Sunday, October 4, 2015

Winning Is A Drug

Our U-12 team recently competed in a league, hosted by Kahaani. They played about six matches, one every Sunday morning, over two months. Heading into their last match, they had lost 3 matches and drew in two. In the final match, they got their first win.

The children played brilliantly. They passed, they ran hard, they stayed in position, and they played together. Though they dominated the entire game, they were down 1-0 at half. They scored two hustle-style goals in the second. After they took the lead, they frantically protected for the next five minutes. The stakes were very high. When the final whistle blew, they were over the moon. Flying around whooping and hugging. It was difficult to calm them down enough to shake hands with the other team.

Afterwards Manishaben hosted a very cute ceremony for all the league teams with parents and coaches all around, and medals were handed out. I forgot how excited it is to receive a medal. The children continued to occupy cloud nine.

On the car ride home, the mood was night and day different than after the other matches. They were chatting non-stop with each other, singing songs, yelling, asking for the radio to get turned up, planning how to tell Rahulbhai the big news ("Neilsir, Neilsir! Don't tell Rahulbhai we won, we want to surprise him!"). The spirit was highly elevated. All because they knocked a ball into a net one time more than another group of kids over a forty minute span. When we got back to MS, they zoomed out of the van straight over to Rahulbhai and the other kids to bask in the glory. The medals were shown off proudly and placed around each others' necks. It was tremendous joy.

Winning is a drug. It totally changes your mood and outlook on life. Everything in your lens is tinted with a special shine. It finally hit me why I was never attracted to drugs or alcohol growing up. They never appealed to me, seemed irrelevant to my life.

It was because I was already getting high all the time on the football pitch.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Purpose Of Life

Over the years, my personal declaration of life purpose (or "life goal") has evolved:

"Be rich and famous" (childhood)
"Be a leader, serve the world" (teenage)
"Reach my full potential as a human being" (20s)
"Purify myself, develop spiritually" (30s)

Most recently, it has essentialized to:

"Take high quality breaths"

I'm really happy with this, it gets at the crux of the matter. This latest evolution was greatly influenced by a piece shared by Rushabh earlier this year on the occasion of Nipun's birthday. I found the piece profound and I have had it in my mind in heart since I read it 8 months ago. I've gone back to it several times. I hope you enjoy.

Life And Mind. A Conversation.

