

My interpretation of the book's explanation is this: Aravind was driven to provide high-quality eye care at the cheapest possible cost to customers ($0). In that drive it had no choice but to find ways to make the costs of delivering that service as low as possible. The constraints demanded they get creative. The response: get less, do more. It engaged in two classes of radical innovation: process and technological. In a service traditionally requiring significant attention from highly skilled but low-supply personnel, it used the (in)famous McDonald's "hospital-as-a-factory" [18] process approach to substitute for the human touch. With the right recruiting and training in its paraprofessional program, they were able to retain the compassionate care ethos even with this switch. The devotion to process and systems thinking allowed surgeons to do massive volumes of high-quality surgeries, which drove down per-surgery costs (surgeons were paid a flat salary, fixed costs better amortized).

The second class of innovation was technological. In what I consider the masterstroke breakthrough of the Aravind Eye Care System, they brought the manufacturing of intraocular lenses (IOLs) to India, and using clever home-brewed methods brought the costs of those lenses down from $200 to $5. That was the fundamental building block for cheap cataract surgery. So simple in hindsight, but what a bold ballsy move at the time. This is the type of leap-ahead thinking that separated Dr.V from the rest in his field.

The cheap IOLs powered what I consider the engine underlying the serving-poorer-people-is-better-for-business model: they didn't sacrifice quality of service any step of the way. At the time surgery for cataracts using IOLs was the state-of-the-art, only it was considered unaffordable for developing countries. Aravind broke that mainstream thinking.

In the end they solved the market demand problem by providing a service that was so high-quality that even though they were driven to provide it to poor people, rich people couldn't help but seek it as well. And so with that demand-pull force and a pricing strategy that respected the choice (and therefore dignity) of each individual, they got the rich to cross-subsidize the costs for the poor.

This model is very compelling. Provide a service that everyone needs, and provide it with uncompromisingly high quality. Then get rich people to pay enough for it that you can provide it cheap to poor people. Aravind generated enough surplus through this model to bootstrap its own growth. There's nothing more natural and validating than an organization growing purely on the fruits of its own efforts. At Aravind's first hospital each subsequent floor was built only after it had enough money to pay for it. They literally grew the organization brick by brick. And grow it did, to an eye care ecosystem including hospitals, rural vision centers, eye camps, international management consultancy, post-grad medical training programs, manufacturing, research institute, over 30 million patients served, over 30 countries consulted, nearly $30 million in yearly revenue. And it remains a registered non-profit organization.

Aravind has deeply influenced my thinking about my own organization. Following its example, Awaaz.De aims to provide a service so good that organizations with money will be willing to pay for it, while making it affordable and accessible and appropriate for the underserved communities we are mission-driven to serve. I have made Infinite Vision required reading for all Awaaz.De employees. A copy sits in our office library. Aravind is a paragon, an inspiration for how to run a social enterprise with integrity and compassion and focus, and also financial sustainability.

Others who've read the book have also been inspired. Big John, a regular attendee of Wednesdays in Santa Clara, a lovely warm presence with deep wisdom, told me the book was also timely for the healing of the world at this particular point in history. While reading it, he told me how much awe he had for Pavi and Aravind and how he was on the 8th chapter but "didn't want it to end". Later I talked to Shariq who said he had started reading the book from the back because he was anxious to know how the story ends: how was Aravind affected by Dr.V's passing? As a researcher interested in the longevity and legacy of institutions and their values, this was the part of this rich tapestry story that he was most anxious to delve into.

The beauty of this story and the way Pavi has woven it together is that there is something in it for everybody. There were so many features, fun and touching little anecdotes, and quotes that I loved, especially ones that revealed the personality of Dr.V and the culture of Aravind. I've compiled a few below, maybe I'll keep adding to the list. I hope it gives a sense of the spirit of this book, and the people and organization it portrays.
  • I have never read a book in which the cast of characters were presented in a family tree on the first page. I enjoyed the "meet the family" section, and that you had to constantly reference it while reading the book. As got into the story, the family members, particularly the founding team, grew into giant superheroes in my mind's eye. Each had their special powers. Dr.V the visionary, Natchiar the stern disciplinarian, leader, and accomplished surgeon, Thulsi the management czar, Srinivasan the resource and facilities genius, etc. They all had their gifts and came together and complemented each other like X-Men.
  • Dr.V's understated way of giving praise: "Very good, very good" [250]. I hear him saying it and chuckle.
  • I loved learning about the family dynamics, the challenges of transitioning leadership and culture through generations, the family/non-family ingroup/outgroup tensions, and how the younger generations related to and perceived the elders. Dr.V's New Age Group meetings were genius, a way to build solidarity and create "memories of caring that would outlast his lifetime" [249]
  • Natchiar: "…The West talks about 'value addition'. I don't know that that means. When a nurse holds an elderly patient's hand and leads her where she needs to go- to me that is value addition." [96]
  • Dr. V lives 3 minutes away from the hospital. He goes to his office every morning at 7am. He drives himself down the street, and being a cautious driver, honks most of the way [132]
  • After Dr.V observed Natchiar berating a janitor: "Did you shout at his body or at his soul, Natchiar? Shout at his body. His soul belongs to God. If you shout at his soul, you are shouting at God." [138]
  • Out of tens of thousands of journal entries, Dr.V rarely used a question mark. "As if framing the right question is itself an answer of sorts." [18]
  • Dr.V was invited to Harvard University to give a talk titled, "Living a Spiritual Life in a Contemporary World." He wore an ill-fitted brown suit purchased from a thrift store.
  • Dr. V's sandals. How he spears them with his walking stick to slip them on and off his gnarled toes; green and red rubberbands snapped onto the toe-holds to mark the two pairs he owns in order to avoid wearing either pair out too quickly. "A trivial detail loaded with his distinct personality: his utter lack of vanity, his frugality, his passion for order and discipline in the smallest details. He has built those qualities into his family and into Aravind." [57]
  • Sweet and simple Dr.V quote on mentorship, the last phrase always makes me smile as I think of him saying it in his accent: "Just as you are training somebody for the Olympics, you train everybody every day. You coach him, guide him, and play with him. So you can develop him quickly as a top player." [103]
  • Very interesting insight on the patience and egolessness required to build an organization like Aravind. Dr. Aravind: "You know, Dr. V built this place at the right time. He wasn't competing for anything at that stage in his career… you have to be completely out of the rat race to build an institution like this." [93]
  • One of my all-time favorite Dr.V quotes, captured in the documentary (min 7:26) and spoken in his sweet, endearing, matter-of-fact way: "And I don't insist upon that that man must pay me before I do anything for him. I say, give him the sight man, let him give whatever he can give. If he cannot afford, doesn't matter, he can give later."

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Supply Chain of Service

I randomly wandered into Manav Sadhna the other day and was treated to a remarkable story from Virenbhai. It had to do with the large number of boxes neatly stacked up next to where we sat, in a corner of the main MS hall. Inside the boxes was over a ton (3,200 lbs. to be exact) of top-of-the-line Helix school supplies from the U.S.: pencil sets, rulers, compasses, easels, art kits, sketch pads, paper cutters, scissors, stationery. Easily, it was thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. It's all going to be distributed, benefit, and be enjoyed by many hundreds of slum children in the area for a long time to come. How on earth did all of these amazing school supplies land here in the first place? The story is even better than the end result.

Few weeks ago Virenbhai was in Chicago, where he spends part of the year working (to earn his living; the other half of the year he's in Ahmedabad to volunteer full-time with Manav Sadhna). Out of the blue one evening he got a call from a young woman, Shilpa Patel. Shilpa works in the marketing department at a warehouse/distribution center in the Chicago area. She called Virenbhai to tell him that there is 5 skids full of brand new school supplies from Helix at one of her company's warehouses. By midnight, all of it would be removed, possibly just discarded away. But wouldn't it be wonderful if we could take and send the supplies to the kids at Manav Sadhna? Shilpa had volunteered there before, so she knew how joyful the kids would be royally and fully kitted out for back-to-school. She had even gotten the go-ahead from her bosses to let it happen, but they would have to clear everything out of the warehouse by midnight.

