Pay it forward

A Brief History of Seven Killings


Dhara Shah knows about everything that is known to mankind. Literally everything! Yes she does. She is a walking and talking encyclopedia. I do not know how she manages to keep her updated about everything. And ask her about China or International politics her eyes would light-up like a child in a candy shop.

I had met Dhara for the first time when she came to meet me after an interview that I had given to “The Hindu.” She bowled us all with her smartness and intelligence. She joined NalandaWay. I could never keep pace with her in world knowledge but sure matched her interest in food.

Once, Dhara and I were eating at the Murugan Idli Shop, when a call came. A senior manager from a large multi-national organization was unreasonable and rude to me. We had worked hard for a meeting with a senior govt official for a project and they cut us off when it fructified.

“How dare he behave with you this way? Who the hell is he?”

Dhara was livid. She always spoke more eloquently when she got angry.

“You cannot allow people to treat you like this.”

I was upset too, but did not want to ruffle feathers. Time had made me thick-skinned but Dhara was from a different mould. I was touched by her affection towards me and NalandaWay. Dhara worked with NalandaWay for over a year. Both she and her mother continued to make a generous donation every month to us.

Dhara went on to become the political advisor at the British High Commission in Mumbai.

I gifted her “A Brief History of Seven Killings” by Marlon James; it won the 2015 Booker prize.

Dhara, we miss your lunch box, those lip-smacking rotis, subzi and especially aloo bhujia. Sorry, only your lunch box dear. 😛

‪#‎PayItForward ‪#‎GiftABook 26/100

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When breath becomes air


I have known Garima for many years. She had even done a few photography assignments for NalandaWay. But I had never met her until recently last December in Goa.

Garima is a furniture designer from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad and a parent of a one year old. Her company “Other Wise” makes simple products for children and parents. Products by ‘Other-Wise” use natural materials and local skills and is guided by her own experience, choices and beliefs in parenting, which included natural birth, cloth-diapering, co-sleeping and baby wearing.

As a parent she found it difficult to find products that agreed with her philosophy, hence she decided to plunge in to make products that will offer children a natural and a neutral environment to grow in.

Her product “Baby Fabric Swing,” has become a big hit. Do check it out here.

I gifted Garima, one of my life-altering books, “When breath becomes air,” by Dr. Paul Kananithi. It is an utterly spectacular and devastating book both at the same time. The book begins,

“I flipped through the CT scan images, the diagnosis obvious: the lungs were matted with innumerable tumors, the spine deformed, a full lobe of the liver obliterated. Cancer, widely disseminated. I was a neurosurgical resident entering my final year of training. Over the last six years, I’d examined scores of such scans, on the off chance that some procedure might benefit the patient. But this scan was different: it was my own.”

It is about a 37 year old super achiever, two BAs and an MA in literature in Stanford, then a Master of Philosophy in Cambridge and a graduate cum laude from Yale School of Medicine. And just when he thought his life is going to take off, he is diagnosed of terminal lung cancer with less than few months or years to live.

Just when he was learning to live, that which he had postponed trying to make a career in nuerosurgery, he was faced with learning how to die.

I can guarantee that this is not a book you can finish reading and forget about it. There is so much that will haunt you for days, of life, of death, of birth and of love. His message is simple,

‘When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”

Hope you will like the book Garima. 🙂

#PayItForward #GiftABook 25/100

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Indira Gandhi and JRD Tata


A friend and I went to meet Varsha at the newly opened “Mamagato” restaurant on Khader Nazaz Khan road in Chennai. The decor looked bright and colourful compared to the sober one on Khan market in Delhi. I wonder if their choice of the location, both having the same surname was deliberate.

It was her last week in Chennai before she travelled to New Zealand for further studies. Varsha was already at the table. Sooner we approached the table, she laughed out loud; perhaps about something she was reading on the phone.

“So a friend set me up with this guy, a chartered accountant in Dubai,” Varsha looked at us.

“Men, I tell you are such idiots.”

We were curious.

“So I was chatting with him, random conversation, one thing led to another and we got talking politics.”

Alright, we were wondering were it was going.

