Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Founder's Blues: Losing the point, losing the way

There are days--many days--when I cannot remember what the point of Prajnya is.

We do a lot but it is so removed still from things at the core of our vision that it is hard to relate the purpose of our daily activities to the form we imagine for our main work.

We have some limited success at fundraising but not enough for anyone to be devoted full-time to this work. Which is one reason our full-time research and school training programmes are not in place.

We communicate across every medium possible. But when people we think are close to us still seem unsure of how to describe us, I wonder how effectively I communicate.

And people. We have an enviable community of volunteers, who take time to do things with us out of interest and conviction. We look like frugal spenders because we spend their time free of cost.

And underpinning this free volunteer labour is hours and hours of my time, to do the boring tasks and the pesky things and patchwork and mopping-up of every project. I cannot remind or ask people to do anything too often, because they are volunteers. Yet, I must act in consultation and cannot decide things on my own. Somehow at that point, the work they do feels like a personal favour, not a social obligation they are choosing to own.

That is the founder's responsibility. Credit for success is shared. Responsibility for every failure is still mine alone. That is fine.

But the thing that is breaking me now--and it may be politic to hide this but I think it is important to document as a reality of this moment--is that is that none of it feels like it is enough. Nothing I do is good enough. And I cannot remember what this is for? What for, all this? It worries me that I do not know why. It worries me a lot. Losing the point of Prajnya, I lose the point of everything else in the present moment.

This is Trishanku Swargam--can't return to your life, cannot proceed towards the afterlife. This moment is very real. I want that registered for the future--for those who want to do something like this and for those who may someday see Prajnya as a steady success. This moment is real, and this moment is horrible to live through.

Monday, March 26, 2012


I've been spending time these last three weeks with my infant niece.

I've always enjoyed hanging out with babies and children, although now I have far less energy than I once did. I have dozens of nieces and nephews and I don't really distinguish between 'sagey' and honorary ones. Relationships originate in the heart and the heart knows no distinctions. It must be a reflection on my relative maturity that with this child, I am noticing and understanding the cliched things people normally say about children.

She really is, like all babies, sthita-prajnya.

People remark on the fact that she greets everyone alike. She lets people approach her. She returns their attention quietly. She does not differentiate between one person and another. She does not know as yet that one person is a close relative, another person is a friend, a third person works in this house. Everyone is the same to her.

She listens. She has her way of communicating. But she also pays attention to what people around her express. She has made us acutely and embarrassingly aware of our verbosity.

She does feel Chennai's sweaty heat. She gets hungry. She gets tired and sleepy. These sensations simply are. She has not learnt to place a value on them as yet. And so she experiences them in the moment, expresses her discomfort in that minute and leaves it completely behind with no endless post-mortem as we do, "It was so hot, I was so thirsty..."

She is completely in the moment. This minute, she is completely absorbed in a paisley motif on the bedspread. We call to her, we have her complete attention.

Are you in front of her, pretending to entertain her? Fine. Is she on her own? Fine. Is there a crowd visiting her? Fine. Is it just the usual suspects? Fine. Has she been on a little excursion today? Fine. Has she been in the same room all day? Fine. Nothing has an ascribed value, a judgment attached. It's all truly the same to her.

I look at her and I listen to us. And I cringe. There's nothing good we can teach her. No value we can add. All she will learn from us is to worry about the past and future; to complain about this and that; to judge people; to miss the love in their voice for its tone or accent; to be discontented and to be moved by the things that don't matter. We take perfectly excellent beings and pretend to raise them. There is a Tamil saying, "Chumma irunda shangai oodi kedutanan"(He took a perfectly good conch and ruined it by blowing on it). She brings that home to me.

I wish for her that all our best efforts to raise her more or less fail, and that she remains sthita-prajnya all her life.

I wish for me, that when I grow up, I become like her. Like I too may have once been. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Isolation envy?

This post is about my uncle, about xenophobia and about securitization.

My uncle is a Quaker. He has also been a key member of Quaker Peace and Service, through which Quaker volunteers work as mediators in peace-building efforts and facilitators of development projects. The Quakers are described by Elise Boulding as one of the historic peace churches, along with Mennonites and the Brethren. The Quakers and Mennonites have long innovated and practised non-partisan, humane approaches to peace-building and conflict transformation. My uncle served as a Quaker facilitator/ mediator in Sri Lanka and in Nagaland over decades.

But through all those decades, he visited India often also to be with family. With no problem.

Until last month. A frail octagenarian now, and retired from Quaker work for six years, he flew down with his daughter to visit his dying brother, but was turned away at Bangalore airport. On the grounds that he was a Quaker. He has learnt that he has been blacklisted and his OCI visa has been cancelled. Heartbroken, he is trying to find out why. The Indian High Commission in London, which granted his OCI visa, has no idea. He has written to Mr. P. Chidambaram, but how can we assume he will receive an answer?

