Sunday, December 16, 2012

Artiben

Artiben is mine and MAM's cook. A few years ago, Artiben's husband Prabhatbhai was in MAM's house doing some handiwork. He overheard Madhu and Meghna discussing how they needed a cook. Prabhatbhai said his wife Artiben was available, though she was young and had no experience. MAM gave her a shot; it was one of the best decisions they ever made.

Under the tutelage of Meghna and Mala Aunty (Meghna's mom), Artiben honed her craft. At the beginning she was raw talent, burning things and putting too much salt or oil. But soon she developed the fundamentals, then started making signature dishes. By the time she started cooking for Nimesh and I, she was making a wide range of nashtos, many excellent shaaks, and a couple very good daals with her special touch. But her most unmistakable ingredient is love.

Artiben has a very kind and caring nature. She quickly became close to all of us, especially Meghna who considers her a sister. Artiben cooks for the group of random strangers that come to MAM's for our weekly meditation gathering. Most in her position would raise issue with cooking for non-family members, at least demanding more pay for the extra work. But Artiben flipped the script. Moved by the concept of people coming together in the spirit of inner development, Artiben takes a vow of silence once a week, and quietly pours extra love into Wednesday meals. It's her way of joining the circle, and every week we take a moment to thank her for her contribution.

While Artiben has meant a lot to us, she has meanwhile transformed herself and her family's entire trajectory. After starting to work, she gained not just skills but tremendous confidence. Her husband was an alcoholic who sometimes wouldn't provide for the family. With her own income, she took over the family finances and established stability. She was driven to do whatever it took to get her two sons Aakash and Ama the best education to provide them the best future. As she saved earnings, she began upgrading her home. A few years ago, it was no more than an alleyway between two other houses in her slum community. Her first investment was a waterproof roof. Then she tiled the entire floor area. Then she added a cooking platform, and then a cooking gas and stove (a really big deal in her community). Most recently, she bought a locking chest for household storage. A house literally built with her hard work strength and perseverance. Even Prabhatbhai has been positively effected by Artiben's example. He's come out of his drinking issues and even joined for Wednesday meditation a few times.

Last night Artiben invited me, MAM, Reva, Mala Aunty, and Meghna's brother Chinmay over for dinner. Artiben had planned it for a week, and had spent the whole day preparing the meal and her home. We entered the home greeted by burning incense and welcoming smiling faces, and sat on a carefully scrubbed floor. Aartiben cooked all special dishes: puri, batetu shaak, chole, pulao, and khir with vermicelli. There was no question she was going to go all out for us, but for a family of such modest means, it was beyond a generous offering. As is customary, Artiben and family did not eat until after we left. So we all ate, chatted, and watched Reva play with her best friend Aakash. We commented on how amazing the home looked, and Maddog and I marveled at Aartiben's kitchen which was organized so well to maximize the little space she had.

It was a real joy to spend this evening with Artiben and her family. She is such an inspiration to me, and I'm so proud of her. It is a blessing to be a part of someone's life, even in a small way, who is succeeding despite the odds. I'm especially grateful that she has brought a positive spirit into our households. Often in India there is tension between residents and their domestic help. Underlying the tension is class divide and lack of mutual respect. Thanks completely to Madhu and especially Meghna, we have been able to shatter those barriers with Artiben. We have complete trust in her, and she in us. Beyond trust and respect, there is genuine caring and love, and a recognition of opportunities for mutual learning. She is truly a family member, and serving her is as important as her service for us.

Thank you Artiben, for being a daily inspiration to us.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Football Freestylez


The 49ers beat the Bears this past Monday night. Nimo is a Bears fan, and is also a rap legend. He and I often communicate in freestyles. Over the weekend we had a battle over email.

Before the game I wrote him and Shweta (Bears fan by default) a rap titled "Get Your Game Face On":
Candlestick is the site
for a battle under the bright lights of Monday Night
Two behemoths clash,
it's not your typical cat and mouse pounce and dash
It's rather,
a grizzly-azz BEAR lurking looking mean
huntin a bearded man-pan-handlin for gold near a stream
This will be the test for A dot Smith
Is he the real deal or is he a stiff
will he stand tall or will he flee
or will he drop a seed for randy MOSS growin on the Crab-APPLE-Tree
Urlacher? More like the Hurt Locker
Put the fear of God in you like a FACEBOOK STALKER (Shweta)
It's a test-est for two of NFC's best-est
At the end we'll see who's made of steel and who's made of asbestos
As for me? I say it's the Bears who are gonna need a medic
Because the NINERZ got Gore and I'm not talking the Indian sweet that makes you a diabetic
Frank the Tank, the new Garrision Hearst
Wears you down with has feet pounding and is prone to burst
down the line in a fix he goes for six
leaving defenders in the dust wondering how he made that twist
He's strong, the Ninerz strong, it's gonna be DA BOMB
Sooooo, all I gotta say is,
YOU BETTA GET YOUR GAME FACE ON
After the game Nimo wrote back in response:
Wow, what can i say,
whether its neils freestyle
or how the niners played
its like gold, but in 2012,
and thats straight,
1849 was just another date,
they takin it across
the new millenium
from jim harbaugh
to amitabh bachenum,
all i can do is be humble in my ways
a poor bears fan, who just sits down and prays
that things brighten up through these winter days
because hibernation tends to be in our ways
but we'll change, i got hope and i know,
it ain't over till the last whistle in the superbowl
so don't count us out like all the analysts
on espn, cuz thats our catalyst
to grow, change, evolve and burst
and bring back that defense that had that thirst
and in the end we'll see who ends up in first
until then any given sunday is the way it works!

in deep humility,
bears fans 
Sports and rap are two of my passions. Combining them is highly delightful. I envision an entire genre of literature ("Sports Freestylez") where fans, professional athletes, and rappers battle with each other. You got a Football Freestyle in you? I'd love to see it in the comments.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Diwali Postcards

A few memories from Diwali 2012 that I'd like to capture:

Jay left back for home on Diwali day, Nov.13th. On Sunday night me, Hasit, Shital, Shweta, Charmi, and Joserra had a farewell dinner for him at "The Burrito", one of Ahmedabad's few Mexican restaurants. Hasit asked Jay to give a pre-dinner and post-dinner speech. As Hasit said, he wanted Jay to do it specifically because it's the last thing Jay would want to do. And he didn't. Instead we went around the table and said one thing we liked about Jay. I said I liked how good Jay was about keeping accounts and bills in order at Awaaz.De. It sounded lame, but Shital inferred the deeper meaning: Over the course of the past 9 months, Jay has done many large and small things that have had an influence on me and our company. Some of then, like our accounting, flow below the surface and so they go unnoticed. It's once you go beneath a bit do you see the kind of work and impact he has had on things.

Over these past 9 months, I was most impressed by Jay's adaptability. He came to a country that is very hard to adjust to. The food, the air, the people, the way of conducting business and everyday interactions. The first time you spend extended time here, you are really just trying to survive till you can finally go back home. At least that was how I was when I started coming. But Jay got in, and though he had his share of difficulties, he went beyond surviving to thriving. He adjusted as well as you possibly could, getting to a comfort with this place in a few months that took me years to get to. Living with Ba was its own huge adjustment. To live with her peacefully, you have to fully surrender to her schedule, way of eating, sleeping, and cleaning. Jay did all that without complaint and on the other hand developed a healthy respect, love, and admiration for Ba's way of living. That's not ordinary people stuff.

The night of Jay's flight, he stayed in my apartment to have a quick ride to the airport. We hung out with MAM till 11pm, his rixa was coming at 1:30am. So we set the alarm and went to sleep for a couple hours. Only I woke up at 6:45am and Jay was gone. No "can you help me bring down my bags?", not even a goodbye. Just left with no fuss, and let me sleep. That's vintage Jay.

I spent Diwali with Ba at her place. The night before I had been anonymously tagged with rangolis and diyas in lovely decoration in front of my apartment door. I decided to pay the rangolis forward and do the same for Ba. She was resistant at first, but we got a couple compliments from neighbors passing by so she let me do a second one. She also liked the floating rangoli that Chiragbhai's wife made. So there was a bit of festiveness to the house decor. There was also 24 hour fireworks that ran throughout the night. It was mind boggling because they continued the next morning when it was light out and you couldn't see them.

