In medias res

The Zen of eating

An elderly gentleman sat next to me at a restaurant this morning. He was dressed in a spotless white shirt and could have been in his seventies but his face looked tired. He ordered for an ‘onion rava dosa’ and requested the server that instead of sambhar he be given extra cups of chutney. In a matter of few minutes, the plate was emptied and his face shined like his plate which glistened with a fresh coat of ghee polish. He now ordered for a plate of butter murruku and ‘pineapple kesari.’ The server’s eyebrows arched like an inverted ‘V’ in surprise on hearing his order. The gentleman did not approve of the server’s reaction and looked at me instantly if I shared the server’s surprise, but I maintained a straight face.

It took a while for his next order to arrive. At this time, he gently tapped his fingers on the table while he sung a slow tune in a low voice.

The dessert, ‘pineapple kesari’ looked tempting with small bits of pineapple and came in a small bowl along with a plate of savoury ‘nei murukku.’

The gentleman dug into the dessert straightaway without wasting a second. Both the server and I waited to see his reaction, who had now become oblivious of his surrounding, completely immersed in the ‘kesari’ experience.

After a moment, his eyes lit-up in ecstasy and all the three of us exchanged our smiles sharing his joy.

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In medias res

Not just a child

This Saturday, I and a few social entrepreneurs who were also Ashoka Fellows working in the field of education, were invited to speak to business leaders at Hyderabad. A few participants had also brought their spouses and children along, to listen to our presentations. The evening was well organized and the audience actively participated in the discussions. Among everyone, there was one girl, who could have been 12 or 13 years old, was the most impressive. Her questions were intelligent, honest and reflected her keenness in understanding issues that affected disadvantaged children.

After our presentations, she approached my table during dinner and congratulated me for my presentation. She continued her volley of questions and I tried my best to answer them. I was surprised at her deep sense of empathy in her arguments which even adults don’t possess these days.

While we were discussing and having dinner, she suddenly said, “I have invented the world’s best spread.”

I paused for few minutes wondering what ‘spread’ meant. I hoped this had nothing to do with ‘spread’ a term used in financial securities trading. I had zero knowledge in finance, leave alone stock trading.

I swallowed my pride and asked her to explain.

“It’s a smooth mix of Nutella peanut butter and broken Oreo biscuits; bread spread?” she replied nonchalantly.

“Finally, she is also a child!” I wondered and smiled while she polished an entire bowl of chocolate ice cream.

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In medias res

The flight attendant

My Spice Jet flight to Chennai from Delhi earlier this evening was delayed for more than an hour. While I was waiting at the gate for boarding, I noticed an elderly couple walking anxiously towards the gate next to mine. Indigo flight also to Chennai was boarding its passengers from that gate. It was very close to the departure time and the Indigo ground staff were announcing their last call for boarding. The elderly couple approached the Indigo attendant at the gate. The gentleman in a low voice requested that they be given a little more time to board as his wife had to use the toilet. The attendant accepted their request without batting an eyelid, but requested them to be quick as the flight was already late. The couple quickly ambled towards the nearest toilet. There was no sight of them for sometime and the attendant became anxious but had got an empty bus waiting just for them. After ten minutes the couple slowly and nervously came back to the gate. The attendant smiled at them courteously, inquired if they were doing fine and led them to the waiting bus.

The attendant all through the episode remained composed, courteous, empathetic and did not show even a gesture that could have made the couple uncomfortable who were clearly embarrassed.

There are still beautiful people in this big rude world.

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In medias res

Hope and despair

Yesterday was a day of stark contradictions, of high and low, hope and despair.

I was part of the event “Hack for a Cause” during the day, organised by Ebay/PayPal at their software development centre in Chennai. This ‘hackathon’ started at 9 am yesterday and would end at 5 pm on Sunday. In the 36 hours over 200 software engineers would huddle themselves in teams paired with representatives from 17 non profits and create software to solve society’s pressing needs. My role was of a coach to help the teams think through their ideas and plan their tasks. The enthusiasm and the excitement of the engineers were infectious. All in their twenties the place reminded me of the scene in “The Social Network” where a bunch of geeks with headsets on their heads stared into their laptops. Ebay/PayPal ensured that meals, coffee, Coke and snacks were available on unlimited supply. The best project would win US $ 1500 and the second prize was US $ 800. What impressed me the most was the interest and enthusiasm of these youngsters to give-up their weekend for doing something that they loved which will benefit the society.

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Later in the evening, I watched the Tamil movie, “Madras”. The movie strikingly portrayed the lives of youngsters in the slums of north Chennai. Gangs, drinking, bloody violence, exploitation by politicians were all on full display. The scenes were so real that the mindless violence chills you. The youngsters wasted their time allowing themselves to be exploited by rowdies and politicians for their personal gains. I have seen and heard of similar stories during the course of my work at NalandaWay. The lack of quality education coupled with poverty and exploitation was the root of the problem.

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Both experiences were real; if my experience at the ‘hackathon’ was of optimism and inspiration, the movie which gave a window to the lives of youngsters in gangs filled me with sadness.

We all know the solution to the problem, the road might be hard and difficult but giving up is not an option.

