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Becoming a mountain

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“You should meet him. He has some bright ideas,” my friend insisted that I meet Koushik.

We met at the Amethyst Cafe on a cool Saturday afternoon, many days before the rain god started misbehaving.

“I work for Intel in California and I am here in Chennai on a sabbatical.”

I had already made up my mind. Another starry eyed young geek who things his app is the next Facebook. I was hungry and shifted my attention to check if my favourite ‘Fusili Pesto’ was still on the menu. It is made with authentic pesto sauce along with baby potatoes and pine nuts. Slurp!

“My elder brother suffers from mental illness. He is positive about treatment but finds it difficult to stay in jobs. The employers have been patient and accommodative but he finds it difficult to work in groups. And every time he leaves a job, his confidence levels really come down and then it takes a while for him get back on track,” he said.

Alright this is serious.

“My parents and I were troubled by this. So I thought I should do something which would allow him to work from home. I found some basic design jobs from my friends which my brother could work on. I taught him basics of photoshop and he picked it up quickly.”

“But the breakthrough came when I asked my brother to teach photoshop to a friend. After the session his confidence levels really sky rocketed. He feels fabulous when he teaches,” Kaushik said with a sparkle in his eyes.

“So I have an idea to develop a software platform that would help persons with mental illness to learn basic computer applications like office, internet, photo editing and also enabled them to teach others. That way we can really help persons with mental illness become self-confident,” he sounded victorious.

I hated myself for judging him.

His compassion and empathy towards his brother and others with mental illness really touched me. He must be in his late twenties. He was away from home. He lived far away from his brother and could have easily washed his hands off and went about his career and relationships. In a world filled with selfish and self-centred people here was a young man who cared so deeply about a brother who needed help.

I gifted “Becoming a mountain” by Stephen Alter to him. The book is about the author’s personal experience who underwent a deadly assault on him and his wife and how he later went about finding meaning to his life through his treks across the Himalayas. Stephen Alter gives a moving meditation on the solace of high places, and on the hidden meanings and enduring mystery of mountains.

The author quotes Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb the Everest,

“It’s not the mountains we conquer, but ourselves.”

God bless you Koushik. May your tribe rise.

‪#‎PayitForward‬ #‎GiftaBook

16/100

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Purple hibiscus

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It was a rainy evening, a little girl in school uniform, fully wet and drenched, walked into my office. She wanted my help to do a short film on ‘child abuse’. She was pursuing her 12th std at DAV Gopalapuram in Chennai. She would meet me and my colleagues for couple of weeks. She wore only school uniforms when she came to meet us.

Preethie went on to become the Horlicks Wiz kid that year.

She lost her mother in a freakish accident. Her father had deserted them many years earlier.

It was six years ago.

She could not join BITS Pilani after securing admission because her uncle who was now her care-taker refused for whimsical reasons. Using her mother’s savings she joined BE at Shastra University in Tanjore. She was a topper in academics and an excellent dancer but her uncle repeatedly threatened her to throw her out of his house if she continued dancing. He continued being emotionally abusive and unreasonable.

Preethie kept in touch with me through the troubled years. I was her mentor.

One day her uncle in a fit of mindless anger assaulted her. She was shattered. She had reached her breaking point and moved out of his house. She was only nineteen then.

What astonishes me till date is that Preethie has never even once cried or had a breakdown during her conversations with me. She always came across as a playful, optimistic, free-spirited and independent girl. We met regularly. She continued to drop into our office, joined us at office parties, did movie marathons, enjoyed pop corn and pizza. And discussed life sometimes.

“Can I call you dad?” she asked me a few years back.

I said yes.

After graduation she joined the marketing team of the much successful start-up, Freshdesk after turning down offers from TCS, Cognizant and Accenture.

I met her recently and gifted her the book “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is a book about the promise of freedom; about the blurred lines between childhood and adulthood; between love and hatred, between the old gods and the new as viewed by a young girl.

“Do you miss your mom? Do you envy your friends whose parents are supportive of their dreams?” I asked her.

“Sometimes, but before I get psyched and pulled into a whirlpool of self-pity, I hit the gym and pump up the volume,” and she laughed out loud.

