The choices we make

One of the privileges of the work I do is that it enables me to meet some really incredible people. I want to tell you about two of them — the Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2014, Kailash Satyarthi, and the award-winning Columbia University professor and bestselling author, Sheena Iyengar — both of whom I hosted in Mumbai some weeks ago.

 I think that for most people, whether in India or other parts of the world, the first time they heard of Kailashji was when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 jointly with the brave young Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan. Like with Malala, Kailashji’s life and work have been the subject of a number of documentaries, television series and talk shows over the past few decades; so if you don’t know much about him yet, I urge you at the very least to go and watch his brilliant TED talk online about anger as an agent of transformative change.

Here’s a quick primer. At age 26, Kailashji, who was born into a high caste, decided to give up a career as an engineer and dedicate himself to the issue of child labour (He had already changed his surname to ‘Satyarthi’ or ‘seeker of truth’ some years ago). The NGO he founded in 1980 — Bachpan Bachao Andolan — has so far led the rescue of over 83,000 child slaves from 144 countries and developed a successful model for their education and rehabilitation. In the late 1990s, Kailashji organised the highly impactful Global March Against Child Labour in which individuals marched across 80,000 kilometres in 103 countries. It is largely because of Kailashji’s work and activism that the International Labour Organisation adopted Convention No 182 on the worst forms of child labour, which is now a principal guideline for governments around the world. He also founded RUGMARK which is now used worldwide to tag all carpets made in factories which are certified as child labour-free.

When I met him in Mumbai, he told me about how he had recently returned from the Rashtrapati Bhavan where he had handed over his Nobel Prize medal to the President of India, in service of the country. He said that he had done this for both nationalistic and selfish reasons. He didn’t want to be burdened by the weight of the Nobel Prize. He still had a lot of work to do in his mission to eradicate child labour from India and the world because, as he had said in his Nobel acceptance speech and recounted in Mumbai, “every single minute matters, every single child matters, every single childhood matters”.

Kailashji has been attacked several times. The child rescue raids that he conducts are dangerous — he has been assaulted several times, and his colleagues have been shot dead and beaten to death. Each time however, he has emerged resilient and stronger. He told me about how, once after he had rescued children who had been sold into bonded labour, they were sitting and discussing among themselves about how they had been sold for even less than the price of a buffalo in their village. How do these children cope with this trauma and with the horrors that they have seen, and emerge stronger — after rehabilitation? This is the true reward of his work, he told me — seeing what happens after. So each time he frees a child and sees that first smile of freedom, each time he reunites a child with its mother and sees the tears of happiness in her eyes, he said that he feels the presence of God, and that continues to remain his biggest inspiration and the reason why he does what he does.

My other visitor, Sheena Iyengar is someone I first met two years ago. She is the author of the bestselling book The Art of Choosing which if you haven’t read yet, I urge you to do right away — it is a useful manual for both your work as well as your personal life. She is also a professor at Columbia Business School and a director of the Global Leadership Matrix there. Sheena’s TED talk on choosing has been viewed over two million times. It was my pleasure to revisit her at Columbia in New York some months ago and, in between discussing which pizza restaurant to choose from, I also managed to invite her to Mumbai.

In her book, Sheena weaves together personal stories from her life with examples from music, art and medicine, to explain how we make choices in life. During her talk at our Culture Lab in Mumbai, she spoke about why educating girls is important, especially in India. Actually, now there are any number of statistics that we can use to advance this cause, from GDP numbers to platitudes like ‘educate a girl, educate her family’ but I feel that the most powerful arguments are often contained within our own stories.

Sheena told us about her own journey — how her life had been a product of all three factors — destiny, chance and choice. But, as she said, it was choice and choice alone that enabled her to navigate both her destiny and all the chances that came her way, and carve out her place in the world as a blind daughter, of immigrant parents in America, who is now a jet-setting superstar professor and author. If Sheena’s mother had not chosen to be educated, inspired in turn by her own maasi, she might never have insisted on educating Sheena and her sister. So, ‘choice’ is the only way we can create a better life for ourselves and a better life for people around us, I couldn’t agree more.

What do people like Sheena and Kailashji have? Resilience? For sure. Flexibility? Yes, it is much needed. But above all, what stood out during the time I spent with them was their wicked sense of humour. Sheena often referred to her blindness lightly and joked about it; and Kailashji has remarked on how he has several thousand speaker invitations — and if he attends to them all, he won’t be able to do any work. Both of them, I realised, recognised the importance of lightness, even while pursuing very serious issues. Meeting them has given me an occasion to pause, reflect on my own life and the choices I have made, and on the road ahead and the choices that I need to make to live the kind of life I would like, and have the impact I would like to have on the world.

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