Posts Tagged 'Service'

Remembering Ishwarbhai Patel

Ishwarbhai Patel

Ishwarbhai Patel was the role model to my role models. Today, on the first anniversary of his death, we remember him fondly.

In a country where ritual hygiene is sacrosanct and actual hygiene is observed mostly in the breach, Ishwarbhai devoted his life to the rational, hygienic management of human waste. Recipient of India’s Padma Shri for distinguished service to the country, among many other national and international awards, Ishwarbhai’s greatness and achievements were certainly widely admired. But, true to his modesty and good humor, he got more pleasure from his more humble nickname, “Mr. Toilet”.

Ishwarbhai was as matter-of-fact as could be about all matters of human waste. Within the first five minutes of the first time we met, he advised me how much my average daily dump weighed in grams – I forget the number – and added that it was likely more dense than the average Indian feces, because the Western diet includes more refined and processed foods. This was typical conversation, and there was nothing casual about it. It was part of Ishwarbhai’s mission. Having made sanitation his life’s work, he could hardly afford to be abashed in discussing these things. Moreover, he understood that the polite refusal of most people to talk about human waste entailed a pernicious complicity in the epidemic of debilitating and frequently lethal diarrheal diseases in India. “How can we solve a problem people are too embarrassed to talk about sensibly?” he complained.

Continue reading ‘Remembering Ishwarbhai Patel’

Understanding the Gift Economy

Iconic Tiffany's Box with Question Mark

I received an interesting assignment a couple weeks ago: write an explanation of the gift economy. Since the request came from my dear friend Nipun Mehta, to whom I can refuse nothing, I agreed; but I knew from the outset how challenging this seemingly straightforward task would be. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously observed about pornography, some things are easy to recognize and yet quite difficult to define.

The essay, now completed, is included in a new online reference, The Dictionary of Ethical Politics, a joint project of Resurgence and openDemocracy.

Continue reading ‘Understanding the Gift Economy’

All’s Well in the Kosmos

Kosmos, Fall/Winter 2009

I may have been writing squat on my blog recently, but at least others have been publishing my wheezes. My short (damn 450 word limt!) profile of CharityFocus appears in the Fall/Winter edition of Kosmos, a journal of waviness, crunchiness, and all things in between.

Here’s a PDF of the piece, for those of you who don’t already know the wonders of CF.

Continue reading ‘All’s Well in the Kosmos’

Edmund Hillary

Edmund Hillary

The passing of Edmond Hillary makes us pause to consider what it means to live a great and worthy life.

The deed for which he became famous is the apotheosis of personal achievement. The first ascent of the world’s highest peak – with his partner Tenzing Norgay, for whom my nephew is named – demonstrated courage, intelligence, technical skill, physical endurance, mental discipline, boldness, creativity, teamwork, and the joy of adventure. If Everest is a universal metaphor, so too was its conquest.

And yet, the magic of Edmund Hillary was not his great ascent; it was that he understood that his climb to the summit of Everest was an event, but that his life was an enduring process. It was a life given to the service of others. It was a life of simplicity and modesty almost inconceivable in an age where men and women climb mountains, real and metaphorical, to wrap themselves in glory society so eagerly accords.

I loved Edmund Hillary as much as a person could possibly love someone they’d never met. I am sad that we have lost such a fine teacher.

Jayesh Patel, Superstar!

Jayesh and Anar Patel

In October of 2005, I wrote a short profile of my friends Jayesh and Anar Patel, husband-and-wife and two-thirds of the founding triumvirate of the extraordinary Ahmedabad-based NGO, Manav Sadhna. Two years later, that small essay has received nearly 400 viewings and still averages nearly three hits per week.

Small wonder. Jayesh-bhai and Anar-ben are perhaps the loveliest, most optimistic, and broadly inspiring people I know. This is no small distinction, given that I am in the habit of collecting friends who answer to the general description “lovely, optimistic, and inspiring.”

Now, a group of filmmakers calling themselves the “Global Oneness Project” have created a beautiful portrait of Jayesh-bhai and his philosophy in a new video called “Living Service.”

Continue reading ‘Jayesh Patel, Superstar!’

