Sunday, May 24, 2015

Golden Temple

Visiting the Golden Temple in Amritsar was the best experience I've had in my life at a religious site. The connection to the spirit and values of the place was immediate, natural, and complete. Nimo, who along was Jay was with me on the visit, mentioned that it was the first place where he felt completely natural and worry-free entering a public bathroom barefoot. Being around the temple felt like being home.

We spent two days in Amritsar, and visited the main tourist sites: Jallianwala Bagh, and Wagah border. But the main attraction, and where we spent most of our time, was the Golden Temple. The first night we arrived we did a cursory survey of the space, wandering around the outer area and meditating at the banks. The next morning we woke up early at 3am to get there when friends recommended it was at its peaceful best. We waited in line and did dharshan in the temple, and meditated there for some time. As we walked around, Nimo mentioned several times how the space felt so inviting. The universal love embedded in Sikhi felt embodied in the space. You didn't feel judged, coerced, bothered. Everyone came as they were and were accepted into the fold of the place in an effortless, respectful flow. Whether you wanted a place to eat, sleep, or pray, this was a clean, inviting space for anyone to come and be. No one ran, pushed in line, gave a dirty look, cramped your space. The rich marble floors and walls were spotless, the water pristine, big healthy happy fish swam in the shallows and bobbed their heads up to say hello. It was a Spiritual Disneyland, but not in the ostentatious vein of Akshardham. Here the attractions were less flashy, more rooted. I thought several times of Guri, who carries herself with the same graceful, understated elegance. Just a pure experience.

As we walked out of the temple that morning, I heard a haggard old lady's voice asking for people to give her space to come through. She was an old shriveled rail thin woman, walking with a cane cutting through the crowd. She was violently hunchback, bent over pretty much 90 degrees. She hobbled gingerly on weak limbs and clutched the pant legs of passersby to keep balance, all the while looking straight down because of her back. Like everyone else, she had come to do her dharshan. And not just at the ground floor; as she clutched my leg and walked by, I looked back and saw that she was climbing up the steep flight of stairs I had just come from to visit a relatively minor part of the temple. Unbelievable. Only in places as spiritually charged as this do you see such miracles of faith and strength.

The level of seva at the Golden Temple was through the roof. I have never seen anything like it, and it was what stood out for me most about the place. Deep, humble seva was happening all around, all the time, in all aspects of the workings of the temple. It reminded of the spirit of volunteerism of Vipassana centers combined with the scale, complexity, and synchronicity of moving parts of an Aravind eye hospital. Visitors to the temple double as volunteers for its upkeep, slotting in to lend a hand at all hours of the day for all levels of work from large to small. One area is cleaning. Cleaning the floors, scrubbing the fountains, wiping down a wall or doorway as you pass with your dupatta or handkerchief. In the long dharshan line to the main temple, I saw one man on hands and knees with a wet cloth mopping the floor as the line slowly moved forward, cleaning inch by inch. In the morning, we saw men chest-deep in the pond, fully clothed, scrubbing the stone rim and floor with long rough brushes. They would slowly wade around the perimeter of the pond in peaceful lines, scrubbing inch after inch, one behind the other, stopping only to thoughtfully hand wash the signs for visitors. This is a part of the temple most people won't even see, yet these men very caringly left no pond floor area unscrubbed. Similar compassionate care was given to a tree in the temple grounds, very old and buckling over from age and weight to near collapse. An elaborate metal support system had been erected to keep it upright.

Many people know about the Lungar operation, which is famous for its huge scale with high quality. We were told 75,000 people are fed in the free kitchen every day. There are vats the size of several men slow cooking huge amounts of tasty black daal. Tons and tons of vegetables, there is a whole hall of people sitting on the floor silently peeling garlic. All day and night, 24 hours. The dining consists of two large halls side by side. You are led into one of them, where there are simple mats already laid out in neat rows. You sit with a steel thali and are served by people roaming around with buckets of daal and yogurt, and baskets of rotis. After all have finished a cleaning crew immediately comes in and starts rolling up the mats and wetting the floors and running huge mops back and forth. Meanwhile the other hall opens for people to start eating while the cleaning completes.

We marveled at the dishwashing operation, which is all done by hand. Four or five large long steel stations are set up side by side with troughs of water. Huge heaps of thalis are poured into the first station; either the all-lady or all-men station scrubs, and passes to the next trough where they are rinsed, then next for another scrub, and another rinse. Millionaires stand side by side with villagers to do the dishes at these stations. The MVP of the operation, though, are the poor chaps who carry huge cans of dirty dishes from the collection area to the dishwashing. Dirty dishes are literally flung into the cans and these chaps acts as backboards to collect the flying steelware. Then they carry these huge heavy cans of dirty dishes over to the troughs and somehow tip them into the trough. True invisible service.

