In medias res

Akku

“I would like to write a story about you,” I messaged her.

“But why do you want to write my story? I am one of the kids no?” she replied. I heard her characteristic crackling laughter in my head.

Introducing Akku. She warned me of dire consequences if I revealed her real name. Akku a spunky beautiful girl in her twenties, has been teaching drama to children at NalandaWay’s art lab for the past one month. She invented a language, a mixture of English and gibberish, when she realised that she could not communicate in English or Hindi. Kids in her class adored her and did not want to attend any other classes, “Akku’s classes are ‘fabulochi'” they said. Apparently it meant fabulous.

I had met Akku at a training programme that both of us had attended in Nepal four years ago. Her mother had died giving birth to her and her father died a several years after. When she returned to her work as a writer at a small but niche publishing house in Delhi, it had already been bought over by a large corporate house. Along came lots of rules which she found strange to her bohemian ways. Irritated at the turn of events, she quit her job. To her surprise she found some savings in her bank account and decided that she would travel to different parts of the country and teach drama to disadvantaged children. In the last four years she has worked with children from Pondicherry to Kargil, Andaman to Goa, Orissa to Arunachal. She does not accept any payment for her services. She stays at the house of the hosts or at a friend’s place. She eats only one meal a day but that does not deter her energy or enthusiasm.

She only has four pairs of clothes. “I don’t like other colours,” she said.

“Is there a purpose to your life?” I asked her.

“I don’t have a house to pay rent. I hate over eating. I don’t have any relationships. I don’t want to be famous. So basically all the activities that require money seems boring to me. I don’t want to be tied to a place, a person or anything. I love theatre. I love teaching to children. I love their innocence and laughter,” she replied nonchalantly.

“Every day there is a glorious story. Why create a purpose and spend an entire life time running after it?” she said and smiled.

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In medias res

Art for the disabled

One of our field coordinators for NalandaWay’s “Art in Education programme” visited a school on the outskirts of Chennai. Through this initiative we train school teachers in government schools to become creative so that they create happy classrooms. A teacher would typically use story telling, drama techniques, painting and craft activities to make learning stress-free and fun for children. Also, this ensures that these kids who anyway come from very disadvantaged backgrounds do not drop-out.

During her visit, at a classroom for third standard students the teacher was introducing the art session for the day. She noticed that a group of three boys were communicating in a unique sign language to a lean short boy. He was speech and hearing impaired. His friends used an unconventional non-verbal style to communicate every instruction of the teacher. As soon as the instructions ended, this boy enthusiastically began painting imaginatively. The teacher told her that before the arts programme, he would be constantly agitated as he did not understand any subject. He became disruptive, violent and his attendance dropped significantly.

Today he is allowed to draw, paint or craft all through the day. He has become calmer and attends school regularly. The teacher also assured her that they would use this art-based approach for him take interest in other subjects too.

Very satisfying!

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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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