I am a carrom board. Just a piece of wood. Happy to help.
They enjoy playing on me, whenever they can, wherever they can—in the corridor, on the lawn or in a room.
When they are all around me, playing or encouraging the players, you can’t tell the patients from the family.
Of course, if you were around the day I was on the tray table and you found them applauding every feeble strike that just managed to touch a coin, you would have known that they were trying to cheer up the once-brilliant high-school teacher on the bed, who was depressed because now she could not even manage to teach her 10-year old son.
Otherwise, who is patient, whose patient, who is family, whose family—these are all irrelevant questions.
One of my players once described me more philosophically. We are all helpless coins, she said. Every pocket is a state of mind: joy, anger, sorrow, and acceptance. The striker is not in your control, and no one knows where you will land next.
I don’t understand all that. I am a piece of wood, just a game that may help you forget tomorrow and live today. I am just happy to help.
Originally written some years ago for the Cipla Palliative Care and Training Centre, Pune.
Does your cure end with your surgery, dressing your wound or restarting your heart? Or is that just the beginning of your recovery? Guess what, they don’t teach recovery and convalescence in medical school.
“Many of my tutors seemed to assume that once a crisis of illness has passed, the body and mind find ways to heal themselves,” Dr Gavin Francis, the author of Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence recently wrote in The Guardian. “But nearly 20 years as a GP has shown me time and again that the reverse is true: guidance and encouragement through the process of recovery can be indispensable.”
Dr Mazda Turel, a neurosurgeon, agrees. “We are not taught this in medical school,” he says. “But if you are attuned enough as a student while you sit in the clinic or OPD with your mentor you can learn it from your teachers in the way they respond to a patient’s needs in the recovery phase, from their ability to patiently answer umpteen questions (most of them repetitive). Eventually you imbibe care and concern, and that’s enough.”
Dr E K Ramanandan, a senior ayurveda physician too thinks most doctors pick up on their own how to help a patient through recovery.
Dr Nagesh Simha, Medical Director at Karunashraya, considers helping the patient and family through recovery a matter of compassion. “Yes, the doctor’s personal values matter. However, I believe compassion is something that can and ought to be taught.”
Recovery matters in an infected world
As new strains of coronavirus continue to give us all a physical and emotional pounding, the concepts of recovery and convalescence require deeper contemplation.
Convalescence is anything but passive. It’s an action that needs us “to be present, to engage, to give of ourselves.”
Anyone who has been through the viral infection is aware of the fatigue that follows. Physiotherapists encourage those in post-viral recovery to push the limits of physical effort. Else, “sufferers can become trapped in a cycle of effort followed by collapse,” with each collapse requiring lesser effort.
Recovery must act in concert with natural processes. Florence Nightingale believed that “nature alone cures.” She said what nursing had to do was to “put the patient in the best condition for nature to act upon him.” Nature's healing touch apart, people recover more quickly if they think their physician is sympathetic and there for them.
Dr Simha remembers the time he was recovering after a major surgery. “There I was, flat on the bed and everyone would be looking down upon me. Except for one doctor who always made it a point to sit so that he could have a conversation at my level. That made a big difference.”
“Every illness is unique,” Dr Francis points out. It follows every recovery is unique too. There is no easy solution or a formula. “It’s a landscape we all have to visit sooner or later. From time to time, we all need to learn the art of convalescence.”
Thou shall not abandon
AETCOM, a manual on attitude, ethics and communication published by the Medical Council of India for the Indian medical graduate, cites a case study. It is a letter to the oncologist from the husband of a patient who succumbed to breast cancer. Here is the gist.
“As you may recall, Alka was diagnosed with breast cancer 5 years ago. We rushed to you knowing your reputation as a talented oncologist and we were not disappointed. Your aggressive approach to the disease made all the difference. Alka beat the disease and she lived disease-free for 2 years. We were very happy and still are very grateful to you.
“Then the disease came back with a vengeance. Even at this time you did not give up hope and took on the disease like a warrior but then there came a time that it was clear that the disease had won. We were devastated.
“Alka looked up to you as a doctor to provide her with support, but it looked like that you were unable to confront the failure. While you did prescribe pain medications and your office helped us find a home nurse, you were reluctant to meet Alka or talk to her. When we called for appointments, your office would tell us to contact our family doctor for pain medications.
“When we did get to see you, you would not even look at Alka’s eyes. You would distractedly talk to her, refill her pain medications and dismiss us quickly. It was as if we were seeing a different doctor than the one we had seen when all was well. And when Alka was admitted to the hospital where she breathed her last you would not even come and see her.
