Apologies from Pavi and me for vanishing from this blog. Much has happened in the past few months:

  • A title survey was conducted for our book on the Aravind Eye Care System. Our publisher remarked that they typically get 60 to 80 respondents. This survey got 350!
  • The title for the book is: Infinite Vision: How Aravind Became the World’s Greatest Business Case for Compassion
  • Our draft manuscript has been submitted and it has been sent out to reviewers; we are slowly beginning to receive valuable feedback
  • A final manuscript will be submitted end-January, and it should be in the bookstores (real and digital) by September 2011

Thank you for all your support and thoughts so far — there will be more from us in the months to come…


Wildlife Ahoy

Who says you have to go to a nature reserve for an encounter with interesting wildlife? Sitting right here, in a city of about 4 million people, we have encountered the following:

  • Some months back, a family of mongoose, who would trot across the top edge of the gate, in decreasing order of size. As though aware of what a show they put on, they didn’t look sideways at their audience, or down at the ground. “Just passing through”, they seemed to say.
  • A cat gave birth to her kittens on our living room chair (I wrote about that experience earlier). They have moved out, but every once in awhile, the cat returns, almost as though to check that we are behaving as we should be
  • Three to four different kinds of birds hop onto the window sill of our dining room every day and complain vociferously if  an over-ripe banana has not been placed for their royal consumption

And today, reporting live, I bring you two eye witness reports:

  • A one-inch frog (it is the monsoon after all) that hopped its way across the bathroom floor. Reaching the bathroom door, it had nowhere to go. Pausing to consider his next move, he spotted a thin crack between the door and the wall. Not worrying about size and fit, he turned around, pushed his butt in, and slowly eased himself into the crack. Since then, there have been no sightings. Stay posted though, we might have breaking news, any moment now…
  • A small cute looking mouse: She leapt off the shoe-rack this morning and vanished by diving into some old newspapers under the staircase. ‘Ah well’ we thought. It turns out, however, that this mouse has a good sense of theatrics. Having received shrieks (of what she probably took as appreciation), she has taken to repeating her feat – – crouching unseen on the shoe-rack and leaping off when an innocent human is trying to reach for their chappals.

So the next time you want to spend big bucks on a safari, save your cash… just come and stay with us instead.

The Importance of ‘What is Not’

We often make goals or prioritize our actions (for the new year, for the day, for a lifetime). I recently read an interesting article titled, ‘Elegance and the Art of Less’ by Matthew May. In it, he talks about examining the things we do not do, or do not want to do. (The essay has a good story about Jim Collins making a not-to-do list along with a to-do list every year, which struck me as a nifty idea).

May points out how sculptors, scientists, musicians, architects all use blank space or ‘what is not said/present’ as much as they do in what is there. This also leads to looking at the heart of any issue or endeavour and trying to identify the presence of simplicity in a complex situation.

Writing about Aravind is challenging. There are so many wonderful stories, so much data, so much that seems ‘extremely important’. How is one to choose what should go into the book? Reading May, I was struck by how, while we emphasize Aravind’s core values, what is also striking about the organization is what it does not do. In some ways, the ‘blank space’ around Aravind’s actions speaks as loudly (by its very absence), as the practices in themselves.

And, yes, there is a simplicity (and great beauty) in what it does choose to do….

A Quiet Place

“In this world of noise and confusion, each one of us needs a sanctuary.

A silent space to discover a new fragrance of life.”

–  J. Krishnamurti

A two bedroom white house surrounded by tall trees. A wrap-around balcony studded with potted plants. Cane chairs, coir matting on the floor, wooden bookshelves filled to the brim. The gentle murmuring of voices. Occasionally, the shout of the young boys playing cricket at the dead-end of the street filters in: “Arrey, stand still, yaar. I told you not to move”, “Its out, its out, its out”, and more frequently, “Aunty, can you throw the ball down please?”

The Krishnamurti Centre is dedicated to the exploration of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s philosophy. There are five or six such centres across the country. Open for you to explore his teachings through his writings and video recordings. The quiet of the centre brings with it an automatic calming down of the body and the breath. (When we were there, a monk was meditating in the reading room).  It encourages you to slow down from the minute you bend down to unbuckle your sandals, even before you turn a single page of a book.

The cane chairs, the matting and the bookshelves are all of a kind – – for anybody who has been through the Krishnamurti Foundation system (the schools, the retreats or the study centres), it is a sort of time-warp, one could guess what it would look and feel like even before opening the wire mesh front door (that creaks in just the right way), and stepping into the Centre. The furnishings are a sort of comfort in themselves, a comfort that comes from anticipation and a lack of surprises.

It had been a hurly-burly kind of day, with more busyness ahead of us. This small window of quiet was unexpected and precious. Sometimes, you do not even realize the need for a “silent space” (as JK put it), until you are in it.

Of Puddles and Miaows

After all the serious blog entries, here is a not-so-serious one.

The rains in all their glory are here.

Road to River

The first serious downpour brought the city to a halt, turned roads to rivers and flooded everything with two feet of water. Blame it on insufficient storm drains, the real estate boom and climate change.

To localize the drama even further, our water storage container floated out of its place in the ground and threatened to take away the connecting pipes and pump with it. (It is massive and made of thick, black plastic – – hard to imagine it ‘floating’ under any circumstance).

*           *

Pavi called the other day. Out of habit I picked up the phone and took it over to the most comfortable seat in the living room. Here is our conversation:

S (about to sit down, stopping abruptly inches above the chair): “Pavi! There is a cat in my chair and she’s just given birth to three kittens!”