It was then 7pm. Virenbhai immediately springs into action. He sends an email out to a group of local volunteers, seeking on-call muscle to wrangle the stuff. Within a couple hours he's got a team of 6-7 loaders, and a truck borrowed/rented by one of the volunteers. They all meet at the warehouse and manage to pick up the supplies. But where to store it all? Virenbhai calls up his boss to ask permission to store the stuff at one of their company facilities. Generously, the boss says yes. He has long known of Virenbhai's involvement with MS and has been supportive in many ways. The next morning Virenbhai goes early to work to unload. A few of his co-workers volunteer to come help, and with shirts off they get to work. They are finished by punch-in time and head to work.

Next task was to pack up all of the supplies to have them ready for shipment to India. Virenbhai blasts out another call to the local troops to come for a packing party. It was short notice and right near the holidays, but sure enough 16 people infected with a spirit of service and love for hundreds of kids thousands of miles away show up. At the company facility one weekend, Virenbhai's boss arranges for tables, boxes, packing tape, and any other supplies needed for the team. The team works for five hours to sort, organize and pack up the supplies. Right on call, some local moms hear about the work and show up with all kinds of food: donuts, home-cooked bataka poha, the works. They weren't even asked, they just sprang into action. An entire station had to be set up on the side just for food.

After the boxes were readied Virenbhai arranged to have them sent to India. He researched the most cost-effective solution, which was by ship. He had a contact for a guy who had helped him with MS shipments before. He is kind-hearted and resonates with the spirit. He agrees to deliver the boxes, from doorstep to doorstep, at a generous discount.

Virenbhai also figures that these supplies could benefit local underserved kids in Chicago, so 20-30% of the supplies are kept back. He arranges to deliver them to 2-3 local public schools. A wonderful, think-global-act-local decision.

The shipment arrived to Ahmedabad the morning Virenbhai and I sat in MS chatting about the whole thing. The truck arrives in front of Gandhi Ashram. How to unload? Meanwhile the local kids catch wind and are going bonkers with excitement. "We'll unload everything Virenbhai, don't worry!" And like that the kids themselves bring this wonderful gift the last mile to its final destination.

I'm dumbfounded as Virenbhai relates this whole story to me. So much goodness, I kept wowing in amazement after each turn only to be out-wowed by the next part. After finishing, Virenbhai gets up to leave and I walk over to examine the supplies more closely.

"I didn't tell you the best part of the story," he says, peeking back in. The boxes had come in some metal support scaffolds. Jesús and Kafhai, two architect-volunteers at MS, saw them and excitedly kept them aside. The scrap metal would be perfect for a school they were building in the slum. There was also tons of cardboard that the supplies came packed up in from the delivery truck. The MS team sent that off to a local recycling center and gets Rs.210. They use that money to feed bhajaiyas to the kids as thanks for helping to unload. Not a resource wasted, more good created.

There is so much to love about this story, a rich supply chain of service that blossomed from a small seed. One act of inspired kindness led to maybe a hundred individuals receiving a wonderful opportunity to serve in large and small ways. Not to mention the collective effort will benefit hundreds more children around the world. To me the biggest hero of the story is Shilpa Patel. And the kicker is, I am Shilpa Patel. And so are you, gentle reader. Each one of us sits in a metaphorical office working at Dunder Mifflin in our own corner of the world. But what separated Shilpa from the rest of us is in that moment was that she had her eyes, ears, and heart open. Tuned into the calls of service, generosity, kindness, compassion. What I call the Always Be *Serving* state of mind. It's what lifts the haze off of an ordinary moment and reveals an extraordinary experience.

Are you tuned in?

Humilty in Action

Over the past week I have been incrementally cleaning up mine and Nimo's apartment while he busily works on the Ekatva tour. I started with the bathrooms, then the kitchen, sinks, desks and other furniture, and of course tending to our plants. I have found it a good discipline and nice complement to morning meditation.

One of the big benefits of manual housework is that it really instills humility. It is humility in action. It is dirty, hard work bending over that greasy toilet, scrubbing hard-to-reach corners. But you do it and it grounds you. It keeps you flexible to a range of duties. No work gets beneath you, and that is an aid in cultivating a heart of service. And as Jayeshbhai recently confessed to me during a marathon floor/bathroom/dishes cleaning session, "Above all, I love to clean toilets."

At home, no one is watching you clean that toilet. Except yourself. So you do it to the best of your ability. This helps in developing a strong worth ethic, a dignity of work. Like young Steve Jobs who learned from his furniture-making father that even the parts of the piece that no one sees should be perfect and beautiful.

Manual work is beneficial to body and mind. It's physically challenging and strengthens the body. Also I've found that there is something very satisfying about wiping down a dusty shelf or sink. And that's what I love about India, everything in your house gets dusty! It's my latest argument as a long-standing India apologist.

Doing housework increases your appreciation of Moms. They do it in the normal course of their daily lives. Without recognition or praise or even a thought that what they are doing is something so great. They would think it bizarre and naive and arrogant to write a blog post reflecting and promoting it. Doing housework also makes me experientially understand what my mom means when she says, "I don't want a big house… it is too much work!"

Although I tend to like doing housework, I don't do it regularly enough out of laziness and resistance to getting my hands dirty. Getting started is the hardest part, but once you jump into it it's not so bad. And in the end I never regret having done it. It's satisfying, and you end up with a clean place to live! I plan to keep connected to some regular hard manual housework. Hand washing my underwear will be the task of choice for now.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Office Humour

Chirag and I were in the office, and he was booking a train ticket for me, filling an online form. He asks (verbatim), "What is your pet name?" I say I don't have one (a pet name). I glance over to his screen, curious why the form would ask that.

Turns out it was a security question. "What is your pet's name?"

He wrote in, "Puppy".

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Football in the Air

Earlier this year I wrote about an initiative within Manav Sadhna to bring the game of football (soccer) to the local slum kids and other youth in the surrounding community. Things started humbly with Jesus holding a weekly practice with any kid that was interested at the Ashramshalla. I later joined to help run the practices. Meanwhile a solid group out of the UK called Football Action contacted MS wanting to sponsor equipment and a football field to be built for kids to enjoy the game. Before I left India last March we had a meeting with some of MS coordinators about ramping up the activities: get more kids involved, recruit coaches/mentors from the local community to organize teams and hold practices, and work towards setting up a league for kids to hone their skills, compete, and grow the sport; and all along the way coordinate with Football Action to meet on joint objectives.

Six months later I am back at MS and eagerly joined Sunday morning's practice couple weeks ago to see the progress. Through emails, it seemed that things were really taking off, but I wasn't prepared for what I saw. There were over 50 kids, split into 5 teams representing 5 local communities, spread out in practice sessions across the ashram premises. Each team was engrossed in organized drills, led by a group of crackerjack coaches. The coaches are all "big brothers", MS volunteers from the same communities as the members of each team. The coaches led the surprisingly diligent players in jogging, passing and volleying drills, small-sided games, keep-away, shooting, and of course scrimmages. One especially strict coach, Rahulbhai, was barking orders as the kids ran in a wide circle and did the drill I used to do where you bend down and touch the ground with left, right, and both hands when commanded. Then go up for an air header. Incredible! They were having trouble running at the same pace and subsequently the circle got deformed and uneven, but was still a thing of beauty.

I later learned, mostly from Aaron who has been leading the training sessions, that these teams have been training hardcore for the past two months. Some teams get together daily to practice. Daily! On the weekends, there are sessions with multiple teams, and those regularly run for 4+ hours. Nimo works at MS everyday, and he told me every time he walks through the Ashramshalla he sees kids playing football. "Football fever has swept up these kids, cricket has been totally forgotten," Nimo remarked. Basically football is in the air and the kids can't get enough of it.

