Thursday, January 26, 2012


Latest breakthrough in the football program journey, below is an edited email from Virenbhai that tells the story:

Our kids have been loving playing football every day for the last six months. However, most of them do not have shoes and play despite injuring their feet. Earlier Football Action came to the rescue and donated some equipment, but there weren't enough shoes for the growing throng of players. But right on cue, last week a 75-year-old named Mr. Bhallaji from LA walked into MS and was looking for a program to donate to. After showing little interest in project after project, he came across the kids playing soccer and was moved to help. We explained that these kids were passionate for the game but lacked shoes. Seeing their enthusiasm, right then and there he wrote a check to purchase shoes for each and every kid!

The joy and exited spirit of our 50 kids can only be felt by seeing it. Two hours into the tuition class after receiving the shoes, a couple of them told me that they could not focus on anything but that first kick with their new shoes at 5pm! It was a blessing to watch them play with these new shoes. Thank you and God bless you dear Bhallaji.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Muchos Gratitudos

Life is good right now. There are many reasons why, I wanted to note them down for the record.

I love the weather. Putting aside the legitimately frigid weekend I just experienced in Delhi, I am on cloud 9 with the coolness of wintertime in Ahmedabad. It's nice to feel cool air in a rickshaw, wear a jacket, keep the A/C off in the office, not break into a sweat after bathing, not break into a sweat while standing. In general it is so wonderful to feel the sensation of cold in India, it's so rarefied. I savor every moment as the relentlessly oppressive Heat looms.

I love my roomie. Nimesh is an incredibly inspiring person to me, and living with him is a gift that I cherish. For all of the outward impressions of a humble, grounded, pure-hearted, generous, and compassionate soul, it's only doubly and triply reinforced observing him on a behind-the-scenes mundane day-to-day basis. It's so many little things added up. He goes the extra mile with chores including watering the plants, washing dishes, cleaning common areas. All silently and humbly. One day while I was away, he cleaned out my room which was being used for storage and created an office for both of us to work comfortably in the living room. Another day he set up my mosquito net which subsequently allowed me to get the best night's sleep I had had in a while. He is always on point with his special pumpkin-cinnamon hot cocoa. He is an incredibly disciplined person, especially committed to simplified lifestyle. A couple weeks ago he ended his year-long resolution to not eat out at *any* restaurant. Why? Because it was something he relished and he wanted to master the impulse. We celebrated the ending by grubbing at Taco Fresco, the one and only Mexican restaurant in Ahmedabad (was good!). He has been hand-washing all of his clothes for at least the last year. It's really hardcore. Some time ago Nipun and I were talking about drinking alcohol, and I had mentioned that like with meat-eating, I was planning on letting my craving of alcohol naturally wither so that I don't have to force myself to give it up. I tend to favor a more organic approach where the craving/desire leaves on its own time. But Nipun said something interesting. He said that such attachments provide you an opportunity to cultivate self-restraint and self-discipline, which you can deposit in the bank of merits to serve as a source of mental strength for future life battles. It's an excellent point, and one that Nimo implicitly understands and embodies. His inner strength is inspirational. Buddy, thank you for being who you are.

I love my work. There's so many things to do all the time, it's very busy. But all the todos are worthwhile. I am not sleeping enough but the hours I'm awake are full of purpose and meaning. In the past month or so I've sat with some of the pioneers and superstars of development in Gujarat and beyond. It's a real blessing to learn from and work with people you genuinely admire. Recently Kapilbhai and I took a car together to Gandhinagar to meet with the head of Bhartiya Kisan Sangh ("Indian Farmer's Collective"). We discussed strategy for my meeting about how AD could serve them, and I paused to reflect with a smile, "Man, it doesn't get better than this." Talking about real-deal work we can do with a real-deal national-level organization with one of the most real-deal grassroots workers/thinkers/activists I have had the pleasure of knowing. I'm proud that this is my job.

I love my community. Being in contact with Manav Sadhna provides a richness to daily life that complements regular work in a perfect way. There is always something or other going on; a gathering at Seva Cafe, a volunteer visiting from this place, a group to interact with from that. Last month we hosted Teach for India, a powerful gathering where we heard stories from fellows who spent a day and a night in Ahmedabad with no wallet or cell phone, just Rs.50. Later we hosted Jagriti Yatra, a group of 450 social entrepreneurs. We broke them up into groups and had them interact with specific projects (each group had a name like 'compassion', 'oneness'; Jayeshbhai's group was called 'love'). Nimo and I facilitated one group and it was really wonderful sharing our journeys and about what made MS special. What a privilege to be interfacing and influencing and creating ripples with India's changemakers of tomorrow.

I love my soccer kids. There is an indescribable joy working with these kids. Their smiles, their energy, enthusiasm, their barrage of little hugs and "Neilsir!" greetings, and their effort in trying to get better at football. It is really genuine. Several weeks ago Sunday practice got delayed so we didn't have time for a match, which we usually do at the end. I had to leave, but the kids begged me to stay and ref for them. I couldn't, and as I walked away I saw them picking sides, setting up the goals, and getting started anyway. They were simply playing for themselves and for the love of the game. At that moment this project had past my ultimate test of value.