“Yada Yada, and this dude suddenly pops a question.”

“Do you know Indira Gandhi is actually the daughter of JRD Tata?”

“WTF, can you believe it? How can he be so dumb? Everything is off. I can never marry a guy who is this stupid,” she said, still controlling her evil laughter.

Poor men, I thought. What all we have to do to get a lady. Get educated, get a job, dare to start a conversation and top it all know exactly who is whose father. Guys, better brush up your general knowledge before you can even think of women.

Yes that’s my adorable friend and history Nazi. I gifted the English translation of Sundara Ramasamy’s celebrated Tamil novel, “Children, women, men.”

After our meeting Varsha left for New Zealand to do further studies.

Go rock the Kiwis Varsha.

And if you are looking for fusion oriental, Mamagato it is.

#PayItForward #GiftABook 24/100

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Palace of illusions


“Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a special book for me. I read this book many years ago after reading “Indira” by Katherine Frank. Surprisingly, I found a lot of similarities in their personality traits.

I was totally bowled over by the author’s writing and the conviction with which she has written the most debated, misunderstood and controversial character in Mahabharata, and again in first person. Draupadi, the queen born from fire, married to five fiercest warriors, a queen who ruled a magical palace, one who secretly loved a man from the enemy’s camp, one who never learnt her lessons from the only man she ever trusted, Krishna, a woman obsessed about vengeance and hated by the world for having caused the death of millions in the great battle of the Mahabharata.

The novel delves into the secrets of her life, the man she loved above her five husbands, her imperfections, her likes, her feelings around dishonest people and her silent suffering against the constant insults heaped on her by the world.

Let me quote one of my favourite extract from the book,

“For men, the softer emotions are always intertwined with power and pride. That was why Karna waited for me to plead with him though he could have stopped my suffering with a single word. That was why he turned on me when I refused to ask for his pity. That was why he incited Dussasan to an action that was against the code of honor by which he lived his life. He knew he would regret it—in his fierce smile there had already been a glint of pain.

But was a woman’s heart any purer, in the end?

That was the final truth I learned. All this time I’d thought myself better than my father, better than all those men who inflicted harm on a thousand innocents in order to punish the one man who had wronged them. I’d thought myself above the cravings that drove him. But I, too, was tainted with them, vengeance encoded into my blood. When the moment came I couldn’t resist it, no more than a dog can resist chewing a bone that, splintering, makes his mouth bleed.

Already I was storing these lessons inside me. I would use them over the long years of exile to gain what I wanted, no matter what its price.

But Krishna, the slippery one, the one who had offered me a different solace, Krishna with his disappointed eyes—what was the lesson he’d tried to teach?”

I gifted this book to my friend Zeba Rizvi at my favourite bookshop Full Circle at Khan Market, in Delhi.

‪#‎PayItForward‬ #‎GiftABook‬ 23/100

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Sacred Games


Uma leads my projects team at NalandaWay. A bouncy and generally a very happy person. I have known her for over four years now, and someone who has become very important in our work with children. She has a warm personality and it is very hard to catch her without a beaming smile.

On one hot sunny afternoon in Chennai, both of us were getting out of a school in Mylapore. We were slightly relaxed that the review of our programme had gone well with the trustees of the school. We had been anxious about the review for over a week.

“How old are you?” I had always wanted to ask this question to her. She has had long years of corporate experience behind her but always carried a youthful exuberance.

“Never ask a woman her age,” she said and gave her characteristic smile.

More than anything else, what is most noticeable about her is the total absence of cynicism in her attitude to life that usually comes with getting older. Both of us were walking towards my car and I noticed she was dressed rather festively for a school visit.

“So going for a wedding or a concert later?” I was curious.

“Nope,” and in a shy voice continued, “my husband had gone out of the country for the past ten days and I am meeting him for coffee now. Thought I might dress up for him,” and winked at me.

For my turn, I was now smiling ear to ear. Apparently love is real.

Uma is a fan of crime thrillers and I gifted her, “Sacred Games” by Vikram Chandra.