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Conversations on Living

People and Choices

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“Is there any logic to the kind of people we attract?” I asked my friend Raghav.

“These people could just remain acquaintances; some become friends and a few closer as lovers,” I continued.

Raghav runs a technology startup but also moonlights as a teacher of Vedanta and other spiritual texts. Please read my earlier post about him here.

“Yes, you chose them,” he replied and smiled.

“Well I know that but some people just appear out of nowhere, you click like magic, some stay for life but some leave earlier much against your wishes,” I asked unsatisfied with his simple answer.

“Alright, let me explain it this way,” he began.

“All of us seek experiences in life, for the sake of understanding let us label them as happiness, pleasure, contentment, adventure, etc. That’s given, we all have motivations, and we cannot reject them or escape them. When we seek an experience, we are always presented with choices. For example, if you would like to be entertained, you may have to choose between playing a video game and watching a movie. You make a decision. Some choices might give you instant gratification while some might be slow but the happiness maybe sustained for longer periods.”

“Every decision pushes you to seek either the same or new experiences. And every motivation presents either the same choices or more refined ones. So if you like playing martial arts video games you might like to try more gory ones. If you liked reading a Sidney Sheldon you might like to try Jane Austen next time.”

“I want to clarify that lets us not confuse here with morals, dharma and other judgements. You make choices based on what appeals to you at that moment. No choice is inherently good or bad, better or worse,” he said emphatically.

“Every time you select the choice that does not give you instant gratification, you will slowly realise that the subsequent choices that present before you are getting subtler and more refined.”

“You are making the decisions but the types of choices appear very mysteriously.”

“While all this is happening you will become sensitive and aware of a certain kind of people around you. The more you go subtle with your choices you attract people with similar sensitivity.

“Am I making sense?” he asked.

I nodded my head slowly still assimilating all that he had just said.

“Like your choices, the people whom you meet will be various kinds. As you go subtler with the life’s experiences you will make deeper connections with people like you. These people always existed, but you have discovered them only now,” he concluded.

I was reminded of this quote by Rumi

“What you seek is seeking you.”

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In medias res

Choices

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“Could I meet you sir? It’s urgent.”

My friend who is a popular speaker in schools and colleges narrated an incident.

“Sir, I am student of the college you spoke last week. My friend is in a bind,” a student called him on the phone.

The boy who had called, his friend, a girl and a middle aged lady turned up at my friend’s house the next day at the scheduled time. The girl wore a school uniform.

“This is Babu, Priya and this is Babu’s mother,” introduced the boy who had called earlier.

Babu, aged 19 studied in a college while Priya aged 16 went to school. They reside on the outskirts of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Babu and Priya were romantically involved during their school days and have had many encounters of unprotected sex. Babu’s father is a cab driver while his mother is a nurse. Priya came from a wealthier background but her parents had died several years ago. She became pregnant when she was 14 and she was quietly whisked away from school. She delivered a child ten months later. She has never seen the child and does not know the whereabouts of the baby today. She suspected that her relatives had a hand at the child’s disappearance that she walked away from the house and has been living at Babu’s house for the past one year. There have been frequent threats from her uncle who had threatened to kill them all if she does not return.

Babu’s mother continued, “Babu has always been a studious boy and I am so disappointed at him for being so irresponsible. Priya is still a minor, so we are worried if they might slap a case of rape and kidnapping on Babu and us. What can we do?”

My friend promised that he would get back to them after speaking to an advocate on the legal options.

“I have promised to both of them that I will ensure that they complete college education and get them married later. Sir when you speak to students please teach them how to use atleast that wretched condom. So many lives would not have not gone astray,” Babu’s mother said.

My friend echoed her concern that a large number of teenagers both in cities and villages are indulged in unprotected sex with very less or no information about protection, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.

It is high time we stopped debating about morality, culture and values, and speak to youngsters about sex. They will engage in sexual behavior whether we speak to them or not. They might act safe and responsible if we do.

The choice is before us.

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In medias res

Agarbathi boy

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“Sir would you like to buy some Agarbathis?”

Vinod Kumar had walked into my cabin one evening in December in the year 2004. He should have been 8 or 9 years old then. I still remember the way he looked that evening; clean roundish face, well-oiled and combed hair, back pack but no foot wear.

Two years earlier in 2002, the riots in Gujarat had scarred and disillusioned me. This incident left me suddenly rudderless on the direction and the purpose of my life.

Vinod’s father had deserted his family. He went to school during the day while his mother made agarbathis. After school he went to different parts of the city to sell incense sticks, soaps and toiletries. At the age of 9 he was the sole earning member of his family. That meeting with Vinod changed my life completely. Vinod gave a purpose to my life and that was to help disadvantaged children. I quit my job in less than a week and started NalandaWay Foundation (www.nalandaway.org). Today, NalandaWay uses the power of arts to change the lives of over 18,000 children like Vinod.

It took over 6 years to locate Vinod again. We supported his school and college education.

Vinod dropped into my office last week again.

He wanted to tell me that he had landed a job at KCP Cements. I was elated at the news.

After work he still continues to sell agarbathis, perhaps there is need for miracles in the lives of many others.

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