“We made so many requests for you to come and visit with her. I even called and told you that it would mean so much for her to see you before she departs but you did not. Would it have been too much for you to come and hold her hand for a minute or say a kind word?
“We come to you not with the expectation that a cure is always possible but always with the expectation that you will support us in coping with the disease and the tremendous effects it has on our lives. We don't always expect you to succeed but we always expect you to show us care and compassion. You abandoned Alka and us at the time we needed you most. You, sir, abandoned us when we were most vulnerable.”
Some of the best communicators I have met have taught me that you are truly big when you communicate small. You get up from your plush designation, push aside the corporate façade, slide down the hierarchy banister and stoop to talk and connect with a simple, solitary individual.
There was this owner of a group of companies, a true monarch of the market. He would look everyone in the eye, greet by name and enquire about the immediate family. Last I ran into him, some four years after our last meeting, cruel circumstances had reduced the monarch to a pauper. But he still greeted me by name, asked about my wife by name, named both my sons and correctly guessed their grade. He remains a communication king in my heart.
Of course, not everyone is blessed with that kind of memory. However, if you think it is important to communicate small, you will find a way.
The CEO of one of the country’s largest companies used his secretary and his laptop to communicate small, big time. I helped him with a few templates. Just by adding a name and changing a few words, he would convert each into a very personal communication to suit every occasion—from congratulations to condolences. Before he started a telephone conversation or his secretary ushered in a visitor, his database would bring up the gist of their last exchange—personal and professional.
Goes to show you can’t blame technology for the all-pervading disconnect. Use it right and it can help you connect—if it matters to you.
True healing touch
She was not just a doctor, but a demigod. I was sceptical. She treated the same diseases and prescribed the same drugs as every other doctor. Yet, people loved her and stayed put in her waiting room for hours. Why?
I realized the magic was not in her stethoscope when I was with one of her patients. She was 30 minutes late and my friend was in serious pain. Just then, he received a call. It was the doctor. She apologized, explained the delay, and told him when she would reach. That call acted like a placebo. My friend settled down comfortably for a longer wait.
That doctor’s reputation and her healing touch was as much in her prescription as in the small, thoughtful communications like that one-minute call.
Back the pat
Talking of calls, I can never forget the Monday when I got one from a very senior executive of a client organization. My regular contact was about five levels down the hierarchy, so this was a surprise. He told me that the presentation I had helped his team make was very impressive and did its job well. That one-minute call made my week.
The irony? My contact never bothered with mundane things like feedback. Unless, of course, I had made a Himalayan blunder. Or what was needed yesterday till a minute ago, was now required the previous week.
Months later, when I ran into the big boss, I told him how his call had had such a positive impact on me. He had no clue what I was talking about. But he shared a secret. “Someone told me a long time ago that you should never miss an opportunity to pat someone on the back for a genuine reason. And you must do it without delay. I just try to follow that always.”
Back the pat to work wonders.
Grace under complaint
I wish my bank would grow up to be big one day. I had emailed a complaint about a wrong charge. When there was no response even a week after the promised 48 hours, I followed their protocol and took up the issue with “higher authorities.”
Four days later, someone from my branch called. “Did you check your account before you escalated the problem?” he sounded very irritated with me. “The issue was resolved two days before you complained higher up.” But no one told me the problem had been resolved. Else I would not have bothered to escalate the issue. And am I supposed to monitor my account every minute?
“When you escalate any issue, the branch must answer. I have to answer.” Did he want me to apologize? “You should understand customer complaint emails are handled by a different department,” he growled.
All he had to do was tell me the issue was resolved. Instead, he made it amply clear that me the small customer was being a nuisance to him, the busy boss of a big bank packed with so many departments.
Talk beyond script
My internet service provider, on the other hand, is beginning to cheer me up. I am used to tiring cut-paste email responses and scripted answers when I post a complaint. This time I had almost given up even before sending an email.
Surprise! A live human being, who knew my name and my problem called up to admit they had not figured out a solution yet. Two days later, he called again to say that the company had sorted out the issue and went on to share his personal number, in case I faced the problem again.
Admitting a problem, taking the initiative to make a call and conducting a conversation with a small, solitary customer, without a script. Yes, my ISP has suddenly grown big in my eyes.
Maybe it helps to have a degree in language. However, effective communication often requires simple schooling in making a proactive connection.
A version of this was first published here on February 15, 2017.
If we reach it before we are ready, our destination can unsettle us. All of us alive have the same destination—death. When we realise it creeping upon us, many of us are not ready to disembark. That is when we need the ashraya (shelter) of karuna (compassion) to help us cope and to let go in peace.
Karunashraya, the palliative care centre in Bengaluru has just published Crossing Over, a collection of 35 stories of people whose journeys so ended. It is about how the proximity of that ending affected those who had to leave, those they left behind and the compassionate team at Karunashraya.