Working on the soccer program I have questioned why it took me so long to get into coaching soccer. It is a no-brainer, marrying two things I am deeply passionate about (football and mentoring).

Few weeks ago we took about 40 of the kids to IIM-A to have practice on their grass field. Proper pitch, no distractions, real grass, real goals, plenty of space. Despite the uphill battle in getting the kids through a rigid security checkpoint, it was a breathtaking experience. The kids warmed up and then for really the first time got to practice long balls and longer buildup play to goal. We set up two matches in parallel at the end. They were so into it, very competitive play. More than anything these kids excel at defense, so aggressive and fearless. It was such a beautiful thing to watch them going at it. After that session I silently resolved to bring a field like that to the Tekro. Virenbhai has mentioned that we can grow this to be a full-out sports program. A comprehensive project that is anchored by our own grounds, equipment, and funding for nutrition, coaches, and medical aid. Host sports leagues and training in football, basketball, volleyball. Nimo wants to bring in American football. Why not? Sky's the limit. There are so many important life values that real team sports (cricket is a pseudo team sport) teaches: teamwork, inclusiveness, trust, sportsmanship, patience. There is no reason that we shouldn't integrate sports more formally into MS' work.

There are so many possibilities, and they are all exciting and resonate with me. I'm grateful to be in a space, time, and mental/physical state that is unfolding a positive life momentum.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Guest is God

This weekend Ahmedabad celebrated the bright and energetic holiday called Uttarayan, the festival of kites. Everyone gets up on their roofs, blasts Bollywood music, eats Jalebi and Kachoris and Undhiyu, and flies kites. I was at Virenbhai's house where some MS volunteers gathered and Nimo brought some of the Ekatva girls to fly kites. I mostly watched; there wasn't much wind and thus not very conducive for a novice kite flyer. As it got dark people lit flying lanterns and the night sky was pierced with the mini balloons hovering higher and higher.

At night there were fireworks. One of Virenbhai's neighbors had arranged a spectacular show, which we enjoyed from our rooftop with a front-row view. Afterwards the group of us were appreciative of this neighbor and also curious about his house, which had a unique design. Virenbhai said it was a house designed not to have any right angles. It was rounded everywhere. The MS volunteers got interested and wanted to visit the house. Virenbhai shrugged, "Sure, why not?", and the next thing you know about 15 of us are walking around the block to visit Virenbhai's random neighbor at their house with no corners.

We get to the house, which had its own Uttarayan party in full effect. I'm not sure what exactly the expectation was in us all walking over. Did we really think this neighbor would let in a random group of international strangers to his home and give them an uninvited impromptu tour while busily entertaining his own guests? Well, that's exactly what happened.

By the time I walked up to the front gate, some of our group had already been let into the house, which had a strange egg-shaped entrance that made it seem like either a hobbit house from middle earth or a luxury cruise ship. For the next 15 minutes, we wandered around checking out the unique if not slightly tacky architecture of this pod-like home with no corners. And there were literally no corners, it was pretty nuts. Everything was curved where there would be a sharp edge. All the windows were round, the doors were arched, even the handles were spiral instead of straight. Apparently the family had appreciated a Bollywood actor's home and had gotten the architect to design theirs.

It was pretty amazing how this neighbor warmly welcomed us all in and just started proudly showing off his house. A bunch of intruders who had no pretense other than, "Hey you put on an awesome fireworks show, thanks! Can I come in and explore your weirdly shaped home?" He walked us around the living area and showed us all the bedrooms. We toured the kitchen, the jacuzzi bathroom, and the underground entertainment room. We even walked up to the balcony and were introduced to the actual guests as if we were VIPs. Then it got stepped up even further: he insisted that we stay for dinner. And I mean insisted! He said it was 'compulsory'. I couldn't fathom it. In what country do you let strangers into your home unannounced, and instead of politely taking their compliments you let them in and show them around, then treat them to dinner for their imposition? What planet?

So while the actual guests waited, we were served from a catered buffet-style continental dinner spread in the beautiful garden. Given we were a big group, possibly the size of the actual party, it was no small gesture for us to be fed from a catered service. During dinner we got to talking with the neighbor, who was very appreciative of Manav Sadhna's work once the volunteers explained it. We gave him some cards and books (including Gandhi autobiography) from MS and thanked him profusely. We invited him and his family to Seva Cafe, where we would be happy to have the opportunity to return the generosity and hospitality he had shown us. But of course here was a person who demonstrated he intuitively understood the concept without even being aware that it was a 'concept'.