I was really impressed with the progress since Jesus and I were running a raggedy practice with ~12 kids every Sunday. We struggled to get the kids to pass and dribble. Now they were keeping space and intelligently passing. I participated in and watched some 3-on-1 keep-aways and was happy to see that a number of passes were being strung together. Some of the kids showed exceptional talent. I told Aaron later that what was most delightful was how you'd be watching 2-3 minutes of very ordinary football with standard repeated mistakes and lack of control. Then out of the blue a kid would do something brilliant. A delicate jumping touch to stop the ball dead, or a series of creative passes or striking the cone on a rifling shot. Breathtaking. One of my selfish goals for this project was for it to eventually produce one player who makes the Indian national team. It can definitely happen.

I attended this week's Sunday morning practice and helped run a match with Rahulbhai and Aaron. Saying it was an incredible experience doesn't nearly do justice. There were 14 kids, 7 to a side. As we separated them into teams, Aaron asked whether we could assign them positions (3 defenders, 2 midfielders, 2 strikers to a side) in an attempt to get them to spread the field for passing instead of bunching around the ball. I was skeptical, it was a tall order since the kids have yet to fully grasp the ideas of playing off the ball and giving their teammates space to accept a pass. But with a lot of help from Rahulbhai, we were able to explain to each team how they were to stay in specific zones on the field and handle specific roles. We even mandated that the attackers not be allowed to cross back into their own midfield, which was an artificial way to keep them ahead. But once you give kids the structure to play soccer the right way, they naturally understand what they are to do.

The game was intense and also instructional for the kids. I played ref and also paused it several times to make them aware of positioning, spacing, and passing options. Throughout the game I paced the sidelines laughing and skipping in delight as the kids made one athletic and/or skillful soccer play after the other. There was some tenacious on-ball defending and tackling, the kids are naturally aggressive on the ball. Some memorable headers/facials and lots of hand balls, and even a few intelligent back passes which was one of the more rewarding moments (they realized possession is more valuable than ball position). The climax moment of the match was an absolutely gorgeous goal by one of the teams where Mitesh and Ravi played a perfect 1-2 game down the defensive third and put the ball into the corner of the goal. From my angle on the field I craned my neck to watch the play develop and the shot trickle through, and when it did I ran to the two players to celebrate as if I had scored. It was easily the most joyful moment of my last 18 days in India. I couldn't have been more proud.

The game ended 3-2, well fought by both sides. In the recap, Rahulbhai emphasized that the kids still needed to work on their spacing and respect the positions on the field. Also to work on trapping. Aaron spoke next and said something memorable: in the 8 weeks he's been at MS, playing countless hours of football with countless kids, this, finally, was the best match he had seen. After breaking up we hugged gave knowing looks that had been part of something amazing. The next day I get an email from Aaron who was also still on a high from the experience. "What a match... ten times better than the World Cup final!" Couldn't have said it better.

One of the edges that has come up with this project is working with an organization that has a pre-defined vision and goals for the project. Football Action stepped up and committed to sending a bunch of equipment, including balls, shoes, and even uniforms to MS to distribute to the kids. They sent a portion of it to Ahmedabad a month or so ago. Balls, uniforms, and even shoes. And this is all top-of-the line stuff, really high quality. But the problem is that there isn't enough equipment to match the number of kids that are participating. If the equipment was distributed to only some of the kids, it wouldn't be fair. So a deficit that didn't previously exist is created. We probably would have been better off buying enough equipment locally at cheaper prices. Meanwhile top of the line Man United jerseys and Nike Mercurials sit unused in a locker at Manav Sadhna while 52 kids play soccer outside barefoot.

A big reason why he have this situation is that the number of kids participating was unexpectedly high. But this is only a problem if we are unable to respond to the dynamic situation. Football Action approached MS originally with a vision to build a soccer field, complete with goals and lines, in or around the local community. Once the field gets built, their team would make a visit to the site, get to know the community, and have trainings and exhibition matches with the kids and other local people as the press looks on. This is their signature contribution, having followed this blueprint successfully for a community in Africa. While it's a wonderful thing to do, this is a different context with different constraints and requirements. There are a number of other expenses that have come up that need immediate attention. Equipment is just one. Another is paying a modest financial incentive for the coaches who have stepped up and dedicated significant time and energy to the project, despite their own time demands to make ends meet. Another is funds for snacks to offer the kids after practice. Many of the kids lack a nutritious diet. Instead, the coaches are spending money from their own pockets to provide the kids a snack. A third is setting aside money in case of injuries to players. A previous ultimate frisbee project at MS screeched to a hault when one of the players got injured and needed surgery, but the backing organizations couldn't offer any financial assistance. These are real needs, and it's easy to miss them when you have your own idea of success. To me this is a microcosm for how international aid agencies work; caught up in their own pet projects, many agencies miss being responsive to the unfolding situation on the ground.

If I ran Football Action, I wouldn't make a trip to the site after the field gets built there; I would travel there as the first thing. Get to know the community, talk to the local organizations, play some football with the kids and get a feel for what could work. Then create a timeline and budget that fits the context and get everyone to buy into it. But in an era where MBAs are rewarded for creating a model that "scales", we get seduced by the idea of one size shoe fitting all.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The School That Ganeshnagar Built

Last weekend I visited a special school. It is located in the middle of a slum in Ranip, Ahmedabad. It's built using only materials from in and around the slum, and by the children from the slum.

Patangyu ("Butterfly") School in Ganeshnagar is phase 2 of the after-school program for Ranip kids that was run by Manav Sadhna volunteers out of a small but colorful space near Jayeshbhai's house. The idea for this new schoolhouse is to involve the students themselves in every step of the school's development, and to make it a part of the community that they live in.

I attended the weekly Sunday session with a bloke from UK named Aaron, to see the school in action. The schoolhouse is simple: a basic circular space closed off by pillars of rocks gathered by hand by the kids, stacked into cylinders by wiring. There is a basic but sturdy bamboo roof on top. Overall it's minimalist and inviting.

When we arrived class was already in session. Any child from the slum is invited to attend, provided they stay for the entire session and are old enough to understand what is going on. But inevitably kids of all ages show up. Currently Anjali leads the classes each week. Typically she presents a theme of the day and have the kids discuss it. The theme is usually related to a holiday or festival that's happening at that time. Then she has the kids draw a picture on that theme. This week it was Ganesh, who's festival is coming up. All the kids drew Ganesh first with pencil, then colored it in. The main point of the activity is to let the kids be creative, use their imagination, and practice concentration. The kids broke off into mini groups and got to work. It was fun watching the diversity of pictures develop, the kids took drawing Ganesh in many different directions. Whenever they had trouble know what to draw or how to draw it, Anjali would ask the student to close their eyes and picture what they want to draw for few seconds, then open and draw what they saw. Worked every time. In fact part of this exercise is about unlocking the latent ability each kid has, but isn't aware of. It's a confidence building exercise. At the end of the session everyone gathers back in a circle and flip through the pictures together. Each child has a chance to describe what they drew. Finally, class ends with a few seconds of meditation and the kids are off to the races.

Watching the kids play in the space, Aaron and I commented how these kids have such active imaginations, making up random games to play with each other. They had no toys, but maybe that was a good thing because it forces them to come up with creative ways to entertain themselves. Anji mentioned that it's a known principle that children need to feel boredom in order to spark their imagination. Kids in the US who are constantly stimulated by video games, soccer practice, and dance class don't get to feel bored, and maybe that's not a good thing.