When it comes to palliative care, there are courses and experts but no easy answers. There is no room for judgment, but frustration thrives. A gentle touch or a patient ear often helps to ease the pain as effectively as an opioid.
Life matters until it is. The idea is to ensure comfort and facilitate closure. Every palliative care professional tries to practice detached attachment. Yet, it is never easy. There is no shutter you can pull down at the end of the day. They must share the tears and fears of one patient after another, day after day. This book is as much a tribute to them as they are about those they care for.
As Atul Gawande, the famous writer and surgeon put it, “In the end, people don’t view their life as merely the average of all its moments. Life is meaningful because it is a story. And in stories, endings matter.”
Read this book. Because we are all living our stories. You will find no morals in the pages of Crossing Over. You will find acceptance. And gratitude for those who make the ending matter.
When what used to be your home is destroyed by the rising waters, nothing can ever be “normal” again. The residents of Chiplun, one of the places in Maharashtra that drowned in July, can never forget those days.
Yes, help arrived soon. To feed, clothe and rebuild. But how do you rebuild your mind? Especially when you are a teacher who is responsible for shaping minds and lives?
That was the prime motivation for Vaijayanti Thakar, always ready to help others cope and heal, to conduct a workshop for a group of teachers on August 26, 2021.
What follows is based on the information and emotions shared by her.
Bundles of joy and sorrow
Some of the teachers had already resumed work. Some were visiting children at home. They were all making a good effort to be normal. They were all dressed well—in clothes that were borrowed or had been donated.
We started with a prayer to the Sun. “Please rise again every day.” It was a plea. It was an expression of hope.
After they had settled down, I began with a story.
There were two women in a village. Both faced similar situations. Violent, alcoholic husband, not much to eat. Yet, one was always sullen while the other was happy. The sullen one could not stand it any longer. “Why?” she asked the other. After everyone goes to sleep, the happy one said, I sit before the idol and pray that everyone should be happy.
The sullen one tried the same thing, nothing seemed to happen. Then the sullen one had a dream. She was walking towards a light coming from far. She reached a cave that had several bundles. And a beautiful woman sitting on a throne. She was the source of the light.
“I am the servant who looks after these bundles of joy and sorrow,” the one who looked like a princess said. The sullen woman opened her bundles. There was hardly any joy. But the other woman, her bundle of joy was so heavy. What was the difference?
They both had had similar experiences. They were both unwanted children because they were girls. Yet the other was happy with her mother’s love whenever she was held close and fed. Yes, her father would beat her. But she remembered the times he would hold her close. The clothes she got occasionally were all old and torn but she was happy to get clothes. She loved the moments she spent with her children.
Story over, I requested all of them to congratulate themselves. You have suffered so much, yet you have emerged strong, ready to teach again.
It was time for the “trust walk”. I requested them to choose a partner who was a relative stranger. One would be blindfolded and had to totally trust the partner to lead her right.
The floods too had presented a situation where they quickly realized whom they could trust. Calamity or not, we must learn to trust. And we have to teach our children, our families to trust, to help one another.
Then I invited each to share her feelings. There was anger, there were tears. I let it all flow, without interruption.
“I … my child … no. I can’t speak.” One of the other teachers filled in for her. “She has a six-month old child. When her building got flooded, she picked up her child and went up to the terrace. It was impossible to go back down the stairs. The terrace did not have a parapet. There was a tin roof which was somehow holding up against the howling wind and lashing rain. She held the child close to her chest and stood there in the dark for 28 hours.”
Another teacher said, “All of us had moved up to the upper floor but the water kept rising. We decided to abandon our house. We used a ladder and went to the adjoining house. There were about eight of us, including children. Then we all went to the terrace of that house. We could see various things floating away but we were numb. Our only thought was that we had managed to save ourselves. There we stood for more than 24 hours.”
For another, it was time to realize what really mattered when everything was at stake. She took her jewellery and money and put it on the floor above. Then she decided to move some grains and, like a true teacher, some books also. Then it occurred to her that her life was more precious. Everything else could be earned or bought again. She was happy to get out of it alive. But the next time?
Get it all out
I asked them to write down all their thoughts, their fears. To let their anger flow. Forget you are teachers and supposed to be role models. Use the worst swear words you know. This is for yourself.
At the end of it, we collected all the pages they had written in and set those on fire.
Then they were given pillows. I encouraged them to hit the pillows. Let all the anger come out, transfer the pain to the pillows. There were giggles to start with and just light taps on the pillows. Soon, the mood changed. There were tears, screams. Some just could not continue.
