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.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Opportunity Cost of a Thought

A reflection from meditation:

Nowadays we are commonly encouraged to 'think outside the box'. But how do you actually do that? The mind is not a file cabinet. It's a distributed system, the original cloud computer. Discovering a solution to a problem, coming up with a fresh idea, even recalling a memory, consist of traversing a series of thoughts produced from firing synapse combinations across the brain. Often we get subconsciously attached to a certain thought-path. No matter how hard you bang your head on the wall, you cannot consider other possibilities. You can't make a breakthrough, and the old thought becomes a round peg for a square hole. Getting nowhere, the thought becomes stale. This is the opportunity cost of a thought.

In order to approach things from a new angle, you must necessarily let go of the old thought-path to make room. You have to purify, cleanse the mind, start from a clean slate. You have to first untangle the knot of yarn to start knitting a new sweater. And this requires practice.

Understanding the opportunity cost of our old thought-patterns is relevant for cultivating a service mindset. The other day I went to a party alone, and I didn't know anyone there but the hosts. In the same scenario with an old thought-pattern, I would have concluded that being there was a waste of time, sulked into a corner of the room, and been bored. But in this case I realized I could do something. I helped put away some dirty plates, and discreetly picked up some trash. Then I went around the party snapping pictures, planning on putting together a small report on the event for a friend who couldn't be there but really wanted to. So in that way I made something out of nothing.

The first step to moving forward in a new direction is retreating from the old.

The Namesake

Friday, January 7, 2011

Give, Receive, Dance

Today Nipun gave an informal talk at ESI on service, generosity, and how 'being the change changes the being'. He spoke about his own service journey, framing it in three stages: giving, receiving, and dancing. The first stage represents inner transformation, the second humility, and the third is joy.

He started by defining wisdom; it is being able to connect the branch of the tree with its root. Or as Thich Nhat Hanh says, "seeing the cloud in the piece of paper". He drew a parallel to service: the story of the boy who started off wanting to change the world, was unsuccessful, then tried to change his country. Unsuccessful again, he tried to change his state, then community, then just his own family. All unsuccessful. Now an old man, he realized that he could successfully change himself, and automatically change rippled out around him. The root connected to the tree branch.

One theme Nipun touched upon is the blurred line between giving and receiving. When you give, you really get back in return. He gave the example of Harshida Aunty who after a few years of serving meals on Wednesdays, went from saying "you're welcome" to a heartfelt "no no, thank you" when a stranger accepted a meal from her. Why? Because she came to realize the person was giving her an opportunity to be of service, to grow in generosity and selflessness. Or even take for example the talk Nipun was giving. At one level he is speaking and you the audience member is the receiver. But you are giving him your attention, which is itself a gift. And maybe just providing the occasion for Nipun to share serves him; he said it's possible that the person most needing to hear his words could be himself. So giving and receiving is blurry, and with that realization comes the third stage: dance. Keep the transactional scorekeeping calculations to the side and dive into the web of cosmic exchange headlong, with reckless abandon.

Another theme he talked about was the importance of Kalyan Mitra, "noble friends". The Buddha said it is one's most important asset while walking the million lifetimes path. Made me think about a conversation we were having just a few days ago at Jayeshbhai's, where my Dad and Nipun were talking about influences on my life. There are no accidents with who you cross paths with and stay close to, the souls you attract and attract you. It's possible that those certain soul friends in your life have been with you for many lifetimes, just in different configurations. In one life it's your friend, the next it's your brother, and the next it's your mother. But you are walking the path together, like attracts like.

The final theme I took away from the talk was about having depth to one's work. This has also come up in the wake of Ishwarsada's passing. At one level, Ishwardada worked on sanitation issues, keeping one's body and environment clean for one's health. At a deeper level, it's practicing discipline and cleanliness as an ethic in everyday life. At a deeper level still, it's cleanliness of the mind and thus purity of thoughts. Dada's work was outwardly practical, but there was a depth which connected it to spiritual development. Similarly, Gandhiji's work was ostensibly the Independence movement, but it was only the tip of the iceberg. Nipun tells the story about how Gandhi's disciples used to fight over who would get to sleep in his room at night, whereas Vinoba said it was all foolhardy because Gandhiji wasn't even in his body. He was spirit and as such Vinoba was with him even if he was in a different city. Swami Vivekananda could have done anything he wanted, including building hospitals and institutions galore. But an organization lasts only a hundred years if it's lucky, and buildings can be wiped out in one natural calamity. It's the deeper spiritual work that lasts lifetimes. Nipun maintains depth to his work by focusing on small acts. Like the man who stopped and gave him half a lemon when he was sick on the side of the road, then left without uttering a word.

I've heard Nipun speak enough times that at this point I typically listen from a meta level. Observe his body language, his pace and flow, how he uses eye contact, how I can serve him in the moment in invisible ways. I noticed today how effortlessly he transitions from story to story (today he talked exclusively in stories). It's almost like a Jedi mind trick the way he can take you from Karma Kitchen in Berkeley to a temple along the Narmada to an upscale restaurant in New York and then back to Gandhi's ashram during the Independence movement. All seamless, and executed like a delicate ballet dance. He delivers a story, gives a punchline, and then symmetrically uses that same punchline to launch into the next story. It's something a like a double entendre in a rap lyric.

At the end of the talk everyone in the audience was gifted two apples, which were themselves gifted to Jayeshbhai by a well-wisher in remembrance of Dada who loved apples. We were instructed to keep one for ourselves, and give the other to someone else as a half-lemon offering. And maybe in the process smudge the ideas of giver and receiver, and find some space to just dance.