Paradise on earth?

16th October 2013, 8am, Kotma
Today is my last day in Kotma, so I came out for a longer stroll today morning. I left the hostel saying I will be late today.
We came here on 5th for a one day visit. We had heard about Dr. Tulsidas and how after hearing about the Uttarakhand disaster he decided to dedicate his service in the region, choosing the remotest of villages for his medical camps. It was meant to be just one day stop. But the moment I reached the ashram (or the hostel) he has started here and stared at the mountains from there, I knew this place was special. A kind of a calm came over me despite the long trek to reach the village.
We left the next day back to the hustle and bustle of SNC :). After a few days, I found myself back in Kotma, staring at the mountains. Dr. Tulsidas started me on morning walks from the next day and a 3km down and up trek to and from the river has now become an everyday affair.
The first time I came down to the river and walked to the river, I had a feeling as if I was walking on the surface of some other planet. Boulders of every size – from the biggest to the smallest; rusted rods; parts of a truck; torn tin sheets all laid there. As if human beings once lived here.
Earlier I was told there was a hydro electric power plant on the river. It was hard to believe it looking from top because there was absolutely no trace of it except for a hanging pipeline along the mountain.
power plant
Next day I went further down the river and saw the left over building blocks of what must have been the plant. One day I also went up the mountain and came across the fore bay and signs warning people of the heavy water flow through the bay. I smiled at the irony of the board.
A couple of nights when it rained I could sense the fear and see the haunted look in the eyes of children staying at the ashram. Will they ever be able to see ganga as the calm river that it was known as? Children are scared of stepping into the river that had been their playmate since generations. On the surface life seems to be moving forward, people have found refuge in their faith and moved beyond the blame game. But going a little further deep exposes their wounds and memories.
The images of destruction that I have seen are nothing when I see some pictures that people clicked during the first 3 days. Archana had asked me in the first few days itswlf if i want to see pictures of destruction. And my instant response was no. I was reluctant to see them because what I saw on the ground was itself too much for me to take but eventually while preparing a report I did stumble into that folder. What I saw left my wih goosebumps and sent a shiver down. It been almost 2 weeks since I saw those pictures of floods, damage and of dead bodies yet they keep coming back to haunt me. And if that is my situation, I can not even think of being able to empathise with what the people here must be going through.
In about a week’s time I will be going back from uttarakhand. It will be the end of my volunteering time here in uttarakhand but in spirit I know I am leaving a part of me here. the part that will keep reminding me about my place in this universe, the futility of things we worry about when life has its own plan for us.
And now I feel the river is making me jump from one thing to another and I shall close my phone and just enjoy the sound of it.

Categories: Volunteer | Tags: | 5 Comments

Meeting Amma

me_n_amma29/09/2013 Shivanand Ashram, Uttarkashi; 3pm
We were walking from Uttarkashi to Ganeshpur after listening to Col. Ajay where he shared with us few glimpses of the first few days of the floods.
Joseph ji has friends in all corners of the country and he wanted to introduce us to them, so we set out on a walking tour of Uttarkashi. As we were walking, we first crossed the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple. We went in for a quick darshan. Now, Uttarkashi is the abode of gods so temples are a regular sight. We soon came across Omkareshwar temple. The temple had a huge peepul tree in its compound. Since it was afternoon and the sun was very hot, we thought of taking a short break here. Pratyush sat inside the temple, I sat under the tree and Joseph ji, who it seems never needs a break, went down to the banks of river Ganga. There he saw an old lady and after asking her permission called both of us to meet her. I would refer to her as amma from here on.
Amma lived in a tiny room on the steps that went down to Ganga. As soon as we came, she put out a blanket on the ledge outside her room for us to sit, while she sat down. She asked us if we have had food. Even though we told her repeatedly that we’ve had food she insisted on making some lunch for us. “Sab kuchch hai, daal hai, chaawal hai, aata hai. Tum bolo main abhi bana doongi” (There is everything – pulses, rice, flour. You tell me and I will quickly make lunch) 🙂
I was thinking how we get so worried whenever there are unexpected guests at home and here was a lady who had little for herself and is eager to share it all with 3 strangers who just showed up at her door. Such unconditional love!
She obviously won’t have it that we not eat anything and gave me a biscuit packet. I couldn’t refuse it. It was a gift of love. She again asked “kya khaoge” and this time Pratyush replied “maaji gyan khayenge. Thodi baatein sunaiye” (we want knowledge. Tell us something).
Then she started sharing her life with us. Her pilgrimage to the mountains, her travels and stays at different ashrams. She had a smile that reached her eyes and her eyes were sparkling. For the last 40 years she has been living in the room waiting for the time when Ganga ji will take her away.
In between she looked at me and said “tu yahin mere pass ruk jaa” (you come and stay with me) and I sat down with her and I was remembering my grandmother so much. And I addressed her as amma. She held my hands and she started talking about how I should not worry about troubles that come in life because happiness does not come without struggles. And that only when there are struggles will we get closer to God. It was as if she was looking inside me.
She only spoke Garhwali but I could understand everything. It was like she was talking to our hearts. I had one of my most intimate conversations with a stranger, with her.
We went to meet her again the day after and as we were leaving she said fondly “aate rehna” (keep coming).
I am leaving from uttarkashi today and I dont know when I will be back but I say to her “amma I will try”.

