Sunday, February 9, 2014

Unsung Hero

Raghu Makwana, a friend and long-time pillar of the Manav Sadhna ecosystem, passed away yesterday. Lot of people closer to him will probably be posting more detailed tributes about him and his work (UPDATE: beautiful writeup by Sid) , I want to share some of my reflections on what he did and who he was, and what it means to me.

Raghu was a true unsung hero. He wasn't famous, he didn't have followers, his work was small. But it was done with a deep purity and with a vast amount of love. He was a real-life manifestation of Mother Teresa's credo: "We can do no great things; only small things with great love".

I will remember a few personal moments with Raghu. First was his smile and his loving embrace. Having no legs, he was low to the ground, so to give him a hug you'd often have to crouch down on the ground. But it never felt unnatural or abnormal. In fact his "disability" didn't enter my conciousness much if at all when interacting with him. That may be one of his most inspiring qualities. He had such dignity, he never let you feel sorry for him.

And he never felt sorry for himself. As Amitabh shared today during the funeral, he was a modern-day Shravan. Instead of asking his parents to take care of him, he took care of his parents and his entire family.

He took care of so many others as well. He treated the 30+ maa-jis he served through Tyaag Nu Tiffin like his own mothers. Jayeshbhai noted today that he would feed all of them before he ate himself. So he acted like a mother to them. That motherly love is close to Godly love. Jayeshbhai called Raghu "baghwaan nu maanas" ("man of god"). And that's why he left us so early; God called him up to do His work.

I will never forget Fernando's sharing during an Awaking circle just after he had spent a day making the tiffin rounds with Raghu on his custom-made hand-pedalled cycle. Fernando was an MS volunteer from Guatemala. That day when he saw Raghu interacting with the maa-jis, he felt closer to God than he had ever felt. People were confused about him coming to volunteer in India. Why were you going? Were you depressed or crazy? Why are you leaving your good career and all your friends? Fernando didn't have an answer to the question until that day with Raghu. That day, he realized he had come to India to tell his "masterpiece" love story, and it was about a man with polio in an Indian slum serving meals to old women.

Countless others have been  touched by Raghu's feats of love. Abdul Kalam once saluted him and presented him an award. Jayeshbhai shared that a volunteer from the other side of the world heard about Raghu's passing and called him, crying and crying. She was from a different country, followed a different tradition, observed a different religion, spoke a different language, but had connected with Raghu's heart. And so she was crying and crying about how this soul could have left us so suddenly.

Nisha and I talked tonight about pure work. Without putting any labels on it himself, Raghu did pure, heartfelt work. I remember speaking to him a year or so ago after his first 10-day, he had a visible glow. He had seen how the inner work related to the outer, how he had connected the dots and gained a spiritual perspective to performing each action. He had reached a new understanding. And since then he had put it into practice.

These days I find myself thinking about legacy more that I probably should (read:EGO). What is Raghu's legacy, now that he is no more? His work was a drop in the ocean, but it was so pure, done with genuine love, beyond seeking self-congratulation or external accolades. And that purity itself rippled out. Fernando wasn't moved because Raghu was an exemplary social entrepreneur. He was moved by the depth of Raghu's compassion and love.

I find myself feeling more and more that for me planting seeds of compassion and love is the only legacy worth striving for.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Manav Sadhna Football 2013

After over three years, the Manav Sadhna Football Program continues to march on, driven by the enthusiasm and dedication of its players. Below is an update from the past year.



Sunday morning practices have remained an anchor-point for the program. An average of 20 players (out of ~25 total) come to practice and play from 7am-12pm. The practices follow a standard format: warmup/running, stretching, passing and dribbling drills, shooting/small sided games, scrimmage, prayer and snacks. Over the last year the players have shown significant improvement in their ball control and passing skills. Our team is small and physically weaker than most of the competition, so our philosophy is to play with higher skill. We cannot outrun our opponents, so we try to out-pass and out-think them. This is one of the reasons we have modeled our play after FC Barcelona, who became the best team in world emphasizing passing and teamwork.