We ended with a meditation session. Soothing, calming and, hopefully, rejuvenating.
There was a lot more to do. But, right now, it was time for a fresh start.
The sun will rise again. We must too.
Vaijayanti Thakar may be contacted at email@example.com
Four-year old Gulab was at a busy railway station with her father when someone came close and stabbed him. As he lay dying, and as the world around them rushed about its business, she quietly shut the world out.
All I knew was Gul was a puzzle and one of the problem cases when I took charge of her and a bunch of other children at the orphanage, where I used to work.
Her face would always be blank. No expression at all. Normally, we would quickly know every new child’s likes and dislikes. Gul had been around for weeks. There was no sound, ever. We had to anticipate everything—from washroom breaks to food to even a few sips of water.
Once the background story sunk in by and by, I knew that more than psychology, Gul needed to reconnect to love, to belong to someone. Long before he was killed, her father had been the only one for her. Her mother and a sibling had gone away after some family dispute.
Being there for Gul
I started giving her extra affection. I would be with her every possible moment of the day. She would go to sleep on my lap. Whether she responded or not, I would keep up a chatter with her. I would laugh and not bother about her response.
I could sense her eyes following me. There was no expression on her face, but her eyes would be on me and would tell me a lot—sorrow, helplessness, loneliness, frustration, depression and so on.
Later, she was comfortable enough to put her hands around my neck. Those hands would transmit her unspoken words, her fear, her worries and, simply, her need of a hug and lots of love. She used to wait for me, and her eyes would follow my every act until I finished with the other children. Then I would take her in my lap, hold her hands or kiss her.
Others in the orphanage were getting sceptical. I ensured that I did not neglect any other child in my care. Just that the physical and emotional attachment was strongest with her. Though there was no reciprocation of any kind.
Depending on the weather and the time of the day, I would often take the children to the terrace. There we had books and drawing materials. I would read them stories. We would draw stuff and sing songs.
When playtime was over, all other children would rush down on their own. Gul would stick around until I took her down.
That day, the children had run down. I was putting the books away. Gul was there too, as usual waiting for me.
Suddenly, I heard a little voice behind me: “paani …” I dropped the book and turned around. Gul was looking at me. She repeated, “paani…”. I grabbed her and kissed her wet eyes. I was laughing and crying. I crushed her to me and just didn’t know what to do or say.
Sometime later I carried her down and excitedly shared the news with my colleagues. Gul had spoken. She had asked for water. They had difficulty believing me. Because Gul had clammed up again.
Opening up to love
Gul started changing. It was slow. She would continue to cling to me. It was quite a task to get her to accept the other “mothers” in the orphanage. Gradually, Gul was as normal as she could be.
The day she was taken away by her adoptive parents, I was not sure if I was happy or sad. I was not around to wave bye to her. Maybe it was better that way.
Months later, someone told me that Gul was paying us a visit with her parents. I was thrilled. This time I was determined to see her and talk to her, even if she did not remember me.
I was in one of the inside rooms and saw them get out of the taxi. Gul was looking taller and prettier. Suddenly, I noticed a change in Gul’s expression. She was looking at the building and it was as if a cloud had passed over her face.
I was all set to rush out when I stopped myself. Did the place remind Gul of the dark days of her life? If she were to see me now, won’t it be worse for her?
I remained hidden and moved to another part of the building. Far away, I could hear the supervisor calling out for me. I ignored that and moved towards the terrace. Maybe an hour later, I could hear them getting ready to go back. I peeped out carefully. Gul appeared to be happy. Yet, I sensed she did not want to look back and was in a rush to get into the taxi.
I waved out more for myself than for her. Once again, I was crying and laughing. Then I gathered myself and went down.
There were other flowers needing help to bloom.
Based on a true story narrated by Vaijayanti Thakar. Some details have been changed to protect privacy. Art by Shravani Panse.
One of the privileges of being a writer is meeting people like Vaijayanti Thakar, whose work is to connect, heal and, simply, love. Recently she remembered an unforgettable Holi celebration.
The month of March 2021 ended with the festival of colors, Holi. Traditionally, it is a time for people to come together and color one another. But this year the virus did not allow that. It kept revelry at a forced, colorless distance.
My friend, Vaijayanti, whose lifetime work is to care for others, shared the story of a different Holi celebration—with a group of blind girls.
Holi with those who see only black
Some years ago, she used to handle the corporate social responsibility (CSR) function of a company. When she invited volunteers to join her to celebrate Holi in an institution that cared for blind girls (some of them had limited vision), there were questions galore.
Is that a joke? How do you celebrate colors with someone who can see only black? How do you even spend three hours with them?
