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.