In the past two months the team has participated in two local soccer tournaments. The first was hosted by Kaahani, one of Ahmedabad's top soccer clubs. In Kahaani's Sintex Cup, Manav Sadhna's team participated in the under-15 division, which prevented some of our best players from playing. Yet the team gave a strong showing for two matches. In the first match, Manav Sadhna conceded two quick goals in the first half due to lack of organization on defense. We struggled to keep up with the speed of the opposing players and the large space they were suddenly tasked with defending. After the second goal we settled down considerably. In the second half, we held the opponent to a 0-0 draw. In the second game, the team faced a superior opponent who picked our team apart. The score was easily run up to double digits, with our team having perhaps one strong scoring opportunity. It was a thorough beating. However, the team responded with resolve to improve and practiced hard for their next tournament match, which was held several weeks later as part of Gujarat's Khel Mahakumbh. It was a single elimination tournament with thousands of teams from all over Gujarat participating. Matches were only 20 minutes. In our first match, Manav Sadhna drew a strong but equally matched opponent. The game was intensely played and our team did well to keep organized on the defensive end. The game ended in a 0-0 draw, and went to a penalty shoot-out. In the shoot-out, our players were confident but ultimately came up short, losing 3-1. The players were absolutely devastated. They had come so close to their first victory! After the match, the players sat silently together waiting for the bus, not speaking a word for 15 minutes. They were very disappointed with the outcome. However, as has become a trademark of these children, they bounced back up. With the clear goal of winning their next match in mind and within reach, they have come much more prepared and focused to practice.


Challenges: Field and Equipment

The program continues to struggle with two main challenges: adequate equipment for the children and adequate practice facility. Some players still lack shoes. Shoes, socks, and balls especially wear out fast due to inappropriate field conditions. Currently the team practices in the abandoned lot area across the street from Gandhi Ashram, next to Vinay Mandir. This is a hard dirt area that is uneven and very rocky. The children are uncomfortable practicing in cleats on this hard ground for long periods of time. Also, the game's flow is interrupted because of the unpredictable terrain. It is unfortunate that the children still lack a proper place to grow their skills. With an open grass field, the children would be able to play in game-like conditions and also be able to practice aspects of the game that are difficult or impossible on hard ground/dirt (tackling, positional tactics, shooting and set pieces, etc.)

Personal Reflections

I continue to be very moved by participating in the Football Program. First and foremost, I am inspired by the children. They have developed a true love and passion for this game. They are dedicated to being better players. They go beyond what is asked of them to improve. In Jamalpur, for example, the players organize their own practices during the week. And they point out that they don't just play matches, they run drills and do exercises that they learned from Sunday practices. Despite having limited open space and lots of trash around, they are able to carry on their practice. One thing they especially work on is juggling the ball individually and in groups. When we first introduced juggling a few months ago, players could keep the ball in the air for a only a few touches. Now, almost all can juggle 10 and some up to 50 touches. Group juggling has become a fun and lively game.

It is a joy to be a part of a program where the children themselves drive things. We do not have to push the players to practice more; they are the ones pushing the coaches to extend practice for an extra hour or organize more matches. They have made it clear through their consistent commitment that they want to improve and grow with the game. One of the signature stories I tell about the dedication of these children is the Jamalpur players' Sunday morning routine. Living on the other side of the city, they wake up at 5am on Sunday morning to catch a bus by 6am, which brings them to Manav Sadhna for practice by 7. All by themselves, with no one other than each other to be accountable to. And this is on Sunday, one of their precious days off!

One of the most memorable moments I've had with the children was the practice we had two days after being blown out of the match at Sintex Cup. I was curious to see how the players would approach the practice having experienced a very discouraging loss. Would they see practice as hopeless and not put in the effort? Before the practice started, I reminded them that in sports, there is always one team that has to lose. The question isn't whether you will lose, because every team loses. The important question is how you respond to losing. Do you hang your head or do you learn from the loss and work on your weaknesses even harder? They took the message to heart and worked very hard that day. It was probably the best practice we had all year.

Going forward, it will be mine and the other coaches' main responsibility to offer more opportunities for these players to improve. Whether it is more tournaments and matches, better coaching and training, and/or better facilities and equipment, we have to make sure that we don't put a ceiling on the players' development and instead let them fly as far as their wings will take them. So far the players have shown real talent; it makes me hopeful that some day one of our players will make it to the national level.

