Sometimes there are things that you do because you get this wave of inspiration that’s impossible to ignore and the impulse tells your normal discerning process to go to hell.
In the last week of December, I experienced something similar when I saw the notification for TEDxIIMB – “Live The Dream” in FB. Minutes later, I had paid Rs. 1500 for a ticket and it was probably one of the fastest buys I’ve ever done in my life.
As an engineer though, one needs the comfort of hard logic even if one is prone to occasional bursts of spontaneity. And so, the next few minutes, I spent in justifying this as follows: “well, you’ve never been to TEDx and it would be interesting to find out what that is like”, and “it’s in IIMB. Would be lovely to be back in that auditorium and chew on the nostalgia”, and finally “Live the Dream – sounds exactly what I need right now in my life!”.
Then again, I need to ask myself why I needed additional justification. After all, sample the speaker list: R Balki, Boman Irani & Rahul Bose (no introductions needed), Shaheen Mistri (Founder of Akanksha foundation and Teach For India).
Anyways… the event was in a mid-work-week, and I made elaborate plans to ensure I could get out of work on-time. The universe must have been conspiring in my favor, because while I had to skip a sit-down lunch to allow last minute discussions, and opt for a take-away bowl of Upma so that I could get out atleast at 1 pm (leaving just under an hour to navigate the ECity-Bannerghatta route; those who know Bangalore traffic and its perils, will agree how impossible this is), within seconds of standing outside my office gate to catch an autorickshaw, this phenomenal woman driving (what looked to me) a huge swanky car, stopped next to me and asked me if I wanted a lift.
Now I’m not one to take lifts but then if an opportunity (to avoid sweltering heat and haggling with auto-wallas) presents itself along with a fabulous woman who’s a sight for sore eyes, all niggling doubts fly away with the wind. I found myself in her car, happily chatting away and realizing that I would indeed make it in time, while she graciously dropped me at Silk Board after we exchanged numbers, and found to our mutual delight that we shared a sun-sign. After stepping out of the car, in addition to thanking Anjali for being the wonderful human being she is, I looked sky-wards and said “Thank you” :).
After 5 hours later that day, I did it once again.
TEDxIIMB 2013 will be special to me because of the experience of being in a room and watching and listening to 3 gifted and truly amazing people who reinstate faith that the world is indeed a wonderful place to be in.
What makes these people phenomenal is how human they are and yet how humane they are. You hear the stories of their struggles and how life hasn’t exactly handed it over on a plate to them. You hear of their vision and their unwavering belief in what needs to be done, and you see it in their persona – the ability to create miracles and change the lives of other people.
A Muruganantham (The Man Who Wore a Sanitary Napkin)
Muruganantham with his limited vocabulary of self-taught and Indianized English, started his session saying “I will speak in my English” and instantly warmed everyone’s hearts because he had discerned the unspoken question that probably several people had in mind when his turn came up after distinguished speakers on the platform. A few minutes into the session and we discovered a man far beyond the limitations of language – a master at (black) humour. He has honed the delivery of his story to perfection (the video above is of an earlier time and his articulation has improved vastly since), but the story itself moves you to wonder how men like him get made. Three points from his presentation that I hope to never forget:
- “Finding opportunities” is an age-old adage. “Creating opportunities” is what we need to do today.
- There are plenty of opportunities in the “Black and White” world – the B&W is his take on the bottom of the pyramid (“colors don’t exist in our world, those exist only in yours”) – exploiting these opportunities does not eat into the business of any mainstream company because of how different the needs are and how oblivious (or uncaring because of the low profit margin possibility) these companies are to that need.
- Innovation lies in your ability to find problems, not solutions.
At one point in the presentation, he pulled out cash from his pocket and threw it on the ground dramatically, saying “That is where money should be! Don’t chase it. Mahalakshmi (goddess of wealth) will chase you when you don’t want her. Look at sustainability and how you can create, to benefit the lives of as many people as possible”.
Do you remember what you were doing at 18 years of age? Most likely not. But Shaheen does. Because what she created when she was 18 has today, far-reaching consequences in the field of education of under-priviledged children – the Akanksha Foundation, and later, TeachForIndia.
I’ve often noticed how people who spearhead causes are brilliant orators – not because of their vocabulary or accent but how their words can flow without pauses and pour straight into the hearts of those listening to them. As Shaheen, petite and beautiful, talks on stage, you get glimpses of a woman weathered by pain and suffering, and driven by hope and belief in the power of people. You cannot be the same person you were after you listen and distil the implications of her work.
Shaheen showed us a video of classroom impact: examples of the change that Teach For India fellows – people who’ve left successful careers to pursue for 2 years, a life of being responsible for educating a class of children who negotiate the terrain of being part of the underpriviledged class and eventually learn what it is like to have dreams for the future – are making in India. A child, Anushka, spoke about “choice”. It moved me to tears. Here’s the video: – watch from 2.36 onwards to listen to her.
Boman Irani is a star. He’s a star not because of his box-office status but because he shines brightly and lights up every room he walks into. A man with a booming, delectable voice that justifies his booming presence, he walked into the IIMB auditorium and wished everyone he saw on his way, acknowledged each and every member of the audience. At the end of his 20 minute talk (a cruel duration for a man who loves to talk), he bowed to each side of the auditorium as everyone stood up to give him a standing ovation. One word registers in your mind: Performer.
