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 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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Organic Activism

Last Sunday I attended a meeting in the basement of a building at Gujarat Vidyapith. Fitting for two reasons. One, because the meeting was held in the university founded by Gandhiji, the O.G. activist of India. And second, because it was meeting at the grassroots.

About thirty people associated with the organic farming movement had gathered to discuss a recent decision by the Gujarat Government. The GoG had cleared double-hybrid corn and BT rice in the state. The controversy is that GM crops are an unproven technology and have not been approved for food crops in some countries in the world. The seeds were also banned by several states in India. Only Gujarat and AP have approved them. Why? Many in that room are sure it is weak and ineffective biosafety legislation and institutions, and a usual suspect lurking in the GMO camp: Monsanto.

It is taken as a given in this circle that more than a few Gujarati high-powered politicians have their hands in Monsanto's pocket. Monsanto also has a negative international reputation for coercion, aggressive legal maneuvers, and illegal entrance into foreign markets. For example Monsanto's BT cotton seeds were discovered in 2000, two years before they were officially permitted by the central government. The government approved after university trials proved their safety. Those trials were funded by Monsanto.

When it comes to the organic movement in Gujarat, there are two towering names: Bhaskar Save and Kapil Shah. Kapilbhai had called this meeting and had personally urged me to attend as this issue, to him, was the "final stand". He sees this as the last and most important battleground for the movement to curb the infiltration of GMOs into the state, which most including recognized international institutions agrees does not fall within the definition of "organic". Kapilbhai is going to devote the full force of his time, energy, and resources to this cause for the foreseeable future, this is his journey to Mordor to destroy the ring once and for all. Kapilbhai listed out twelve means they had at their disposal to protest, including organizing tribal farmers, appealing to the supreme court, and pressuring the media to shine a light on the issue.

I have been supporting the organic movement in Gujarat in whatever ways I can through the years. My first project in India was developing an organic certification system for farmers, by farmers in Gujarat, which represented a holistic and regionally appropriate definition of organic. Later we set up the only organic farming information service through Awaaz.De and Jatan, Kapilbhai's organization. At this meeting, Kapilbhai had me come up in front of the whole group and explained to everyone how I had moved to Gujarat and have now committed myself as a full-fledged member of the organic farming movement. He also initiated Jay as another soldier for the cause before he even touched Gujarati soil. So it was official.

I said a few words of thanks, then made three points. First, that the cause of this group is the future, meaning it is the thinking that the rest of the world is catching up to realize is the right stance. And there are other groups just like this one around the world fighting, in solidarity, for the same values. So don't feel we are alone. Second, winning this battle will require international attention to the cause to pressure the government into overturning their decision. We have to shine an international spotlight on the protest, a la the Arab Spring. Note that the dudes in Tahrir Square always held up signs written in English, that was for a reason. And third, this movement needs to be inclusive and broad-based. It needs to be about the 100%. That means involving consumers, at least making them aware. And importantly, looking upon the government not as an enemy, but rather as a dim-witted and parochial little brother. We have to help it see the light, with our arm around its shoulder. Of course I said this all in very broken and simple Gujarati, so it came out relatively uninspiring. I ended with some description of Awaaz.De's plan to support the organic movement however it can; for this year we are going to focus on creating robust local middle-man busting markets for organic grains, fruits, and vegetables in Ahemdabad.

I felt proud and excited to be a part of the meeting which was one of the most authentic tastes of real grassroots activist organizing I've had. The organic movement in Gujarat is a cause I deeply believe in and find myself naturally gravitating towards through a resonance with the issue and people involved. As Panchito says, now is the time for the spiritual people to get active, and the activists to get spiritual. A few days earlier I was with Kapilbhai at Jatan and told him that now that I'm here, he should look upon the future with renewed enthusiasm. Now is not the time to be tired and jaded, but to wake up to a new beginning. Put the movement on mine and Jay's back, we are ready to help. He sat me at his desk and joked that the keys to the throne have now been passed. Some new blood has arrived.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Holy Holi

Last Thursday was Holi ("Ori"), the festival of colors. Holi is a big holiday in general, but especially for working/laboring class Indians. Family members in the city make a mandatory trip back to their villages to be with their relatives. And they remain there for 15 days to a month. Meanwhile all labor work comes to a halt in the cities and a lot of housewives are left feeling helpless.

Holi is known for the colored powder fights. People get together in any space and chase each other with green red blue yellow colored powder and smear each others' face, hair, and body with it. In India the latest evolution is using super soakers filled with colored water to blast people from afar. It's a good time.