For all the different areas of work happening, there doesn't seem to be a single sign-in or sign-out sheet. It all seems to happen organically. I sat in for some time at a water bowl washing station. As soon as I sat I was automatically integrated into the system, receiving bowls to scrub and passing them down the line for rinsing. Interestingly, we scrubbed the steel bowls with fresh bright black dirt. I watched an older man next to me spend five minutes on each bowl with total serene concentration, scrubbing every nook and cranny, rubbing his fingers into the tiny cracks and wiping back and forth vigorously until the steel shined. It reminded me of Thich Nhat Hanh opening the door and Larry Brilliant serving tea. It wasn't about what you were doing; it was about what was happening to you as you were doing it.

There was no job too small, too humble. One old man inside the temple stood at the doorway in front of a dharshan area, and as people entered silently gestured to those whose heads weren't fully covered to do so. One night it rained, and at the shoe deposit area where men collect your shoes, put them into a cubby and return a token, a line of ladies sat on the ground in the back of the cubby area. In the midst of those dirty muddy shoes, the ladies scrubbed shoes of complete strangers clean with hand brushes. They did this for some time, and then just as nonchalantly as they entered, anonymously left. Godliness in action.

What is the Golden Temple? At one level, an important and popular religious pilgrimage site. Below the surface, it's a high degree of difficulty ballet professionally coordinated with humble effortlessness and ease, powered by pure-intentioned service from an army of visible and invisible hands.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Dharmshala

I want to share three memorable stories from mine and Jay's trip to Dharamshala (technically we were in McCleodganj, which is upper Dharmshala where Dalai Lama's monastery is).

Lion Man Show

On the first day we were in town Jay spotted a flier for a "live tibetan culture show." It sounded worthwhile, and it was Rs.200, which is quite expensive, so we were intrigued. The show was held at a school in town. It turned out to be a one-man show called the Lion Man Show. It was performed by a Tibetan refugee who said his show was about Tibetan culture. It was his expression of Tibet and his way of sharing Tibet's message with the world, through song, music, and dance. It ended up being the best and worst thing I've ever seen.

Lion Man was not a particularly talented performer. He singing was terrible and he couldn't really play the guitar-like instrument he aimlessly plucked in one of his opening numbers. Ten minutes into the show we were questioning whether this was a scam or joke, and trying to figure out how we could get our money back. Then Lion started bringing up people from the audience (particularly the biggest and heaviest folks) and picking them up in feats of strength. He would get them into contortions, pick them up, spin around, run into the audience, and nearly crash before letting them down. At one point he had two people on his back, reached back and pulled off one shoe and sock of each, and started tickling their feet. A few people very nearly face planted. The crowd was partially laughing, partially in shock. None of us were really prepared for what was happening, and weren't sure what to make of it.

In the second part of his act, Lion did dances related to "freedom" of Tibet. One "dance" was him going into the crowd and getting face to face, sometimes lip to lip with every member of the audience as music played. It was funny and intense. Some ladies got up and left the room before they got to their face. I was ready and waiting.

Later Lion did some crazy dances spinning around repeatedly for 15-20 mins, covering his head and spinning, stripping down to his speedo, slamming his body into the hard concrete, kicking off his shoes out the window, jumping out of the window and jumping back in with his lost boot. He also would fart. It seemed like it was a part of the dance. He would repeatedly fart in different poses. In one "dance" he took a singing bowl and beat it repeatedly, putting it on his head and on his body and beating it hard until the knob went flying off. All while inserting farts here and there. For his finale, he unraveled a full roll of toilet paper and wrapped himself in it. Then he lit the paper on fire under a candle, and ate pieces of it. Then he lit parts of his body on fire. You can guess the body parts.

Lion said his performance was about Tibetan culture, but this seemed like nothing to do with Tibet. On the other hand, there were what seemed like a few people in the audience from Tibet, and they were totally into it. I couldn't make out if this was a joke or there was a deeper message to Lion's madness. After the show a couple from Oakland said they believed Lion was doing art and there was meaning behind the shenanigans. Deep message or not, I will not forget Lion for a long time.

