Thursday, August 29, 2013

Toilet And A Rainbow

Last week I was walking out of Patangyu with Anjali and out of a crack in the fence we spotted a woman limping up the hill from the dumping ground. Her ankle was wrapped in white gauze. A very old, very little woman was trying to help her walk. We went over to see if they needed help. The injured woman had a pained look on her face, squinting from her foot and the heat. She collapsed to the ground as we came over, exhausted from hopping up the hill. We offered to carry her back home. Rahul and I made a chair for her with our joined arms, we lifted her up and walked over to her house.

Once we got there Anjali got the story. The woman had taken a nasty fall and her ankle was badly sprained. The doctor had wrapped it up but given no medicine or further instructions. She was unable to walk on her own. She was so demobilized that she couldn't even go to the bathroom. And there was no one besides her mother, the little old woman, to attend to her. But the mother had a high fever herself, so was too weak to help. As a result the woman had stopped eating since her injury; that way she would not need to go to the bathroom. And since she wasn't eating, the mother stopped cooking, figuring there was no point to cook for just herself. None of her neighbors had offered assistance.

Clearly they were at a distressed low point. We walked out with Anji reassuring them that we would do something to help. She already had a plan. As we walked back to the car she said we would build the woman a toilet that she could use while her ankle recovered. We would get a plastic chair, cut a hole in the seat, and put a bucket underneath. We would also give her some sand which she could cover her waste to avoid odor. We would set it up inside their house; the mother would simply have to clean the bucket everyday. Once she had a way to go, she was free to start eating. Once she started eating, mother would start eating, and both would hopefully recover more quickly.

One of the things I admire most about Anji is that she is highly sensitive. In the sense that she has incredible powers of observation and awareness, and also in the sense that she has very deep empathy and willingness to connect with people in any circumstance. In this case most people would have stopped at helping this woman home and maybe listening to her sad story. Most people tend to keep chance encounters shallow. It's too messy to go deeper into people's lives, especially strangers. If you had to stop and get involved with every person you run into, you'd never get your work done! But that is Anji's work. She has an incredible fearless openness and curiosity to following threads, wherever they may lead. She recently shared how she was on her way somewhere, spotted a man eating some morsels on the side of the way, stopped to talk to him, and ended up canceling her other appointment to share a meal because "there was something interesting" about the man. Another time she told me she decided to walk home from Ganeshnagar through the Tekra and it took her three hours (normally 30 min) because family after family stopped to talk or invite her in for chai. In these and many situations she puts no self-imposed limit on how deep or how far she will go in connecting; she keeps it open-ended for fate to decide.

In this case fate had us building a toilet. After it became clear that there was nothing more to it than a bucket underneath a chair, I marveled at the elegance. This is what Ishwar Kaka must have fallen in love with! He would have been delighted and proud of this project. I was thrilled that something so simple could have a big impact on the woman. By cutting a hole in a chair and placing a bucket under, it would set off a chain of events that would help this woman live much more comfortably. It was reminiscent but seemed a lot less thorny than the time we tried to build a bridge for Ganeshnagar.

One thing I suffer from is tunnel vision. When I am doing a task, blinders go up so I can focus on the task and filter out the distractions. Linear thinker. It's good in a way, but one downside is I often miss elegant shortcuts or helpful leaps that I wasn't expecting. Anji has no such problem. She is a master at being aware of her surroundings and finding hidden resources everywhere. Spatial thinker. When we were walking down to the car with the chair and bucket, we were getting into the car and in front of us were some painters up on ladders doing some work on our building. Behind them was a pile of sand. Naturally it was spare, so we could help ourselves. Meanwhile she noticed the painters were carelessly splattering paint on the plants next to the wall. She asked them to be mindful because the plants are lives too.

We got back to Ganeshnagar and the Patangyu kids sprang into action to cut and deliver the toilet. We traced out a hole, which was done with much deliberation and with input from the females on the team. Rahul took the plastic chair into his house and heated up a small kitchen knife on the gas stove. When it got red hot he quickly pressed it into the chair on the traced line. He got the four edges started with the hot knife then finished it off with a saw. He was drenched in sweat working in a tight stuffy area with a hot knife and burning plastic fumes wafting around him. The cut came out perfect. It was magnificent work.

As a finishing touch the kids named the chair Santosh ("satisfaction" as in satisfaction of relief), drew a smiley and wrote the date to commemorate Patangyu company's first toilet prototype. We brought it to the woman who accepted it and agreed to use it and also to eat. We placed the chair and bucket in a carefully chosen place in her one-room home to conveniently sit, access water to clean herself, easily get to the sand, and not be in the way of other stuff. Anji checked on their food supplies, they seemed ok. She handed the woman some packets of Advil to help with the pain, but reminded her that she could only take them with food.

As we walked back with the kids one of them spotted a rainbow. It was faint, but it was definitely there. I thought it was a fitting way to mark the conclusion of the adventure.

To me this story is remarkable in many ways. If you asked Anjali, she probably wouldn't agree. That's what makes it so remarkable. This is her life, this is how she lives. Actually, this is who she is. I just happened to be there that day, but these sorts of episodes are a routine part of her life. This story captures Anjali in a nutshell. This is her essence.

