You can’t eat the view

You can’t eat the view

I just filed my taxes. My income has fallen. In corporate jargon, we have sustainability issues. I live in a Himalayan village. Everything around is incredibly beautiful. Most people who come through envy our life. But I cannot eat the view. I also cannot use it to pay for my kids’ education.

That’s okay because I am the eternal optimist who believes that things will get better. But the tax return did make me think about the trade-off between money and happiness. As I pondered, I came across a diagram for work, money and happiness. It hit home. I have created this version of it.

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Most of it is pretty clear. The “Dreaming” box means you may have a passion for something, and money can be made from it, but you’re no good at it. My ability with music is a great example. I’ve joined guitar classes six times and still can’t play. I’ll never make it to the rock-n-roll hall of fame.

But the boxes here are not an end state. The box you’re in now is a starting point. You could be very happy in your box. If not, move. It’s the difference between “As is” and “To be”. (Apologies for the corporate jargon. To my credit, I did replace “monetize” with “make it pay” in the picture below). The goal is to alter the box we are in. The quest is for the “JOY” box – that ideal combination of Passion, Excellence & Money.  We wont discuss how much money. Let’s just say its personal and move on.

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Let me take a few examples from my own life. I was in the “rich but stressed” box. I could sound passionate about a revenue target, but I was faking it. You cannot fake your way into a passion. I was lying to my boss, my team, and myself. So I walked away.

I found myself in the ”Happy but poor” box.  I now pursue various passions / projects to seek out joy.

  1. Writing. It doesn’t pay. My first book did well but earned peanuts. This blog has earned nothing except the indiblogger award for humour. The award is also inedible. So I hope my next book sells more and I can make peanuts2 from it. The fact is, I write because it’s fun. Even if I earn nothing. Happy but poor.
  2. The Himalayan Writing Retreat (THWR). I am working hard to grow THWR. It is one way of trying to make writing pay. I love teaching, and I know the retreats are good because the participants love them (on facebook we’re rated 5/5). But the problem is marketing – I have to improve that. I’m working on it right now. I can’t eat the view but it does help me sell and monetize (uff). Once that happens, I will reach the joy box.
  3.  Professional Speaking. This is something I really enjoy. It can pay as well. My initial talks were terrible. I am working hard and getting better. This 4-minute talk is amongst my better ones. I hope to start earning from it now. I expect my next book to boost that. So Professional Speaking is the “dreaming” box where I am trying to excel.
  4. The Himalayan X retreat. We are creating a yet-to-be-named learning destination around our home in the Himalayas. This is a place where people will come to learn. And grow. A space with rooms and learning spaces which will be the future home of many different types of Himalayan Retreats. We hope to do many things like bird-watching, photography, astronomy, art and of course, writing. This is also a dreaming box right now. We have to build it and do a good job for it to give us joy.
  5. Cheesemaking is a big one. My partner Nitin Dayalu and I have recently started producing cheese  locally. Nitin also walked away from the “Rich & Stressed” box around the same time as me. His wisdom came earlier in life. The cheese we make is organic – from the awesome milk we get here. Nitin is deeply passionate about this, and it is his baby. He can – and has – run this business on his own. I am passionate about entrepreneurship, and this start-up really gets me going. I am a handy sounding board for him. For us the goal is to make the project pay enough that we can live by it. And we want to add to the local community in a meaningful way. Again, we are in “happy but poor”, looking for Joy.

Our branding, of course, has a cheekiness which some of you may expect by now.

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One person I definitely know who is in the “Joy” box is Sumit Bansal. He quit IBM to become a full-time blogger on MS Excel. He excels at blogging (hee hee). He is passionate about his work and makes good money from it.  We are jointly hosting the Himalayan Blogging Retreat on April 18-22 (details here).

In all the examples above, the goal is beyond mere wealth. Because we are passionate about what we do, we hope to find joy. We may not excel at every aspect of our work, but we’re getting better. As I strive for Joy, it is surprising how much fun the striving itself is. That effort to make something new and beautiful where nothing existed is enriching. And much more satisfying than my last “job”.