Photowalk

We did a photo walk hosted by a young photo journalist Abhinav who had been living in McCleodganj for the last year. There were about seven of us who joined, some of whom like Abhinav were young transplants from metros to live in the natural beauty of the mountains. It was a lovely hike into the woods and down to a river. At the river we stopped and had Maggi. On the way back, I asked for a couple garbage bags from a snack shack owner and started picking up wrappers. All of us got into it. It changed the whole dynamic of the hike. Suddenly we started talking about pollution and waste and other global problems. It brought us closer together. Abhinav said he may make "waste warriors" a regular part of the walks. Everyone became hyper conscious of the trail and trying to pick up every last piece of trash. There was a lot, we filled up several large sacks. It felt a bit obsessive by the end, it is impossible to clean up the whole forest and yet you don't want to leave any small wrapper behind. It does take you out of the enjoyment of nature, but on the other hand you feel like you are a contributor to the place.

It was an example of how a small act can have a dramatic ripple and change the dynamic of a group, for better or worse.

Gift at Four Seasons

There are tons of great places to eat in Mcleodganj. The one restaurant we went to twice was a small family Tibetan restaurant called Four Seasons Cafe. The second time we got to chat with the very sweet lady manager. We discussed vegetarianism, since it's a passionate subject for Jay. We noticed that the restaurant had posted a notice that they will serve and consume vegetarian food only every Wednesday for the year of 2015, in honor of the Dalai Lama and his spirit of kindness. We told her we loved her food, Jay especially loved a Tibetan noodle and gravy dish that he said was the best thing in town. At some point I really wanted to offer her a gift to thank her for her hospitality. But I wasn't really carrying anything appropriate. I reached deep into my bag and pulled out a keychain we had gotten as a gift in Amritsar. It was from a server at Brothers' Dhabha, which happened to be our favorite restaurant in Amritsar during our visit there. I really wasn't thinking of it at the time, but it ended up being an appropriate gift, as I told her that it was from one favorite restaurant to another. She gladly accepted, and even appreciated the idea of a restaurant handing out branded keychains. Maybe she would do the same!

The desire to give was unplanned, but the intention was pure. What was given wasn't appropriate in the moment, but it ended up working out well. A lot of the time it doesn't, but I know folks who have spontaneous meaningful gifting down to an art. Radical generosity, like anything else, can only improve with practice.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Jan Swasthya Sahyog


Last week I visited a remarkable rural hospital, Jan Swasthya Sahyog  (JSS, "People's Health Support Group"). Naman, who is finishing his MD/PhD at UNC, has been doing a clinical elective with them for a couple months. The story of JSS is very inspiring. It was started by six doctors from AIIMS Delhi, India's most prestigious medical training institute. These young doctors including two husband-wife couples decided that they wanted to serve underserved populations. They chose rural Chhatisgarh, where most of the target population was tribal and they had no personal connections. Dr. Yogesh Jain explains that their group was always different from their other AIIMS colleagues in that they were interested in not just the "what" or technical bits, but the "why" and "how" of medicine. What affected them most was the inequality that exists in society. Says Dr. Jain, "If deprivation is the cause of illnesses, then physicians become the natural attorneys for the poor."

I flew to Raipur, then took a taxi 3 hours out to the JSS campus, 20km outside of Bilaspur. It is a rustic place. My mental picture was a somewhat manicured university-style setting cut out of the rural heartland. Instead, JSS is embedded in the landscape like it is home-grown for the area, pregnant with dark lush thick trees which Dr. Yogesh told me was the first thing they tended to when they started 15 years ago.  The hospital is a series of brick buildings connected by corridors, many of which are under construction as new wards are added. Those corridors are chock full of patients. People come from as far as Rajasthan to be treated at JSS, because it's known for honest, high-quality, comprehensive care. There's even a chemo-therapy unit. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, the hospital sees patients, and they hand out 300 tokens per day. Sometimes your token doesn't get you to see a doctor till the next day, or your loved one is getting treated over an extended period of time. So people are just camped out all over the corridors.

The evening I arrived, Naman was showing me around the campus under a bright glimmering starry sky and he was on call. He got a call about a crashing patient, he was going into cardiac arrest. Naman raced off to see the patient. Later I caught up with him, and he told me the patient had died. I walked into the ward and saw the dead body. Earlier that day they had lost an infant.