Football (and sports in general) is a powerful medium to make better human beings. Having grown up as an athlete, I never recognized or appreciated the things football instilled in me until I began coaching these children. Football, in particular, teaches so many important life skills. Discipline, work ethic, teamwork, cooperation, communication, flexibility, even empathy and generosity. It is such a fluid game, each player is so interdependent on the other. My team will only succeed if I put my teammates in better positions to make a good pass or take a shot. So I have to care for and go the extra mile for my teammates.

Over time, I have seen a shift in the children. Most of these children have very challenged backgrounds, growing up in harsh environments. It is not their nature to cooperate with each other and communicate in positive ways. Early on, we often used to see teammates stopping to berate each other in the middle of the game, not realizing that they were doubly hurting their team by being negative and stopping their own play to do so. But over time, I have heard their vocabulary change. They are much more encouraging to each other. Nowadays, you are much more likely to hear "well done!" or "good defense!" than a negative comment on the field.

It is a blessing to be a part of these children's lives, to give them love and to receive so much love from them. This experience has shown me how important sports have been in my life, how much they have molded me to the person I am today. Coaching these children, I see how much influence my own coaches had on my personality. And I feel deeply moved to use the medium of sports to bring a positive influence on these children's lives.

Last but not least, I want to recognize and thank Rahulbhai. This program stands on his shoulders, he is the backbone. He is boundlessly dedicated to these children and supporting their growth. He comes to practice on his only day off from regular duties as arts teacher at Manav Sadhna. He never misses a practice or game, and is never late. He brings energy, tough love, and committed strength to this program. I feel fortunate and blessed to be working with him on this project.

Support The Team

We are seeking support for equipment and building a proper practice field for the MS Football Program. We welcome gifts of cash and in-kind. We would also welcome those who are moved to come and volunteer their time with the team. If you are interested in learning more about how you can help, please contact me at neilpatel AT gmail.

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Last month I went on a 8-day trip to Ladkah. I went with Paras who was celebrating the end of his medical training. We spent two days in Leh, where we acclimated to the high altitude while visiting nearby Buddhist hotspots and Pangong Lake, the site of the final scene in 3 Idiots. After that we disappeared into the Markha Valley, where we trekked for four nights and five days through ~100kms of beautiful wild country.

We took about 1000 photos collectively, below I've compiled into about 200 to tell a story of the trip:

A few memorable takeaways from the trip not captured in the photos:

* In life we have to walk our path. While we tend to focus on the physical obstacles, the most onerous are mental. If you have fear and doubt as you walk your path, each step is made that much heavier and thus incrementally the destination becomes harder to reach or goes out of reach. On the fourth day of our trek, we walked the grueling span between Hankar and Nimaling. We were told the hike would take us 3-4 hours. After 6-7 hours, we began wondering whether we had taken a wrong turn. On one hand, the path was clearly marked out in front of us; the guide book described our scenery with the mountain on one side, the river on the other, the plains we were traversing, all exactly as we were seeing it. But fear and doubt had crept in all the way back during the third or fourth hour, questioning whether we were going the right way. And each step since then had chipped away at our confidence. I went ahead up the trail without my pack to see if we saw Nimaling's tent village past the next clearing. I went expectantly to look for it, but saw nothing. Coming back to Paras, we decided to head back along the trail and re-trace our steps, thinking we had gone astray. I started fitting the facts to the imagined reality that we were lost. Maybe we should have stayed with the river where there was a faint trail, maybe we were on a trail that was not shown in our trail maps. Fortunately after about 30 min going back we ran right into a group that had been trailing us. Their guide confirmed we were in fact going the right way all along. Relief! As it turned out, I had come just 3 minutes short of being able to see Nimaling when I had walked ahead. But I came short three minutes because of hours of doubt that had built up before that. Reflecting on that day, we had been on the correct path all along. Had we stayed confident and committed to that path, we would have met our goal. But we walked the correct physical path with a mental state of doubt and fear. And that was enough to change the correct path to the wrong one and almost cost us our destination.