There are two questions that arise. One that troubles my uncle: What intelligence about the Quakers has led to this? And one that should trouble all of us: The Quakers have been quietly working in peace-making for decades, why has this intelligence only now registered?

I am very sad that my uncle could not come and see his brother. As one grows old, family ties tug at us more strongly, and to deny siblings a last chance to meet is so un-Indian. 

I am also concerned that traditional pacifist groups like the Quakers are now falling into the same net as genuinely pernicious outfits. 

But most of all, I am concerned about the casual securitization of everything. Not new, not breaking news, but we all lapse into apathy, and I am choosing to speak up now. 

My uncle wants to know what intelligence has learned about the Quakers; but by blacklisting Quakers, the state has privileged information about them. It has securitized this issue, so that it can withhold information and we cannot (in spite of the RTI) actually extract it from the security establishment. And chances are at one level, our own instinct is not to push for it. 

But we should push. Because our own liberties are at stake. Because our identity as a political community is at stake.

So many questions to ask:

1. Why did my uncle and the Quakers get blacklisted now after all these years? Why were they blacklisted at all? 

2. Why are we so afraid of mediation as part of peace processes? It's not like we don't offer our services to others. It's not just foreign NGOs we are afraid of, but routinely our approach to conflict zones is to treat them like small-pox wards--keep everyone out, keep the problem in an airless tin for it to fester. Indian civil society has limited opportunity to work in conflict areas.

In fact, one of the questions we are asked over and over: Is your work political? Of course, it is. We are in the business of social change and social change is political. It is as if the state would like civil society to engage in charitable rather than civic work. 

3. Why are we so xenophobic? This is a theme to which this blog returns over and over again. 

Sixty years after decolonization, we are still afraid of everyone and their shadow. Whether it's foreign students and researchers, foreign investors, transnational NGOs, funding agencies, food chains.... you name it, we fear it. Our decision-making seems to operate on the assumption that foreigners are malicious and anti-India (whatever India means in any instance) until proven otherwise through mysterious measures. 

Such an unconfident people, we have become. And why that is so, is another question for another blogpost.

4. Why are we so respectful of  'security' that we ask no questions? Or accept that we won't get answers. In this case. On Koodankulam. On a dozen other areas. Every Indian political party handles democratic discourse by securitizing a question rather than engaging with it. And in the world's largest and noisiest democracy, we accept that, choosing to outrage instead over whether a remote Siberian village bans the Gita or not. 

My uncle's sad predicament prompted me to write this post but really, the questions are much larger. It's about who we are, who we are becoming and how we are content with ourselves... Like paranoid frogs in a well. 

Friday, March 16, 2012


I have always looked for patterns in my life, and on birthdays, I tend to look at the factors of my age and reflect on them. That is to say, at 21, my life seemed to be made of three 7 year long segments; at 32, two sixteen year segments.. and I have always found prime number ages ominous, mainly because you can't tell what to make of them. And 47 was a little bit like that.

48. Neatly displays one's life in four 12 year segments. Like the chatur-ashrama of textbook Hindu lives. 1-12 childhood. 13-24 student life. 25-36 householder's life. Of course... this is not how I have lived, nor how my life's segments are best categorized. That said, 48 says something to me about my life.

48 says to me it's time to move on. To another life-stage. It seems to me to be a beginning of the next 12 years, an important transition somehow. A time to move out of getting, owning, being to something else.. becoming, perhaps? I don't completely understand these words either but I feel compelled to write them.

In these 12 years, I have to simplify my life. I just know it. It cannot be so full of bells, whistles, objects, appurtenances, attachments, agendas, anxieties and suchlike. It has to become simpler. सरल. सहज.

So this morning, I want to start this phase by making some small changes. (And yes, I don't need to do this publicly, but I strongly feel the need to express this moment.)

Simple changes.

I am going to start giving away things.
I am giving up buying silk. I will still wear silk that I have but also start giving that away, maybe.
I also hope I will not buy leather again.

I am taking back time for reading and writing. I will really now relegate other things to the margins and the interstices.

I want to make time for silence. I don't know how, but I will try.

I will make time for the yoga and the meditation that will help me in this transition.

That's all, for now. That's quite a lot, really. If all this seems natural to me after a few years, then I will make more changes.

But 48 is really a call to action and movement.

At the end of these 12 years, I want to be a person of few wants, simple needs, equanimity and silence.

Why? I don't need to but I want to answer this question also. The answer is a mix of many things.

வைராக்கியம். வெறுப்பு. The draw of "vanaprasthashrama" from somewhere deep inside my heart. The instinct that there is somewhere else I have to be, and this is a way-station. Exhaustion. The deeply ingrained rhythm and value of a civilization--something that says there is a better way to live. Even though, I am not sure that I am ready for any of this, I cannot today sit still and stagnant.

48 says, enough of thrashing about here, complaining. It's your life, pick up the litter and keep moving.