Home and Away

It has been a month of sitting in auditoriums, and in airplanes. Enclosed spaces, filled with warm human bodies, humming to their own tunes, while I try and figure out mine. A month in which I rushed from a Fall retreat with my Yale World Fellows in the Berkshire mountains, to watch AR Rahman perform live at Symphony Hall in Boston. At the concert, Rahman received an honorary doctorate from the iconic Berklee College of Music, making him only the second person of Indian origin to do so, and the first musician (the first was Amar Bose), and with this, he joined a list of luminaries that includes Dizzy Gillespie, Sting and Aretha Franklin. My friend, artist Sharmistha Ray, had created a special work for Rahman covered in over 1,000 Swarovski crystals that was then auctioned, with the full proceeds from the sale going towards the scholarship Rahman had established to bring one talented Indian student to Berklee each year.

It has been a month in which I have shuttled from New Haven to Mumbai and Delhi and back again to New Haven, all within a week. A week that involved opening one door in one home and another home in another home half way across the world and feeling the same wave of familiarity wash over me. But how do you leave home and also arrive home at the same time? I have realised that I am living my life in multiplicity – in the hyphen between here-there. From constantly recalibrating my presence, I have shifted into a state of flow, of just being, living in the moment. So now I flow, for instance, from being with artist Raghava KK and his wife Netra, while playing with their three adorable kids one week in their Brooklyn apartment, to watching Raghava launch his Flipsicle app at the INK conference Mumbai in a parallel universe, just a few days later.

What moved me most – and this actually happens at every INK I go to – were stories of the human will triumphing against all odds. Stories like that of Bhavesh Chandubhai, the blind founder of Sunrise Candles, a Maharashtra-based company that makes and distributes over 9000 different types of candles. Bhavesh brings light into other peoples’ lives through his wonderful work, attitude and spirit. His company has grown to hire over 200 people, many of them blind themselves, and Bhavesh himself, after having won several medals at National Paralympic games over the years now is training for the World Paralympic Games in Brazil in 2016!

It was also my pleasure to reconnect with Vicky Roy at this year’s INK, who continues his meteoric rise as a world-famous photographer. As a nine-year-old child, Vicky ran away from home in his village in Bengal, and spent a year in Delhi on the streets, eating out of bins and sleeping on pavements and railway platforms, before the Salaam Baalak Trust rescued him. Fast-forward to some years later, and he is now an avid globe-trotter – going to MIT one day, the Buckingham Palace another, or spending several months in New York photographing the new World Trade Center. Bollywood couldn’t have written a better script. But what I like most about Vicky is that he remains unaffected by all the fame and is constantly thinking about giving back. One of these efforts is Rang –a free library with around 500 photography books as a resource in Delhi for anyone interested in the subject to come and use.

You need to just have one look at Vicky’s images to recognise the sheer talent that lies in them and if you’re in the NCR, that chance is now. His new exhibition of photographs has just opened at the Alliance Francaise Gurgaon space, so go quickly and have a look. I finally managed to get myself a signed copy of Vicky’s Home.Street.Home book, which is his several-year-long documentation of the life of children on the street and in India’s shelter homes.

Jetlagged as hell, I flew straight from the INK conference into the World Economic Forum’s India summit in Delhi. This year, I’ve been selected as one of the Forum’s Young Global Leaders (YGL), and it was my first time in interacting with the other YGLs at our own private pre-conference in Delhi. Roshni Nadar, who is also a new YGL inductee this year, graciously hosted us at HCL’s sprawling campus in NOIDA and at the Kiran Nadar Museum in Saket. It was good to meet other YGLs like Vandana Goyal, the CEO of Akanksha, Anoop Ratnaker, the CEO of Naandi Water and Ajay Chaturvedi, the founder of the rural BPO Harva(Xpo), and share notes on all that we are doing in our own fields to solve some of our country’s complex challenges. We also had a wonderful dinner at the home of the German Ambassador, Michael Steiner, with a private tour of the extraordinary art collection that included a visiting display of European modern sculptures from Berlin’s National Gallery. The evening ended by him gifting each of us a wonderful Kashmir Concert CD as a gift. (Ambassador Steiner and his wife Eliese were the chief patrons for Zubin Mehta’s Kashmir performance last year.)