To say that the situation with these patients is dire is an understatement. A rural doctor sees all kinds of stuff. Naman has treated bites from snakes, monkeys, dogs, and more.  One of the most common diagnosis I observed was cancer.  Chronic diseases like diabetes, sickle cell, and epilepsy are typical. Naman said that most women come in and complain of abdomen pain or pregnancy. And the diagnosis ends up often being infertility, UTI, abnormal menstruation, or cancer.

I watched a leg amputation, the first time I had ever seen a surgery live. The patient was an old kaka, who was a diabetic that was also a chronic smoker. He had already lost one leg from gangrene. The second leg's foot was amputated at the ankle and he promised the doctors he would quit smoking. But he didn't keep it and the stub got gangrene. So now JSS was going to amputate from below the knee. This poor frail kaka was getting his third leg amputation.

I entered the operating theater a bit nervous. The patient was prepped by the doctor by injecting anesthesia to numb his lower body. He injected a few shots into the man's spine. It was pretty brutal. I was looking forward to helping the surgery in some way, I got my chance when I was asked to pump an inflatable wrap to stop blood flow to the leg. Unfortunately the pump wasn't catching air and the nurse had to take over. That was the beginning and end of my surgical career.

I looked at the leg. The gangrene looked nasty and smelled nastier. The doctor put a latex glove over the stump to keep it clean, but I thought it was to cover the smell.

One of the nurses put on Hare Krishna bhajans to set the mood. Then the doctor went to work slicing this poor guy up. I watched him scalpel off the limb like a piece of meat. He's a real pro and a badass. Once the muscle was completely detached, he and the nurse took ends of a wire saw and hacked off the bone from underneath up. The frail kaka's body was jerking around, I wondered what was going through his head. It was a clean cut. The doctor held up the limb and tossed it in the trash. It was breathtaking. Later I asked the doctor what the hospital does with all the limbs and guts they collect every day. He joked that they throw it out back for the dogs. But he honestly didn't know for sure. They likely incinerate everything, but it made me wonder about the whole waste disposal complex that must exist supporting hospitals around the world. They must generate a huge amount of untenable waste.

Despite the challenging situation for many of the patients, the spirit and mood of the hospital and its staff is upbeat. JSS has a very warm, big-hearted, compassionate, yet skilled and capable group of doctors and nurses. It reminded me very much of the spirit of Aravind, where service values are intertwined with the approach to care. And there is no compromise in the quality. Many highly trained doctors come and lend time at JSS. Over lunch one day JSS' Dr. Raman Kataria, a soft-spoken powerhouse of a surgeon who Naman told me can do pediatric, thoracic, and neuro surgery, among others, was chatting with two renowned specialists who had flown in about an infant that they operated on that morning with no esophagus or anal opening. Besides Naman, a few other young doctors were doing their training or residency; one doctor couple (Vaibhav and Jyoti) had moved there to dedicate at least 3 years to JSS. They have several very smart and talented TISS grads (including Sushil who has been there for 3 years) who oversee administration. Top technical consultancy ThoughtWorks has a full-time, pro-bono project at JSS where they are implementing EMR (currenty led by Arjun). Naman is very sure he'll be back after his residency in California. They are all attracted by the real need, but also the positive, uplifting spirit of the place. The staff mess hall is regularly filled with jokes and smiles.

It begins at the top with the founding team. I was fortunate to spend significant time there with Dr. Jain. He is a true inspiration. A real master clinician who is as simple and humble as they come. One day I went with him to the Bahmni sub-center for mobile clinic, which is literally in a tribal area. There was no mobile network and limited power. For several hours, I watched him treat patient after patient. What he does seems like magic. He glances at the patient with a look that seems like he's seeing into them like an x-ray. He asks a few questions about lifestyle, background, medical history, all in his unassuming boyish humorous way. It's like he's solving a puzzle. It was a thrill to see someone who is world-class at what they do, applying their skill art in a context where it is so rare yet so needed. It's an inspiring juxtaposition. And he does all this all with humility, we sat on the ground cross-legged together to a simple village lunch on a banana leaf. He was perfectly at home, curiously asking about the cricket match being listened to on radio in the room over. Spending so much time around Yogeshsir in the flow of his work, I realized that being a physician at his level is very similar to being a teacher. Everywhere he goes, people are asking him to educate them about something or the other. A nurse with a form, a doctor with a diagnosis, a patient with their livelihood or children's future. He's just a walking fountainhead of knowledge.