“When we arrived, the girls were all in their uniforms, sitting in a neat row. I asked them if they wanted to just sit there or play. They were immediately up with great enthusiasm,” Vaijayanti remembered.
She reminded her colleagues that everyone there had the same inner vision. It was just a question of letting go, of accepting, of sharing love.
They started with balloons. “Someone whispered a doubt. Can you blow a balloon without seeing it?”
You can and they did. The inhibitions began to crumble. The balloons made all of them little children again.
They sandwiched a balloon between one person and the next and made giggling trains that went on some merry trips. Not once did anyone fumble, touch the balloon or lose direction. They were too busy enjoying the journey.
Letting in, letting out
Back in the room, it was time for a fight with the balloons. It was the time to truly let go. There were several displays of aggression and anger. The black within was yielding to color. The balloons were harmless, but somehow, they were powerful in drawing out the deepest feelings.
“Then we held hands and went round and round. It was a time of connection, of reassurance.”
Out came the colors and the musical instruments. It was clear that art did not require perfect vision. And from chaos can emerge some wonderful music (again requiring more instinct than sight) that touches the heart.
“Those were a few short hours. We gave and gathered a lot of love. Often the canvas before our eyes is washed black, but everyone has a rainbow inside that is just waiting to come out.”
Before they reached that place, everyone was going on about blind girls. “When we left, blindness did not figure either in our conversations or in our silence.”
“Everyone has a right to love and be loved. It just takes effort. We were all lost in the little effort that we had made and what more we could do if we just let the colors enter our heart."
Images: Shirish Ghate. +91 98230 18328. firstname.lastname@example.org. Insta: sigafotopune
The Jeep stopped on the muddy slope. Sunil was eager to show me that the vehicle would “hold” and not roll back. Unfortunately, the loose soil underneath the wheels spoilt his plans. As the SUV started inching back, he put it into gear, revved up, and stopped in front of the office, which was just ahead. He was happy showing off his new “toy”. Then his expression changed.
“Do you think someone would question this purchase? Point fingers? You know, this is from my personal savings. It pinched. But I really needed a new car and I got a good price for the old.”
It was a question from someone who cherished hard work, integrity, and honesty right from his youth.
As a young man, he had trekked long and hard, along a river that passed through his village. It was an exercise in connecting to the water and the earth it nurtured. And the simple villagers he came across. He gathered a few of his friends. That group of young friends shaped his purpose in life and the name of the organization he would lead and guide for nearly 20 years—Yuva Mitra.
It gave him as much pleasure treating visitors to some unusual local eateries as talking about his plans for social upliftment. “We must institutionalize; they must stand on their feet. True development is not charity. It must be sustainable. Learn. Teach. Train.”
I walked among the farmers and the goatherds. Many of them women, who had just found their feet and voice. They were just a few of the thousands of women, youth, farmers, and children who had already benefited from Yuva Mitra’s work in water resource development and management, agriculture and livelihood development, institution building, and health.
His religion remained sustainable people empowerment through people participation, without any political coloring.
He was always building bridges between rich corporate houses looking for an efficient and transparent channel for sustainable social development and the marginalized who had otherwise resigned themselves to poverty and hardship.
Sunil, my friend and teacher, I am sorry, but we are all pointing fingers at you now. So many are waiting for you to lift them from misery. You have to build so many more bridges yet.
How could you, someone so full of life, so giving of hope, go away so young? Today, you would have stepped into your 50th year.
Rest never came to you easily. Hopefully, you are now at peace. Developing another world.
Sunil Pote passed away on September 13, 2020.
He was not the only one to crack this year's entrance examination to the National Institute of Design (NID), considered one of the toughest tests in the country. As a veteran designer put it, it requires formal training and extraordinary skills of observation and design thinking. However, teenager Prasad was likely the only one who passed it without any formal preparation, except for making things like a triangular stool and a tyre chair, living in a remote ranch and simply going with the flow. This story is about Prasad and Sapna Ranch, which attracts, as Hasmukh puts it, “creative problem solvers” of the world to live life their way and in harmony with nature.
I was born in Goregaon, a small town in Mangaon taluka, Raigad, Maharashtra. I spent the first seven years of my life here and then we shifted to Panvel, where my dad had many clients. After three years we moved back to Goregaon, where I live now with my mother. I have no sibling.
My school life was an interesting mix of cultures, languages, and learning styles. Starting out in Goregaon, I changed schools frequently for different reasons. I have studied in a traditional Marathi medium school, a semi-English-medium school, and a convent school. Now, after completing my XII, I have secured admission to the National Institute of Design (NID).