This Holi, Nimo was at home observing a day of silence and meditation. I laid low at the house as well and sat with him here and there. The one trip I took outside was to visit our new flat. On the way back I was walking past the ashram and across the street bunch of friends/MS volunteers were playing holi in front of the volunteer house. I was watching from a safe distance, quietly snapping photos without anyone noticing. Just as I was about to continue walking on toward home I look down to check my phone and when I look up I see bunch of the friends running across the street toward me in sneak attack fashion. I had been spotted, and there was nowhere to run. It was fun getting powdered and playing with the friends.

Later I went home to clean up and Nimo was still meditating. When I got out of the bath I heard a knock on the door and it was the Holi gang with a big "Happy Holi!" They had come to see Anji who was stuck at home sick. Meanwhile Nimo gets up from meditation and wordlessly gesticulates for me to invite the crew in for lunch. Fortuitously they were all extremely hungry and we had leftovers from the day before when we hosted Wednesday meditation (for the first time!). So we sat everyone in our house and cooked up an impromptu lunch. With an emphasis on impromptu, since Nimo and I were not particularly prepared to feed a hungry pack of 12 people that afternoon. But everyone was very flexible and played a role, it was a wonderful opportunity to serve each other. The love in the air really made the day holy. I would go into more detail, but Mariette posted a lovely description of the day which captured the spirit beautifully:

After a morning of fun and carefree holi playing in Ahmedabad last Thursday, we wanted to share the spirit with Anjali who had been stuck at home sick. We came, all 12-15 of us, covered with the rainbow of vibrant colored powder we had been throwing onto each other all morning. After some generous snacks from Anjali, it was time for lunch. Instead of heading out to find a place to eat together, a lunch magically, serendipitously and effortlessly appeared across the hall, in the apartment of Nimesh and Neil: Neil heated the leftovers from the previous day's Wednesday meditation. Nimeshbhai made some more rice. I ran off to buy gathiya down the street. Others gathered the necessary plates, silverware and bowls. Neil offered granola bars while people waited. Within minutes and with the addition of peanuts and bananas, we found our plates suddenly piled high with an amazing collection of food prepared and gathered with love. The lunch was complete with the addition of a beautiful bouquet of orange flowers in the center of our circle, to complement the greens and blues on our faces and clothes. It was a beautiful act of collective service.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Gym Ra(n)t

The other day at the gym I went off at one of the trainers. It was a long time coming.

I've been weight training regularly for over ten years, starting in college (when I stopped playing soccer). It is one of my routine sanctuaries, like meditation. When I am at the gym I like to do my thing and not be disturbed. In the US this works well because pretty much everyone else is in the same boat. But not so in India.

In Indian gyms everyone's in your shit. The trainers are always inserting themselves into your exercise, assuming you need their help and expertise. Usually the gym oversubscribes the membership, so it's crowded and other patrons are all around you using equipment. People don't really coordinate with each other to "work in", usually they will just take your weight or sit in your machine while you're between sets, without asking.

But the thing that really gets under my skin about gyms here is the spotting. It's preposterous. Trainers or patrons will straddle and/or grind each other in provocative positions. Take for example the bench press. In the US the spotter stands behind the bench and bar, and lends aid with his hands lightly as needed. In India, the spotter stands from the front and straddles the bench presser so that his nuts are in the guy's face. And he always seems to forget that he's only supposed to be giving aid if needed; he ends up doing most of the lifting so you're left doing 30 quick reps with no resistance. And also, people aggressively bark encouragement at each other. Imagine doing a bench press with a guy's nuts in your face ferociously yelling at you to lift while he does the lifting. That's basically the state of weight training in India today.

So all of this had caused a build up of negativity in me. I had an icy relationship with the trainers at my gym; I'm the guy that always has his earphones on and doesn't want to be bothered. They don't like it, but what can I do? India is full of people, the gym is one of the few places I get to be truly alone over the course of the day. I am protective of that space. It's a fragile truce that shattered the other day.

I think the initial trigger that day was seeing a particularly absurd spotting job going on. There was a guy on his knees doing a kneeling cable pulldown. The spotter was straddling the guy with his crotch in an inappropriate position near the guy's rear end. The the guy was bobbing up and down doing the exercise. It really pissed me off.

Later on I was doing seated chest press and out of nowhere a trainer (though he was uniformed so I didn't know at the time) comes out of nowhere and puts his hands out to resist my outward motion. His spot is working against me! I was totally miffed and in disbelief that he would do such a thing. I look at him and say a gruff "No", and motion for him with my head to move his hands away (my hands were still in mid-rep). But he doesn't and says something I can't make out from inside my headphones. I say for him to move again and wait, but he still doesn't. At this point he had crossed the line, so that's when I lose it. I slam the weight back and stand up and get up in his face, "Don't you EVER do that". And then just mean mug him for the next 8-10 seconds. I had a real bulldog glare going, I could feel it in my face muscles. From the fire in my eyes his face morphed from confusion (he probably didn't think he had done anything wrong) to fear. "Yes sir, sorry sir," and drops his eye contact. I was angry but in enough control to reflect in the moment, "Man, I just punked this poor guy!" I've never intimidated anyone in my life in any context. To be honest it felt empowering, like discovering a mutant power I never knew I had. Jay and Jo would have been proud.