The TEDxIIMB 2013 publicity material noted happily about “Virus returns to college” and Boman started his session with “It’s not very often that I can say I’m returning to a stage that I’m familiar with”. It was clear as we saw him pace / gesture / act animatedly over next 20 minutes, that this was a man in his element – the rest of the world just fades into darkness around him when he’s on stage.
His story of success is a popular one; of a potato-wafer-seller turned photographer turned theatre artist turned film actor, experiencing real success at the age of 40. What inspired me though wasn’t the story or the journey, but what was evident throughout it: a nice, refined human being, and a God who made an example out of making life work for a nice human being, and thereby tells us it IS possible.
After all, if a boy who was raised by women (father expired 6 months before he was born and he makes a joke out of it saying he is always 6 months late for everything in life) and therefore, wet his pants when he heard a male voice for the first time because he had never heard anything like that before, who lisped and therefore wouldn’t open his mouth till the 9th standard, who managed his dad’s potato wafer shop and one fine day decided that “I am a photographer”, whose first trip with family outside of Bombay to Kodai ended up with him looking at a zero-watt light bulb in a dark, dilapidated & seemingly haunted hotel (that he had unwittingly booked as accomodation) and think that “this is me. I’m a big zero”, and who was told he had no talent (for theatre/acting) … can make it in life and be, STILL, a man of honesty and good character and kindness, then isn’t this proof that God exists?
There were again, 3 points that I carry with me after his talk and narrated to two people on phone on that very night (so you can gauge the extent of my inspiration here):
- Take Control of Your Life: The day he decided that he is a photographer (notice that it’s not “wanted to be a photographer”), he stood on his dining table, spread his arms and declared his intention to take control of his life – and this, he said is imperative to ensure that we kick-start the process of what we want to happen to us. Those of you who have read The Alchemist or even otherwise, believe in the power of the universe to make things happen for you – will understand what this means. For others, well, try it :).
- Not “Professional”, but “Inspired”: This almost knocked the wind out of my sails with how contrary to normal perception this is. He told us a story of how he had performed for an event held to commemorate a renowned person, much beyond what was expected and even what he expected of himself because he was immensely moved by the person he was performing for. At the end of the performance, he was told that it was very “professional”. As he was telling us the story, he took a pause, and I sensed a moment of angst and didn’t quite understand why because I assumed that the point of him telling the story was to tell us how much he was being commended for what he did. But then he explained how he took exception to being told he was professional, because for him professional meant that a person had done what he was supposed to do – a 9 to 5 job for a specific salary. For him, it was more important to be “inspired” – because that meant that you did something beyond expectations and nothing – the effort, the time, the money, the outcome – nothing mattered beyond the best you could give and do. After I’ve heard him say this, I can never think of the word “professional” in the same way as I did before, ever again.
- The Value of Honesty: He narrated a story about how he had taken photographs for a Norway newspaper, of an event that happened in India. It was one of his first events as an official photographer, and he had no idea how much to charge for photos (being an amateur), so he told them (acc. to him, the wisest thing he’s ever done) that he charged at “international rates”. He was expecting (for him, at the time) a princely sum of $300 for 3 pictures and the anticipation & desperation of getting a potential Rs. 12000 led to a heroic effort on his side. Incredibly though, the newspaper paid him $900 dollars instead. Further, they chose to send him $900 dollars, 4 times after that, for reusing his 3 photos (in his words, clearly, someone up there loved him!). But the reason he narrated this was to say how this… THIS act of honesty by persons in a faraway country, who’d never met him face-to-face but chose to reward him and honour their commitment to him even if they could have easily done otherwise … is what he attributes to his unfailing belief in being honest and its value. Several times in the past few months, I have personally wondered whether honesty was just a compulsion (so you’re being honest because you can’t be otherwise) because in the “real” world, it seemed people got along fine without it. Listening to Boman talk about honesty, I felt like someone was asking me to sit up and take notice.
TEDxIIMB had also 5 other wonderful sessions even though I don’t mention them here. Balki, in particular was rousing; his foray in advertising/films was a story about a man who fulfilled his purpose in life i.e. “making films”. He began by saying he didn’t understand the use of the terminology “dream”. Acc. to him, this is just “future reality” that shouldn’t be termed as a dream (which is seemingly unattainable) because we all should want it to come into existence sometime. Clearly, #FTW.
And so, now you know why I said thanks later that day, and more so, why I today tell myself I should listen to my inspiration-voice much more! The event nicely fit into a life-track that I have been pursuing of late and so, it feels like booking the ticket was indeed an inspiration from the heavens. Having gotten the inspiration, sitting on my butt and letting these realizations go to waste, would now be criminal so I’m executing my first change strategy by writing the blog post and “encoding it” for future reference. The next step would be to think deep and plan hard for how to let this change my life.
Afterthought: I realize that it is really easy to sit in your ivory tower and justify that what you’re doing is the best you can do and the most important thing for you to do. The only thing however, that one needs to master while doing this is to handle the slight discomfort that creeps in during those rare moments when the ivory tower fades and you realize you’re suspended in thin air.