Pay it forward

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

Pay it forward

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

Pay it forward

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

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

Pay it forward

Gulzar’s short stories


“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

Pay it forward

Very good lives

JK rowling

“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 (

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.”


Pay it forward

Thank you Odyssey


My ‘gift a book’ project has found an ally. Ashwin T S of Odyssey book shop ( 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.

Pay it forward

The Road Less Travelled


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.

Pay it forward

Losing my virginity


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.

Pay it forward

The Last Lecture

Last lecture

For those who aren’t aware, Randy Pausch was a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He had been diagnosed of pancreatic cancer in its advanced stages which could kill him in a couple of months. He was invited to deliver a lecture to his students on “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” This was his last lecture. You can see the video here – ( The lecture wasn’t about dying. It was about the importance of overcoming obstacles, of enabling the dreams of others, of seizing every moment. It was a summation of everything Randy had come to believe. It was about living.

I was in Bangalore yesterday and had planned to meet Mukesh, a youngster whom I have been mentoring for a few months now. I gifted this book to Mukesh at Starbucks on Indira Nagar 100 feet Road, one of my favourite hangout places in Bangalore.

The book has the lecture and a few more anecdotes from his life. His writings are honest, humourous, straight forward and filled with optimism. Here are some pearls.


“The key question to keep asking is, are you spending your time on the right things? Because time is all you have. ”


“No matter how bad things are, you can always make things worse.”


“Look, I’m going to find a way to be happy, and I’d really love to be happy with you, but if I can’t be happy with you, then I’ll find a way to be happy without you.”


“If I only had three words of advice, they would be, ‘Tell the Truth’. If got three more words, I’d add, all the time.”


“Too many people go through life complaining about their problems. I’ve always believed that if you took one tenth the energy you put into complaining and applied it to solving the problem, you’d be surprised by how well things can work out.”


“When you’re screwing up and nobody says anything to you anymore, that means they’ve given up on you.”


“Wait long enough and people will surprise and impress. When you’re pissed off at someone and you’re angry at them, you just haven’t given them enough time. Just give them a little more time and they almost always will impress you.”


“Follow your passions, believe in karma, and you won’t have to chase your dreams, they will come to you.”


“All my adult life I’ve felt drawn to ask long-married couples how they were able to stay together. All of them said the same thing: “We worked hard at it.”


“Time must be explicitly managed, like money.
“You can always change your plan, but only if you have one.”
“Want to have a short phone call with someone? Call them at 11:55 a.m., right before lunch. They’ll talk fast. You may think you are interesting, but you are not more interesting than lunch.”


“Never lose the child like wonder. It’s just too important. It’s what drives us. Help others.”


“There should be some lessons learned and how you can use the stuff you hear today to achieve your dreams or enable the dreams of others. And as you get older, you may find that “enabling the dreams of others” thing is even more fun.”


“What is the most appropriate thing to say to a friend who was about to die. Tell your friend that in his death, a part of you dies and goes with him. Whenever he goes, you also go. He will not be alone”.


“Do not tell people how to live their lives. Just tell them stories and they will figure out how those stories apply to them.”


“People lie for lots of reasons, often because it seems like a way to get what they want with less effort.”


“If you want something bad enough, never give up.”