The school has it's share of problems. Adults in the community sometimes sneak into the space to drink or gamble. Others have come in and defecated. During the rains, a farmer used it as a barn to keep his animals. Each time, the kids have taken the initiative to let the perpetrators know that it's not OK, that their space should be protected. That level of ownership only comes through sustained participation and engagement.

Though Anjali is currently the only full-time instructor, the space remains open for anyone to come in and volunteer to share what they know. This week, an organic farmer from nearby visited the school to talk with Anjali about getting the kids involved in gardening by planting some vegetables, herbs, and medicinal plants in the dirt area behind the schoolhouse. They could grow vegetables specifically to meet some of the community's nutritional deficiencies, and medicinal plants that can help with common chronic illnesses amongst the children. Everything would be grown organically; the children would help create compost by collecting waste from their homes. Hopefully they will take ownership over the garden as they have the school space. There will likely be other challenges, like theft and hungry animals. But the kids have a habit of stepping up when it's called for.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tabla Pusher

Robin Sukhadia has been in India for the past 6 months on a Fullbright Scholarship exploring the role of music education for street children in Kolkata and Ahmedabad. Last week he hosted an intimate evening at the MBL headquarters where he shared his personal journey, what art means to him, history and primer on tabla, and of course some riffs on the tabla from the man himself.

Robin took us through the history of Project Ahimsa, which he has been a part of since its beginnings. The project's mission is to empower youth around the world through music. Robin showed some videos of various projects in which disadvantaged youth came alive when introduced to creative expression through music, especially tabla. Also I learned that Project Ahimsa planted seeds for future music projects in Manav Sadhna, starting with a simple project to bring instruments to students of a local blind school. Later folks would be inspired to put together the Ekta show, which toured around the world. That laid the foundation for the latest incarnation, Ekatva.

In his own journey, Robin has been deeply influenced by tabla. Always musically inclined, he got into tabla after a chance encounter with Zakir Hussein 8 years ago. Backstage at his concert, Zakirji told Robin to seek out another renowned tabla master, Pundit Swapan Chaudhuri as his teacher. Robin obeyed, and has been practicing intensively under Swapanji ever since. But of course as Robin related, the tabla is a very subtle instrument and can take a lifetime, or even multiple lifetimes to master.

Tabla has its own language, the dha-dhin-dhin-dha that you often hear tabla players sing during a concert. The alphabet if dha's and dhe's and dhin's is what teachers use to transmit to their students. Tabla is taught completely orally, nothing is written down. Same goes for tabla making, which I learned is an ancient art. Tabla is one of the few modern instruments (and I mean really modern, it has really only gotten wide exposure since the art was opened up to the masses since Independence) that does not have a satisfactory synthetic version. No one has been able to capture the sound of symmetrically stretched calf and goat skin. The black middle part of the tabla is what gives it the sweet sound. The two drums represent the male and female, and making them dance together in different combinations is what makes tabla beats diverse and alive. My burning question from Robin's talk was a two-parter: a) Do famous tabla players grow out their hair on purpose so they can fling it around during performances, since their hands are occupied? and b) How does he cope with his own inability to do so?

Robin also talked about and quoted from the Artist's Way, and emphasized the benefits of making room for artistic expression in life. But also it's important to encourage artistry in others, especially youth. He linked art to social change and said Gandhi was himself a great artist, and how deeply he was influenced by the work of the artists Tagore and Tolstoy.

Robin is a really cool cat. Although we only overlapped in Ahmedabad for a couple days, it was great getting to know him and bonding over childhood love stories (tetherball!), Clay Shirky, and Mario Bros. I'm not sure when our paths will cross next, only that they will.

Monday, September 12, 2011

I am FOB

Welcome back to The Organic Indian! Let's dive right in and cover happenings since the last installment of this blog.

First, I graduated. In early 2011, I was in India finishing the final bit of work for my thesis. I came back to California in April, gave my oral examination in May, walked in cap and gown in June, and handed in my dissertation in August. I subsequently came straight back to India where I type these words from.

Next, I am now working full time on Awaaz.De ("Give your voice"), the startup I co-founded with Tap last year. The company is a spin-off of my thesis project, Avaaj Otalo, which is a voice information service for small scale farmers in Gujarat to access and share agricultural advice using any mobile phone. Callers dial a regular phone number and access a question and answer message board, where they can post, browse, and respond to others' questions and answers. We launched the service with DSC, our local NGO partner, in 2009, and it has been live since then. If this paragraph sounds like a rehearsed spiel that has been rattled off in verbal and written form hundreds of times to hundreds of people in the last year, you are on the money.

My dissertation was on the design and usage of Avaaj Otalo. As I neared graduation, we needed a way for the service to live on. It wouldn't be right to just pack up my computer and call it a day just because I was graduating. We had started something that our local partners had invested time, money, and effort on, and that was delivering real value to farmers who depended on it: to date AO has served over 40,000 calls from 5,000 callers.

That's where Awaaz.De comes in. It hosts Avaaj Otalo: all of the calls into and out of AO come through the servers in the our office. In addition, we generalized the software underlying AO and created a customizable voice social media platform. So now any organization in India who wants to reach remote, disconnected communities can set up their own voice application with us. We help design a custom application based on the particular information and communication needs the organization is trying to address. Then we set up the application on our servers, and give the org a phone number and a login to a web-based administration interface. They don't have to install any software or manage any hardware. We take care of all the of the technology, it is a fully hosted service. The organization is the front-facing entity for the service. They promote the phone number as a service they are provided. They are also responsible for the content on the system: responding to questions form the community, uploading new info, broadcasting and routing messages, etc. Currently we are hosting applications for eight different organizations across six states in India. And not just for agriculture, but a variety of domains like labor rights, women's empowerment, and education.

And like that the company is off and running. We acquired our partners in a relatively short time, all since last September. And they all came through word-of-mouth. We hadn't even set up a website and we were getting requests from folks, like the service we offer has been needed for a while now, only no one was offering it. So in a way I don't really feel like I started the company, more that the company started itself. All very organic and demand-driven, which makes it feel right. There was nothing unnatural or forced about how things have developed. In fact if anything I would say I have been reluctant, conservative, perhaps even in denial about the inevitability of the company every step of the way. Honestly I didn't see it coming, yet now I look back at the path and it makes perfect sense. I couldn't see that far ahead, but now here I am trying to make this a way to earn a living. So far, it's looking possible. We are revenue-generating, have one full-time employee, Chirag, and an office with a sign and a logo. The other day, we even got business cards.

As I began to see light at the end of the tunnel of grad school about a year and a half ago, I started to think about what to do next. I thought about staying in academia as a professor, or getting a job at an organization I like and care about (one I've had on my list for a while is NPR), working for the government (inspired by Obama), and of course continuing to work on the stuff we started in India in some capacity. Then we started Awaaz.De, and that option became a concrete possibility. Since then, with a more-than-gentle nudging of Tap, I started trying on the role of entrepreneur in my mind. Is it for me? I have always felt my personality isn't suited for entrepreneurship, I don't have an unquenchable thirst for it like the best ones seem to have. But over the last year or so I have begun to start embracing the role, and at this point I can say with full conviction that this is what I want to do. I am an entrepreneur. I'm excited to develop the skills that are required to be a good entrepreneur. In particular understanding what people need, working under uncertainty, innovating, having a strong vision, and leading people. No matter the level of success the business achieves, I want the learning experience and opportunity for growth. Assuming this new identity, I've seen the transition in how I think and interact with friends and others. I am more protective of business interests in political debates (fiscal conservative?). When I'm at social events, I find myself giving the AD pitch 30 times throughout the night because I have no other way to answer the question, "So what do you do?". Dad, Jay, and I are all currently running our own businesses. Only mom is doing the sensible thing and working for an institution. We are a family of hustlers, as one of Jay's high school buddies recently remarked. Danny Patel would be proud, we have "various type of a strength" and "the vizzzun".