Categories: Family, Travel, Volunteer | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

Day1: at Space for Nurturing creativity, Khumera, Guptkashi

21/09/2013 10:30pm
Today morning I woke up and went down to get some hot water… Nandini was there and she asked did we sleep well and how was our day yesterday. I said it was great. And I am looking forward to today. She said only one thing that time “everyday is a new day over here”.
Today was our first full day here in Khumera village (8 kms above Guptkashi). They say the day starts and ends early in the mountains. When we slept at 10pm last night, Archana said it was late. I had thought I will wake up early. I first woke up at 3:15am. Saw the time and slept again and then I woke up only at 6:15! 🙂 Last night it was raining heavily so we had stayed back in school. We went up to Archana’s fathers home (500 mts up the mountain but going up it feels much longer 🙂 ), got our bags and moved permanently in the school.
The morning started with hot water with tulsi leaves. That has replaced my chai! (And pratyush is very happy about that 🙂 ) after that was the safai (cleaning) time. Everyone then cleaned the entire school. They have lunch at 10am here. The food responsibility is distributed amongst the didis for each day. I just helped in that.
Then I did an english story reading session with the children. Archana had bought big fairy tales books from rishikesh and the kids were very excited with the pictures 🙂 so we all sat in a circle and every child would read one sentence and then tell the meaning of the sentence. Its amazing how eager these children are to read. if one got a shorter sentence to read he/she would become very sad… quite contrary to our normal school where, except for few, most would run away from reading.
With the little ones I did some drawing and coloring. And then again went to help in the kitchen. This was the first time I was cooking chapatti on a chulha (firewood stove). At first I was just flattening the dough into rounds and then putting on the tava but later I started cooking them. And I found an all new respect for the girls… on the chulha, the hand that presses on the chapatti gets hot as its right on top of the flame and the legs that are so close to the burning wood below, get hot… and the girls do it twice a day every day all their lives! During the first few months after the floods there was no gas, no electricity anywhere in the villages and chulha was the only means to cook food.
After lunch, the children have classes till 3 pm. During day time the sun had come out and it was the perfect time for us to bring more stuff that we had left in the room they have on top. there were two computers that Archana had bought from Rishikesh and also some Ayurvedic medicines and health supplements that a doctor from Kerela had sent. We got the stuff… Earlier I was holding the packet with both my hands in front and walking down the hill. The girls then said “didi aise to aap thak jaoge, sar pe rakh lo” (didi you will get tired like this, carry the packet on your head). At first I wasn’t sure but then I thought lets just try and it indeed was an easier way to carry load up and down a hill! 🙂 we then fixed the computer and installed their drivers and had it running! I have never had more excitement in setting up a comp 🙂
Later we sat with Archana and her team to listen to their journey and also how best we can serve here. Our idea was that we can always take classes for children and they are excited about new teachers but if they had any organisational challenges that they think we can contribute in.
For most of the evening I was just mesmerised listening to their journey. They also shared about the relief work they have been doing. Walking up the mountains taking 90% risks to their lives just to ensure villages up have food available! Ensuring that everyone was tended to! And while the elder didis were busy in relief work the little children were running their school themselves.. studying at the time of classes and cleaning and cooking! I would have to write another post on SNC itself soon. Tomorrow we are planning to go up in the villages and interact with people there.
At the end I was thinking there is so much I can learn from them! And wondering what can I possibly help them in?
Tomorrow is another day.

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Art with Heart

It started in a hospital waiting room. The doctor was stuck in some emergency and the receptionist told us it will take about an hour. I was flipping through my phone and found this geometrical rendition of a person saying Namaste that I had clicked at Seva Cafe.

art with heart, Seva Cafe

The murals I clicked at Seva Cafe

I started making it on a blank sheet that I had. Somewhere in the middle of the drawing, my neighbor became very interested in the sketch and kept looking at its progress all the while :). When I finished the sketch, I wrote a message on the sketch and gifted it to him. The look on his face was that of utter surprise! He said “You just spent almost half hour on making this, how can you give it to me? You don’t even know me!”. My response was just that “I felt you would like it more than my file!” He couldn’t stop thanking me.