Las memory hasn't been made yet. I type these words as my last task before going into 2.5 days of silence and meditation. Thanks to Meghna for taking care of my food while I sit at home. Thanks to my family for supporting me in all ways to get me to this moment in my life. Thanks to you all for reflecting light in your own ways in your own lives. Like so many millions of little Diwali diyas dancing outside my window.


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Hypocrisy

Me: I'm going to get a car for myself. As soon as I get an Indian license, I will.
Joserra: That's great. Why not a motorcycle?
Me: I think it's too dangerous. But the biggest thing is I ride rickshaws around now. It's fine, but I want something that protects me from the pollution. It's horrible here.
Joserra: So you'll get a car, which will keep you away from the pollution but pollute on everyone else?
Me: [No response]

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Andria's Drive

Couple months back, out of the blue I was copied into an email thread between Vandana didi and a girl I had never heard of named Andria Caruso. Andria was from the US and had organized a clothing drive in her community for our football program. Details were vague, and since I had no idea who Andria was and wasn't aware of this clothing drive, I was a little skeptical about the whole thing. What could a single random girl with no tangible connection or communication with the soccer program actually do? But I got in touch with Andria in deference to the golden rule of MS: shut up and accept that there are magical connections you can't see or know.

One day Andria mails me with a long list of items she had gathered through her clothing drive. Here's the snippet directly from her email:
WHITE JERSEYS:
33 Medium
11 Large (wears small)
1 X-Large

NAVY JERSEYS:
34 Medium
17 Large
1 X-Large

NAVY SHORTS:
22 Small
29 Medium
19 Large
23 X-Large (You may not want all of these)
Also, there were some shorts where I could not read the size.  There were 25 of these.

NAVY SOCCER SWEATSHIRTS:
unfortunately, these are rather large.
4 Larges
5 X-Larges
1 XX-Large

NAVY TRACK SWEATPANTS:
9 Small
2 Medium
5 Large
3 X-Large

VOLLEYBALL SWEATS:
Pants:
2 Small
7 Medium
3 Large
1 X-Large
Jackets:
2 Medium
1 Large
8 X-Large

NAVY SWEATS (LIGHT MATERIAL)-wear small
Jackets:
4 Small
9 Medium
3 Large
4 X-Large
Pants:
3 Small
5 Medium
6 Large
2 X-Large

SHINY GOLD TANKTOPS: (Cheerleading)
4 Small
7 Medium
5 Large
2 X-Large (I am assuming these are too big)

CHEERLEADING NAVY PANTS:
5 Small
6 Medium
3 Large

WHITE BASKETBALL SHORTS: (RATHER LONG)
4 large

CHEERLEADING ITEMS:
10 longsleeve cheerleading tops (sizes are in numbers)
5 navy cheerleading tank tops
1 white cheerleading tank top
1 small jacket
2 men's tops
6 skirts (sizes are in numbers once again)
1 set of skirt + tank top

CLEATS:  (all in men's sizes)
7 Pairs- sizes: 10.5, 9.5, 4.5 (youth), 4 (youth), 3 (youth), 8.5, 11
INDOOR CLEATS:
3 Pairs- sizes 3.5 (youth), 4 (youth), 11
1 Pair of Tennis Shoes- size 5 (youth)
1 Pair of regular shoes- size 5

SOCCER SOCKS:
40 pairs

RANDOM:
2 DCDS Under Armor T-Shirts

The following are items I collected from family's of my school.  The items are either gently used or new.  The sizes range from young children to teenagers.
10 Jerseys
5 Shinguards
15 Soccer Shorts
15 Soccer T-Shirts
1 Soccer Warm-Up Jacket
1 Pair of Sweatpants (light material)

I also was able to collect some clothes for younger children.
16 T-Shirts
3 Dresses
1 Jersey + Short
9 Shorts
6 Outfits
I was shocked. So much stuff! From one person across the world! The thing that struck me was the combination of the sheer amount of stuff gathered and how unexpected and unlikely it was.

Andria arranged to ship four boxes of the equipment to us last month, mostly soccer jerseys and shorts. The boxes came neatly taped and the clothes carefully folded and organized into ziplock bags. The kids went wild:


We distributed one jersey and shorts combo to each of the players. For some, the fit wasn't great. But everyone was smiles. These kids were previously playing with barely one outfit, and they were running those clothes ragged.

Yesterday I finally got in touch with Andria over the phone to get the full story. Andria is a freshman at the University of Michigan. She is interested in studying medicine to be a doctor so she can work in underprivileged countries, perhaps India or somewhere in Africa. Her sister Julia had volunteered with MS in the slum community last summer and connected her with Vandana didi. Andria asked how she could help. In general she has a passion for service, and was a member of the community service club at her high school. Vandana didi gave some options. Andria liked the soccer program because she plays herself and doing a clothing drive at her school was already on her mind. She knew they had so much gently used equipment just lying around, and there was a group already starting one up, so it was a no-brainer.

The clothing drive lasted 2 weeks. She set up boxes in three local schools, and then stuff started coming in. Focussed on procuring athletic equipment, she talked to her school's sports equipment manager who was more than happy to send over soccer jerseys and shorts that were left over and unused from last season.

When I talked with her, Andria was very humble about what she was doing. I was really inspired that she decided to do something in such a generous and anonymous way. Lot of people do service for the recognition or pat on the back or more. Andria had never met our children, nor even been to India. It was reasonable for her to believe that her contribution would largely go unrecognized in India and back in the US. But she acted anyway out of the kindness of her heart and genuine desire to make the children smile. Consider that mission accomplished. Here's what the kids had to say:


 
Our football program continues to grow stronger week by week. The children are improving so much and their love for the game has gotten deep. Last week we watched a match between Manchester City and Real Madrid. The match didn't have a goal for the majority of the game, but 5 goals came in the last 20 minutes. Whereas even a few months ago the boys would get restless watching such a match, waiting for "action", this time they patiently watched and appreciated the fundamental aspects of the game: spacing, passing, communication. Recently we introduced the concept of triangle passing and its fundamental role in possession play. Now they pointed out triangles forming everywhere on the field. They don't need a goal to enjoy what they are seeing. This is real maturity in how they relate to the game.

We also had some first-time children join practice last week, and the difference between them and our veteran players is stark. They have improved so much, I didn't even realize it till I saw them along side the first-timers. Being reminded of where they started, having no experience whatsoever with the game, learning from scratch, to where they are now, it made me so proud.

All the credit goes to Rahulbhai and the other coaches, who have committed so strongly to these kids and the game. It's a real joy for me to be a part of.

One challenge we continue to face is space for practice. These kids badly need an open grass ground where they can properly play. The Ashramshalla can no longer support their growing skills. They need open space to play the game fully, to shoot, make long passes, and run in open space. Right now the space is literally holding down their wings in developing those aspects of the game that require a full field. Last week Rahulbhai informed me that the Ashram has even sent a written request that the children are not to play beyond the immediate area from Manav Sadhna. So even as our program grows, our space to play shrinks. This is a huge concern.

We are trying to resolve this issue by transporting the kids to Kahaani, but that has grown difficult as we often are unable to get the MS bus to take us. The permanent solution is to set up a ground dedicated to football locally near the ashram. This was the original vision of Football Action, but the timing wasn't right then. Now it is clear that we need a space. This would take significant effort and money, so we will need help.

I was talking to Andria about raising additional funds for some immediate needs for the children: shoes (some are still without, others have worn theirs down to nubs after playing on dirt), balls (we only have a few, and are always in danger of losing them due to poor fields), and medical supplies (these kids play hard, and do get injured). But longer term, we will need the field, and we should look to raise funds for that.

Good news is that these kids are locked in and committed. I love that we don't have to ask them to play; they have developed their own passion for the game, they play because they love it. We have practice every Sunday, but most of the kids play on their own every day. And not just games, they actually run drills we do in Sunday practice. Commitment to improving their skills. At the end of our 5-6 hour Sunday practice they are still begging to play another match. The kids that come from Jamalpur, a slum on the other side of the city, wake up at 4am every Sunday morning to catch a bus by 5 that gets them to Ashram by 6 for 6:30am practice start. It's just incredible dedication.

That's what keeps me and the other coaches going for these kids. Not being able to let them play on a proper pitch regularly is what's really burning me at the moment. Every week that we aren't able to let these kids practice the way the need is a loss in my eyes and heart.