But it's not just about entrepreneurship, I am excited about Awaaz.De in particular. I love what we do and the service we provide. I wholeheartedly believe in it and its potential. I sit in meetings with all kinds of social impact organizations across India and say with genuine belief behind it that what we are selling is an amazing thing and can be revolutionary. I don't have to trick myself to think it, I've fully drank the kool-aid. It's one of the rare things in life that feels fresh even as I dive deeper in. With some ideas, they don't stand up to scrutiny, don't have depth and nuance and complexity. After spending enough time thinking about it, the idea withers in your mind. It no longer keeps your attention and interest beyond a certain quantity of attention. But with this, the more I think about what we're doing, the more excited I get. It has a blossoming, generative property. Every day I wake up feeling excited about the possibilities, and the number of possibilities keep increasing. More than I can keep up with really. There is so much potential for what we are doing, I just want to capture even some part of it and see what kind of ride that wave takes us on. The cliche goes that the test of your love for a job is whether you'd be willing to do that job even if you had a $0 salary. So far I'm passing the test.

But all that said, I think the big turning point in making the decision to work on Awaaz.De full time was when I found a suitable living situation in Ahmedabad. The entire Shreeji Krishna crew will be shifting to Sivanta apartments, a residential community bang opposite the Gandhi Ashram. When we all put in our deposits for the apartment, my decision to come to Ahmedabad was sealed. When you are looking for a happy work opportunity, what you are doing matters, but you also have to consider your social well-being. I knew that if I stayed in Ahmedabad, I would have a strong social circle. I already had bunch of relatives to maintain the feel of family, but having a like-hearted group of friends is also key. It's a blessing to be around Jayeshbhai, Anarben, MAM, little MAM, Anji, Nimo, and other MBL angels. Manav Sadhna is an inspiring ecosystem, it's the closest thing you can get to the CF posse outside of the Bay. I needed that piece in place before making the leap. Also I have a feeling that all of the difficulties I have living in India (the weather, the crowds, pollution, lack of taquerias) will be mitigated by having my own space to call home. I look forward to carving out a corner of India that I can really make my own and be totally comfortable in.

Recently I was trading emails with Kaushal, my friend from college. Back then we used to tease each other because he's a FOB and I'm an ABCD. As we were going back and forth planning a long overdue reunion in Bombay, he made a joke about carrying passports in Malad that I didn't understand. When I reminded him that I am not a FOB, he replied, "You're a FOB now!" It's totally true, I'm a reverse-FOB.

It's been somewhat of a challenge mentally adjusting to fact that I'll be living in India. Mostly because it will mean leaving so many beloved family and friends who I always miss dearly when I'm away. For their sake I've been trying to soften the language around my "move" to India. "Move" implies that I'm going and never coming back (Jo I promise I'll be back!!!). So I tell people that for the "foreseeable future" I'll be "based" in Ahmedabad, but keeping in frequent touch with my American my roots. And for sure, I'll be back.

I always had it in my mind that I would be involved in entrepreneurship in some capacity after grad school, but assumed that the opportunity would be in California, Silicon Valley in particular. But in life you can't deal your own cards, you can only play the hand that's been dealt. My cards have entrepreneurship, but also India. I'm going all-in.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Streets Watching

Editor's Note: This post's theme music is here. Listening to it is optional because really it's just meant for Jay.

I find the streets in India to be alive with a particular vibrant eclecticism. Three stories from the roads around my office:

Couple days ago I was walking from my office to Ba's house, where I take my tiffin and have lunch most days. My regular rickshawwala Narendrabhai was posted outside my office and when I took off he told me to not walk, that he would drop me. I waved him off because I like the walk, a change of pace from my office coop. But he kept insisting, saying it was too hot to walk that day. I insisted back that it is fine, I need the exercise. So I continue on, and a bit down the road Narendrabhai pulls up next to me on in his rickshaw, again urging me to just hop in. No charge, he is going that way anyway, like it pains him that I was walking. But I hold firm and he speeds off. Fast forward another maybe two minutes, and a white Honda pulls up next to me and the driver rolls down his window. I feel the cool dry A/C air inside. This man is a stranger, I had never seen him before. Unbelievably, he nonchalantly offers me a ride. A complete stranger!

He says it's too hot, it's not a problem for him to take me where I need to go, it's no trouble at all. He was talking to me as if we were friends, which threw me off because he was definitely a stranger. All I could do was smile and thank him profusely, and that I would pass. As he drove off my immediate thought was how hard this city is trying to endear itself to me. At this point it's hate-love. I hate the heat, the pollution, the crowds, and the dearth of taquerias. But I love the people, the relationships, the connections. The warmth that comes from people, the hugs I get from MS kids, the bonding I do with noble friends at Shreeji Krishna. This was another point for Ahmedabad.

Story two is not really a story, just a feature of Indian street life that's interesting: how the public deals with vehicle accidents. Whenever there's an accident, it's pure street justice. A crowd inevitably forms around the vehicles in question, people yell, emotionally gesticulate, and point fingers, witnesses testify, and sometimes physical punishments are doled out then and there. I love how passersby naturally make it their business to get involved. The idea of rubbernecking as a feature instead of a bug is a stark difference between Indian and American street culture.

Final story: a crowd of people had gathered across the street from my office. I went to see what was going on, it turned out to be some kind of group distributing sacks of grain to poor people. There happened to be a lot of blind and handicapped recipients in the crowd, but especially blind. As I was watching the crowd disperse, an observation struck me about blind folks: they always seem to be smiling. Especially in India, where every so often you see groups of blind walking on the streets in a beeline, hand on next person's shoulder, blind leading blind. One possible explanation for the smiling blind is that a blind person is forced to live in complete trust of their immediate environment. Mostly the folks were walking down the street in groups, but one blind man was walking alone. I asked him if he was all right, and he immediately grabs for my hand. Maybe feeling to see if he could trust me, or to make me trustworthy if I wasn't. He asks to take him across the street and flag a rickshaw. When you're blind you're at the mercy of the universe by default, the only choice you have is to throw yourself into it. It takes courage. And also a shrewd strategy is to always be smiling.

I think smiling blind people is evidence that the natural configuration of our face is a smile, since the blind are not conditioned to keep their expressions based on looking at others. When I snapped my first pic of the group above, the lady in front immediately detected that I had done so, despite my camera being silent. I told her I was taking a picture of their lovely smiles. She said in that case I should take another one and this time her team would all show me their teeth:

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Beautiful Game

Jesús and I have been running a weekly Sunday morning soccer practice with Manav Sadhna kids in the Gandhi Ashram. From 8-10am we warm up, do drills, and play with any of the slum kids that are interested. Jesús, a fellow soccer fanatic, started the sessions couple months ago, and since I've been here I've joined as coach #2. Personally, I have four motivations for being involved. First, I am anti-cricket and happy to introduce an alternative sport, any alternative, into the lives of these kids. Second, soccer has given so much to me, shaped who I am, that I love to give back to the game by sharing it with others. Third, it's a way to plug myself into Planet Manav Sadhna doing something I'm passionate about. Fourth, it's the best game ever.

We play in Gandhi Ashram outside Manav Sadhna, jockeying for space with the cricket match that's also usually going on. The surface is sand, which is not ideal because of all the dust that gets kicked up and breathed in, but open flat grass areas are few and far between in these parts. Typically we have about 10 kids, but the number is fluid as kids get bored and go play cricket, new ones come, old ones come back, etc. It's a constant flux and flow of players, which is a bit of a problem when you're playing a team game.

But the competitive dynamic with cricket next door is great because it's the ultimate test of how interested the kids are in the game. Right now they are just learning, so it's pretty ugly out there. Just a bunch of little terrors in a crowd kicking the ball in a random direction, chasing, then repeating. Not exactly the beautiful game. But I believe firmly that if they actually played soccer, in the proper way, it would eventually topple cricket.