One patient was a young, very pretty village girl. She had a presence about her, an air of confidence. She came to see the doctor about a urinary issue, which Dr. Jain helped her with. But he also gave her an x-ray look, and declared, "one day you will be a nurse with us. You see that sister over there? She's a nurse. Do you want to be like her? Keep studying , you will grow up and join us as a nurse." She silently took it in, with a look of tacit acknowledgement. In the moment, it felt like one of those life-altering moments where someone of great respect or authority said something small that woke you up to an idea that you always carried, but never articulated.

Throughout my two days at JSS, I asked people around the hospital what was the biggest hurdle to doing this work. Unanimously, the response was that the bottleneck is people. Well-trained, motivated medical staff will ultimately drive organizations like JSS to sustain and grow. I went there representing Awaaz.De to identify opportunities to support the work (being with and supporting orgs like JSS is why I do the work I do). We will be exploring ways to better connect patients, doctors, and staff through simple mobile tools, which has great potential to improve care and outcomes. But technology is just one part of the picture.

If you're a doctor, what can you do to address medical inequality locally or around the world? Billions of marginalized people deserve your attention.

Please consider supporting JSS with your time and/or resources. More info on how to get involved on the Friends of JSS website

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Tempo


For the past couple months attendance to Sunday morning football practice at MS has grown to about 50-60 children. Of those about 30-40 come from Jamalpur. I've written about the children there, many of whom form the backbone of our program. There is something special in the water in Jamalpur; these kids have huge hearts full of genuine determination. And talent to match the heart. They are sincerely committed to having fun and growing with the game of football.

As the group has grown large they have self-adapted their transportation to practice. Jamalpur is quite far from MS, a 30-min drive if traffic is light. Bus for all of those kids would be too expensive. So Dasarath and some of the other older players have arranged a tempo to carry all of them together every week. They rent the tempo from a local in the slum for Rs.500, and cover the petrol. It gets them all there together and on time.

It is a serious cram to get all of those kids in, but they happily do it. They wake up at 6am and cram in the morning; after an exhausting 4-5 hour practice, tired and sweaty, they still pile into that tempo, standing in one spot for 30 min as Dasarath weaves through traffic to take them back.. All with smiles on their faces. It amazes me to think that despite facing the inconveniences for travel, they keep showing up week after week. That's dedication and a love for the game.






Sunday, January 25, 2015

Kabir


Earlier this month I attended the Kabir Festival in Mumbai. It has been going on for five years, Sachi has been involved as an organizer for some time. I have been recently been accelerating into planet Kabir. The seeds were planted many years ago when Prahaladji and Shabnam visited the Bay Area and they performed at Berkeley. Later the Sarvodaya Stanford group hosted Shabnamji and screened one of her films. At that time I was still distant from Kabir and what his poetry was all about.

More recently I got the Kabir Saamigri made by Reenaben and started appreciating the wisdom of the dohas. Then in Pune Sheetal told me about how Kabir became a voice during the Bhav Yatra and played and translated a few songs. She told me about Vipul who accompanied her on the Yatra, and just a couple weeks later I heard him and Shabnam perform a satsang in Ahmedabad that Nimo invited me to. I started listening to Vipul's music as well as more bhajans from the Samigri.

By the time I attended the festival this month my heart was open and excited for Kabir. The event has a great back-story. It started five years ago by the community of Kabir artists around India, anchored by the Kabir Project. It is this amazing loose network of singers, poets, performers and researchers, young and old, mainstream and traditional, all connected by the power of and love for Kabir. The festival grew in popularity and attracted patrons from around the world. A couple years ago it even had large corporate sponsors that wanted to take it to the next level. However the Kabir community decided that it wasn't in the spirit of Kabir to go commercial, so it went back to a grassroots, decentralized model. This year, it was completely put together by non-profits and individual volunteers.

The event was setup like the Kabir Olympics. For four days, performances were organized across Bombay in different venues. Mostly parks, public stages, and open amphitheaters. Different artists performed at various venues. Often performances happened simultaneously, so an incredible energy developed back-channel online as folks traded clips and quotes on What's App from the different performances.