But of course we look to the MS golden rule: shut up, jump, and trust the universe to provide the (soccer) net.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Facebook Restaurant



For the most part, India has no qualms about infringing on copyrights and stepping on trademarks. The vibrant pirated software market is one example. It's normal to go to a store and ask for "pirated" software, movies, and video games. It's its own genre.

The newly opened Facebook restaurant is another example. At this point you're probably asking yourself, what does FB have to do with dining? Is the food mostly blue in color? Is it mindless and shallow in nature? Is there a Like button on the plates? When you browse the menu, will you get sucked into staring at photo after photo of sizzlers and frankies for an hour? When you order french fries, will you unknowingly also be served a burger, milkshake, and other items you didn't opt into? When your bill reaches your table, will the amount immediately decrease by 50% (that one was for Jay)?

These are the kind of questions we wanted to answer on our trip to Facebook Restaurant.


The best thing about the restaurant was the decor. The lobby and main dining hall had FB profiles and widgets painted on them. The furniture was white and there were blue accents. The napkins had "Facebook Restaurant" printed on them. The front counter appropriately had a "Wall" with people's comments about the restaurant. They were clearly looking to milk the gimmick for all it's worth. And they did a pretty good job with that.

Not surprisingly, the food was mediocre at best. I will never go to Facebook restaurant again. But of course they got me into the place out of intrigue and curiosity. It's not a bad plan, but I expect the restaurant to be out of business within 6 months. Like its namesake, sizzle over steak is not a long-term viable business model.



Monday, August 13, 2012

What Is True?


Last week, my cook Aartiben told me she had a problem. As a part of Janmashtami holiday, she would be holding a morning pooja at her house the day before, so she would have to come to work later. The problem was that as per her community's tradition, for that entire day she was not to prepare any cooked food, either for herself or for others. So she could come to work, but she wouldn't be able to go near the cooking flame or actually cook the food. I hadn't heard of the tradition before, so found it a bit bizarre. But I told her I wouldn't mind helping her out that day to cook the food if she prepped, or even giving her the day off. But the problem was that MAM (who she also cooks for) was coming back from a long trip that morning, and they would be tired and hungry and needing support for Reva.

Aartiben was very conflicted. On one hand she wanted to do her job and come to work especially on this day when MAM would need help at home, but she was scared and worried about the consequences of going against her tradition. She said a year earlier when she didn't follow it, a spirit entered her and her son Akash as a result. It was scary, and she didn't want to upset the gods once again. She was really worried and confused, and we went back and forth thinking about workarounds. But we couldn't, and in the end she said she'd come cook for us as usual.

That morning she was noticeably jittery and nervous as she did her work. She burned the potatoes and was shaking. Madhu and Meghna assured her that it would be fine. God would not punish her for doing her job, in fact God would give her double bonus blessings. Like that she managed through the day.

Then that night Madhu got a call from Aartiben, who was hysterical. Akash had a high fever, and it had gone to his brain. He was unconscious and having fits. Madhu rushed over to the hospital, where the doctor was himself overwhelmed and confused. He gave Akash a cocktail of antibiotics and other things, hoping something would fix him. Figuring that medicines don't work that way, Madhu brought Akash's blood to a trusted doctor who prescribed a medicine. After taking that Akash regained consciousness and stabilized. Later based on his symptoms it seemed that Akash had gotten malaria.

These are the facts. But they can be interpreted into different versions of the truth. From Aartiben's perspective, it's easy to suspect that cooking that day and Akash's falling ill were related. That whole day she had a bad feeling, and something like this had happened last year. And once her community finds out they would definitely reinforce that interpretation.

My interpretation of the facts is that one event wasn't the cause of the other; they were an unfortunate coincidence. Millions of people don't follow Aartiben's tradition, and nothing happens to them. Meghna said that when she was a child, her mother followed the same tradition. Then at some point, she stopped. But after she stopped nothing bad happened to Meghna.

Also, I have a strong believe in the power of the mind to affect our physical reality. Aartiben had it in her mind that something bad was going to happen that day. She had a whole lot of fear, and there is little doubt that it transferred to Akash. Anyone who has seriously meditated knows the deeply interwoven relationship between the thoughts we think and our gross physical reality. If you are in a fragile state of mind or full of fear, you make your body weak and susceptible. Did Aartiben cause this situation? No, that would be going way too far. Did Aartiben's (and by extension Akash's) state of mind contribute to his falling ill? Put another way, was he less likely to have fallen ill had he not been full of fear? IMHO, definitely yes.

Believing that the two events are related reveals the anatomy of a superstition. First, a community or sect believes something to be true. Next, through the power of their own thoughts they increase the likelihood of the belief to manifest. They bend reality to make their belief a reality. When it happens, it reinforces the original belief for themselves and the others in the community. Because of the network effect, the belief can snowball exponentially, like a contagion.

Both of these interpretations of the facts are just that: interpretations. There is no way to prove that my interpretation is more correct than Aartiben's. I don't even believe that to be true. To me, both interpretations are true. Aartiben's to Aartiben, mine to me. The truth is relative. In Aartiben's truth, her traditional belief held. In my truth, her truth became true because she believed it to be true. So it actually is true!

There is no problem with holding multiple truths for the same reality, even if they contradict. Each and every person has their own personal truth. Let it be. They will diverge, sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. The problem comes when we can't accept the divergence, and try to impose our truth on others.

When someone challenges your truth, it is like they are challenging your identity (in a way they are). The reactionary instinct is to resist and retaliate as a self-preservation mechanism. What's better?

If we either a) do not challenge, but accept; and/or b) do not resist.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ode To Ba

Two days ago my grandmother fell down. Doing her normal morning routine, Ba was out front in the patio area of her house, reaching up for something near the porch steps when she lost her balance. She tumbled down the stairs, banging her head and fracturing her wrist. The head injury opened up a gash over her eyebrow. Jay was home when it happened. He called me while I was at Sunday morning soccer practice. When I got over Ba was laying on her couch, hand wrapped and eyebrow covered with cotton. Her nightgown, which she was still wearing, had blood stains from her gash. Some of the neighborhood Bas were over, helping out and deliberating over what to do. They had told Jay to call the local doctor, Dr. Chetan, who had an office just down the road. He was the only local doctor open on Sunday. But he was notoriously hard to get for a visit. One Ba complained that it takes 4-5 calls to get him to come over, even in an emergency. Jay had already called him an hour ago, and still no sign. I called him myself and he said he would come but sounded unconvincing, saying he was dealing with some other patients. What's up with this quack, we have an emergency here! At the Bas suggestion, I went over to fetch him myself. What I saw wasn't what I expected.

Dr. Chetan's office was a zoo. There were patients spilling out from the waiting area to the street. Babies, old people, other sufferers. Behind the waiting room was his desk and a couple beds crammed into a small area. There were a couple sickly people laying out with IVs connected. Then there were all these people huddled around his desk, not waiting their turn. And here was this doctor in the middle of the chaos with a relatively cheerful demeanor dealing with patients in rapid fire format. Walking into this scene, my feeling for Dr. Chetan went from annoyance and frustration to sympathy. How could he see Ba with all these sick people crowding him for help? But somehow he got away with us to go see Ba. He took one look at her hand and said it was a fracture, and gave a name of a local orthopedist that was open. He said they would stitch up her eye there as well. And just like that he left back for his office.

We took Ba to the orthopedist where the fracture was confirmed and she was given a plaster (cast) and her eye was stitched. By that point Chiragbhai had come over to help situate Ba and navigate dealing with the doctor. Narendra also came to take Ba back home.

There are several things I would like to remember about this incident. First and foremost is the demeanor of Ba throughout the ordeal. My grandmother is one strong woman. Real strong. From the time I saw her laid out at home, no doctor in sight with a fractured hand and swollen eye, to the time she came back from the hospital dirty and exhausted, there was not one complaint from her mouth. Clearly she was in pain and discomfort, especially moving her around with sometimes limited regard for the state of her hand. But not a word from her. My Ba is a stubborn person, which sometimes makes it hard to deal with her. But in this case her stubborn nature showed its positive side. She was just determined and tough as nails. On the way home from the hospital, the painkillers got the best of her and Narendra had to pull over to let her vomit on the side of the road. She did so for about a minute, letting it out calmly. It was getting on her gown, so she carefully folded it away and continued to vomit. I just sat behind her rubbing her back, watching her. When she finished, she had a weary look on her face, but she said to drive on. No crying, no confusion, just matter-of-fact action. I was really proud of her at that moment. It made me think of all the ways a person of her age could have reacted to all that had happened: misery, self-pity, complaining. Taking her suffering out on those around her. But this woman kept it all and carried the water on her shoulders. And she did it all from a space of deep dignity, even grace. I could see it in her face all day. It was inspiring.