The main India summit was completely upbeat in mood and intent. From the crisply articulated intentions of politicians like Arun Jaitley and Piyush Goyal, to the declarations of industrialists like Sunil Mittal, the message was loud and clear: India is on the move again. “The pipes were clogged, now water is flowing again,” said Anand Mahindra at one of the opening sessions. But as he cautioned with one of his typical Anandisms, “What we need to focus on more are the small businesses – the Patels instead of P&G.” I also found it heartening that because of PM Modi’s recent drive, sanitation got to be on the summit’s agenda.

There was one jarring note, though. It was disturbing to witness how casually genuine dissent was being discounted amidst this overall gung-ho atmosphere. I understand that it was the World Economic Forum and not the World Social Forum, but I found it alarming to see an audience boo the celebrated RTI activist Aruna Roy, when she raised pertinent questions of equality and justice for India’s minorities and the environment. This happened in the midst of a BBC debate moderated by Nik Gowing, and Roy was the only panellist who had actual experience in working with India’s rural poor. It is unfortunate in this new forward-moving India that when any activist working on behalf of marginalised people raises their voice, they are branded as obstructionist, or against progress. India’s civil society has struggled for years for hard-won legislations like RTI and NREGA and I hope that what I saw in the audience in Delhi during that particular day was an aberration and not a portent of the new normal. It would be terrible for democracy if it were.

Sitting in our Godrej Vikhroli auditorium some days later at our Culture Lab, we had no such issues. Our conversation was free, frank and no holds barred. We had invited the celebrated gender activist Pramada Menon to perform her piece – Fat, Feminist and Free – as part of a broader discussion on gender diversity in the workplace. Pramada’s stand-up act was funny and also very serious. It raised issues about conformity to stereotypical expectations for both women and men, the complications of motherhood, fatherhood and many other topics. More than anything else, it served as a release valve for all of us who had assembled there to freely speak our minds about the challenges we were facing in our daily lives as we negotiated gender at work and home.

Pramada’s presence also enabled some of us from the corporate world, like my colleagues Nisa and Farah from Godrej, to share some of our thoughts on how corporations could make efforts to bridge some of the gender gaps that exist today.  Diversity is not something that can be grappled with in just one session, or a few sessions. It needs to be an ongoing conversation, and I’m glad that we had this particular conversation with Pramada present.

Speaking of diversity, I was thrilled to hear of Nita Ambani’s contribution to India’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) cause last month. Two NGOs – the Humsafar Trust from Mumbai and Naz Foundation from Delhi – together received Rs 1 crore as a donation from the Reliance Foundation, in recognition of their efforts in fighting for Indian LGBT rights. The recent Satyamev Jayate episode with Aamir Khan that focused on Indian parents who have accepted their gay, lesbian or transgender children has galvanised our nation’s attention. Gazal Dhaliwal, who featured on that particular episode told me at INK when I met her, how so many parents now rush up to her and congratulate her for the courage to be herself, and they do the same to her parents too.

These are signs that our country is changing for the better, and this is why, to me, while a firm commitment of 1 crore from the Reliance Foundation is really good and much needed, its impact goes way beyond the money. When someone like Nita Ambani says that discrimination against our LGBT citizens is not ok, or when someone like Aamir Khan declares firmly on his show that we have to raise our voices against section 377, it has a ripple effect in India, just as when Tim Cook, the Apple CEO publicly comes out in America and says that being gay is something that he is proud of. 

*This blog post is a modified version of my column Parmesh’s Viewfinder that appears in Verve magazine each month.