I think for outsiders looking in it is an inspiration to see how living a life that is open to and even strives toward depth of interaction at every turn becomes a rich life, a life worth living.

Monday, August 19, 2013


My favorite shopping experience in India is at a store called Hypercity. It is a combination of Walmart and Safeway. The chain of stores originated in Bombay, there is one in Ahmedabad in Alpha Mall, the city's best mall.

I appreciate that Hypercity is spotlessly neat-and-clean, it has great selection of items, the store is arranged with space and planning, and is affordable. Lots of food items including organic, fresh produce, good quality household items and electronics, all at reasonable prices. But what I love most about Hypercity is that it has friendly and helpful staff. In India the concept of customer service basically doesn't exist yet. So it is a pleasant and welcome surprise to see that people at Hypercity actually want to do a good job and care about satisfying the customer.

Recently I purchased some furniture from Hypercity: two beds and two wardrobes. I had to pay by check, which I carefully wrote out and handed to the salesman. He went to bring me the bill but came back saying I had written Hypercity Ltd. as the payee, instead of Hypercity India Ltd., so the check could not be processed. Unfortunately this was my last check. The salesman acknowledged it was his mistake. That was a big step. Then he tried to figure out a solution, another big step. The store was far away, it wasn't easy for me to just come over the next day with a payment. We decided that I would go to the bank and get a new check the next day, and they would send someone to my office to pick it up. Meanwhile they would hold on to the items I ordered and not give them away. I thought this was risky, because it would be typical for something in this plan to go wrong. Either they wouldn't show up to get the check, or the items would disappear. But I had no choice.

So next day I get the check ready and sure enough a Hypercity boy comes to my office and picks it up. The next day I get a call from Hypercity saying the check didn't clear; my account had insufficient funds. It turned out that my bank had issued me new checks for the wrong bank account. This is a typical move by my bank, but the nightmare of personal banking in India is the subject of a whole other series of expose blog posts. I told Hypercity I'd have to go back to the bank and get the right checks, and they would have to send someone again. This time I apologized, and the sales guy (who was the same contact from the beginning so I wasn't stuck having to explain the situation to ten different guys) understood and said it was fine. At the end of the day he still felt bad that all of this happened because he botched the payee name for the original check.

Next day the I get the check and again the pickup happens by Hypercity. Later that day I get another call from Hypercity saying there is now another problem. Uh oh, I thought. I knew this was going to happened. No way so many steps were going to be taken without a setback that collapsed the whole house. Either my items were gone or the check had another issue or some other issue.

The salesman said problem was that the price of one of my items had changed since I was first in the store. When he said that I felt the frustration rising. There it is! Now these guys are going to use this disastrous situation which was their own doing to gouge me for more money. But what the salesman said next totally shocked me and took my breath away. The price of the item had gone down and that my new total was less than the original. He just called to ask whether I wouldn't mind taking the difference as store credit. The only catch was I'd have to go into the store to personally claim the credit.

This floored me. Never in all my years in India had such a thing happened. Hypercity was going out of their way to give me a discount! The guy didn't have to do it. How would I have ever known that the price had dropped? He could easily have pocketed the difference through some corruption in their transaction system. And after all that we went through, all the extra work and effort on both sides to finish this transaction, he may have even considered it justified.

But instead they made a customer into a loyal customer. I couldn't have been more thrilled. Later when I went to the store to spend my credit, I bought some chocolate for all of the sales team, many of whom knew me and helped make my final outcome happen. They were reluctant and humble, and very appreciative. Many of them now know me by name and I know them, and we greet each other with a smile when I'm back at the store.

There is hope for customer service to exist in India. Hypercity is a beacon of that bright future.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Made me think of Sam

For more information, please visit

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Vehicular Liberation

I started driving last week. I haven't gotten my own car yet, but Maddog let me borrow his 2003 Maruti Zen. After the very first day taking the car out, I felt my lifestyle had fundamentally changed. It was a surprising shift. All of a sudden I felt liberated. I felt empowered to go where I want, when I wanted. It felt a lot closer to my life in California, where I feel the most free and in control.

I have been trying to understand why having a car has changed my life so deeply. After all, before I still could go where I wanted, when I wanted. In theory. Getting around by rickshaw isn't hard in Ahmedabad. They are plentiful, you can usually find one within a few minutes, and you can pay set prices by the meter. So what's the big difference?

I've come up with several reasons. One, you sometimes do have to wait, and in certain places or times of the day it's tough finding a rickshaw at all. Two, you can't stop or change directions as easily. Three, drivers never carry enough change, so there is always background tension about paying for your ride. Four, there is always a chance the driver will try to rip you off or take you the long way, which is another source of background tension. Five, you're exposed to the elements, especially heat, rain, and pollution.

All of these are small inconveniences that when aggregated together over months and years makes for a less pleasurable experience. One thing most of the above reasons have in common is they are inconveniences experienced each time you ride a rickshaw. They are the transaction costs of rickshaw traveling. And each of these transactions carries a bit of tension with it. I think it's the 5-6 extra transactions a day that wore me down over time. You hardly notice it during the act, but once you don't have to do it, you are aware of your new-found freedom. With a car the main transaction is paying at the petrol station, but of course that's one transaction amortized across lots more traveling.

I wonder how improved life would be if we made "minimize/eliminate transactions" a design principle for society.