Later that day whenever visitors would come over, I would bring up how strong Ba was that day. But Ba kept dismissing it. "How else am I supposed to be?" She said this wasn't her first fall, there had been 4 others. In fact, she had broken or fractured each of her four limbs; this was the second time for her left hand. Other Bas that came to visit also talked about their war stories with falls. It made me think that if you live long enough, chances are you are going to suffer a painful fall. Why isn't senior falling given more attention? I think there is a Satyamev Jayate episode somewhere here.

Second thing I'll remember from this incident is how people from my office, Chirag and Narendra, stepped up above and beyond the call of duty to lend a hand. It made me feel good that we have such caring people around us at the office, and also made me think that we are on the right track with our office culture that such action manifested.

Third thing is an ode to Bro. Poor guy was woken up to hear Ba had fallen, and from that moment on the whole day he was under the gun to take responsibility of Ba's care pretty much on his own. And he did a great job with what limited experience he had. I'm so proud of Jay for how much he has adjusted and adapted to life in India, this incident is just another example of how he has taken whatever is thrown at him and stood tall. I said that day that as much as he's learned to live in India in 5 months, it took me 5 years. All the ways he's had to learn and adjust in work and living situation, he's taken it all as well as you can. This day he was getting conflicting advice from people, having to make decisions with limited understanding, all while Ba is sitting there in a fragile state and needing immediate care. To handle that situation and keep his cool, sense of humor, and genuine humility throughout, is remarkable. Watching him really made me proud.

And finally I am grateful that this accident wasn't worse than it was. Ba is going to be in pain and discomfort for a month, but it could have been a lot worse. If she had hurt her leg and been unable to walk, that could have been disastrous. Ba said as she was tumbling she had the wherewithal to keep her legs straight to avoid injury.

It was a real blessing to see the best in two of my family members come to the fore when the moment called for it. Those are some good genetics.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Eurocup and Rising Stars

Recently the Manav Sadhna football program watched the Eurocup final together. The children were very impressed by Spain, their idol team. Watching the match also made them think of and miss Joserra-sir and Jesus-sir, two of their very beloved coaches from Spain. To congratulate them on a clinical victory, the kids put together this tribute video.

Joserra and Jesus, we miss you! Come home soon!



The MS football program is going great. Now with the solid commitment of Rahulbhai and other karyakartas, we have about 40 kids playing regularly. Recently some of the older kids left to focus on studies, so a new batch of ~8 really raw young ones have joined. We practice with all the kids once a week on Sundays, and the individual teams (4 teams from 4 slums) self-organize practices several other days of the week. While this keeps them interested and passionate about the game, one practice a week with a coach isn't enough to take them beyond casual playing. And now we are beyond the point of just teaching them the game. The more committed and skilled players need a way to improve and have new goals to shoot for. Just because I can only give three hours a week doesn't mean that it is enough. The kids need more, and they deserve more.

This Sunday we were at Kahaani grounds, and Manishaben, the coordinator, generously offered to help us step up the program. We will now have three practices a week where our kids get to work with a Kahaani coach. Two practices at MS, and a weekly Sunday morning practice at the Kahaani grounds. We will also collect birth certificates and school documents to start entering our kids in tournaments and try-outs. Even if they don't make it, they will get exposure to better competition on better fields, which will raise their own ceiling. Sometimes I feel that practicing in the narrow dirt area in the Gandhi Ashram has literally and figuratively put a cap on our kids' potential. The space is so small, they can only work on a part of the game. And they only have space to dream small.

There is a nation-wide soccer talent search being put in by Airtel currently, where they will send some of South Asia's promising young footballers to train at Manchester United's academy. The commercials are very catchy, they really fired me up and reminded me of my days.



It would be my dream to have one or more of our kids make it.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Monday, May 28, 2012

Oneness in the Bay


Yesterday a very special performance took place in Berkeley's historic Zellerbach theater. The Ekatva ("Oneness") tour made their Bay Area stop and treated over 1,100 attendees to a heartfelt performance.

I came early to join the 70+ person crew of volunteers who decorated, checked guests in, greeted, helped back stage, and the rest. Originally the call was for 50-60, but in true SS style 70+ pairs of eager hands arrived to help. I was assigned to ticketing team, but there were enough ticket masters so I ended up helping out with crowd control, which ended up mostly being me welcoming people, chatting, and giving lots of hugs to lots of familiar faces. Just my kind of role.


This event really was a clashing of the worlds. The entirety of the ServiceSpace family and much of the Manav Sadhna family in one place. It was surreal seeing many of the most important people in my life in one place. But it was so much fun. Mark, Yoo-mi, Sri, Shwe, surprise appearance by Maddog, Siddharth and Lahar, introducing my parents the Jayeshbhai and Anarben, re-uniting with Nimo, Jayeshbhai and Pancho in the same vicinity, and so much more. Lots of conversations that went the same way, me explaining to confused friends that I live in India and was here for a visit, not the other way around. Missing Meghna and knowing she would have loved every moment of it. Buddy, you and Reva were very much there in spirit.

A highlight of the volunteering experience was meeting JG and his third-graders from Coronado school in Richmond. The Ekatva children had an incredible interaction at the school a few days earlier. The Coronado kids met them at the school entrance and bowed down head and knees on pavement, performing MC Yogi's *entire* Gandhi rap anthem. At the tearful,wrenching end of their time together, both groups had a mad gifting battle where they frantically tore down posters, opened drawers, and emptied pockets trying to scratch together anything they could to gift and out-gift each other. A group of 50+ showed up from the school to watch the performance. The kids were decked out in "Mindful Life Project" t-shirts and were toting hand-made gift bags they had prepared for each of the Ekatva children, complete with name and photo on front. JG, the teacher of these kids, was a soul brother. He told me that the interaction at the school was a moment he had in his heart and had been preparing for his entire life. He instantly resonated with the Ekatva spirit. He said he will be coming to India, and also wants to start Manav Sadhna in Richmond. I told him he is Manav Sadhna. He got it, he knew it. I must have hugged him 10 times that day. At the end of the show I will not forget seeing his lone silhouette in the dark being the first and last to get up and give an enthusiastic standing ovation.

An important thing to know about this show is that it is not a professional-quality dance performance. These kids have been trained extensively and have done the performance many times, but it is not a technically or aesthetically polished performance. If you are expecting to be blown away by the dance, you will be disappointed. But what you will be blown away by, if you can catch it, is the spirit of the children and the message they are carrying through the performance. As Nimo says in the introduction, one in eight human beings in the world live in a slum. These children represent that huge chunk of humanity. They are ambassadors for all of the people in their community in Ahmedabad and all of the slum children around the world. In that way they are extra-ordinary.

The show must be taken in with that context. Understand where these kids come from and the lives they have on a mundane day-to-day basis, how truly hard and unglamorous and dirty and precarious it is. Then absorb the message of oneness and upliftment and hope they emanate with every step, strut, and smile. The dance on stage with bright lights and costumes is just the surface, the real meaning of this show comes from grasping the story behind the story.

If you do that, you will be truly moved. It was a blessing to have Mom and Dad at the show, and I was so happy to hear their reaction afterwards. Dad was beaming with joy and amazement, Mom said the show had her in tears. The totality of the picture was beautiful and inspiring and vivid in their minds and hearts. At dinner afterwards we happily brainstormed how both can play a role with the children when they come to India next.

I've seen the show many times, one of the things I liked about this performance most was Virenbhai's telling of the personal stories of the Karyakartas ("committed mentors/employees"). If you had the patience to listen, his telling of these people's lives is what this show and Manav Sadhna is all about. Their spirit, commitment, and dedication to selfless service. Of course Virenbhai painted a highly rosy glossy picture. These are all human beings, there are flaws and the stories are not really fairy tales. But the Jagatbhai is Manav Sadhna, Bharat is Manav Sadhna. Bringing their stories into the circle added dimensionality to the experience. After the show I used their stories as an anchor to engage my parents about the meaning of this performance. My Dad got it, he said this show should be archived by the U.S. Government as a "national treasure."