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Gulzar’s short stories

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“Raavi Paar and other stories” is a collection of short stories by Gulzar that evoke emotions of love, heartbreak, loneliness, loss, anxiety, fear, and longing. What also comes out strongly are that these stories truly reflect the perceptions of a man who has lived a life with empathy and compassion for his people.

My favourite is the popular short story, “Raavi Paar.” This story gripped me from the very start. As it progressed it made me anxious, angry, lonely, happy, helpless. There are very few stories that make you stop reading for many days transporting to a place of deep reflection about life and its meanings. My next favourite is the story of Dilip Kumar, the movie star who breaks the heart of a love struck young girl.

I gifted this book to Vidhya Thirunavukkarasu. I really hope you will enjoy these stories as much as I did.

#PayItForward #GiftABook 14/100

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Very good lives

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“I had failed on an epic scale. An exceptionally short-lived marriage had imploded, and I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain, without being homeless,” begins Rowling in her book ‘Very good lives.’

J.K. Rowling gave a lecture to the graduating students of Harvard in 2008 but it is a speech that everyone needs to hear. This book has this lecture along with beautiful and evocative art. She talks about trying, about failing, and trying again, and about being a human being and living a good life. It is a beautiful gift for anyone, both young and old.  So this will be my 13th book that I have gifted after I started this “gift a book” project. I gifted the book to Madhavan who is organizing the very interesting Coovam Art Festival. Read about the festival here (http://coovumartfestival.in/)

Here are my 10 favourite quotes from the book.

There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.

I am not dull enough to suppose that because you are young, gifted and well-educated, you have never known hardship or heartbreak. Talent and intelligence never yet inoculated anyone against the caprice of the Fates.

I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution.

Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.

We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.

Many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are.

Those who choose not to empathise enable real monsters. For without ever committing an act of outright evil ourselves, we collude with it, through our own apathy.

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: ‘What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.’ That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing.

As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.”

 

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Many Ramayanas

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“Many Ramayanas,” edited by Paula Richman is an excellent compilation of stories and observations on Ramayana.

In his key-note essay, “Three hundred Ramayanas,” A.K. Ramanujan begins with this beautiful folk tale.

“How many Ramayanas? Three hundred? Three thousand? At the end of some Ramayanas, a question is sometimes asked: How many Ramayanas have there been? And there are stories that answer the question. Here is one.

One day when Rama was sitting on his throne, his ring fell off. When it touched the earth, it made a hole in the ground and disappeared into it. It was gone. His trusty henchman, Hanuman, was at his feet. Rama said to Hanuman, “Look, my ring is lost. Find it for me.”

Now Hanuman can enter any hole, no matter how tiny. He had the power to become the smallest of the small and larger than the largest thing. So he took on a tiny form and went down the hole.

He went and went and went and suddenly fell into the netherworld. There were women down there. “Look, a tiny monkey! It’s fallen from above? Then they caught him and placed him on a platter (thali). The King of Spirits (bhut), who lives in the netherworld, likes to eat animals. So Hanuman was sent to him as part of his dinner, along with his vegetables. Hanuman sat on the platter, wondering what to do.

While this was going on in the netherworld, Rama sat on his throne on the earth above. The sage Vasistha and the god Brahma came to see him. They said to Rama, “We want to talk privately with you. We don’t want anyone to hear what we say or interrupt it. Do we agree?”

“All right,” said Rama, “we’ll talk.”

Then they said, “Lay down a rule. If anyone comes in as we are talking, his head should be cut off.”

“It will be done,” said Rama.

Who would be the most trustworthy person to guard the door? Hanuman had gone down to fetch the ring. Rama trusted no one more than Laksmana, so he asked Laksmana to stand by the door. “Don’t allow anyone to enter,” he ordered.

Laksmana was standing at the door when the sage Visvamitra appeared and said, “I need to see Rama at once. It’s urgent. Tell me, where is Rama?”

Laksmana said, “Don’t go in now. He is talking to some people. It’s important.”

“What is there that Rama would hide from me?” said Visvamitra. “I must go in, right now.”

Laksmana said, “I will have to ask his permission before I can let you in.”

“Go in and ask then.”

“I can’t go in till Rama comes out. You’ll have to wait.”

