Sunday, November 27, 2011

A Drop of Water, that Knows its Ocean

A beautiful pristine village sandwiched between the Nagarhole Tiger Reserve and the Kabini river. A place where you close your doors at 6 PM and stay inside while wild animals reclaim their territory. Where you cross a river and reach the land of plenty, while you do not have electricity, safety or basic earning prospects on this side. Where girls are married off between 11 and 18, and become mothers when they are still children themselves. Where tribals who trace their ancestry thousands of years back and speak the original form of Kannada, have been asked by the Forest department to re-locate elsewhere.

Where a young man from New York who gave up a lucrative job offer from JP Morgan, struggles with a new language, cultural barriers, poor amenities, and loneliness, to teach the villagers healthier, more sustainable, profitable ways of living.

This was just part of the huge life-changing experience that was our Rang De field trip to Machur, 220 kms from Bangalore, on the border with Kerala.

Rang De, the social investment-based lending organization that funds rural low-income entrepreneurs across India, (which won the Manthan South Asia 2011 Award for Digital Inclusion for Development) has tied up with Gramothan Foundation, which helps disburse their loans to the villagers in that area. Seven of us volunteers/social investors went to meet up with Gramothan, which is now manned by Abeer Desai, who grew up in Singapore, studied in the US, and has chosen to immerse himself in ground reality to affirm his belief in Development and how it should reach the poorest of the poor in India.

His blog says it best (he’s a brilliant writer) -  his passion for bringing the benefits of capitalism to the ones it does not always reach, and his willingness to throw himself into wherever his convictions take him, because nothing else will do -  A cycle that generates electricity, compost and natural pesticide generation, smokeless chulhas, health care training, were some of the ideas we saw being tried out at Machur. For details read Abeer's posts, here, and here.

His post on how he got this job in the jungles of Machur speaks volumes – “I got this job with a heartfelt cover letter.”  You remember what it is to be young and wanting to throw yourself over the edge, to believe in that moment “of feeling the wings you've grown, lifting.”* You are so happy that such young people continue to exist - they make up for all the apathy you encounter, so often.

On the way back after a tour of the whole area by Abeer, and meetings with a few of the local people, we also stop at the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement ( briefly, to be blown away by the committment of a group of doctors, who, 27 years ago, vowed to live the vision of Swami Vivekananda, and dedicate their lives to rural and tribal upliftment – and have succeeded in ways that you cannot imagine possible. A one-hour conversation with the highly articulate Dr. Balasubramanya and his colleague has all of us so filled with awe we don’t know what to say. Are these people for real?

At the end of the day, you realize that in these people, you have just witnessed the height of human evolution – a total understanding of our inter-connectedness, that none of us will win, if all of us don’t win. A branch that is keenly aware of its tree, a drop of water that is intensely aware of the ocean to which it belongs.

After traffic jams and a long journey, we reach Bangalore post-midnight. We are not the same people who left Bangalore at 4.30 AM the same day. Nothing will ever be the same again. We will never be able to join in when our colleagues/friends speak cynically about our country, at idle coffee-table conversations where the responsibility for change is always left to “someone else”.

When you have Seen, you are never the same again. The Sufis were right.


Visit to Machur - photos here, and here.

Video of Abeer presenting the smokeless chulha implemented at a villager's house:


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This was a preliminary trip by core volunteers - if you become a Rang De investor, you will be invited for regular field trips.

If you live in Bangalore, do try to attend the Rang De box office screening of "Bonsai People - The Vision of Muhammad Yunus", and the discussion afterwards, on Dec 4, Sunday. Details here.

* Jelaluddin Rumi

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Alice, in Wonder Land

My Desktop, thanks to Vladstudio

Giraffes flying away into the blue shedding their spots, multi-coloured elephant-balloons in a happy girl’s hand, luminous creatures in the sky, an orange striped octopus playing the piano under the blue sea, ethereal scenes of snow and Christmas colors, quirky characters and images from Alice in Wonderland, a topsy-turvy map, with all the oceans as countries, fantasy putting reality to shame – this was your entry into the magical world of  Vlad Gerasimov, a graphic artist from Irkutsk, Siberia, where once upon a time Russian intellectuals and artists were sent into exile. (“..And much of the city's cultural heritage comes from them; many of their wooden houses, adorned with ornate, hand-carved decorations, survive today in stark contrast with the standard Soviet apartment blocks that surround them.”)

A friend introduced you to Vlad’s site, and in no time you had taken a lifetime subscription to his art, which is available as wallpapers, e-cards, posters, T shirts, and post cards – perfect gift items. You mail him to show your appreciation (“All that is not given, is lost”), and get a reply.  In July 2010, his little daughter is born, and you are not surprised to learn he’s named her Alice :)

Much later, you come across this beautiful lullaby, Nindiya Re, by this Pakistani band, Kaavish, and you send it to all the people you know who have small kids. You of course remember Alice, though you hesitate for a moment – will they like this, in Russia? Then you remember Mera Jootha Hai Japani and Raj Kapoor and the woman from Kyrgyzstan that you met briefly one morning in France, who spoke of her town’s love for Indian music – and you send the song to Vlad too.  Vlad absolutely loves the song. He searches for other songs of the band, and sends you some of his favorite Russian songs in return.

And then the other day you get a mail from him, with the lines:

Thursday, November 3, 2011

There is more to admire in men than to despise

Albert Camus (Nobel Prize for Literature, 1957)

Docteur Bernard Rieux, "about thirty-five-years-old, of moderate height, dark-skinned, with close-cropped black hair". You have never seen this man, he is a character in a novel. But he is real to you, a person of flesh and blood you almost hope to cross paths with someday, the profound influence he has had on what you have always strived to be, unparalleled.

When you first read Camus’ 'La Peste' (The Plague), you did not “get” it, you thought it was too “bleak”. You were too young, and as with so many books, you read them all too early, and had to return to them much later, emptier and thirstier, to really drink deep. You were probably 21 then, and experience had yet to break you into openness, into a state of receiving that comes only after your vulnerability has been laid out bare on the cold floor, and you have watched the world trample over it, unfeeling.

And then you have to teach 'La Peste' as part of the MA French program at the university where you work. You start on the research, three months in advance. (Pre-Internet days, you pore over book after book, search in the few libraries that have French books). And you are blown away. This is the most positive, pragmatic, life-affirming book you have ever come across. It is classic literature, by its sheer depth and universality. And you realize Bernard Rieux is here to stay, in you, in the choices you will make hereafter.