‪#‎PayItForward #‎GiftABook‬ 22/100

NalandaWay, Pay it forward



I was invited to be a chief guest for a book release function earlier this evening. It was a collection of Tamil short stories written by Shankar. I always get flustered when I am expected to speak in Tamil. I tried hard to find excuses to avoid speaking, but was bullied into getting on stage. I could also not avoid because it was a collection of stories about 12 children who had attended NalandaWay’s ‘Kanavupattarai’ camps. It means ‘workshop of dreams.’ The book was also titled by the same name.

A popular Tamil poet introduced the book. He spoke how he was deeply touched by the challenges, fears, struggles that these children and how the workshop gave them ‘hope.’

These camps are special to us. 25 Adolescent boys and girls from government schools come and stay together at the beautiful Dakshinachitra campus in Chennai, to paint, sing, dance and act for four days. They discuss their fears, anxieties and joys. We use arts to help them face the crowd, show their talents and get applauded. It could have been for the first time for some. We have conducted over 60 camps in the last 3 years. Shankar has facilitated in some of the camps.

The camp just offers them a small cup of sunshine, their issues back home cannot be fixed in 4 days, but they feel rejuvenated and re-assured, confident to continue the fight.

Please let me know if you would like to have a copy.

As a token of my thanks, I gifted Shankar the book, ‘Roots’ by Alex Haley.Gomathi Shankar

‪#‎PayItForward 21/100

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Like Smoke


“I have helped over a million young people”, Paro Anand announced on the stage. It was at the Mussoorie Mountain Writers Festival in October last year. I felt she was pompous about her accomplishments. I picked up her book, “Like Smoke’, a collection of 20 short stories about the lives of teenagers. Much to my surprise, all the stories reflected the author’s deep sense of empathy and understanding of the challenges faced by young people.

In the last two weeks alone, five college students have committed suicide and many have gone unreported because the press did not find them sensational enough. As much as we could debate based on which side of the political spectrum one belongs to, in every case it is always a kid who wanted to be heard, to be loved, to be reassured that he or she can overcome the odds.

This book is also for parents who would like to get into the heads of youngsters. The stories in this book will give you clues about how to enagage with your children and students. A person who wants to take his life will always give signals, about his unhappiness, fears, anxieties. Do not push them away, listen to them, don’t impose your morality and make them feel more insecure. Be gentle with young people. Their strong and often indifferent exterior masks a soft gooy molten chocolate waiting to be accepted and understood.

Be kind, well that’s the only choice we have, for precious lives are at stake.

I gifted this book to activist and colleague Veronica Angel. Hope you would continue to smile and laugh just the way you do, for many long years.

‪#‎PayItForward‬ ‪#‎GiftABook‬ 20/100

Pay it forward



I read “Indira” by Katherine Frank immediately after reading “Palace of Illusions” by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, which tells the story of Mahabharata from the eyes of Draupadi. And later I read the biography of Mother Teresa by Navin Chawla. All the books in quick succession.

Three strong willed women with remarkably eventful lives.

“Indira” by Katherine Frank introduced me to her vulnerable side who is otherwise known to be strong, arrogant, adamant, and vengeful.

Instead of plainly chronicling the events in her life Frank’s endearing writing brings Indira alive, I could feel Indira’s fears, pains and upheaval, as if she voiced it herself.

Diagnosed at a young age, with a rare pulmonary tuberculosis in her lungs she spent most of her childhood in medical treatments which disrupted her education. The turbulence of Indian independence movement in which her father, Jawaharlal Nehru played a pivotal role, made her growing up years tense and lonely.

“Long periods of inactivity, illness, and a relentless urge to be of worth in the freedom struggle, in early childhood; frequent bouts of depression, triggered by solitude and loss of dear ones; estranged relationship with her philandering husband, Feroze Gandhi; perpetual emotional harassment by her younger son, Sanjay Gandhi, on whom she doted blindly; petty domestic squabbles and frequent clashes with her daughter-in-law, Maneka Gandhi; and above all, increasing insecurity of being stripped of power in the political scene inherently dominated by men, all contributed to her taking some impulsive, erroneous decisions which had disastrous consequences.”