But in the end it sucks because it added to my negative reputation at the gym. I'm pretty sure all the trainers hate me. That's not a good feeling. But what to do? I want to be friendly without them thinking it's an invitation to get in my business. Maybe I'll bring them some snacks one day, like energy bars from US. Till then I'm the belligerent anti-social foreign a-hole with headphones. Maybe I'll have to take the hit on this one.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Kahaani Cup

Today was a banner day for the MS football program. We held a tournament at Kahaani Football Academy's grounds at Sarkhej. All of our four teams were scheduled to play, but the Ashramshalla team had to drop out at the last minute due to a scheduling conflict (yes, these kids are tough to get on the calendar). But our other three teams boarded Khushi ("Happiness"), Manav Sadhna's bus, this morning at 8am and headed over for the tournament.

Manishaben, Kahaani's director, graciously agreed to let our kids hold their tournament at their grounds. Not only that, she had two of her coaches on hand to work with our kids, and a bunch of the academy's players to play an exhibition match before our tournament began. But since we were missing a fourth team, they also agreed to play in the tournament.

You can see the day's happenings through the photo show below, but I want to highlight a few stories from the day.

Our kids have been absolutely jacked about this tournament for the last two weeks. Rahulbhai told me that one of our boys Arvind, who is a ragpicker, had to go out and work for his family on tournament day. So he got up early at 4am to finish his work in time to still play. And while he was awake, he also cleaned the shoes for his teammates so they would be ready to roll at gametime.

One team held a players-only meeting the night before to talk strategy and make sure everyone knew what positions they were going to play. They also all agreed to wake up at 4am to make sure they had a proper cleansing at the toilet. Because they needed a clean stomach to play their best.

Our format was to have two first round matches, with the winner of each meeting in a championship match. The first match was between Powerhouse and Parinde, and went to PKs. It was an incredibly intense situation. The Kahaani field had the PK spot impossibly close to the goal, leaving the keeper little chance. But somehow there was one block by the Powerhouse keeper, so they edged it out.

For the first time our kids played a match with a ref blowing a whistle. And they played like it was the first time. They would not listen to the whistle at all! We could never get them to stop on a foul or even halftime.

Our kids played great. I encouraged them at the beginning of the tournament to focus on using the full space of the field, which they never get in our cramped Ashramshalla practice ground. Use the space to pass and keep positions. They did a decent job, but it was clear that on a proper field like this they are playing a different game. In a constrained space, there are so many important things we can't practice with them; attacking and defending organization, marking space and opponents, communication, set pieces, shooting. Basically everything other then local feet-to-feet passing and dribbling. It's like a stunted type of development, they don't have the room (literally) to spread their wings (figuratively) and develop as well-rounded footballers. This is a big problem. Virenbhai and I renewed our determination to bring this kind of environment to the kids locally. This was the same vision that Football Action originally had. The kids are ready for it, and there is commitment. It is time to make it happen.

Kahaani's team dominated the tournament. In the first round they beat Ahemdabad Fighters 3-0 and in the final beat Powerhouse 4-1. Their kids are not necessarily more talented, but have more experience (4 years on average vs. 8 months for our kids) and are better coached. We had gotten a high quality ball as the trophy prize for the winning team, so it went to Kahaani team. It took some wind out of our kids' chests to get beat so soundly (and also to lose that awesome ball). On the bus ride home it was mostly silent, a big contrast to the ride in the morning. A mix of exhaustion and dejection. But I sensed the stronger sentiment was determination. They took the loss as they should, as a learning experience and a wakeup call. Instructive and constructive. One thing I've noticed about our kids, they don't back down.

One trend I've observed about coaching style in Indian athletics (sports, at my gym, etc.) is that the common approach is militaristic. Coaches yell a lot, berate, encourage through brutality instead of quiet, thoughtful influence. I was always coached with the latter style, since American sports culture tends to favor a coach that encourages and supports calmly rather than one that stomps around yelling. I also think it's a more effective style. I'd like to instill that into our coaches, among other things. One of the main takeaways from this tournament was that our coaches need coaching as much as the players. They themselves are new to the game, and so they are not very effective in leading their teams. There are two things we want to do to work on the coaches: one, expose them to good football through videos. This also goes for the players. Their mental models of good football is barren, something I take for granted since the sport is burned into my subconscious. They need to see what it means to play the game correctly, and to mimic it. Second thing is for them to actually mimic it by playing themselves.

It was such a glorious day overall. All the coaches were smiles and so enthusiastic about the sport and working with these kids. For me, they are an inexhaustible fountain of joy.