I'm sure there were many such seeds planted in people's hearts that day.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Aum


Dear Aum,

I met you at your home when you were 5. You're probably much older when you're reading this. I thought I'd write about what you were like back then so you could see how you've changed and how you've stayed the same. Some things about you were good, other things were areas of improvement.

You were a very mischievous boy. You could see it in your eyes. Playfulness or terror, depending on your perspective. You're full of energy, always jumping around and yelling stuff. It's fun to see what you will do or think of next. You went to a school for a short time and your teacher told your parents you were the kid in the class that would never be still, always running from class to class and person to person playing and occasionally causing ruckus. Social butterfly/class clown. Your parents took you out of the school but you visited some time later and when you came in the entire class stopped what they were doing and gave you a standing ovation. "What are you guys doing, clapping for ME?" you laughed mischievously.

One of the best things about you is you have a very active imagination. You're quite creative. At one point we were driving in the car together and were talking about mangoes. You said you loved the taste of mangoes. I asked you to describe the taste. You thought for a minute and explained it this way: Cats chase mice and eat them. They love to eat mice. The same taste that cats have for mice, that's the taste of mangoes to me.

I celebrated my birthday at your house. We had bought chocolate cake as a special treat, and you were so excited about it. You kept singing Happy Birthday Neil PATEL (with emphasis on PATEL)! at the top of your lungs, trying to fast-forward to the point where we eat the cake. Here's you singing and then imagining the whole thing playing out ending with you hogging down piece after piece of cake:



When we sang for real, you sang with all the fervor of an evangelical in a church choir. Then you reached for the cake. Your Appa implored you to give the first piece to me rather than dig in yourself. Everyone was watching and laughing to see what you would do. You held that piece of cake in your hand with this heavy psychological dilemma playing out right in front of us. Your hand was moving the cake toward your mouth, but your good judgement was directing it toward me. The struggle continued on with everyone laughing in suspense. Finally you succumbed to temptation and gobbled the cake. Later you described the ordeal this way: detachment is usually my companion, but in this instance I asked my detachment to go off and sit in a corner and warm himself with a fire, so I could eat this cake in peace.

 
You are obsessed with Ben10, a cartoon where a boy has a special watch that lets him invoke the 10 avatars. You talk about Ben10 all the time and always want to go on Youtube and watch Ben10 clips. You have two Ben10 watches, one which shoots out plastic chips to kill the enemy. As I predicted, you started with 4 chips and lost all of them within a day. When you run around, your let your legs flail around wildly, like Ben10. The Ben10 obsession has also led to your interest in violence. You are really into guns and knives. Your Appa gave you a lesson on how a gun works and you kept quizzing yourself afterward on all the components. We got you a plastic gada and you walked around the house smacking people as hard as you could in the face and back. Also you are really into boxing, you have a good stance but you throw only one kind of punch: haymaker. This is all a typical phase for a boy your age, so don't sweat it. If you haven't already, I suggest you learn about non-violence and see if you resonate with it as well.

You live on a farm, which I think has a lot to do with your healthy imagination. On the farm the world is your classroom and you are your own teacher. There are very few limits to what you can learn and do, your mindset is rooted in limitlessness as opposed to constraints (4-wall classroom, textbooks, memorizing chalkboards). Also your parents have taken a unique approach to your education: They don't teach as much as guide your self-discovery. There are no agendas in your lesson plan, it is open-ended and based on where you take it. Your Appa begins "lessons" by having conversations with you where rather than you asking questions and him answering, he asks you questions to push your knowledge further. When you asked about whether Ben10 was real or not, rather than directly answering, he asked you some questions. Ben10 is where? On TV. What is TV? This screen. Now what is the difference between things on this screen and us? The things on the screen are two-dimensional, we are 3D. So what does that mean for Ben10? He is 2D real, but not 3D real. Appa is an usher helping you to your seat; you are the producer of the movie. Your Amma described your present development this way in an email:

As I see his current phase, it is a little bit like the ugly duckling. He has the necessary compassion in his heart and intelligence in the mind but the sheer speed of his body and the freedom in the environment makes him a rebel that wants to keep on pushing boundaries just to discover where they are and if they even exist. Many of the outcomes are clumsy but every time, he seems to learn something. And that is really all that matters to us. And all this can be worked into a seemingly normal every day life only because he is surrounded by people he understands.

Being in a relatively secluded environment has instilled some important cultural values in you. You are very helpful around the farm, it has become instinct. We were hauling heavy sacks of organic turmeric up on the roof to dry, and you were trying your darndest to help out. Even though the sacks were too heavy for you, you helped in other ways like spreading out the crop on the roof. Your Appa told me a story about when there was some hard farm work activity happening, and a neighbor had come over to help. The neighbor noticed that you had, without anyone asking, started running along the cart doing an "Aum version" of the work. Appa says there is always an Aum version of any work they are doing that you participate in. In the evenings, you know your parents usually sit to meditate. So though you're a typically rowdy boy and you are not ready to meditate yourself, you spend that hour being quiet and out of the way. Appa told me you even drag him to the cushion sometimes in the evening to make sure he sits before he sleeps. It all shows you have imbibed the culture of the farm and your family.

Speaking of your parents, you should be grateful that you have such great ones. Both have truckloads of patience with you, which you demand. I saw your Amma perform an incredible bit of parenting while we were there. She and I were in the back area packing up seeds to bring to farmer friends in Ahmedabad. It was delicate work, but you kept ramming into it and interrupting. Your Amma bore the brunt of your pent up energy. You kept climbing on her and ruffling her, lightly punching her and pulling her hair. You were just being all-around annoying. Typically a parent would respond by admonishment and/or punishment, but at least dispatch-ment. Leave me alone and let me finish this work Aum! But your mother saw beyond the symptom and tried to get to the root of the problem. With huge heaps of calmness and compassion, she asked you, "What's wrong Aum? Are you hungry? Are you tired? Are we not giving you enough attention? What can I do for you?" You didn't answer and kept annoying and hitting. So she took it up a notch. She put down the seeds and started caressing and kissing you! Giving you a heavy dose of love. It was awe-inspiring to witness.

Your parents love you very much, but they are a bit hesitant to say that you are anything more than just a normal playful kid. I don't know if you are particularly "special", but I have been around a fair amount of kids and find you to be unique in many ways. Here is how I described you to your parents, after spending a few days with you:

Every child is by nature curious, playful, energetic, creative. That energy is like a flame that burns inside each of them. And they mostly only differ by the intensity of that flame, some have it burning more brightly than others. But with Aum, I feel that it's not so much that his flame burns especially bright, it's that the fuel source of his flame is entirely of a different quality.

Stay burning different, my friend.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Greener Grass

During the second part of our South India trip we spent three or so days with Ragu and Nisha on their farm near Coimbatore. I've been dreading writing this post because there is so much I want to capture about the experience, and I'm a bit at a loss on how to organize my thoughts and give it all the justice it deserves. The best I can muster is to break my reflections into mini-blogs (blogbites? bloggets? blots?) on particular topics. So here we go:

Ragu and Nisha
I am so inspired by the path they have taken in their lives. Both were high-flying professionals in Silicon Valley (Ragu a marketing whiz, Nisha a hardcore software engineer). They had their son Aum and promptly sold everything off and moved to rural Tamil Nadu. They wanted to farm, but had no experience in it. They jumped in with the intention of living and being in a way better aligned with their inner voices, and learning what they needed along the way. Many people talk about such a shift, very few actually do it. By my count, I only know these two.

Over two days of rest, reflection, and farmwork, Ragu and Nisha shared many stories on the ups and downs of establishing their new life. Ragu related how he had to gather Lakhs of cash from acquaintances they'd never met to pay for a piece of land he had hardly seen to sellers he hardly knew, facilitated by a local guy he had only recently met. They wanted to create a permaculture system, but how to do it? They read the books, but needed local help. Early on Ragu was in town chatting with the locals, and he just mentioned the term "organic farming". Someone perked up and connected him to a local org which eventually connected him to his farm guide, who was instrumental in setting up the farm system. Later Ragu was at a book store and again just mentioned the term organic, and someone from way back in the store perked up and said he could help; that was Ananth who became a close companion and inspiration for other later community projects.