On Thursday night Sachi took me and Aunty to the event in Jogeshwari. The first performance was by Ankit Chadha, who is a Kabir storyteller. With no props, Ankit just gets on stage and tells wisdom stories of and by Kabir. He is a pure performer, able to completely captivate the audience through his animated style. I didn't understand 75% of what he was saying, but I was just mesmerized by his presence and polished quality of his performance. I appreciated the high level of his art, even if I didn't understand it. One line I loved, which for me captures Kabir in a nutshell, was "Kabir sirf ek shaayar nahi, Kabir ek aashiq hai" ("Kabir isn't just a poet, he is a lover"). My favorite moment of the festival was during his performance. The event was in a working-class Hindu-Muslim mixed community. The show was on a stage that was literally on a busy roadside. It was a narrow lane lined with eclectic shops and food stalls and tons of traffic: cars, animals, people on bikes. It was a totally messy chaotic space, and carved out of nowhere rises this modern majestic stage. To the immediate left of the stage is a mosque; to the right is the beginning of the Hindu community. So we were literally right on the loud bustling border. Now imagine a completely packed crowd in front of this stage, on the side of this road, seated and behind them standing, hundreds of people huddled into a human amphitheater. And all are just transfixed on this storyteller in all-white Muslim garb kneeling simply and weaving tales with his bright hand gestures and booming projecting voice. In the middle of one of his stories the amzaan (Muslim prayer) starts from a nearby mosque. Ankit hears the chanting and just stops his story. He just sits, for nearly eight minutes, in silence, as the prayer completes. Meanwhile the entire crowd is pin drop silent, being held by Ankit's wide shining eyes. He's just up there rocking gently, calmly, waiting for the prayer to complete. No one says a word for the entire period, all you can hear is the honking traffic. Once the prayer ends someone from the crowd shouts to him, "You were talking about the two matkaas", reminding him where he left off the story. And off he goes, completely seamlessly. There are performers, and then there are artists. It takes an artist  with deep integrity to hold a crowd like that.

The next performance was by Neeraj Arya, who I later learned was one of Ravi's kids. I had no idea what I was about to hear, so when I started to listen to his "Kabir Rock", I was blown away. A guitar, mandolin, violin, and percussion. A braided skinny brown Raegae-looking dude, again with an incredible ability to captivate an audience based almost purely on eye contact and stage presence. At the beginning of their set there was some technical troubles with the sound, Neeraj puts his guitar down mid-song, walks into the crowd, listens with stillness for a few beats, and then goes over to the sound engineer and has him tune levels. All with poise, confidence, and calmness. The audience didn't flinch.



What I love about Kabir is that his message and poetry is highly relevant even hundreds of years later, so that young rock musicians can add their flavor to it and re-interpret it freshly. And so flexible, that someone like Prahaladji and someone like Neeraj can be part of the same community of musicians and respect each other's art. The next day I spent a couple hours watching Neeraj and Kabir Cafe videos on youtube, settling on my favorite song (above). I also learned about Neeraj's humble journey, sleeping on the streets during the first Kabir fest because he couldn't afford a place to stay, now featured on Dewarists and MTV. I'm the kind of music fan that needs to feel connected to the musician's journey to really get into the music; now that I'm a fan of Neeraj I can't wait to enjoy his music next time I catch him perform.

The next night we went to the Brahmakumari park performance. Yash and I got stuck in heavy traffic and caught the end of Prahaladji's performance, which was fine since I had seen him before. It was just enough stage-setting for the next performers, who gave probably the most moving live music performance of my life. This was Vedanth and Bhindu, two classically trained singers who collaborate on Kabir music. Together with a third singer Shruthi, they did an hour set that moved me to tears. Their voices were just too much for me, it was pure joy to hear their voices harmonize and soar. Hearing their music really opened up my heart, I was emotionally overwhelmed. After the performance I told Bhindu how I had no words, only tears. She seemed to understand and was appreciative. The next day I purchased their album, hoping that the songs they performed that night were in it (one of them was, though nothing like the live performance). I'm a bit hesitant to listen, their voices are so soulful and although I don't understand a damn word, the music seems to carry a power that I fear over-exposure to.

In any case, I am thankful for Kabir and look forward to attending the entire festival next year. Such a unique collection of such high-quality high-integrity performers making soul-touching music.

Words make you think. Music makes you feel. A song makes you feel a thought.


- E.Y. Harburg -

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Mayur

(L-R): Dasarth, Neil, Mayur
Mayur is the Blue Stars' captain, and one of the team's best players. He has been on the team for over two years, anchoring the group of boys that come from Jamalpur. He has always had above average athletic ability, but over time he has also grown as a leader. I remember when we first gave him the title "captain", he thought it gave him a mandate to order people around and make fun of them, like he was the leader of a gang. I told him what it actually is about is taking care and getting the best out of every last player on your team, both on and off the field. It's about putting your own personal accolades and goals aside in deference to the team and your teammates. Since then he has really taken that up. He is the most vocal players on the field, and is one of the few players that has completely flipped the script from negative complaints to positive encouragement ("well done!", "good defense!") during play.