So what box are you in? And what will give you joy? Feel free to share your comments.

 

 

 

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Talking about sex. To strangers.

Talking about sex. To strangers.

No, I am not a flasher. I am a professional speaker though, and that can sometimes feel like being naked in public. I like to think I am respectable. Yet I spoke about my sex life to a room-full of complete strangers recently.

The misuse of sex in communication has been the proud domain of the advertising industry. We’ve all seen bad ads with cheap lines. And hoardings with scantily clad women seductively selling cement. So when I was working on my talk for a conference last month, I was wary. I had never talked about sex in any public forum before, and didn’t want to. But for some reason it just fit into this one. And since this event – WPP Stream Asia 2018 – was a conference with advertising, marketing and tech types, I figured it might go down okay.

The talk itself had tough rules – only 4 minutes, 16 slides that move automatically every 15 seconds. No clicker so no control. And 22 speakers back to back with me somewhere in that mix. Given the audience, I chose to talk about my journey from the city to the mountains. I could have talked about my one month in jail, or about writing. But I felt that the audience would really relate to my story about leaving the city – after all most of them are similar to the person I was when I left the city.

So I framed out the talk and ran it by multiple people. As always, my wife offered Talk screenshotamazing insight. More importantly, she did not ask me to chop the sex life bit. Then I subjected my brother and some friends to dry runs in the name of feedback. Their tips helped a lot, but nobody asked me to chop the sensitive part. Wow. “Where are all the prudes?” I asked myself.

I am still working to better my public speaking, and I do welcome your thoughts on this. If you have 4 minutes, take a look at the talk  at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zew_jJfMSho&feature=youtu.be   and please do share your feedback in the comments. Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

A woman with a backpack? How un-Indian!

A woman with a backpack? How un-Indian!

Contributor : Dr. Vandita Dubey

“Are you going to Ashram?”

asked the taxi driver at Bangalore Airport as he put my backpack into the trunk of his car. I looked at him, trying to figure out why he thought so, and shook my head. I then showed him my friend’s address and explained that I was headed for her house. As we settled for a long drive in the taxi, he turned around and asked me,

“What country are you from?”

Now, I am neither blond haired nor blue eyed, but I have noticed that whenever I travel with my backpack I am mistaken for a foreigner. This is regardless of where I am – the Delhi Metro station, Bangalore airport or on a train from Delhi to Kathgodam. Traveling around with a backpack in Indian or un-Indian clothes has had strangers attempting to talk to me in English, asking me which country I was from. This never happens to me when I travel through the same places, or elsewhere, carrying a suitcase or a bag. So. what is it about carrying a backpack that makes me un-Indian?

I realize that with a backpack folks cannot put me in a box. I know I don’t look like a student, definitely not college-age (however much I may wish I did). I proudly walk around with my untinted grey hair, announcing my middle age to all who may care. So, I clearly look my age. Perhaps I don’t act my age?  The fact that I carry my well stuffed back-pack around defies the Indian rules of age, gender and class. Women of my age and social status are expected to have coolies or other men folk carrying their luggage. But then I have also lugged my own bags and seen other women do so at railway stations without being labelled foreigner. Of course, this is as long as the luggage in question is a suitcase or a bag. So, what seems to  cause all this confusion is the innocuous backpack itself.

I have to admit that my backpack is an attention grabbing red with some grey. I bought the backpack more than 10 years ago from a specialty outdoor store. It is designed keeping the female form in mind. And, I have spent many a sweaty days, hiking with it in the mountains. However, now our hikes involve mules and it seem masochistic to lug uphill weight that I do not have to. So, my backpack has become my travel luggage of choice, especially when I travel alone. I prefer to carry my own bags. It makes me feel independent and in control. Perhaps that is what a backpack signifies – independence and control. Is that what is disconcerting then? An Indian woman, middle aged, independent and in control of her life?