Like that little by little opportunities and ways forward manifested. What impressed me is how they built a life for themselves from scratch, in an environment where there was little to work with in terms of support and resources. The soil they started with was barren. But they stayed true to their intention and attracted the right resources of the right quality. Not to say they also didn't have ample bumps along the way, but they treated those as growth and gut tests. And soon their soil started to gain fertility and all kinds of wonderful things bloomed.

Ragu is visionary, brave, creative. He is a leader and organizer. Nisha is patient, reliable, nurturing, and very wise. She is the foundation of everything. They are a great combination.

The Farm
Every farm should have a name. Ragu and Nisha's is called "Ikarai Pachai". It is Tamil for "This side is greener." When they first decided to start a farm, they put their intelligence to work and started reading and planning. They read that every good organic farm should have animals, so by God they would keep animals. And that the first thing they should do is get their soil tested, so they boned up on the best soil test to apply.

Then they met their farm guide, who had 15 years of experience farming holistically in their area. We never met him, but Farmer V's stories make him seem like an eccentric agri-Mr. Miagi to Ragu's eager Daniel LaRusso. He told Ragu to put all the bookishness aside and go stand in the middle of his farm. Now, tell me what you see and feel. Ragu said he saw a whole lot of parched land with nothing growing on it. And how do you feel? I feel hot, the sun is beating straight onto me.

The guide said, don't think about what you want to do to the farm, think about what the farm needs. And your answer is right there if you just stand and observe. It is parched up, it needs moisture. So you will need to restore moisture to the soil. How do you do that? Well, start by covering it up from the blazing sun. How do you do that? Plant trees, they will provide shade. How do you do that? Now you're thinking!

The first thing they did was to go about planting trees all over their 9 acres. Thousands and thousands of them, 8,000 to be exact. They waited for the next rains when the soil softened. They immediately plowed and then broadcast-planted a layer of local hearty grains that would grow with minimal soil nutrients. Those grew then they mulched that layer back into the soil. Now it was ready for trees. But there are different types of trees. You have to start with "giving trees", ones that consume minimal resources but give lots in the way of shade, fruit, wood, and/or fodder. Fodder is key because mulch and ground cover is essential to restoring the fertility back to the soil. Provide the organic humic content for the soil organisms to feed and break down the soil nutrients to in turn grow more healthy plants. After giving trees, plant taking trees in between. They planted many, but the one we fell in love with is the banana tree. These are tremendous trees. They produce fruit regularly with very little input requirements, just keep the soil moist and mulched. They propagate on their own through shoots. Every part of the tree, from leaf to stem, can be used for food or other material purpose. We cut one and peeled layer after layer of the trunk, which was soft white and spongy, like that flat packing material (in fact we thought banana branch would make nice organic packing material) . In the center layer was the stem, which we ate for lunch.

So basically the farm is a forest. There is no other farm in the area like it. Neighboring farmers laugh and admonish Ragu because he doesn't keep his farm neat and tidy. It is just a jungle. But that is the point, it is a full ecosystem of lush vegetation out of which springs layers of abundance from top to bottom. The bananas are one, lower down they recently harvested organic turmeric, which was planted in the midst of the trees. Can anything grow between trees? Yes, you just control how much sunlight you want by pruning away branches. Same theory behind aperture in photography. Also, Ragu purposely planted only 1/4 acre to get a good deal on labor. The harvest yielded him many-fold more profit than his neighbor doing the same crop conventionally, selling to various organic retailers in Tamil Nadu.

Ragu said something interesting about farming organically: Although you may only see 80% of the yield as you would using chemical fertilizers for any single crop, the fact that you can grow greater variety of things more than makes up for it. No single product of the system is optimal, but the system's whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The House
Ragu and Nisha built their home on the farm themselves. From design to implementation, they were hands-on. And no, they didn't have prior experience in architecture, construction, carpentry, plumbing, or any of the other basic requisites to build a home. But they ended up with something extraordinary.

Ragu was inspired by the green home visionary Laurie Baker and had the home designed in his style. This required special materials and special construction workers, both of which were in short supply. So every step in getting the house built was a trying experience. It took 2 years, of which one year was actually spent building. In the middle Ragu's chief foreman bolted and Ragu had to literally cross mountains to his village to personally ask him to come back and finish the work. Nisha says those two years took 10 years out of their lives, it was so stressful. Lot of it had to do with the back-and-forth they were doing from the farm to their home in the citynear the farm. Ragu taking his morotcycle into town to the hardware store for this or that supply, Nisha needing help with Aum, Nisha arranging food for the laborers, etc. All normal activities were complicated by the travel distance. Their two big regrets with the farm are that they didn't start by putting a smaller area under cultivation, and not living on the farm while they built the house.


--> But the house eventually got finished, and it is gorgeous. It is big and spacious. Inside it is open and centers around a winding staircase centers around an open courtyard. There is Internet, solar heated water, washing machine, and a biogas tank. The middle of the living room has a step-down courtyard and that functions as Aum's classroom/playroom. The kitchen and dining area overlook it. It is tall and the bedrooms upstairs have high ceilings. There are lovely views from balconies scattered around both 2nd and 3rd stories. A guest house is next-door. Overall a majestic home. Nisha says sometimes she questions whether they built it too big, but whenever guests are over and it fills up she feels re-assured. Recently they had spillover from the bedrooms and people were sleeping in the kitchen. That made her very happy.

From an outsider's vantage point the house looks amazing inside and out. But the most memorable comment about the house came from Nisha, who said that she could stand anywhere in the house and point out 100 mistakes that were made. Speaks to the perfectionism of these two people, but also to something else. This is *their* home in the most intimate way possible. They built it, they know it like a family member. Yes it's imperfect, but there is something beautiful about your own experiences being so interwoven with the building in which you live. How many have that kind of relationship with their physical spaces?

Life Natural
A big chunk of our time at the farm was spent listening to a presentation by Ragu on the "Life Natural" diet. After they had gotten to the farm, Ragu and Nisha became involved in Naturopathy through Ananth and Shri.Balakrishnan, a guru on the subject in the tradition of one of the fathers of Naturopathy in India. Shri.Balakrishnan teaches a week-long residential course that combines science, spirituality, folklore, classic tamil literature, songs and lots of real life case studies. It was all wholesome to Ragu and Nisha so they began by following the diet, to great benefit. Then they teamed up with Ananth and Aravind who had started organizing courses. The courses grew in popularity, starting with 20-30 participants to the seventh and latest course having over 100 participants. The courses are conducted in gift economy format, which was met with skepticism initially. But through a combination of mindful management and genuine value-creation for participants, the volunteer team started to see magic happening. Aravind and his whole family jumped into offering their home, kitchen, utensils and labor, Ananth did not think twice before arranging for all the computer, audio and video equipment, and around 25 volunteers came together to make the courses possible. In one course, there was a miscommunication and the accommodations that were arranged wouldn't be able to take all of the women attendees. So a local farmer and previous course participant volunteered his place to host all the 30+ women and children. The same venue where the course was held did not have proper toilets, so Ragu had to scramble to have some built at significant expense. Without explicitly mentioning it, the attendees caught on and the donations from that course went a long way towards covering their costs. After seven courses they are running an overall surplus. But ever mindful of how to create the most wholesome value, the organizing team has put a pause on more courses to reflect on how to migrate Life Natural from the format of an event to distributed leaderless movement.

We got a 2-day crash course in Life Naturals, and it made a deep impression on all of us. For me, it changed my mental model of food and how it relates to my body. The key teaching in the diet is to have eating habits that make it as easy as possible for your body to digest food. Your body expends lots of effort to break down food so it can be absorbed as nutrition for your cells. That's actually what makes you tired; you feel sleepy after meals because your body is working. And when you sleep, digestion is just one of many important body maintenance processes that go on. The key hours for other background processes to happen is 10pm-3am. If during that time your body is busy digesting food (or not sleeping), it leaves little time to do the other important chores. This is why fasting is prescribed as a cure for many ailments. When you're sick, the body needs to concentrate on healing itself. Giving it food during that time distracts. So fast and let your body pass the illness. According to Life Naturals, the majority of disease is rooted in improper digestion.

You help your body digest by eating easily digestible foods and eating them with good habits. This frees up our energy that would otherwise be spent on digestion for better and higher purposes. Chew food well. The rule of thumb is "eat water, drink food". Eating water refers to swishing it around the mouth so glands in the back get wet, alerting your brain so you don't over-drink to quench thirst. Don't mix foods that take different times to digest; the fast digesting foods sit in your stomach rotting while the other food breaks down. Eliminate regularly (as soon as you go from horizontal to vertical in the morning) and monitor your shit to make sure it is of the right texture, color, and odor. You can learn a lot about the state of your body by your poo and pooing habits.