Once my mom and I went to a home-schooling conference at Sane Guruji National Memorial School. Hasmukh was there to talk to us about home schooling. He made a lot of references to Sapna Ranch and how learning happens there. That’s when I got interested. I spoke to Hasmukh and promised him I would surely visit the ranch once.
During that session I met several parents and their children. Many of them showed interest, including Prasad. He was the only one who actually came from that group and that too after some time. Prasad came and stayed back, and I really did not have any expectations.
My expectation of the place was some people would be working and some children learning. But no, it was completely different. A kid was firing up a Himalayan rocket and someone was telling him how it was made and how it works. Some foreign volunteers were working on the geodome. We met them and we had sherbet with them, which Hasmukh was preparing when we reached there. I was surprised that the person I saw at the school conference was making sherbet for us. It was so amazing. So, we washed our glasses and put those away. We understood how the ranch works, the community there and the thought behind the whole thing.
I came to know about the ranch in May 2018 and my first visit was in November 2018, when I was about 17. My first stay at the ranch was in May 2019. I was under some stress for some reason. My mom dropped me there.
One of the regulars at the ranch came and asked me if I was staying there. Then she just sprayed me with water from a pipe and then everyone else also poured water all over me. I felt as if I had been living there for 10 years. Hasmukh came and hugged me and we started working on something immediately. Then he started showing me stuff and how things were working.
There were about ten people already when I arrived at the ranch. Everyone was talking to me. It felt as if we had known each other for the last ten to twelve years. That night I was talking to them on a lot of subjects. The conversations were about me, how they were spending their time, and how I got to know about the ranch. I am a card magician, so I showed them some stuff. I also showed them some of my drawings.
The most memorable interaction was with the animals. I have never seen so many animals in one place. Dogs and cats fight with each other but here there were three dogs and seven to eight cats, all living in peace with ten humans and that was amazing.
People who come to Sapna Ranch come with zero expectations and I accept people with zero expectations. Prasad seemed interested. His conversations were interesting. He showed that he wanted to learn, and I gave him the space the same way I give for everybody. It was not that Prasad was an exception. Once he came here, he looked at things. He started observing and working on whatever projects we had going and then he asked me about most of the stuff at the ranch.
My house is only 45 minutes away from the ranch. So, my visits to the ranch are very frequent. I am lucky about that. I have been going to the ranch for the past two years as and when I get two or three days free. My stays have ranged from a day and a night to three months at a stretch—March to May 2020. I have seen the ranch in all seasons.
My first interactions with Hasmukh were very interesting. At the conference, where I met Hasmukh I was just listening to him. Talking to him was a completely game-changing experience. He is into science. I am a science nerd and so we were always talking about science.
I do not have many friends and I am not into many things young people are into, social media included. For me, the ranch is not a getaway but my home. Sometimes, when I am going home, I tell Hasmukh I am going for a vacation. I try to look for the ranch outside the ranch—similar values, similar people, and similar thoughts. I connect with them and study them so that I can be a better person and contribute to the world.
The traits of a rancher have been inside me from my childhood. I started travelling at the age of thirteen or fourteen. I was doing a lot of trekking, mountaineering in the Himalayas also. I used to stay away for months and my mother was used to that.
She was happy that I had found a place so heartily amazing. My teachers were amazed because I was one of the few students who, instead of being focused on marks was wondering where to use this theorem or apply that theory. My marks were average. One of my teachers visited the ranch and loved the place.
The way people look at you changes completely when you start talking about the ranch. Previously they were looking at you as a disturbed person, living your life as the other 99%. When you tell them about the ranch, they start looking at you as a unique person. Actually, everyone is unique but very few realize that.
There are many memorable things that I have done at the ranch. Like the forest fire we doused in March 2020. It was a great learning experience—how not to panic, stay calm and handle a disastrous situation. The other one was when I completed the triangular stool in May 2019. From the designing to standing on the stool to show how strong it was. That was completely unique because I had never made a product from start to end. I designed it, studied it, re-designed it, modelled it, and made it in just three hours. I also estimated its costing with help from Hasmukh. I will get into product designing in future.
I told Prasad that the triangle is the strongest two-dimensional structure. After some time, Prasad mentioned to me that he wanted to make a stool whose top was triangular, the base was triangular, and it would have three legs. That was just the day before he left. He started on that stool and within a day he had completed it, more or less on his own. I shared some stabilisation ideas from my experience, and he implemented those. He completed it at eleven in the night or something and his dedication did impress me. And then the next day before he left, he stood on that stool.
He told me how happy he was because until that time nobody had given him an opportunity to do what he wanted. Everybody just told him what he should do, nobody asked him what he himself wanted to do. So, creating that stool was a milestone for him. The stool is still in use at Sapna Ranch and it is as sturdy as it was on the day he made it.