“If you don’t go in and announce my presence, I’ll burn the entire kingdom of Ayodhya with a curse,” said Visvamitra.

Laksmana thought, “If I go in now, I’ll die. But if I don’t go, this hotheaded man will burn down the kingdom. All the subjects, all things living in it, will die. It’s better that I alone should die.”

So he went right in.

Rama asked him, “What’s the matter?”

“Visvamitra is here.”

“Send him in.”

So Visvamitra went in. The private talk had already come to an end. Brahma and Vasistha had come to see Rama and say to him, “Your work in the world of human beings is over. Your incarnation as Rama must now he given up. Leave this body, come up, and rejoin the gods.” That’s all they wanted to say.

Laksmana said to Rama, “Brother, you should cut off my head.”

Rama said, “Why? We had nothing more to say. Nothing was left. So why should I cut off your head?”

Laksmana said, “You can’t do that. You can’t let me off because I’m your brother. There’ll be a blot on Rama’s name. You didn’t spare your wife. You sent her to the jungle. I must be punished. I will leave.”

Laksmana was an avatar of Sesa, the serpent on whom Visnu sleeps. His time was up too. He went directly to the river Sarayu and disappeared in the flowing waters.

When Laksmana relinquished his body, Rama summoned all his followers, Vibhisana, Sugriva, and others, and arranged for the coronation of his twin sons, Lava and Kusa. Then Rama too entered the river Sarayu.

All this while, Hanuman was in the netherworld. When he was finally taken to the King of Spirits, he kept repeating the name of Rama. “Rama Rama Rama . . .”

Then the King of Spirits asked, “Who are you?”

“Hanuman.”

“Hanuman? Why have you come here?”

“Rama’s ring fell into a hole. I’ve come to fetch it.”

The king looked around and showed him a platter. On it were thousands of rings. They were all Rama’s rings. The king brought the platter to Hanuman, set it down, and said, “Pick out your Rama’s ring and take it.”

They were all exactly the same. “I don’t know which one it is,” said Hanuman, shaking his head.

The King of Spirits said, “There have been as many Ramas as there are rings on this platter. When you return to earth, you will not find Rama. This incarnation of Rama is now over. Whenever an incarnation of Rama is about to be over, his ring falls down. I collect them and keep them. Now you can go.”

So Hanuman left.

This story is usually told to suggest that for every such Rama there is a Ramayana.”

Each article is enlightening and a delight for anyone who is interested in Ramayana. A cheaper Indian edition is available on Amazon or Flipkart now.

I gifted this book to my friend Anisa, when we met for dinner at one of my favourite restaurant, “Indigo Deli” at Lower Parel in Mumbai.

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Thank you Odyssey

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My ‘gift a book’ project has found an ally. Ashwin T S of Odyssey book shop (http://www.odyssey.in) has agreed to sponsor the books. Yippie! Thank you sir. May your tribe rise. More books coming your way people. Look out for books on vacant tables at your favourite cafes. A book is waiting to be read.

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In search of Sita

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I am a reader, collector, follower on anything about Ramayana. I have been fascinated about the epic and its characters since childhood. My personal favourites among all the movers and shakers of Ramayana is Hanuman. But Sita’s character always fascinated me. The Indian society has always wanted their daughters to be like Sita. What makes her so special in comparison to other women like Draupadi or Radha? But is she really the demure husband worshipping girl that she is normally portrayed to be?

“In Search of Sita” is a collection of essays, conversations, folk songs centred around Sita. The contributors include Lord Meghnad Desai, Ranga Rao, Namita Gokhale, Sonal Mansingh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Madhu Kishwar and others.

I particularly loved the translations of folk songs from Telugu by Ranga Rao. In earlier times, Telugu women from the same neighbourhood would gather around and would sing folk songs about Sita. These songs were laden with sadness and melancholy. But it was not just Sita’s story, it was theirs too; their travails, lack of love, absence of freedom and being trapped in a household dominated by men.

I decided to gift this book. Same script like before; write a note and leave it at cafe for a stranger to pick it up. Amethyst in Chennai is an oasis. One of my all time favourite cafes in the whole country. I have so many fond memories of my meetings with fabulous people at this cafe.