One recommendation that makes a big difference even if you did nothing else is to eat fruit for dinner. Fruit digests in an hour, while full meal of cooked food takes 4 hours. So go with fruit, which according to Life Naturals is at the top of the food pyramid. Fruit, vegetables, sprouts, and cooked food, in that order. Meat is out, and so is dairy. Dairy is not necessary for the human body whatsoever. It was a paradigm-breaker for me to think of fruit as the superfood, but it is. A phrase we learned was, "Fruits clean, vegetables build".

Another paradigm shift was disassociating food from energy. According the Life Natural, food is not the same as energy. Energy is a phenomenon still not fully explained by science, it is life force. Imagine metal wires, one copper, one gold, one platinum. When electricity passes through them, they conduct the energy. The degree to which they conduct depends on the resistance in the material. Copper has more resistance, gold slightly less, platinum less still. Platinum is the best conduit of the energy because it has the least resistance. According to Life Natural, our bodies are the wires; energy passes through, we determine the level of resistance by keeping our bodies more or less pure. Healthy food produces pure bodies, which are made of cells. In metabolism, digestive enzymes break down complex food matter (catabolism), and these broken down molecules are synthesized to build the body (anabolism). In essence, says Life Natural, food is the building block of the body and is not the building block of energy. In fact, body requires energy to digest food and hence food is a tax on energy.

There are lots of other lessons we learned, but suffice it to say we took in a lot and it really changed us. Since we've been back to Ahmedabad, Jay, MAM and I have been evangelizing the diet like crazy (some people have begun to think we are crazy). Everyone and anyone we talk to gets a lecture on "eat fruit dinners, cut dairy". That's our main message to folks. Just doing that goes a long way. I talked to Dr. Sri to get his (western/allopathic) medical opinion on the whole thing, since Ragu had also given him the spiel. Sri said that though there isn't hard evidence to back up lot of what Ragu says, it doesn't mean it's not true. Personally, Sri thinks most of it is correct. And you definitely can't go wrong with fruit dinners and less dairy.

Ragu explained that Life Naturals isn't so much a diet with strict rules as it is an attitude. Basically be kind to your body by making it easier for it to digest food and give a boost for mental and spiritual growth. So I've started by splitting one cooked food meal into two, and adding a fruit meal. I drink water 20 min before or after meals in order to not dilute the digestive juices. And I continue to exercise, which Ragu said is the great forgiver. If you exercise regularly, you can afford to eat worse. Which is probably why I've stayed healthy in my 20s.

Aum
Aum is Ragu and Nisha's 5-year-old. This topic deserves its own post (UPDATE: It's here), in the meantime here is the music video trailer:



Pace of Life/Interconnectedness of Life
This is what I wrote to a friend after coming back from the farm, it stands as one of my biggest aha's:

Life is so busy for all of us. There is this meeting, that project, this function, that achievement. After being with Ragu and Nisha and living their life on the farm, there are two properties of this lifestyle that stick out in contrast. First, our lives are very fast-paced. And this pace is neither healthy nor desirable for me. It is not in harmony with internal or external nature. It is like a whirlwind that speeds up into a tornado.

Second, life is very disjointed. We are pulled constantly in different directions. One thing after the next jumping around. A small handful of things you prioritize quickly raises back up with so many sub-things. It is a constant battle to keep a lid on it and keep it from overwhelming you.

Ragu and Nisha live at a natural pace. This is purely subjective, but I felt that things moved more appropriately there. Not that it wasn't busy or even crammed, it just felt more even-keeled. That's the best I can describe it. And also, their activities were very integrated. Everything was oriented toward being on the farm, that's all.

Ragu's vantage point on rural life is very authentic. No duh, he lives in rural India. But still, talking with him made me very aware of the gaps in understanding I have myself of rural people. We were discussing the Stuart Brand book I'm reading and he proceeded to tear apart the arguments Brand was making from the root level. The basis was that Brand had second-hand knowledge of a village, Ragu has first-hand. In response to Brand's discussion on the plight of rural women as oppressed and disempowered, Ragu told me about one of his farm laborer’s wives, who displayed incredible knowing and proactive confidence in an episode to get her husband out of a jam. He told me another story about a local youth he and Nisha were trying to put through college as he refused to become a farm worker like his Dad. They had taken the responsibility on as a "development" project. They got him into a long-distance undergrad degree in computer science (as the boy was good at math) and even tutored him for a semester. The boy started with great enthusiasm and promise, but later tailed off in his commitment and could not pass one of the six subjects. Ragu at fist felt upset, but later learned that the boy lived in a one room hut with a sick father to tend to and no light to read at night. He could not continue to the next semester. So they dropped the idea of “educating” him. Later Ragu helped the boy get a job as a local gardener to support his family, which he excelled at. Meanwhile Ragu randomly spotted an ad in the paper for certified computer accounting training and informed the boy. He completed it and his boss added accounting responsibilities to his gardening job. A year later his boss gave him a scholarship to pursue the same long-distance undergrad degree and freed him from his job responsibilities. If there are all of these unexpected twists to "develop" one village boy, how much reality is really behind pundits who talk about "scalable solutions"?

Important teachers in Ragu's education on rural life are his neighbors, two farming brothers on the east side. They used to be laborers for local farmers, but they were extremely hard workers and earned their own land. Ragu talks about how they work with such strength and discipline, day in and day out. They teach what hard work really means, with ripped muscles carrying 50 kg bags of produce or fertilizer hour after hour. They are relatively good farmers, though not organic. But they saw Ragu's organic turmeric and without needing any explanation saw the reasoning behind his way. Maybe they'll adopt his approach, maybe not. But they have the sensibility to understand. Hearing Ragu share these stories made me feel that there is something very rich and real and right we miss when we sit in A/C offices in cities trying to imagine rural life.

Building community
Several times in several conversations Ragu and Nisha talked about how often and how egregiously they have been cheated by people. They are easy targets as outsiders. But also cheating is institutionalized, there is no effort to even hide it. When someone makes a deal with Ragu, they say up front that they are keeping a little for themselves. A neighbor needed some emergency money for a medical procedure, which ended up saving his life. When Ragu asked that same neighbor to help him with some important work that he would pay him for, he refused. The degree of exploitation can wear on you if you are trying to live in the way Ragu and Nisha strive to. They have to meet each episode with re-opened mind and tolerance.

When Ragu was buying bricks for the house, he had very specific instructions for the brick maker because he was using the bricks in a non-traditional way. They should not have cracked edges and should remain whole. Ragu assured the brick maker he would pay a premium, but this was absolutely compulsory. The brick maker understood fully and agreed. The bricks showed up to the farm with 40% broken bricks. Ragu was furious, and went to the brick maker, who said there was nothing he could do. You will still have to pay the full amount. Ragu replied, "I will pay you the money, but you have to do one thing. Look me in the eye right now and tell me that you have cheated me. You have promised something you have not delivered on, and are accepting this money on work you have not done as agreed upon. Just let those words come out of your mouth, and I will give you the money." And the guy couldn't do it. He couldn't utter those words. To Ragu it was an indicator that there was still integrity in this person who has blatantly cheated him. He couldn't bring himself to acknowledge it explicitly. The next day he returned 40% of the payment to Ragu.

And like that Ragu and Nisha have found and nurtured small cracks of goodness which are starting to coalesce into a budding ecosystem. They are literally and figuratively planting seeds all around them and they are blooming. Life Natural is one example; it has attracted a core group of like-hearted people who are ready to practice good values in meaningful ways. Ragu was taking us for a walk and ran into some local youth who brightly chattered about a tree-planting event they were organizing together. Ragu had cleverly weaved in astrological significance to the specific date and type of tree they would be planting, and that was enough to get the town excited. Thousands of trees would be planted.

To me this is the most moving aspect of Ragu and Nisha's life on their farm. They are slowly but surely cultivating an ecosystem of people and activities that breath the values they are trying to instill in themselves. Ragu calls it living a life of response. He is relatively free from ambition; he just works with what is there to respond in a wholesome and aligned manner. Lots of people draw inspiration from the ecosystem created by ServiceSpace posse in the Bay, and Manav Sadhna family in Ahmedabad. But in a corner of rural Tamil Nadu, this family has left those cozy bubbles and starting planting seeds in virgin territory, birthing a new ecosystem. To me this is the ultimate work, test, and responsibility of anyone who has been in contact with these spaces.