So we are teaching the game from the fundamentals: dribbling and passing. After two laps around the play area and stretching from neck to quads we do passing drills. Everyone get in a single file line, and I'll pass you the ball and you pass it back. Having the kids pass to each other is too slow because their kicking is wild and the ball is constantly lost. "Ek, beh. Ek, beh. Ek, beh." I yell out repeatedly to get them to think and do two touches. One, receive and trap the ball; two, look up and make a pass with the inside of your foot. Then we have them dribble in a straight line. The drills are all about introducing a sense of control and calm in the body-ball relationship. But the drill they like best is volleys, where we toss it in the air and they let loose with headers. They get really into it, reeling back and letting fly. They also particularly relish chesting it where they just spread eagle their little torsos at the ball to send it back.

After drills I like to play keep-away to hammer at dribbling and passing. Jesús thought it's too abstract with no goal to attack, but I feel it's a necessary intermediate step in the progression from drills to full-on scrimmage. You only earn points by passing. Four passes in a row by your team without the other team breaking it up and you get a point. The game typically degenerates to kick and chase, with points earned by two teammates finding the time to make four quick touches to each other one foot apart before the opposing team comes barreling in. It's a start.

Then scrimmage. By the time it comes the kids are pining to simply play unrestricted for goals. Just like when we were growing up. The game is start and stop, with the ball frequently going out of bounds and no real passing. There is frequent picking up and touching the ball with hands, which is old cricket habits. We beat it out of them by giving one minute penalties in the corner for any hand ball. Also one constant game within the game is fighting. These kids get into fights all the damn time. There are tears (usually from the ones who instigate), and at least two situations a session where someone storms off the field in angered protest. Half of our job is cop, gathering the culprits, making the crying stop, making people say sorry to each other. The other half is doctor/therapist for when a kid takes himself out of the game, sits in a corner, and rubs a cut on his shin. You go over, tell him it will be OK, tell him he was playing so good and he should get back in. So far my favorite kids are Jagdish, a talented player but an untamed hothead (Rooney); Kamal, a diva who basically plays so he can complain that people hit him (Christiano Ronaldo); and Ritesh, the calm elder statesman (Giggs).

Of all the coaches I had in my career, the one this experience brings to mind most is Mike Bland, a 20-something who coached us when we were maybe 12 to 14. I keep thinking how much of a pain we must have been for him to handle all by himself, how remarkable it was that he had us as disciplined as we were, how he probably did a lot more babysitting than I was even conscious of, and how calm he seemed through it all.

There is an organization based in the UK called Football Action which has contacted MS recently about collaborating to bring soccer to Ahmedabad in a big way. They want to fly out, build a legit pitch in the community, hand out equipment and balls, and conduct coaching sessions with the kids all with the aim of spreading the beautiful game and using football as a means of education. It's a great initiative, and we are excited to explore working together. First step is building a critical mass of local interest in the game from kids and coaches, which is work done one practice at a time.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Iza Good Lyfe

More and more I have days like today:

Get to Delhi on a cold foggy morning after 4 hours of bed sleep plus 1.5 hours of meditation/sleep on the plane. Cab to Breakthrough to orient and train the team on using their shiny new Awaaz De voice-radio application. Joining the meeting is a young girl from Lucknow named Archana who will take the reins of the system as the moderator. She is quick to learn, asks good questions, and is sensitive to the nuances of the system. I am brimming with pride as I can see in her eyes that she grasps the implications, the power she now has at her fingertips. A tool to connect, engage, and mobilize an army of 500 youth advocating human rights across UP and beyond. During the meeting I get two comments about the heart pinned on my jacket sleeve, which gives me two separate opportunities to talk about the magical part of the human family we call Manav Sadhna. For the first time, someone gets the double meaning of wearing heart on my sleeve.

After the meeting officially adjourns I'm doing 10 things at once. Debugging and writing in new functionality based on the training, being pulled into meeting with the Breakthrough ED to discuss payment and sign our contract, talking with the ED at Sesame India Workshop to see how possible it is to scale up their deployment to set up infrastructure in Maharashtra, arranging to present Awaaz De at the upcoming mobile technology conference they are hosting. Indicative of how busy I've been the last month-plus. One day this week I skipped lunch because there was literally no gap in work at the office between coding and people coming in to have meetings. Tracking todos in three different ways on my computer. Time is so scarce I had to reserve a plane ride I would have in three days to give overdue feedback on a document for a colleague.

Later I take the delightful Delhi metro to dinner with Rikin and Saureen. They both are asking about life and I can't help tripping over myself telling how wonderful things are right now. Just had the great meeting with an enthusiastic energetic org that could really take our technology to new heights, talking to you about how we can and should take the DG deployment to another level, talking about how my PhD career is wrapping up felicitously with all possibility for ending up with a solid set of research outputs after all is said and done, talking about how we have paying customers (and NGOs at that) for Awaaz De with zero marketing or even a website, and any more would almost be more than we can handle right now, talking about the enchanted life I lead living and serving amidst the Angels of Ahmedabad, talking about how I'm angling to live a retired uncle's 6-month-in-India-6-months-in-Cali lifestyle starting at age 28, getting teaching gigs in both places to sustain. Later I'm sitting in the posh new Delhi airport typing away and Kapilbhai calls just to "share the joy" after getting bunch of happy and appreciative calls from organic farmers across Gujarat who just received the inaugural phone broadcast of Sajiv Kheti Samvaad. The skeptic has now turned evangelist. Then on the plane get a call from my Hall of Fame roommate making sure I got on the plane OK after going without a legit photo id. At this point my Cup of Goodness officially overflowed.

At the end of dinner with Rikin and Saureen I open my fortune cookie and get this. I know it's cheesy, but I exclaim at the appropriateness as I show it off to Rikin. Saureen laughs, "Yeah, but you work hard, *and* you enjoy yourself".

What more is there?

Thursday, February 17, 2011


This morning me, Nimo, and Nimo's Dad were in the kitchen having breakfast when Jayeshbhai appeared at the door. White kurta pressed perfectly, big smile, warm demeanor. I had the only reaction one can have when seeing him: joy. But especially this time since I hadn't seen him in several weeks as he has been busily stepping into his new life as Iswar 2.0. He came in, we exchanged hugs, and we started chit chatting. Quickly the conversational topic turned to Gandhi. Jayeshbhai said Gandhi had two parallel types of sight: telescopic and microscopic. He could always see the big picture and zoom into the little. He told some stories to illustrate.

When India first gained independence the new Parliament gathered to vote for the first Prime Minister. All votes but one were cast for Sardar Patel. Nehru was crestfallen, his heart was set on it. Gandhi knew both his protegés well: Sardar Patel was an Iron Man of determination and discipline. His relationship with Gandhi was of unflinching respect, he would always do what Gandhi asked him. But Gandhi's relationship with Nehru was more fitful. Nehru would constantly challenge and argue with Gandhi. Knowing their natures Gandhi made the decision to request Sardar to remove his name from consideration, so Nehru would win by one vote. Why? Because if Sardar were to lose the Prime Minister-ship, he would pocket the disappointment and move on. If Nehru lost, Gandhi knew it would be a constant source of trouble down the road. Telescopic vision.

Another telescopic vision story that Nimo loved: The location of the Sabermati Ashram in Ahmedabad was not chosen randomly by Gandhi. First, he wanted the Ashram on the banks of a river, because the river is like a Mother. Second, he wanted the Ashram close to a jail. Which it was, the Sabermati jail was walking distance. Why? Because they were in the middle of the Quit India Movement, and it would be a lot less fuss for Gandhi and posse to not have to go so far every time they got arrested. Also closer for the Britishers who were doing the arresting. Just made things more convenient all around.