Mind: I wonder what the purpose of Life is.
Life: Hmm
Mind: I hear so many things: To realise your dreams. To improve yourself every day. To achieve wealth. To serve others. To make the world a better place etc..
Life: That's a whole lot of stuff to do!
Mind: Tell me about it! Now, they all do seem to be related to each other, but you know I can't achieve all of them...
Life: So who asks you to?
Mind: Er, you ask of me to, don't you?
Life: No.
Mind: Wait a minute! There are religions founded on it, self-help books doing raging business about it - they all say deep, important  sounding things about Life's purpose! And you are saying you don't ask any of those things?
Life: Nope. All those things seem to achieve the purpose of your, the mind's, life.
Mind: But you are my life. So my purpose is your purpose too, is it not?
Life: No. Your life, the Mind's life, is a story filled with events and feelings that you experienced or imagined. It extends on a timeline from the Past to the Future. It believes that all the events and feelings add up to some cumulative meaning. That is not like me at all.
Mind: Then what are you like?
Life: No story. No past, no future. Just alive. Right Now.
Mind: Right, and how exactly do you intend to stay truly alive without excitement, feelings, goals, and meaning?
Life: By breathing, of course.
Mind: That is it?
Life: That is it. Everything else is your story. And others people's mind-stories that get published for you to read. My purpose is to breathe. Deeply, slowly, in relaxation.
Mind: Then we can all just sit around doing nothing but breathe?
Life: Be my guest. But what happens if people do that?
Mind: The body wont survive if it does not hunt for food, or work for food.
Life: So you must work so you can eat, stay alive, so that Breathing, my purpose, can continue.
Mind: What about working for riches, creating jobs, or changing the world? To become brave, fair, kind, compassionate?
Life: Those pursuits and ends are of no interest to me.
Mind: If those ends don't matter then why would people dance, sing, plough land, serve, create, do scientific  experiments, read, write, meditate, exercise? If they began to believe that their purpose was only to eat and breathe, why would anyone do  anything?
Life: Ah, now these things you just said are important to do. Because you and the body have been so designed that it is in the process of focused activity that Breathing happens best.  Regardless of what action it is, when the mind is still or on focus then the body breathes the deepest. In this state, what psychologists call 'Flow', my purpose gets gloriously fulfilled. The same is the objective of Yoga asanas and Meditation.
Mind: So the desire for activity and ambition are just meant to develop focus and stillness in me?
Life: Right. To me it doesn't matter whether you dance or sing or read, or are a sportsperson or a traveler or an  accountant, whether you are rich or not, so long as you do what you do with a relaxed focus and breathing deeply.
Mind: What about the outcome of activity and ambition? That matters too!
Life: Why?
Mind: Here is why: Taking your point further, I have noticed that when  I accomplish a task, or get appreciation from others then the body feels happy, and takes in a deep breaths of satisfaction. That is a fulfillment of your purpose. Therefore to accomplish or get appreciation must also be important to achieve your purpose.
Life: Interesting point. First tell me, what do you feel in the moments after when you accomplish something?
Mind: I feel satisfied, contented, maybe happy.
Life: What does that mean? Peel one more layer further.
Mind: It means that in that moment, I feel I have what I wanted for that moment. That I don't want anything more.
Life: So after you got what you wanted, could it be said there is a  state of 'momentary desire-less-ness' in you?
Mind: Er, yes.
Life: It is not the achievement of your desires that makes the body and mind happy, it is the momentary state of desire-less-ness that does it.
Mind: But unless I achieve or get appreciated how will I feel that momentary state of desire-less-ness?
Life: But you dont accomplish great things in most events in your life.  Why wait for the state of desire-less-ness only in moments  after accomplishment and appreciation? Why not all the time, if you could?
Mind: How?
Life: By not expecting victory or appreciation at the end of your activity. To not really care what the ultimate outcome of your activity or ambition is. That way you also have more fun doing whatever you are doing.
Mind: Hold on, one sec, quick revision: There are two things I hear you saying - a relaxed,  focused activity in step with the body, and a state of desire-less-ness.  So in combination it means To Act, but with a state of Desire-less-ness. So is that the prescription for fulfilling Life's purpose?
Life: Sounds about right. There is a term for it too: Nishkaam Karma, coined by Lord Krishna in the Gita.
Mind: Ah! And I am also stiller when I focus only on my intention, instead of focusing on the outcome. So that works out well for both of us in the long run, ain't it?
Life: Karma is not a delayed payment system. It is instantaneous. The moment you act without focusing on the outcome, the mind, the body and the activity immediately align with each other and your breathing becomes calmer and deeper. That feeling is no different from what you would  feel in moments after a favorable outcome.
Mind: ...And if I already have that feeling during the activity, then I could treat victory or defeat after the activity just the same, right?
Life: That is correct. Now, does that remind you of Rudyard Kipling's poem 'If', or what Gautam Buddha wrote in the Lotus Sutra?
Mind: the psychology of Flow, the practice of Yoga and meditation, teachings of Krishna, the poem 'If', and the insight of Buddha..they are all  connected?
Life: Indeed..They converge to the same truth inside you - to keep the body moving and the mind still - to cause relaxed, deep breaths moment by moment. That is my only purpose.

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 with 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, soothing sweet live kirtan music played in the background to set a sacred mood 24 hours with large LCD displays in the corners translating in real time in English and Hindi, 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


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.


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


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


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 -