Prasad is willing to learn anything and everything. Here, he learnt electrical, plumbing, and cement work and he got good at it. We fixed the roof of the invertor room. We made a chair from used tyres. He had an idea to cut a tyre and making a backrest. I had never tried it. We gave it a shot and it worked out very well.
What I also like about him is he is willing to work with small kids and big people. He has a very mature head on his shoulders.
When I first came to the ranch, I had thought I would get amazing plans. That I would have a list of stuff when I came back home, and I would be ready to face the world. But my most important lesson was finding the flow inside me and just going with it. Here you become more patient, learn to listen more. You develop a different level of understanding, of empathy.
Another important lesson was learning and teaching. Even my teachers remarked that there was a difference in the way I was learning. When you understand how to learn, it is easy to teach. Earlier I used to boast about my knowledge and people would get bored of my explanation of things. Now they don’t. They appreciate my attitude.
We discussed about his career, including options abroad. I was keen that he should have the entire world as his palette. If he were interested, I could have helped him get scholarships from some universities abroad. We even discussed about the option of taking a gap year which I thought would do him good.
I did not restrict him to Sapna Ranch. If there was another place that interested him, I would help him go there. He was also looking at architecture. But the test schedule did not work out because of the Covid problem. There was also an opportunity in the US.
I was there to put the options before him, and the choice was his. I knew that he was going to get into NID because he is pretty bright from that perspective.
I had no idea about my career even a month before NID. Architecture? Film making? Product design? I would speak to Hasmukh. I would talk to myself. I did not even know about NID two years ago. A friend told me about it, and I thought of giving it a shot.
I had heard from a lot of people that NID worked on experiential learning, giving more importance to progress than marks. I thought that was like my experience at the ranch. Hasmukh also told me that at NID, you are completely immersed in the design environment.
I did not do a thing for preparing for the entrance. There was no class, no books, and no consultation with any experts. My friend had got me some books, but I did not study those seriously.
I was not even sure of passing the first level. When I did, people were happy for me, including some NID alumni. When I finally achieved the 187th all-India rank, people were quite happy because they thought it was not easy. I passed the test by implementing the methods of the ranch and what I have learnt from Hasmukh and others at the ranch.
The pictures that I had drawn on the exam paper and the answers that I had written largely reflected me. During the interview, they told me they did not get to see many frank candidates. Many were rude, many boasted but they told me that I had a good attitude. I showed them a card trick just for some entertainment and they loved it. That changed the picture, we got talking and it was no longer an interview after that. That happened because at the ranch I have learnt how to talk to those I have just met as if they are old friends.
I am not going to get a nine-to-five job and just do stuff that will help industrialisation and capitalisation and encourage the lifestyle that we are avoiding by living at the ranch. I would like to use my design abilities to create places like the ranch to enhance the experiences you get. I want to spread it more. I want to create more such places, more such communities. I want to get more people into that and for that. I will earn some money to survive and be happy. I want to give the world some good experiences, some remarkable things to enjoy. I am not going to visualize everything that I am going to do. I will just let the need be my guide to the future.
For Prasad and anyone else for that matter, Sapna Ranch is a place that gives them space and the freedom to try out their passion within the framework of our guidelines: respect yourself, respect others, forgive mistakes, go with the flow, and go at the pace you are comfortable with. Practise OLLA (observe, listen, learn, apply).
What Sapna Ranch does is help people believe in themselves and manage their self-esteem. I have had people who were depressed. Some of them had tried to commit suicide but survived. They came to Sapna Ranch and spoke with me about their life and the environment that has been created here. One of them told me that Sapna Ranch gave her hope. This environment does make them believe that they can do something with their life. And that was the whole purpose of creating this space. Sapna Ranch does not manipulate or change the thinking of the individual. It encourages the thinking of the individual and supports them, which normally the society doesn’t do.
Fortunately, Prasad’s parents have given him a good level of freedom in what he wants to do. I did not try to influence his decision to go for NID. But seeing his interest in the geodesic dome and all the structures here, I would say that design did attract him. Probably, to that extent, Sapna Ranch did have a role to play in fanning his interest in design.
When I go to conferences, I do talk about Sapna Ranch and EBHLE and the environment that is created here. Effectively, what I share with people is that you should give kids the opportunity to explore their curiosity, not tie them down. You know the drawbacks of the conventional education system and what we are trying to do here is create an environment where they have the freedom to explore their own passions. People hear that, like that and then some of them come here. Like Prasad did.
I have listed this project on two international websites: workaway.info and Helpx.net. People read it and some of them come. So far, I have had over 295 international volunteers from 39 countries. I don’t want to advertise. If I did that there would be a lot more people coming, and we don’t have the capacity to handle that. Only people who are truly interested are coming here.