So stranger, even if you are not a Ramayana fan you will love it!

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The Road Less Travelled

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I was going through an emotional turmoil after my personal experience during the Gujarat riots in 2002. The incident and the stories of victims and perpetrators troubled me immensely. I searched for answers about fear, violence, love, justice, dharma, acceptance, empathy, compassion. There were many books that helped me clarify my doubts and anxieties. I have gone back to these texts over the last decade again and again to get clarity. I am still troubled by many questions. “The Road Less Travelled,” by Scott Peck is one such book that I refer to regularly.

These are the opening lines of the book.

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult–once we truly understand and accept it–then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

The book has helped me accept myself with all my inadequacies. And because I have accepted my imperfections, my attitude towards pain and disappointment has changed. I have been able to love people better with less judgement. I am able to sense that I have become more patient and grateful to life.

I met Nurul in Neemrana in Rajastan. We were part of a consultation organised by UNESCO on Youth Leadership. Nurul is from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and has been a champion of issues that concerned the youth. During the workshop she mentioned to me that she was getting married in a few days. I always carry few new books in my bag and I gift it to anyone whom I feel like giving it.

Nurul, congratulations again on your wedding and I hope this book inspires you to lead a life of love and gratefulness.

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Losing my virginity

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I read “Losing my Virginity” by Richard Branson almost a decade back. He is definitely the rock star of the business world. This book is funny, outrageous, charming and deeply inspirational to anyone who wants to live a full life. Apparently, when Richard Branson started his first business, he and his friends decided that “since we’re complete virgins at business, let’s call it just that: Virgin.” Today Virgin group is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate involved in a wide range of businesses.

Mukesh is just about 18 years of age, but has all the traits of a kickass entrepreneur. I have been his mentor for a few months now and hope to be a part of his journey for many years.

While at school he was selected by the US State Department to study one year of high school in the US. After its completion he received full scholarship to study a graduate programme in Japan but had to give up on that opportunity because he had to lend a helping hand to his father who was going through financial difficulties. Today he studies B Com at a city college, takes tuitions in French and Hindi for school children and counsels students who want to pursue foreign education.

But his passion in life is to fly; it could be a F16 fighter plane or a hot air balloon. And the biography of Richard Branson who fancies flying in balloons, planes and inter-galactic gizmos is probably the most appropriate book to Mukesh.

To quote Branson, ‘the balloons only have one life and the only way of finding out whether they work is to attempt to fly around the world.’

Go kiss the world.

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Countdown

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“I used to work in an investment bank in Australia. But I was unhappy. Everything around me was superficial, fake and unsustainable. I was always drawn to Central America, I had volunteered briefly in Guatemala. Every time I brought up this topic of quitting the bank and moving to Central America my family got anxious and upset. I was getting increasingly sick and was hospitalised more than five times in a matter of months. I had a feeling that this was a sign, that I needed to take the decision. I had to bite the bullet.”

I met Corina this week at a workshop organised by UNESCO in Rajasthan.

“So, I took the next flight to California, bought a car and drove down south. I drove all across Mexico, escaped corrupt policemen, thugs but persisted. No plans just plain guts. I reached Guatemala. I felt lonely, slightly anxious. I kept my resolve and drove. I reached Antiqua and as luck would have it, my car ran out of fuel and there was no gas stations anywhere close. It was dark. I was afraid. I was worried. I saw a man with a drum and a dog. He looked familiar. I had met him during my volunteering days. Was it him? Or someone else. He lowered his head, took a few seconds and said, ‘Corina, what the hell are you doing here?”

“Tears welled up in my eyes instantly. I was so happy seeing a familiar face. I felt this was a sign.”

“It was January 2009 and I knew this was it. This is where I begin my journey.”

Corina founded SERES an NGO in Guatemala to help youth become community leaders and change agents. Her organisation recently won the prestigious UNESCO Japan prize for outstanding projects related to Education for Sustainable Development.

I was moved by her journey and as a token of appreciation I gifted her the book “Countdown” by one of my favourte authors, Amitav Ghosh.

I am reminded of this quote by Amitav Ghosh from his book “River of smoke,”

“… an instance when Fate had conspired with Nature to give them a sign that theirs was no ordinary journey.”

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