[Gratitude to Ragu and Nisha for editing and fact-checking this post]

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Moved By Madurai

Last week me, MAM, Jay, and others spent a memorable 10 days in South India. First stop was Madurai, where we held a retreat hosted by the Aravind family. Sixteen people participated in two days of learning, sharing, and connecting. Detailed writeup and photos are here. Below I will only add a few personal highlights from the time spent at Aravind:
  • It was a thrill to get a tour of the hospital, a place I had heard and read about and have admired ever since I watched Pavi's film. One remarkable thing we saw was a poster in the reception area that had the title "Anticipated Outpatients for the Year 2012". Based on data analysis past years' hospital traffic, the Aravind administration had determined how many patients they expected to walk through that hospital's doors each *day* of the year. The idea was to ensure they had enough staff and support on hand to handle the inflow. The day we visited the estimate was about 1% off of the actual count, which is typical. That in a nutshell captures Aravind and what makes it special. A type of scrupulous compassion.
  • Every part of the hospital had a meditation room. We later took a tour of Aurloab, which also had a meditation room. What other state-of-the-art medical products manufacturing facility has a meditation room in the midst of its sterile corridors? Only one that also sports pictures of villagers as the sole decorations on whitewashed walls.
  • On the first day of the retreat, it was personally a huge honor to present some of the projects connected with Manav Sadhna to the likes of Mr.Srinivasan, Mr.Thulsi, Dr. Aravind, and Dr. Haripriya. After reading Pavi's book, these people are celebrities in my eyes, so I was a bit starstruck as we interacted with them.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Karmacy Reunion

We had a special treat last weekend. Nimo's old friend and bandmate Swapnil was visiting Ahmedabad and the two decided to put on a concert at Darpana. It was their long-standing dream for Karmacy to perform in India. Surprisingly, it had never materialized. Four years since their last performance and huge life transitions later, one half of the group was standing on the Natarani stage in front of an enthusiastic if not slightly unprepared audience on a mild Saturday night to perform the Karmacy Reunion Concert.

Nimo told me their plan to do concert about a month ago, I was so excited to finally see Karmacy perform live. I've mentioned before, but Nimo had an impact on me through his music long before I knew him personally. Karmacy hit my eardrums in college at a time and in a way that blew my mind. It was music that I had never heard the likes before. It was highly competent hip hop with well-produced beats and lyrics in Gujarati, English, Spanish, Punjabi. Gujarati hip hop! It was breakthrough music at the time.

So when he told me Swap was coming and they were going to perform a few songs and share their journey, I couldn't have been more excited. I began by putting Nimo into training by playing a healthy dose of rap in our house regularly to get him in the mindset. Especially since he usually listens to Christmas songs, he needed to shift his mode. So I'd play all kinds of stuff, and we had a couple freestyle sessions. As the concert date approached he played Karmacy instrumentals and sang verses as he did his work. He was trying to remember lyrics from a previous lifetime.

The day of the concert Nimo told me I'd be handling the sound and video for the concert. So basically I was the DJ. I won't digress into my previous DJ'ing experience (anyone Indian who went to Berkeley during the years 2002-2004 knows what I'm talking about), but I was silently preparing for this moment my whole life. My love affair with hip hop and latent dream to be a rapper was culminating in this moment: this was the closest I'd ever get to performing in a hip hop concert. It was difficult to contain my excitement and sense of immense responsibility for the task before me.

We got to Darpana a bit early and had a pre-concert meal with the performers. Nimo went over the playlist with me. Swap and I went up to tables of strangers asking if they liked hip hop. And if they did, would they like to stay for the concert? After a couple attempts resulting in confused faces I asked people if they had heard of the song Blood Brothers. Yes, we have. Well, that guy right there is the artist on that song! Come watch him perform, its free!

Before the concert started, I asked Swap if he felt nervous before performances like this. After what was surely hundreds of performances under his belt, surprisingly he said that he still did. He pointed out that it was most nerve-wracking performing for crowds who either don't know much about hip hop or know it very well. For the former, you have to achieve understanding through your performance; for the latter, approval. In the case of this concert, it was a crowd largely unfamiliar with them or their music. They would hardly understand what they were saying, so it would be a challenge.

I got into the booth to learn the audio controls and Nimo's temperamental laptop, which we'd be playing songs and videos off of. The performers went down to sound check. People started arriving. The two took the stage with bare feet. And then the concert began and they started rapping. The first song, Outkasted, was a bit stiff but they eventually loosened up.

They performed about 8 songs, with Nimo and Swap sharing intermittently about their journeys and inspiration for their music. In my opinion the apex of the performance was Music Knows where the crowd really got into it and so did the performers. Swap was C-walking around stage and Nimo was blazing it up. Meanwhile in the booth me (sound) and Vasantbhai (lights) were jamming with hands in the air. The whole concert I was up on my feet. The guys gave an incredible performance. At one point, Swap said it was the most fun he'd ever had performing. That was hard for me to believe, but if it was that's saying something.

After the songs there was some Q&A and then interaction with the crowd. Lots of people got a copy of Karmacy's last album, Wooden Bling. All-in-all a fantastic experience. I had two regrets: one, that Jay missed it due to a communication mishap in the evening, and two, that I screwed up the audio track on Blood Brothers, causing them to stop mid-song and restart. But besides that it was an unforgettable night.

And no, I'm not going to leave you without some footage from the show. Here's Music Knows, which I thought had the crowd most energized:



This was my favorite song, Intensity. After watching the unreleased music video and this performance, I think this is my new all-time favorite Karmacy song. Verses, beat, chorus, song's overall message, top-notch vintage Karmacy. Just a home run of a song:



And of course, Blood Broz:


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Jay

Jay arrived in Ahmedabad last Saturday. For the past couple months I've been eagerly anticipating his arrival. I was so anxious that up until only a few days ago I thought he was coming two days earlier than he actually was. He couldn't get here fast enough.

Jay has come on an open-ended visit. No specific return date, he bought a one-way ticket. There are many goals. On a day-to-day basis, he will be working on Awaaz.De. He has several titles: CFO, VP of Business Development, VP of Marketing, and VP of Sales. The idea is for him to disrupt the company to get it to the next level, and to stabilize it there. Besides that, I want to have him connect with friends here, especially Nimo and rest of Shreeji Krishna. He will also bond with family, plug into the MS ecosystem as he is moved, improve his Gujarati, travel, unwind, reflect on his next life steps, and have fun. So he has a lot on his plate.

As soon as he touched ground I got him working on AD. The first day we had several meetings that got him up to speed with company status, his roles, and responsibilities. It was clearly way too much to dump on him at once, he was still battling jet lag and a new environment he hadn't been to in years. But I couldn't help it. I had a ready todo list of all his tasks, he is going to be a big help to the company.

Jay has taken a vow to go vegan for 2012, which is a challenge even while living in India. Already he's had to curtail meals because of some trace dairy product incorporated into a dish. Me and Nimo are dairy cows (pun intended), we look for every opportunity to insert cheese, milk, yogurt, etc. into our diet. We put paneer in our Khichdi. So it will be an adjustment. But that's part of the challenge Jay signed up for. It's very admirable.

In general I am finding many things admirable about him. Since his 10-day self course in January, I've sensed a shift. It's most noticeable in conversation with him. His mind has really opened up. Stubbornness and hard-headedness runs in our family, we all have it. But Jay has really shown a resilience of mind that comes through developing a deep-seeded balance. A brittle-minded person easily gets trapped into confrontations and defensive positions. A resilient mind absorbs and responds rather than reacts. That person is a net-positive to a conversation. They hold the space, rather than being a force for collapsing it. I've found several instances recently where Jay has held the conversational space where I threatened to collapse it. It's so valuable a skill, and takes a commitment to patience, equanimity, empathy, and egolessness. Underlying all of the weaker-level mental states is the ego. And meditation is at essence an ego-shattering exercise.

To say I'm excited to have Jay here is an understatement. Over time I've come to feel that not being close by him is an unnatural state of living for me. An incomplete, limbo existence. Now that he's here, I'm home.