In India there is a cultural custom that an unexpected guest is to be regarded as a gift at your doorstep. 'Atithi Devo Bhava', literally "Guest is God". For me this was an emphatic case of the custom come to vivid reality.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Labor of Love

Last week my advisor Scott and his partner Lera visited Ahmedabad as part of their tour of India. It was a long time coming, as Scott has supervised my research in India for 5 years but has never visited. I planned out their 3 days in Ahmedabad to maximize exposure to 3 things: Awaaz.De related people and places, historic and interesting sites in/around Ahmedabad, and the Manav Sadhna family. It worked out nicely, with their trip coinciding with a group of visitors from Teach for India coming through MS and bunch of activities including an Ekatva performance scheduled, and also a Wednesday meditation. Scott also met with DSC, which he got a big kick out of. And they had a chance to explore the old city and enjoy the company of Jagdipbhai and family at the Heritage House.

On the second day we took a rental and made a day trip towards Patan. We stopped off at the Adalaj Vav (step well), Modhera Sun Temple, and the Rani ki Vav. All were beyond expectation beautiful and worthwhile. I had all these childhood memories of boring road trips in Gujarat with my family where we'd take long car rides on crummy roads to boring temples. Maybe it's maturity or a cultivated appreciation, maybe its the crisp state expressways that now blanket the state, but I have never enjoyed a trip to an ancient site in Gujarat more than this trip. Made me feel a twinge of pride in Gujarat's cultural heritage to see the majesty of the temple and wow-invoking Vavs.

But the most underrated stop we made was at the Patan Patola Heritage shop of the Salvi brothers. Patola is a style of weaving that is intensely intricate. It entails a lengthy painstaking process of creating silk and cotton thread from scratch, then dieing it by stretching it out and tying small knots to block out colored portions. This is done one thread at a time. The design is already pre-set, so essentially they are projecting a final design onto each thread, a fraction of a millimeter at a time. This is all done by hand.

This is just to prepare the thread, weaving is a whole other process. They set up on a huge bamboo handloom that tilts down to one side. It takes two people to operate it. And they move forward, one thread-length at a time, shooting the thread in a bamboo shuttle width-wise to and fro, using the tilt of the loom to propel it. The design they had mapped onto each thread materializes as they weave all the thread tightly together.

Everything is done by hand. It takes a team of 4-5 people six months to make one sari in the Patola style. So they make about two pieces a year. They are very expensive and made-to-order. Typically they are sold to rich industrialists in Gujarat. The Salvis' masterpiece project, an elephant-adorned design with no repetition in the entire piece, took them three and a half years to make. One sari! Pieces of it sit in various museums around the world. One of the Salvi brothers proudly pointed out one certificate out of many adorning their wall. It was from the Smithsonian, which recognized the Salvis' as master craftsman and this workshop for its historically significant work.

The Salvi brothers are environmentally conscious. I was delighted to see some of the notices pinned in their workshop, it reminded my of my dad who writes similar reminders and posts them around our house. Especially the "think 100 times…" quote, that's straight out of Dad's playbook.

The result of the Patola process is beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces. But what stood out for me visiting this workshop is how much care, attention, and commitment this family of weavers put into the craft. It is truly a labor of love. Being only one of two families still doing Patola in the traditional way, these brothers really carry themselves as stewards of this ancient, multi-hundred-year-old tradition. Only the eldest brother was married, the others have abstained from family life to hone the craft. They said they couldn't use computers because it would go against the tradition. "This is a human-powered computer," a brother said gesturing to the loaded loom. Just watching them work the loom, weaving in one thread at a time with exacting precision, two brothers working in perfectly timed movements (I theorized to Scott that only brothers could work with the ESP-level synchrony they displayed), it struck me that their level of devotion was beyond anything I had seen. Toiling away in this corner of Patan producing beautiful textiles that take months to complete by tedious manual labor, all for the preservation of their ancestral craft. They seemed to recognize that part of this preservation work is sharing it with others, so despite being interrupted from their daily work they took the steady flow of (mostly foreign) visitors in stride, explaining the entire process with the same care and attention that they had given us just ten minutes earlier.

Seeing the Salvi brothers got me thinking about a person's life's work. These guys were masters of a craft, but their work is largely invisible. It's strikingly different from Dr.V's family craft where they were serving millions of patients so there is a natural spotlight cast on their eye surgery prowess. The Salvi brothers serve two customers per year. But they didn't seem driven at all by recognition (though they relish it when it comes); rather by the tradition they were passed down. But what's the point? They are training the next generation of nephews who have shown some interest, but they are also engineers and doctors. Will they be able to train the next generation? One of the Salvi brothers told me the elephant masterpiece was re-created after 150 years. When I asked him who will re-create another piece 150 years from now, he dismissively laughed. This tradition will likely be gone by then.

I don't think the Salvi brothers are so bothered by this sad fact. I don't think they are even concerned about their legacy. Or money for that matter (one of the brothers told me they still farm to make ends meet). They are doing the work they were chosen to do, and care about doing it the right way, that's it. They have excelled at it, and whatever recognition they receive from that is enough to fill them. I was inspired by their detached dedication, and walked out of the workshop wondering whether I had it in me to work in the same way.