Seva Cafe on YouTube

seva-cafe-logo.jpg

It is a restaurant like no other, a shimmering oasis of the gift-economy in the heartless desert of the market economy. Diners pay what they want, from the heart, so that someone else may in the future enjoy the experience they are having; their food has already been paid for in advance, and they will recieve no tally at the meal’s end. It is a place where the volunteers who run the place, and patrons who dine there, share in contemplation — and the direct cultivation — of service, compassion, and giving. It is Ahmedabad’s Seva Cafe.
Continue reading ‘Seva Cafe on YouTube’

Kolkata

kolkata3.JPG

It has been more than four years since I was last in Kolkata, a city I recall with extreme fondness from my first visit. There are, indeed, many good reason to love Kolkata. The name of one of them is Rosalie Giffoniello, and in 2002 we had come to Kolkata specifically to meet her.

Rosalie runs an NGO called Empower the Children, which addresses developmental, educational, nutritional, and shelter needs for some of Kolkata’s most vulnerable children – the physically and mentally disabled and the economically disadvantaged. For two weeks in the fall of 2002, we worked with her in orphanages and non-formal schools during the days, and helped her with capacity-building late into the nights. For five blessed days, the West Indies came to Kolkata’s fabled Eden Gardens Cricket Grounds for a test against India, and each of those afternoons, our butts were in the stands for the two afternoon sessions – a brief respite from our work, which also taught us a fair amount about Indian popular culture.

So for the past four years I have been telling people, “Kolkata has a reputation as a shit-hole, but really, it is a wonderful city.”

How disappointing, then, to turn up here and discover that, indeed, Kolkata is a shit-hole after all.
Continue reading ‘Kolkata’

A Gift of Cloth

South Indian Veshti

We arrive at Chennai Central Station early; our train does not depart for another 45 minutes. I take the opportunity to find a tailor to perform a simple repair for me.

Across the lane from the side of the station stands a several-storied, style-bereft concrete building, typical of those which proliferated in Indian cities before the recent wave of urban affluence. The building is covered in scores-and-scores of small peeling signs — most painted directly onto the façade, announcing the presence of the merchants within. Inside is a warren of tiny shops – perhaps several hundred of them — some no bigger than the width of their doorway.

“Is this building having one tailor?” I inquire at the bookstall situated near the entrance, and find the place straightaway. The shop is scarcely big enough to accommodate the three skinny men within, two at sewing machines, the proprietor busy cutting cloth from handwritten measurements. At the mouth of the shop, on the concrete corridor, sits an ancient man who is obviously associated with the tailors, though he seems to be well past his working years and is idle. There is one other irony to the scene: the old man clearly has no use for tailoring. He wears only a veshti — the white, sarong-like dhoti of South India – a garment that contains only weaving, no stitching.

The old man’s veshti looks to be nearly as old as he is, and equally stained and battered. And yet, this supremely simple costume has an invariable elegance, which gives his bent, seated frame an air of dignity and stature. I am also wearing a veshti on the day – happy not having to chose between comfort and style for my upcoming 22 hour train journey – although I wear mine with a faded blue denim shirt, rolled up at the sleeves. The old man appraises my attire and gives me an approving bobble of the head. He turns to the head tailor and, in the lush, popcorn staccato of Tamil, says, “Take good care of this guy. He’s alright.” Perhaps this is the old man’s role at the shop: taking the non-linear measure of the customers.

My veshti is beginning to unravel at one corner, and I ask the tailors to turn the edge in a hem. It is simple work, which takes one of the men at the machines only a few minutes to perform, most of that consumed by pre-stitching meticulousness which I deeply appreciate, but which, in all honesty, the task probably does not merit.

When I have retied my veshti, I pull my wallet from my pack. I estimate that the repair will cost me five rupees; but perhaps they will ask ten. As I pull out a ten rupee note, the proprietor smiles and says to me, “No money. We will not take money for this thing. It is one small thing only.” “I insist on paying,” I reply. “This is how you earn your living, and you have already shown me great kindness by making my repair quickly.” His grin grows broader and his position more resolved. After a little more back-and-forth, I see that he will not be moved; and I understand the joy it gives this man – indeed, all four men – for them to make me this gift of service.

“Very well,” I say, “but you must take something as my gift.” I reach into my pack and pull out a small box of fresh kaju-pista sweets I had purchased for my journey. The proprietor takes the box and raises it to his forehead as if in prayer, and the men thank me as I take my leave.

There are two very traditional types of gifts in India: gifts of cloth and gifts of sweets. The former signifies the interweaving of our lives, the latter represents a wish for prosperity and happiness. Our exchange, miraculously, incorporated both elements.