P (in her usual calm, hard-to-hear-over-the-telephone voice): “Oh, how lovely, I didn’t know you had a cat.”

S (still startled): “Ummmm, we don’t…”

Unexpected Visitors

So now we have birds eating squishy bananas on the dining room window sill, absconding water tanks, and a neighbourhood cat with her three kittens in the best chair in our living room.

What ever next?

The Capitalist System and Social Enterprise

The financial meltdown in the United States, the economies of Greece and Iceland in tatters and the threat to the economies of Asia all has brought the spotlight fiercely on the capitalist method of operation in an economy. In the eagerness to find answers and to lay blame, people often say, “see what a belief in capitalism has brought upon us?” I’m not sure capitalism or the private sector is necessarily to blame. It has characteristics and instruments that can be very effectively used in poverty alleviation/development.

Muhammad Yunus in his book ‘Banker to the Poor’ says:

“Somehow we have persuaded ourselves that [a] capitalist economy must be fuelled only by greed. This has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only the profit-maximizers get to play in the market place and try their luck. People who are not excited about profit-making stay away from it, condemn it and keep searching for alternatives.”

“The private sector… is open to everyone, even to those who are not interested in making a profit.”

“I profoundly believe… that greed is not the only fuel for free enterprise. Social goals can replace greed as a powerful motivational force.”

Enterprises can push for social goals and for financial sustainability. At Aravind, the system and the emotional energy of the organization is geared to serve those who cannot pay, but it is the 40% that pay that not only allows this to happen but also keeps Aravind on its toes. It is the paying patients who push Aravind to be at the forefront of high quality services, technological change and customer service.


How is it that some of the best food in an Indian city is always served at these tiny-hole-in-the-wall places? This morning a friend took us to a Tamilian place for breakfast. Twist and turn in lanes just about big enough to hold a small car. Park precariously, under the nose of a man deeply immersed in his morning paper.  Enter a tall narrow building, the kind that gets thrown together in an absent-minded manner on a small strip of land. Start climbing a dark flight of steep stairs.

The place (one cannot by any stretch of the imagination call it a restaurant) is on the second floor. It has 10 metal tables with plastic chairs. Plain walls except for calendar pictures of Venkatramana and a sign that says ‘We serve individuals of all comunities, Grade B’. (Not sure what a ‘Grade B comunitie’ is, but I guess we qualified). Very clean, with newly whitewashed walls.  We are waited upon by a charming young lady. It is 7.30am and she has a fresh garland of jasmine flowers in her hair. Between the three of us we have: 5 filter coffees, two upamas, one pongal, one uttapam and one sada dosa. The food is served with sambar, coconut chutney and two other chutneys. It is also served with courtesy and care. All for the grand sum of Rs.110 (less than $3.00). Gotto love it.

Hair on Fire

A Buddhist teacher once said, “Don’t idle away the time needed for practice, but rather practice in the spirit of a person trying to extinguish a blaze in his hair.”

How many of us live our lives that way? The pursuit of what we truly want to do. Balancing our responsibilities (financial, familial) with our passions. Making rational choices in ways that you take full responsibility for your actions but not sacrificing everything that gives you joy. To act in ways that say: today is important, how I behave at work and at home is important. To be conscious that the words one utters really matter. To put a great deal of thought into the consequences of our actions, our instructions and our conversations.

How many of us live our lives as though our hair is on fire?

Cells That Go On Living

Just finished a very interesting book: ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot.

Henrietta was an African-American woman from Baltimore. Her cells, her cancerous cells became the first cell line to multiple continuously in the 1950s. They thus became ‘immortal’ and went on to play an exceedingly important role in medical research.

Henrietta Lacks

Her cells were taken without her permission. And while those cells (known as HeLa cells), were used extensively in scientific research (everything from polio to AIDS, the effect of space travel and nuclear reaction), it also spawned a multi-billion dollar industry. For decades her family lacked the knowledge of HeLa’s contribution, and never had a chance to benefit from the commercialization of her cells.

The book shows us who the person behind HeLa was and even more strikingly, her daughter Deborah. It raises numerous questions about bio-ethics, poverty and race. It shares with us the author’s journey as she wins the trust of Henrietta’s family and descendants.

A recommended read.

Waiting for the Rains

It is 42 C. That is about 108 F. Dry heat. The kind that attacks your skin and sucks out every little bit of moisture from the depth of your bones. People go back and forth in their preference for the kind of heat – – dry or humid.  Madras and Bombay, the temperature is in the late 30s, but humidity so high that breathing is difficult. Stringing one’s thoughts together, in either kind of heat, is a challenge.

Summers are a reminder: Of the frailty of the body. Of dependence on electricity and water. Of the longing for the rains. Even the word ‘monsoon’ has such a lovely feeling to it. It rolls off the tongue, with the languorous ‘soon’ at its end, a whispered promise. The bringer of life to farmers; their fortunes dependant on the vagrancies of winds and clouds. But it is also the city-dweller who eagerly checks the sky for changes, waiting day after day for the unrelenting heat to be washed out.

6.30am in a doctor’s waiting room. “It is pouring in Hyderabad.” “And Bangalore is cold – – remember what cold is?” Such is the conversation these days. Somebody remarks about photographs in the local newspaper of the rains in the Andaman and Nicobar islands. “How do you know those photos are of this year? Could be old photos. Media playing with our minds to prevent water riots” says a critical lady.  Just then clouds cover the sun, and a calm is restored.

There is a deep sense of anticipation. A collective holding of breath. Close examination of the clouds. Soon, soon, the monsoons will be here. No wonder so much music and poetry was written for this Indian season.