* During this trip I read an extraordinary book, "Three Steps, One Bow" by Hung Ju and Hung Yo of the Gold Mountain Monastery in SF. It was gifted to me by Aarthi, who coincidentally had just traveled to Ladakh herself. This was one of the best books I have ever read, one of those rare ones where you never want it to end and despair as the thickness of unread pages dwindles thinner and thinner. It spoke to me clearly and deeply. The two monks chronicle their daily experiences during an 1,100 mile bowing pilgrimage from San Francisco to Marblemount, WA. The pilgrimage was amazing. It gave me great inspiration that anyone of us can do something great and meaningful. They faced incredible difficulties, from injuries to being arrested to being physically and verbally abused to nearly being hit by traffic. So many people tried to convert them or tell them they were crazy. But there were so many that were moved by the bowing monks. What I loved most about the book was how the monks themselves wrote and reflected. They were two just delightful, aware, humble, gentle, humorous dudes. I laughed so many times, and I teared up couple times too. I loved some of their reflections that were more spiritual:
  • To me, the river is a reminder of the ever-flowing stream of thought that runs in the mind. In Chinese, this flow is called wang syang (false thinking). This superflous cogitation is constantly making discriminations; dividing and categorizing, breaking up a fundamentally undifferentiated reality into myriads of pieces. Of course the pieces seem to be reality, too, but we become confused by these false projections, and greedily seek what we think is "good" and reject what is "bad". The superficial boundaries of "mine" and "others" are falsely established. From this arises quarreling and all manner of afflictions, up to and including world wars, and it's all simply because we are confused by this river of thought. -- Hung Ju
  • The Buddha says that in his efforts to describe the true mind, his is like someone who wishes to show a friend the full moon. He points to the moon with his finger, but the friend misunderstands and thinks that the finger is the object of attention. But he is doubly deluded, for not only does he not see the real moon, he doesn't see the finger for what it really is. Just as the pointing finger is not the moon, the language which is used to refer to or point out our inherent enlightenment is not itself enlightenment. One must be careful not to seize on language as ultimately true or real, of it is transcended by the fundamentally pure, clear Buddha-nature. --Hung Yo
I have a feeling I will keep these two monks and their journey in my mind and heart for a long time to come.

* An aha moment I had during this trek is that I have too much junk in my mind. I am increasingly growing disintersted in accumulating facts. At one point in life I thought being smart meant knowing the most facts. But there are so many useless facts in my head. Nowadays minimalism and simplicity are very popular design paradigms for physical and virtual spaces. I would like to take it one step further and apply minimalism to my inner space.  One of the most rewarding experiments I did on the trek was to completely empty my mind as I walked. For the entire five day trek, with the exception of a few hours here and there, we followed the Markha River through the valley that it had cut. The river was our loyal companion, and it Paras and I grew quite attached to it. I mentioned to him at one point that when we couldn't see it you could  sometimes feel separation anxiety. As I walked, I would try to concentrate so that my mind was totally empty of stray thoughts, and would try to fill my consciousness with the sound of the river and the feeling of my body as I moved. I found it deeply satisfying. What I got out of the practice was some experience in trying to be constantly aware and mentally still while doing intense physical activity. I feel that one ability I lack is taking deep mental stillness off the cushion and into daily life; this trek provided a good opportunity to practice in an intermediate context. I thank the Markha River for the help.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Living In India: Grow a Thick Skin, Desensitize

My uncle Babumama gives everyone this advice about living in India: "Never compare India to California. They are two different places. If you start comparing things between India and home, it will be a nightmare to live there."

Photo courtesy: Sameer Sampat

Over the years I've found this to be sage advice, and I repeat it to all would-be NRIs. Recently I stumbled into a corollary. I was in Delhi with Paras and Sampat. Sam has just moved to India from Boston, and he'll be here for two years. It was night and we were walking up the stairs to the metro from the street level. Off of the metro catwalk there was a row of large lights. Surrounding each light was a huge thick disgusting swarm of insects. It was so obscene all three of us noticed it at the same time.
Sam (Laughing in slight disbelief and disgust): Did you SEE that?!?
Me: I see it, but I don't see it.
If I had one sentence to describe what it's like to live in India, that would be it.

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

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