It was just another beautiful transaction in the gift economy, with both sides profiting in the giving as well as the receiving. I have purchased many excellent sweets in my time in India; but I think those kaju-pista rolls were the best ever.

The Philanthropy Exchange

New York Stock Exchange

Just before heading to India, I stopped in New York to attend the inaugural celebration of something that may well become an important new institution for charitable giving: The Philanthropy Exchange.

The event was held, fittingly, in the magnificent Board Room of the New York Stock Exchange. The worlds largest marketplace was playing host to an exciting new concept in open market structures: nonprofit organizations seeking donor funding, whether in tiny individual contributions or large program-wide sponsorships, could become “listed” on an exchange.
Continue reading ‘The Philanthropy Exchange’

Putting Yourself Second

Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy - Dr. V
Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy

I had the opportunity to give a lunchtime talk to the associates of Harvey Siskind Jacobs LLP last week. The topic was How to Be a Lawyer. I won’t bore you with the whole presentation – they get paid to listen to my shit, you don’t – but let me touch briefly on one aspect, which has interesting relevance to the service community as well as to young lawyers.

Whether one is engaged in voluntary service or a service profession, there is an important sense in which one sublimates their own interests, desires, and comforts to the needs of others.

In the past 17 years of my law practice, I cannot begin to count the number of all-nighters I’ve pulled, meals I’ve missed, and personal engagements I’ve blown-off in order to make good things happen for my clients. My own affairs may be in disastrous disarray, but the matters entrusted to me by others were always given my most dedicated attention. It’s a modern version of the classic allegory of the cobbler’s kids going shoeless.

If you can retain a sense of objectivity, giving priority to the needs of another is a fascinating experience. It’s about more than just the professional responsibility we incur when we agree to accept a fee for our services. It’s not even about trying to perform well because we take pride in our work. It’s about a psychological transformation that occurs when we understand that others are counting on us to protect their interests. Sure, our sacrifice is intentional and premeditated. We do, after all, undertake representation willingly and with a full understanding of the work that might be necessary. But the more interesting aspect of our behavior comes as second-nature, derived from a deep-seated moral sense that we must do our best for those who rely on us.

It is the same with voluntary service. Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, who has dedicated his life to eradicating needless blindness in the poorest communities in the world, perfectly described this sublimation of the self in his 1991 lecture at Harvard Divinity School on rationalism and spiritualism, which was later published as Illuminated Spirit.

It’s a very, very funny experiment. You sit with a person from a village, a rustic person. Here is someone with all of the simplicity of faith in you: “Doctor, whatever you say, I will do it.” Now, how can I train myself to do perfection for her?

The transformative power of service is the same whether it comes from taking professional obligations to heart or from deciding to give attention to the needs of others with no thought of remuneration. But there is one difference: a difference of perspective. In the professional context, it’s all about putting yourself second. In pure service, it’s about understanding that there is no meaningful difference between yourself and those you serve. As Dr. V would say, “When we grow in spiritual consciousness, we identify ourselves with all there is in the world. Then there can be no exploitation. It is ourselves we are helping. It is ourselves we are healing.”


Blasts from the Past

Man Up!
Man up you pussy!

... because the idiocy of manliness is an evergreen topic.

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Talking Turkey
how to cook a perfect turkey in half the time

... because Canada and the US will celebrate their Thanksgiving holidays and, regrettably and preventably, not 1-cook-in-10 will serve a decent turkey.

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Filial Piety Awareness Day
Kaki Tusler, Mother's Day Celebrant

... because everyday is Mother's Day.

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America Dreaming Small
American Dream

... because the American Dream seems but a distant memory, given the country's dominant ethos of small-mindedness.

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Serenity and Gratitude to Bring in the New Year
New Year's Eve at Tibetan Pavillion

... to remind us that not every mix of Tibetans and Western spiritual seekers has to be nauseating.

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Incredible Vision
Infinite Vision

... to celebrate the new edition of Infinite Vision published in India.

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Expelliarmus! Harry Potter and the Path to Gandhian Nonviolence
Expelliarmus, Potter, Gandhi, Nonviolence

... reprised because military strategy seems more cruel and less effective than ever -- and certainly there is a better way.

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India Going Nowhere Fast
Nano in Flames

... because cars are ruining Pondicherry, where I live. How badly are they fucking up your Indian town?

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Understanding the Gift Economy
Gift Economy Explained

... reprinted because more-and-more people seem want to understand the gift economy. (Yeah!)

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