For the past couple years, Mayur has had a dream to play at Kahaani, the largest youth soccer club in Ahmedabad. Recently, he came to the coaches saying he had gotten the support of his parents to join Kahaani. They had committed to paying the registration to whatever extent they could. They wanted Mayur to excel at the sport he loved. We emphasized that the most important aspect was his commitment; he would be representing our entire program, so he should be ready to stick to it, including getting to every practice regularly and playing in every game. Mayur was determined. I spoke with Manishaben who runs Kahaani, she invited Mayur to their practice the following week for a try-out. The coaches would work with him and determine what team he would be best suited to play with. Mayur literally couldn't wait, it was something he had dreamed about for years.

I met Mayur at the practice from the office at 6pm. He had come from Jamalpur by bike with Dasrath, one of our big brother players. Mayur had asked Dasrath to accompany him that day since he wasn't 100% sure of the way. Although the ride would take an hour, Dasarth put his school reading aside and they left at 3pm because Mayur was so excited and wanted to make sure he wasn't late. They arrived at the field at 4:30pm and waited an hour and a half for practice to start. Just incredible passion and desire.

The first practice went well. The coaches asked Mayur to join the "open" team of 16-25 year olds so he would play to his actual age group. They would practice every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings at 6:30pm. Mayur would ride his bike the hour both ways for the practice. The first week of practice was a dream come true for Mayur. During the second practice he scored a goal during scrimmage. He was so thrilled, he told Rahulbhai who was over the moon and told everyone that Mayur's next stop is the Indian national team. During our next Sunday practice Mayur ran up to me and gave me a big hug and thank you. He had gotten along splendidly with the coaches and players, he felt totally accepted and part of the team. One of the players even told him that he would support his registration, even if his parents weren't able to.

Watching him practice that evening at Kahaani, I was so happy for him and proud that one of our players had taken their game to the next level. He may not make it all the way to the national team, but I would put his determination, heart, and love for the game up against anyone.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Kutch


Some notes and memorable moments from my recent trip to Kutch with Jayeshbhai, Nimo, Sheetal, Madhu, Bhaskar, and Malay. 

The Rann of Kutch, also known as the White Desert, was unlike anything I had laid eyes on in my life. A totally unique visual experience. We walked out to the middle of the desert at night and then the next morning. You are walking on wet slushy white salt. You can eat the “sand” and it is pure salt. It cakes your chapals and you have to kick it off from time to time. Otherwise as Jayeshbhai said, your chapals start feeling like kilos of weight.

Rann Utsav is a yearly desert festival where people come from around the world to live in tents, roam the desert, ride camels and horses, and enjoy local cultural music, dance, and food. It started as a 3-day festival but with help from Gujarat Tourism and determination of the local community, it grew to 15 days, then one month, and is now a 3-month marquee tourist event with Amitabh Bachchan as the spokesman. The tourist experience is top-notch; the tent cities are massive and an engineering marvel to bring running water and electricity to the white desert. The tents themselves are very luxurious, with tiled bathrooms, wooden floors, high ceiling living rooms with sofas, ACs, and super-cozy beds with fresh sheets and soft pillows. You hardly remember you’re out in a desert.

The first day we had a lovely and memorable welcome to Bhuj by Sushmadidi, Sandeepbhai, and the rest of the Abhiyan/Sahjeevan ecosystem. Sushmadidi and Sandeepbhai have helped build an MS-like community in Kutch with many organizations doing genuine work. We were welcomed MBL Retreat-style and had a heart circle. Nimo shared a story about a conversation he had with his dad to explain simply and clearly what he does and why he doesn’t have a traditional career. If he got a job, he would work hard for his boss or company, and in exchange get a paycheck. The beneficiary of his hard work is his boss and company. If instead he serves society, he works just as hard, if not harder, but the fruits of the work benefit all of society. For that, the “paycheck”, comes from the community, which he accepts with humility and trust.

It was a pleasure spending one-on-one time with Bhaskar. He is such a delightful chap. His passion for wildlife photography is inspiring. He shared a memorable story of how he was preparing his portfolio for an application, and wasn’t getting satisfactory shots. There was an opportunity to go to a far off place where a friend recommended he would get some good ones. He was determined to get the right shots, even after several outings, so though it was far he thought he would try to go. He went in the night to the station looking to catch a bus to the remote location. People told him there was no bus going there, but there would be one the next morning. Should he wait or come back the next morning on a random tip? Reluctantly, he went home half giving up. But he couldn’t sleep, so he got up at 4am to go back to the bus station. Still no bus. But someone suggested he could just take his motorcycle and go. So he rode 6 hours to the location and took some shots deep in the woods. Unfortunately he didn’t let anyone know he was going and he had no phone reception, so when he came back late that night he had tons of worried family and friends mad at him for taking off like that. The story shows his passion for his craft and his friends and family love for him.