And I took his smile back with me. The feeling was so awesome that I made it a regular activity to draw that sketch whenever I was in a waiting area and gift to a stranger nearby. And then slowly the sketches evolved into handmade smile cards, message cards and bookmarks. Sometime back, after a service retreat, I gave them a collective name of art of heart. Art with heart was an activity we did with volunteers and I loved the name so much that I gave it to this little activity of mine.

The idea of art with heart is gifts made and gifted with love. A means to connect and reach out to strangers. In some sense it is an extension of letters to strangers. I make these little gifts and leave them for strangers to find them. Most often I do not know who gets them. There are times, I hear a story of how one impacted the receiver and it really adds to my joy of making them.
Volunteer Weekly Smile cards
I won’t say that I’m good in craft activities. In fact it started with a chance visit to kids craft shop. My 5 year old was visiting during her summer vacation and I wanted to plan activities for all the days that she was here… I went to craft shop looking for things to fill her days. In that shop I was so enamoured with all the stuff that was available like craft punches, fluorescent pens, foam moulds etc that I came back with a lot for myself.

I got some punches, some handmade paper and a silver and golden pen. At first it was simple smile cards, with a punched pattern in top and a message inside. And then I modified them a little as I got a feedback that the gold or silver was not so visible.. So I started writing on a white paper and putting in inside.

During a visit to ahmedabad,  I got a perfect opportunity to gift those punches to another friend.  that brought me back to the craft shop.. This time I also picked up some colourful glitter pens. And these pens just added a whole new magic 🙂 I loved them… Till now with just the gold and silver I wasn’t doing any illustrations, just the punched pattern but now with colours, illustrations came alive on paper. I made a lot of smile cards and message cards and passed them to strangers.

art with heart - message cards

And I went back to the craft shop to buy all the 12 shades of the glitter pens. And I found so much inspiration from the net for illustrations and quotes. Pinterest actually became my new best friend 🙂 I have to accept I am not so great with original illustration ideas… I can build on one more easily so while some are my own, most I have drawn from images I found on the net. I have used them in good faith with no copyright infringement intended 🙂

art with heart

Now I carry some empty paper and coloured pens with me all the time and whenever there is a little time I make a card. If I’m lucky I find the opportunity to gift them right away!

gift of love- bookmarks
If you want some of these message cards or bookmarks, just send me an email. If I can post them to you I will or else I can send you high resolution scanned images for you to print and use.
Every art is a work of heart made with a lot of love just for you.

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In Rishikesh: preparation for going up

I have been wanting to come and volunteer in uttarakhand relief work since a long time and time was an important factor as I had to be back in delhi by mid october for starting my visa process. So after calling and meeting a lot of people, I decided to put my faith into pratyush. he had spoken with a few people who have been working in uttarakhand region for long and they were coming to rishikesh on 15th so we just decided to meet them and then take things further 🙂 It was very difficult to convince my family and I have a feeling that they are still worrying a lot because there is no “fixed plan”. I read sometime back that plans and rules only make you feel safe initially.. nothing goes according to plan anyway 🙂 I am lucky there are so many people who worry about me and I hope that I can serve some of those who have lost the people they used to worry about.
We reached rishikesh on 15th late evening. Pratyush had booked rooms at shivanand ashram in rishikesh. this is my first time in an ashram and I didnt know what to expect but shivanand ashram is beautiful! One of the biggest in rishikesh it beautifully brings together karm, bhakti and gyan. there is a big library of books and also an audio video library and many learned people to listen and learn from. Being an ashram, there are plenty of bhakti activities as well. They have a hall in which the akhand mantra is chanted 24 hrs since the last 60 years! I have heard that their ganga aarti is also very beautiful though I havent been able to see it yet. We have a lot of opportunities to serve as well. One can help in their hospital, in cleaning the ashram and in the kitchen. Wouldnt take much guesses to where I go :). Gandhi ji used to call it bread labour. Even if we are not paying for the food we e here, we are offering our service and that is bigger than money!
currently a group of 40 very young students are staying at ashram. They have come from a tribal village in koraput district in orrissa to observe the life in an ashram. These children not older than 10 years are beautiful… So eager, so full of questions and also very much the children. So you can see them running around in their break time :). Last night they performed a 1 hour satsang session. It was beautiful to listen to the combined chanting of 40 children and to imagine that at this tender age they already have learnt so much sanskrit! Today morning they all left to clean the banks of ganga.. Each had a big plastic bag and a green himalaya volunteer tag! We wished them good luck as they marched out of ashram in a single file!
Yesterday we met devendra bahuguna and his neice archana bahuguna. Devendra ji has been working in uttarkashi since many many years and he shared stories of how tragedy has struck in many households. How the floods have washed away 80% of livelihoods. He was also expressing anger at why should the villages have become so much dependent on tourism! That its time to bring gram swaraj and make the villagers see that they need to become self reliant. Relief is only a temporary fix. It will make people even more dependent. Archana has an ngo called space for nurturing creativity in guptkashi. She works with children of the region through alternate education forms based on Gandhi ji’s nai talim principles. Since the floods they have suddenly become the focal point for every other organisation doing relief work in the region. Their school serves as the storage and their staff in distribution. Recently they started a tailoring and a paper bag making center for the women and youth in the villages. She says we dont think these centers will provide much livelihood support as not people in the mountains do not get many clothes stiched and there is hardly any forward linkage to send the stuff but for now its a way to engage the women and divert their minds. Many have lost their husbands, brothers, sons and they spend the whole day crying.
Yesterday we went into rishikesh market to buy some blankets, pillows and books for the children. Archana has a list of few more things needed there. Today we hope to finish all the stuff that needs to be bought and then be on our way to guptkashi on 19th morning.