People like Prasad and others will help in solving world problems. For example, we have compost toilets. I had a couple from Australia who built the first compost toilet and they went back to Australia and built a compost toilet there. Another couple from Chile in South America built the second compost toilet and they went and built one in Chile. Compost toilet is one example of something that does help in solving the world’s problems—reducing waste and generating manure.
Yes, people like Prasad will be creative problem solvers.
It has been nearly two months after I last visited my shop located about 20 km from my house. It is a trip I have done millions of times over nearly a decade; a route so familiar that I can do it blindfolded. Today my eyes are wide open as I cautiously drive down deserted roads.
A policeman stops me at a junction, about 7 km from my shop. His expression changes as he looks at me closely. I explain where I am headed and what I do for a living. “I know,” he replies. I wonder if he is being sarcastic.
“I have been to your shop,” he clarifies. He is not happy that my wife is accompanying me at a time when even one person has no business to be out and about. But then I am out on business, running a shop selling essentials and he knows that for a fact. He points me down the only route that is open.
Finally, I reach the shop. It is mid-morning and the neighborhood is unusually quiet. I start pulling up the shutter and then stop, worried that it was very loud. My wife and I do some cleaning, rearrange the shelves, and sit in the shop for a while.
There are no customers because I had not told anyone I was planning to open the shop. And I didn’t want to do that until I had official clearance from the police. For that I was determined to go the police station nearest the shop. We close the shop and head there.
Policing for protection
The inspector who heads the station emerges from inside just as we enter the station. I introduce myself.
“I know you,” he stops me halfway. I can sense my wife looking at me. How come this fellow is known to so many policemen, she is probably wondering.
“I started my duty before 7 a.m. keeping people away from the road,” the inspector continues. The last meal he had was the previous evening. So, he had just finished a late brunch before duty took him away again.
I apologize for not recognizing him. I did have a regular customer from that police station, but that was—
“I had come with my senior and you had given us both some coffee.” He mentions the name of the senior and it clicks.
Before I repeat my apology, he asks another question. “Your shop is the one that always has those long south Indian bananas hanging outside, right?” I agree. No point in reminding him about my shop’s name.
“If you are supposed to be selling essentials, you should have been there all these days, at least for limited hours. Why do you want to open now?”
I explain that I was scared. And I wanted to make sure I obeyed the restrictions. Which is a polite way of saying that I was afraid of being beaten up by the police. From his smile, it is clear he understands.
“Do you know that we are in a red zone? That means we are all in big danger from the virus. You think that the virus will simply go away? The virus will remain with us, even in our lungs at least for a couple of years. So, we have to take care. That is why we have to be bad and rude with everyone. Because people don’t understand that we are all in danger. All—you, me, them. We have to do our duty. We can’t work from home,” he pauses. I wonder if he has read up on the virus.
“Listen, I am not complaining. We have nothing against the people we keep driving away. Our biggest problem is all the news and videos people share on the mobile. Everyone believes anything. And they love to show us worse than we are. After all, it is fun to share a video of a policeman supposedly beating up a poor vegetable fellow. We may not get to eat. We may share our food with 10 others who have nothing to eat, but that is not fun. Right?”
He shrugs as if trying to shake off the mood he is in.
Is corona goading us?
He tells me I can open the shop for a limited duration as applicable to the zone. Then he describes how I can avoid overcrowding and the precautions I must take. All his directions make perfect sense. Before I leave, he warns, “If we find your shop is responsible for causing overcrowding, we will close the shop and take action against you.” There is no malice, it is just a statement of intention.
On the way back home, I pass several policemen on duty. They are out in the sun, not safe at home. The only protection they had was a mask and a lathi—one against the virus, one for the people. In this fight against an evil entity we can’t see, are we and the police making each other the visible evil? Would we be happier with the virus if the police didn’t use their lathis? Is Covid setting us up, goading us all to be lesser beings?
I reach home and send a WhatsApp message to all my customers that I was opening again and what they needed to do to help me stay open.
As I head to the shop the next morning, I wonder if this is the return of the normal. After all, normal never stays new for long. We make sure it doesn’t.
This post is triggered by the tone and substance of the WhatsApp message my anonymous shopkeeper friend broadcast. Far from being a dry announcement, it was eager to serve again, apologetic for staying away for long, joyous to be with friends again and anxious to ensure everyone bought well and stayed safe. Yes, it was infectious.
About the graphic. It must not have been easy for a busy designer who takes appetizing images of food to digress into illustration, but sportingly she went bananas for this piece. Thanks, Tasneem Syed!