Finally Jayeshbhai told of a time in 1946 when Sardar, Nehru, some British Lords, blokes, and other stiffs were meeting at the Ashram with Gandhiji. As they were there, a child brings an injured goat over to Gandhi. He gets up in the middle of the meeting and takes the goat over with the child to apply a mud pack to the goat's injured leg. All meeting participants were flabbergasted, especially the British stiffs. Bad form and what not. Legend has it Gandhiji replied by simply saying that tending to the goat's pain was of greater importance than anything being discussed in that meeting. Not only did it ruffle feathers, it likely left a lasting impression. The suffering of a lowly animal at that moment was of greater concern than all the heady affairs of global politics. That's why he was Mahatma, and that's microscopic sight.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Earn and Lounge

The other day I was walking through the Tekra and ran into this woman. She was going through that sack of shredded paper, separating out any shreds that had color on them from the pure white. Some nearby business had been bringing in sack after sack, and paying for the work. Why mounds of pure white shredded paper are better than ones with color, I can't quite say. The woman said she was paid Rs.1 for each kilo of separated shreds. And it takes about 30 minutes to do a kilo, so that's Rs.2/hour (less than five cents).

Seems meager, and also a bit sub-human. But on another day I was with a group of volunteers walking by the same house and saw the entire family out doing the shred sorting. They were working together, and though focused on the task at hand, had smiles on their faces. We stopped to chit-chat and offer some chai, which they took gladly. Didn't seem like they were in much distress, or depressed. Almost seemed like they would have all been out there that day like that whether they had the shreds to sort or not. But with the shreds at least they were earning while doing timepass. Not quite earn and learn, but for a bit I was conflicted about whether I could completely knock what was going on.

My sense is it's a short run/long run tradeoff, similar to sweat shops. In the short run, it's an opportunity to earn more than you otherwise would (by default). In the long run, it erodes and then stunts the human capacity of the community.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


On Sunday an event several months in the making came together at the Tekra (slum) across the street from the Gandhi Ashram where Manav Sadhna runs many of its programs. Havikoro, a Houston, Texas-based hip hop dance group, visited the Tekra to demonstrate their art and teach some moves.

The event was brainchilded by our very own Nimo in collaboration with the U.S. Embassy's American Center. Havikoro, which consists of seven guys, came to the Tekra, mingled with the community, then held a teaching and demonstration workshop in the MS community center and later at Gandhi Ashram. At the community center they had groups of kids come up on stage and taught different hip-hop dance routines, intermixed with their own performances. They taught hip hop, break, b-boy, and house routines with different members leading the dance form they specialize in. One of the group's members, Heaven, is a beatbox artist, and dazzled the crowd with his incredible talent.

One thing that stood out for me was that the kids barely knew a word of English, but they were still able to learn the dances really well. It speaks to the intelligence of the Tekra kids and the expressiveness and patience of the Havikoro members, but also I felt it reflects the universal language of dance and performance.

Other thing that stood out about the event was the mutual learning that was going on. The local kids clearly got a treat and exposure to a different culture. But the Havikoro members were getting so much out of the experience themselves. At least a few of them had never been to India, let alone a slum, so the openness and enthusiasm they showed was commendable. Later Nimo told me that after giving a tour of the Gandhi Ashram and explaining some of the work that was going on there, they were all so moved. Couple even said they wanted to come back and volunteer, and Nimo has his eye on one to be a mentor for an aspiring dancer from the Tekra. As Nimo talked about how rocked the group was I could sense that this was his success metric for the event.

Hats off to the guy for pulling off something special. It was seemingly simple but logistically so intricate, and Nimo made it look easy. It was executed beautifully and the experience came off powerful for all people involved. After Havikoro had finished their workshop and left the Tekra, Anupam Kher, a famous Bollywood actor who happened to be in town, stopped by to visit the Tekra. Poor guy was mobbed endlessly for the 15 minutes he was in the community center, barely getting a good word in or even room to breathe. After one round around the stage, he was still unable to get separation from the crowd, so he left just as quick as he came. Later I asked Nimo which he thought the Tekra kids valued more, Havikoro's in-depth program or Anupam Kher's whirlwind visit. If they were given the choice to invite back one or the other, which would they choose? Nimo was adamant that the kids see the value in quality interaction, that although the Tekra (like any other community in India) is irrationally starstruck, they recognize and appreciate real connection.

I was anticipating this event ever since I got to India over a month ago, when Nimo first told me about it. I was anxious to see how kids here would react to a deeply rooted part of my own culture and childhood. Not surprisingly, the kids took it all in with open minds and hearts. They found the joy, the optimism in hip hop which Havikoro so vibrantly bears. Speaks to the power of music and dance as a universal language. Below is a short photo diary from the day. Anjoy!

UPDATE: The event got a bit of press.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Roots of the Grass

There is a lot of fanfare and hoopla about 'grassroots' work or movements, but what often gets missed in the messaging is what the concept actually means. Small, painstaking, slow, hard work. I got a taste of it couple days ago when I visited a farm outside Nadiad with Kapilbhai.

A bunch of farmers from the surrounding area had gathered on the farm, which belonged to a farmer named Saborbhai. His three-year-old organic green chilli plot was the only organic farm in the locality. Kapilbhai and other organic farmers in the area had called the meeting to educate the neighboring conventional farmers on what organic farming is, why it's important, how to get involved, etc. Employing the same approach as the organic farming festival last month in Anand, the meeting was held in a location where the evidence of success was right before their eyes. Growing green chili in that area using chemicals typically costs a farmer around Rs.4 Lakhs per bhigha. Saborbhai grows it at Rs.5000 per bhigha, which is 80 times less money.

The format of the meeting was farmers sat in a circle and Saborbhai and a couple experienced organic farmers from the region took turns standing up and making the case for farming organically. There is the financial argument of saving costs of imported fertilizer, then the argument of a more effective way to deal with pests and diseases than pesticide sprays, then the promise of better quality and better tasting crops, and of course the appeal to do right by Mother Earth. After all of the farmers spoke Kapilbhai got up and gave a final appeal. He was in his smooth, humorous, pragmatic, compelling, farmer-friendly delivery mode. He reminded the farmers about DDT; when they were kids DDT was all the craze, and any farmer who refused to spray it was considered backward. And now? No one sprays DDT because it is recognized as a toxic chemical. The same situation applies to chemical agriculture. It was considered progressive farming 50 years ago, but no longer. He urged the farmers to take a small but deliberate first step towards a better way. Start with one or two bhigha, make it chemical-free and see what happens. Try the easiest crops first, it doesn't matter. You can still carry on with chemicals everywhere else, but see the difference. And if you are satisfied, bring one bit more land under organic cultivation. And so on. No need to jump all in right away; be sensible, work step-wise. But you have to take the first step yourself, we won't push and tug and kick you. And to help we will come to you, burning our own petrol, and even bringing our own rotlo. You just provide the otlo. The earlier you wake up, the better you will be.

At the end Kapilbhai asked for a show of hands for how many farmers will take a step. Nearly all did. And of course later on we were discussing the possibility of one, maybe two actually forging ahead. I told Kapilbhai that you have laid all of the evidence out, it is as clear as day; there couldn't be anything more clear than Saborbhai's farm. And yet seemingly illogically people won't make a change. But the logic is that it's hard to change, even if you know you should. It's why most New Years' resolutions fail. Or why people eat fast food even though they know it's better for their health to eat fresh vegetables. We don't always do the right thing, or rather the 'right' thing is relative.

Kapilbhai has been working in the grassroots movement for organic farming for 15+ years. And this is the roots of the grass. Sit with farmers, talk things through, help people understand a different lens, and support them in taking the first step of making a change. And through this work the movement inches forward one or two farmers at a time. Reminds me of Nipun who sits in circles around the world talking about service and stillness. Once he shared with a few CharityFocus coordinators how during a fiercely busy point last year he turned down bunch of top notch speaking invites to attend one small, informal, unglamorous event. Because it's an opportunity to "cultivate in the trenches", develop strength to step it up when called for. Real grassroots work.