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The SMILE Deck game

Every trip to Ahmedabad gives me something new to write! There is so much that I receive there that I can just not let it pass without sharing and giving back 🙂 I shared it on Volunteer Weekly, but like the Seva Cafe volunteering experience, I wanted to share it here as well. But this one is a shorter version of the original article.

Last month when I was in Ahmedabad; Mihika gifted me a SMILE deck.

SMILE deck, SMILE cards, random acts of kindness, pay it forward, little acts of kindness

Four suits of the SMILE deck

The smile deck is like any other deck of cards – 4 suits with 13 cards each and 2 Jokers – with a twist that each card has a unique kindness idea. These decks were created by a group of volunteers, people just like you and me.The four suits are four categories for kindness towards people you know, stranger, yourself and for the world. You can view all the ideas here:

    Clubs: For People You Know
    Hearts: For Strangers
    Diamonds: For Yourself
    Spades: For Our World

My SMILE deck has become a game now. I started with the Joker card as soon as I opened the deck – telling a joke to the person who gifted it to me. For a week I thought about how to use it. And then I decided to pick one card at random every day and do what it says. I have to confess that I haven’t been able to stay one-a-day with them as I had initially thought but the game is on till the deck gets over and it has been fun and rewarding. Here are some that I have picked till now and what I did :).

Continue reading

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Atithi Devo Bhava: A mantra I saw in practice at Seva Cafe

I first wrote this volunteering experience for Volunteer Weekly. But then I had to share it here as well! 🙂

This post combines three of my favorite tasks – cooking, volunteering and writing!

seva cafe logo, living is giving, volunteering at seva cafe, Ahmedabad,Last week I went to Ahmedabad to volunteer in Seva Café. I was introduced to Seva Café almost a year ago during a training in my previous organisation. Since then I have wanted to come back here. Even though Ahmedabad is just a couple of hours away, it still took me almost a year to return.

It is difficult to explain Seva Café – it’s an experiment in ‘Peer to Peer Generosity’ run by volunteers (and a small staff) from diverse backgrounds. At Seva Café, volunteers offer meals to strangers just like they would to guests at home. At the end of your meal your bill reads 0.0. The café runs on gift economy.

Even though I love cooking, I have never cooked for more than 15 people at a go. I wanted to see how it is in big kitchen and so I decided to volunteer for both food preparation and later in waiting, serving and cleaning dishes. It was an amazing experience! I realized the cooks in restaurants must have solid arm muscles because even mixing such quantities and holding such big pans (with food) was a task :D!

volunteering at seva cafe, ahmedabad, seva cafe, india, karma kitchen

The day began with me making tea for everybody. Then Raghu bhai and Raju bhai decided on the menu for the day and we all got busy. Since I was a novice I was mainly peeling and chopping and passing things. Then Bhaskar bhai decided to teach me fried rice and red sauce for pasta. I was all excited! Yeah! I get to cook! 🙂

What followed is something I will always remember.

As soon as a picked up the pan; Bhaskar bhai asked me to look up and read:

“अतिथि देवो भव” [meaning ‘The Guest is God’].