We met many memorable people on the trip. Anandiben was there to initiate Rann Utsav, and gave speeches to the local community. In an event celebrating a sanitation project which built 1000 toilets in a village cluster, she talked about all the yojnas (“schemes”) the GOI was enacting to help villages. Many were around upliftment and empowerment of women, which I thought was notable and bold given the area was majority conservative Muslim families. Even at the speech itself, the males took up the left and center aisles, the covered women sat to the far right slightly back. One yojna is for 33% of the police force to be female. Another was for women to have free health care, the logic being mothers always sacrifice their own personal health to keep savings for the children. They put their own health as a lower priority. I thought it was interesting that such a scheme rests on an assumption that is beyond debate in Indian culture, but would probably never make it in a country like the US where the sacrifice and trust and respect of mothers isn’t as universal.

Another interesting person we met was Mia Hussein, the sarpanch of Dorodo Gaam where Rann Utsav is mainly held. He is an enterprising cat, having built up the tourism industry from scratch. He had an office with framed photos of him with Modi, Anandiben, Amitabh, and other celebrities. He has brought schools, hospitals, and tourism to his village, certainly all signs of “development”. He has also got a bank to open up a branch, not just an ATM, in his village, and has wifi access throughout. He is a charismatic guy, Jayeshbhai called him “Radhay of Dorodo” (“Heart of Dorodo”).

We met Ashishbhai, a young “Gram Shilpi” graduate from Vidyapith. He has committed to move to a village and serve for his *entire* life. One village, his whole life. He moved his wife out there, and just had a young child. Ashish chose to serve in Ludiya, but faced challenges being a Hindu in a majority Muslim area. He has received terrorist threats, but is determined to find his service path. He is very brave and inspiring to me on many levels. He shared some fun facts about rural Internet use: folks use What’s App like crazy, they call it “Workshop”. Mostly for photo sharing, as they use Facebook. The other main use of the Internet is pornography. This casts a whole different shade to the perceived noble goal of Internet connectivity to every village in India.
 
Mehmoodbhai is another friend of Jayeshbhai. He lives in Dorodo, and is a very highly regarded award-winning musician and artist. He is a massive guy but like many village folk has a warm, delicate, gentle manner. We visited his humble home and sat with him and his goats, where he sang us some folk songs. His voice is so sweet and innocent, it was lovely to be in his presence. Seeing him together with Jayeshbhai was very sweet, they have such a loving and light bond based purely on joyful heart connection.

Speaking of Jayeshbhai, he was the MVP of the trip. At the risk of piling on hero worship, I want to record some of the things I observed about him as we spent a few days together. He is very observant, especially sensitive to moments of beauty. We were in the car in deep conversation and he stopped to point out a distant flock of birds where one was white while the others were dark. Another time we were driving by a rest stop where a couple busloads of uniform-clad school girls were drinking water. He saw one plastic cup blowing in the sand as we drove by at full speed. He had the car stop to pick it up and engage with the girls in a teachable moment.

He moves effortlessly between social activists to powerful politicians to business moguls to village folks. He is absolutely the same simple loving soul in all contexts. He is totally comfortable in his own skin, and doesn't pander to anyone. However powerful or famous, he introduces all seven of us with each of our back-stories as if we are the dignitaries. His conversations acknowledge the darkness but are mainly concerned with the light, the good in each human being; highlighting each of their higher selves. Inevitably, the person melts and smiles warmly; “Jayeshbhai, anything for you”.

During one meeting with villagers who were disputing the government over wild land being turned over for tourism and development, during a tense moment he shared from the heart. He asked everyone to be in silence, then offered personal stories to respond less with head and more with heart. I was especially touched when he emotionally shared how this vistaar of Kutch was very special to him as he spent a year doing rehabilitation after the earthquake. The experience changed his life and gave him an opportunity for service, for which he is forever connected and indebted to this land and its people. He was careful to acknowledge not the logical arguments, but the glint in the eye and determination of the farmers who were telling their stories.

It was a treasure of a trip.  Thanks to the Boyz for the memories.