In her letter to Dorothy Norman, an American writer and activist, Indira writes

“Since earliest childhood I have been surrounded by exceptional people and have participated in exceptional events…The circumstances in which I passed my girlhood- both domestic and public spheres- were not easy. The world is a cruel place for the best of us and specially so for the sensitive.”

“I have felt like a bird in a very small cage, my wings hitting against the bars whichever way I move. The time has come for me to live my own life. What will it be? I don’t know at all. For the moment, I just want to be free…and find my own direction. The experience of being President of the Congress has been exhilarating at times, depressing at times, but certainly worthwhile. But…..I can only be warped & unhappy if I have to continue.”

I loved the way Frank gave a glimpse to the vulnerable side of a powerful leader who was once celebrated as, “India is Indira and Indira is India.”

I gifted this book to my dear friend Malavika. A few years back, Malavika reached out to me after seeing my TEDx video while she was pursuing her Masters in Public Health at LSHTM, in London. She then worked with NalandaWay briefly and then moved to Delhi to work with young people and their sexual/reproductive rights at IPPF.

A deeply introspective book, which gives you a glimpse into the mind of a woman.

‪#‎GiftABook‬ ‪#‎PayitForward‬ 19/100

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Children, Women, Men


“I need a job at NalandaWay,” Hema told me.

This was seven years ago. Hema is a bright creative person and she had just finished her Masters in Electronic Media from Anna University.

“Why don’t you do a short 3 months internship with us, that way we get to understand your strengths and you will know if you like us?” I suggested. She agreed. She joined the team that made films on issues that affect children.

Two months into the internship she became anxious about her prospects.

“If I prove that am an effective communicator, will you confirm my job?” she confronted me again.

I nodded with a smile.

She quickly went on Youtube and searched for ‘Allu Arjun interview.’ Allu Arjun is a huge film star in Telugu cinema. In the video the interviewer asked the actor about his fans and he talked about a letter that he had received from Hema. My eyes lit up in surprise as I did not think stars really responded to fan mail, in the pre Facebook, Twitter era. He continued saying that he was touched by the love and admiration that Hema had for him.

If she could get a film star to talk about her letter in a public interview then she can make videos that could change adults’ negative behavior towards children. This was a clincher.

Hema worked with us for many years and later she went on to be selected for the prestigious “Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellowship.” She currently works in the violence prone red corridor of Chattisgarh.

Hema came to visit me recently and I gifted “Children, Women, Men” by Sundara Ramasamy. I love his writings so much that I have re-read many of his short stories.

More power to you Hema.

#PayItForward #GiftABook 18/100

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The Karamazov Brothers


“The more stupid one is, the closer one is to reality. The more stupid one is, the clearer one is. Stupidity is brief and artless, while intelligence squirms and hides itself. Intelligence is unprincipled, but stupidity is honest and straightforward.”

I love this quote by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in “The Karamazov Brothers.” Truth be told, I have not read the book. After I started ‘gift a book’ project few months back, this is the first time I have gifted a book that the receiverhad wanted. There was a special reason to why I did that.

Dhivya is an eclectic reader of Tamil literary fiction. Earlier this year, she introduced me to Sundara Ramaswamy. ‘Su Ra’ as he is popularly called, has to his credit many short stories, poetry and three novels in Tamil. I fell in love with his writing instantly. I feel that there is some kind of magical realism in his words, which is simple, funny but profound at the same time.

Sample this; in his short story ‘Crows’ he writes,

“Whenever I told the older crows, ‘I am a poet as well,’ they looked at me with a little smile. It seemed to me that they said, ‘That is really not very important to us.’ It struck me as perfectly fair that as long as I took no notice of the poetry of their world, they were at liberty to ignore the poetry of mine.”

Or this from “Children, Women, Men”

“Once you learnt English, you never understood other people’s misfortunes.”

His works have also been translated in English. “Children, Women, Men” and “Under the Tamarind Tree” are my favourites.

So when Dhivya demanded a book of her choice, I had to oblige.

People, introduce me to new writers. And if I fall in love with the writing you can demand a book of your choice.

‪#‎GiftaBook‬ ‪#‎PayitForward‬ 17/100