We did our own bit of grassroots work after the meeting, holding an orientation for Sajiv Samvaad, the new organic farming phone line we are launching. Kapilbhai and I have had such meetings in Kutch, Baroda, and Nadiad, explaining the concept to room-fulls of farmers, having them try the number out, getting their feedback, and asking for their participation as responders for questions that will be posted. We've been getting positive feedback, and learning a lot about how to make the system better. That's the thing about working in the trenches; it usually has a way of paying off.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

All of the Kites

Editor's note: This post has background music, which is embedded below. Before you start reading, start the music and let it play as you read. Background music is the latest in the line of blogging innovations we have developed here at TOI. I have been waiting for the right moment to debut this one; the time has now come.

INSTRUCTIONS: Everywhere you here the word 'lights' in the song, substitute in 'kites'.

Last weekend India celebrated Uttarayan, the festival of kites. Gujarat, and especially Ahmedabad, go all-out for this holiday.

The celebration kicked off on Friday when there was an international kite festival on the Sabermati, bringing together people from 45 countries. As crazy as it sounds, people came to Ahmedabad from all over the world to fly kites. There was some sort of tournament, since kite flying in India is a competitive activity. You fly your kite and use your string (usually coated in crushed glass) to cut other people's kites (which I will refer to for the rest of this post as 'kut').

Virenbhai, one of Manav Sadhna's co-founders, is a die-hard Uttarayan reveler. He and other MS volunteers had hundreds of kites made to distribute to MS kids and others. Each of the kites had a message of wisdom about health or hygiene, like how tobacco can lead to problems. A clever way to educate since those kites will be all over the city, having multiple owners as they fly and are kut many times.

One MS staff member, Rahul, is a kite maker extraordinaire. He makes big 6-foot kites, but here he showed off a micro-kite he had made:

The thing I like best about Uttarayan is how pretty much everyone collectively participates. Kite-flying seems frivolous, but it is an ingenious activity for a festival: it gets everyone outdoors, it is highly social, it appeals to young and old alike, it has a whimsical and optimistic characteristic, and it is affordable enough that people from all strata of society can participate. That said, I found out that some still find it expensive, like my regular rickshaw driver who told me he couldn't afford the ~Rs.100 (Rs.45 for a batch of 20 kites, plus string which goes up in price based on quality) for his kids to play. But even if you can't afford to buy new, you can always scrounge fallen ones from the streets, etc.

To me Uttarayan's charm comes from a combination of the mass appeal and the cultural richness. The latter is what separates it from something like the Super Bowl. The event comes with its own little quarks and special traditions. There are foods associated with the event, like Sevsar, Undhiyu, and the official sweet, Chiki. All are served on the terrace of your house where you fly from. Friends and family get together on the choicest rooftops. Across the way your neighbors are having their own flying parties. You bond without words by trying to kut each other's kite, everyone in good spirits, smiling. The radio is blaring old Bollywood hits. You set your kite up with string and run it over the curvature of your head to bend the frame slightly to help it fly. Your fingers are taped for smooth string handling without cutting your fingers, though cuts are like badges of honor. Another badge comes from staying up on the roof, some remain day and night for two straight days. Kites of all colors drifting everywhere to the horizon.

Anarben made the comment that kids get a type of cultural education from such festivals that can't be provided in schools, and those are the most valuable lessons. In India another festival or holiday is always around the corner, and each has own quarks and traditions. As you get older, you participate and those little quarks are what let you time travel back to when you were a kid. Remember Mom's Undhiyu on Uttarayan? Most Indian festivals have a nostalgic quality.

I woke up in the morning to the homicidal screams that boys make while flying their kites. My sense is it's for when you are kutting someone or someone is kutting you. Then a little one came in bright and early asking Nimo for help getting his kite mended. He sent him on his way ready to go:

Later we went over to Virenbhai's where bunch of MS friends and volunteers were getting together. Virenbhai is an expert, he is deep in the kutting game. For about an hour I tried unsuccessfully to fly one, it's really tough. But I did eat a lot of chiki, which I now associate with rooftops and paper kites.

Turn on the Kites in here baby,
Extra bright, I want y'all to see;
Turn on the Kites in here baby,
You know what I need, want you to see everything,
Want you to see all of the kites.
All of the kites, all of the kites

Amazing photos courtesy of Neerad Trivedi

Friday, January 14, 2011

A Case for Manual Labor

Last week a bunch of Manav Sadhna folks and co-workers of Iswardada piled into a bus and caravan of cars to the Narmada to scatter Dada's ashes (Asthi Visarjan). Friends who went came back with legendary stories about what happened. Inspired by Dada, Jayeshbhai led the group on an impromptu cleaning campaign at the riverbank where they scattered the ashes. While government officials had cosmetically cleaned the designated spot in anticipation of the group's arrival, Jayeshbhai spotted the mess moved over to another part of the riverbank, and so proceeded to get his hands dirty by cleaning up that spot. And by dirty hands I mean literally. Based on accounts from friends, it was a Shawshank tunnel escape-type situation, with Jayeshbhai and others literally cleaning raw sewage with bear hands. And if that didn't step it up enough, the group also cleaned dishes for 300+ people at the nearby temple where they had lunch. Another spontaneous act where the group wordlessly sprung into action, overwhelming the two frail women tasked with doing the job daily. The team set up a factory line for the dishes, ripping through them in 45 mins (which is testament to the two women who do a 10-person, 45-minute job everyday) as well as cleaning the dishwashing area itself which was again filthy. Priests from the temple urged them to stop, saying that this work was not for them. Jayeshbhai's reply to these so-called saints, "Don't let someone else do God's work for you".

The image of Jayeshbhai, Anarben, and team, all clad in white, after performing a solemn last rite for Dada, getting elbow-deep in filth to walk Dada's talk, is powerful and awe-inspiring. I was talking with Samir about it, who told me that even he was tip-toeing into the stinking mess on the riverbank while Jayeshbhai dove in with no hesitation, and could not be pulled away for the several hours that they worked there, even preferring to stay with his broom while being called to the boat to actually scatter the ashes. After the rest of the group left, Sam stayed back at the village near the riverbank and the entire place was still reverberating from what they had witnessed. The priests at the temple, the village people, were all talking about the incredible actions of these strangers. The ripples even continued on for Sam himself. Upon getting back home, he spontaneously decided to clean his house's water storage tank. Once he was doing that work, others in the house followed his lead and started cleaning the cupboards.

The stories from the Asthi Visarjan made me think about the value of manual labor. Through my work over the last few years I have developed a reverence for farming, gardening, raising plants. To me it is an ideal form of labor in that it both strengthens and directly feeds the body. But in the wake of Dada's passing I'm realizing that safai, cleaning or sanitation work, is also deeply spiritual. Working with the soil is spiritually deep in terms of developing a connection with nature. On the other hand safai, especially in mundane forms, allows one to develop the spiritual virtue of humility. Manual labor in general also instills gratitude and patience.

Absence of manual labor, life is hollow. Devoid of spirit, it is stripped of wisdom. If you never have planted a tree with your bare bands, nurtured it and watered it and gave it love continuously as it grows, then you won't have the proper level of gratitude for the spiral notebook in your backpack. Story of Stuff author Anne Leonard also alludes to this idea when she suggests that all teenagers should be required to visit a landfill before they are given their first credit card. My favorite example of this is washing your clothes by hand, which I have written about before. It is truly backbreaking work, in my mind the most physically difficult household chore. Having had that experience, I now fully appreciate the wonder of a washing machine. I also have a changed perspective on clothing: owning more clothes means more clothes to (hand) wash, and heavy processed clothes like jeans are a real luxury over simple, thin cotton that can be hand-washed more easily.

Use your hands, touch your heart, deepen your wisdom.