I said okay and I said it loud “अतिथि देवो भव”. He then said – don’t just say it; believe it. Believe it from your heart that the stranger you are cooking for today, is your guest; is like God. Cook like you would cook for God. Leave all the negative emotions that you may have aside; if you had a fight with someone earlier in the day and you are angry; throw that anger out. There is no place for it in this kitchen. Cook with a happy heart; cook with love and its only then that your food will be delicious. He said – there is no technique in cooking a great meal; the only essential ingredient is love. If while cooking you are thinking about any fight you had then those negative emotions are bound to travel to your food also.

The thought was so simple, yet so profound. It’s the reason why no restaurant can match mother’s food. Mom’s make food with love which a restaurant chef rarely remembers to add!

Categories: development, Travel, Volunteer | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

My work and my life

When I worked in Texas Instruments, I could switch off the work after leaving office. It was easy to forget office in office. Moreover what I did, did not influence or tried to dictate how I lived.

But working in development sector is different. To begin with its not easy to forget about work after 6pm. In most cases the work affects you as a person; when I go and meet children in orphanages and they cling to me when I am ready to leave asking me to promise that I will come back tomorrow; I cannot forget about it. I cannot let it not influence me as a person. I have always been humbled after visiting the homes. I have always been thankful for what I have and I have stopped complaining for what I do not have. In my day to day life, I have started to waste less, give more, bargain less, trust more. In a way I have let my work dictate my life. It has impacted my choices; I choose to buy from the local vegetable vendor, I choose to buy seasonal, I choose to buy cotton, I choose to buy fair trade, I choose to walk shorter distances.


Should it mean that I am wrong in wanting luxuries in life? Should it mean I feel guilty for wanting Nike shoes, Tommy jeans, BOSE speakers, for having a big car and a driver and etc etc?

Does it?

Should I be guilty?

Some of my colleagues from the NGO, I last worked at, were from the school of thought that yes, it is ‘ethically’ wrong to live a luxurious life when you are working in development sector. That when you see so many people suffering, how can you splurge. So in their opinion, a small car is a necessity but a big car is a luxury; a domestic help is a necessity but a driver is a luxury; shoes are necessity but a big brand is a luxury. They also during the discussion implied that they are a little wary of people who are working in development sector but sport a silk kurta and get down from a big car.

My question would then be where do you draw the line? Should it be between cycle and car or should it between small car and big car? I agree one shouldn’t flaunt luxuries, i respect those who live a minimalist life; but if wearing a branded shoe makes a difference to me, should I be judged for it? A friend told me that an unhappy person can never make another person happy so let me draw that line based on my ethics, don’t judge me; don’t question my intentions and dont mistrust me.

Categories: around us, development, Volunteer, work | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Moon quotes

I don’t know of many people who welcome a Monday morning. In fact, I, and most of my friends, start dreading the Monday morning from Sunday evening itself :o. I think this should be very common, for ‘Monday Morning Blues’ is never out of fashion!

I need inspiration to start work on Monday Morning. That was one of the reasons why I started a Monday morning quotation series on iVolunteer’s facebook page. Whenever I come across an inspiring quote that is somehow related to development, I make a note of it so that I don’t have to look for quotes at the last minute. And definitely not on a Monday morning! For me having that quote ready to share with our followers is the inspiration to start work on Monday! 🙂

So yesterday when I read about Neil Armstrong’s death (May his soul R. I. P.); I knew I should post a quote by him. But I didn’t want to use the “giant leap of mankind” one. It is so common; I wanted to find a quote that not many people would have read earlier so it will be something new… and I found a perfect quote in this one:

It gave the message of not wasting your time and to do something worthwhile (to volunteer!)… though the full quote says “I believe that every human has a finite number of heartbeats. I don’t intend to waste any of mine running around doing exercises.”; the truncated version fits best as an inspiring thought.

Searching for more, I found another one, which I felt was more apt. Without giving any direct gyan, the quote said it all:

It’s not a Neil Armstrong quote, but it reflects the mood which, back in 1969, Apollo 11‘s successful flight created. It’s a quote by James Lovell. James Lovell (Tom Hanks’ character in Apollo 13) flew on Apollo 8 and commanded Apollo 13. The walk on the moon showed that nothing is impossible for mankind! That’s why this is now my favourite moon quote.

What’s your favourite moon quote?

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Once a volunteer, always a volunteer!

I was searching for cartoons to share with our volunteers, when I stumbled upon this one.. really described what I felt when I had started volunteering.. 🙂 It was a trap.. I fell into it almost 10 years ago and still haven’t managed to come out  and don’t want to either 🙂 Read my story here.

image taken from: http://www.grantland.net/volunteering.htm (check out the link for many more interesting cartoon strips)

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