Or. Is it that most women who travel with backpacks are foreigners? Hence, any woman who carries a backpack is a foreigner. But then any woman who wears Indian clothes is not necessarily assumed to be an Indian, especially if she has blue eyes and blond hair. Why then, with my brown eyes and black (ok, black and grey) hair am I mistaken for a foreigner?

Do tell me what you think. I’d love to hear your backpack stories or unusual travel tales.

About Dr. Vandita Dubey : A US licensed psychologist, Dr. Dubey works with her clients over phone and skype, and also hosts therapy retreats in the Himalayas. A published author, she also co-hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreat. You can learn more about her at www.vanditadubey.com, and about the retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com.

 

 

 

 

Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?

Something isn’t right about what this little girl wants from her life. I googled the lyrics. Nowhere does anyone ask for happiness.

Bummer.

It got me thinking about last evening. I was at the Sonapani Music festival surrounded by amazing people. None of them were particularly rich – and if they were it certainly wasn’t on display. They were all beautiful in my eyes. Not pretty in the TV – bollywood – painted faces way. They were all lovely in their real skins, and amazingly talented. The women were beautiful because they didn’t need Maybelline to tell them that they were worth it.

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Sonapani Music Festival at the Himalayan Village Sonapani

I also spent the last month with four Ashoka Fellows. I have been working with them as part of a writing retreat, which required me to understand their work and their stories. The more I learned, the more I admired them. Each one of them is working to change something big, and has already achieved some measure of success.

These two very different groups don’t live by the lyrics of Que Sera Sera. Neither of them

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Harpreet & Moushmi

goes in search of wealth and good looks. They don’t care much how pretty, handsome or rich they are. The amazing artists at Sonapani – Harpreet, Moushumi, Shruthi & Shruteendra care about their art. They care about the world and all that is right and wrong with it. And that is captured in the beauty of their poetry and music.

Another line of “Que Sera Sera” the Ashoka Fellows don’t buy into is “what will be will be”. They look at what is, find what’s wrong with it, and work to fix it. They are not closed in their thinking. Not negatively invested in their particular organizations. They want change to happen – by whatever means. So they encourage others including their own employees  to create organizations like their own. The corporate world calls that competition. The Ashoka fellows don’t resist this competition – they encourage it.

One thing common to all these people is that they have realized early on in life that happiness will not come from money or looks. They believe it will come from some form of personal fulfillment. It could be art. Or Music. Or Poetry. Or doing something truly meaningful with their lives. In their own way each of these people makes the world a better place.

And then I meet people in other walks of life – especially in the corporate world. I meet the many people who completely believe that wealth is a proxy for happiness. The difference is stark. What strikes me is that many people never make a conscious choice. They take the default path set by society without question. The few who consciously choose business thrive in it and love that too.

No, I am not advocating poverty. I am simply saying that before your children ask for “pretty & rich” make sure they ask for “happy”.

It’s not the same thing.

 

*Talking about song lyrics, I also think they need to officially change the lyrics to one song. “She’s a jolly good fellow” has to be the new anthem. Three of the four Ashoka fellows I worked with were women.

Cartoon Credit : Dave Carpenter ( Cartoonstock)

 

 

 

Want to Uncity? Make a choice. Expat? Or Migrant?

Want to Uncity? Make a choice. Expat? Or Migrant?

So you want to leave your gated community in the city for a gated community in the village? Like in the above ad of home-in-the-himalayas ? Your gated community must be eco-friendly, of course. Options abound. Tata Housing sells its “Myst Eco-luxury residences” in Kasauli as a super-premium gated community. “This exclusive gated community has been designed by the world’s leading expert in sustainable architecture…” says their website.

Another similar property touts “an exclusive residential address, a community of like-minded people who value the same ideas of wellness, privacy and under-stated luxury.” The background picture shows a large, eco-friendly gate.

In the city one key thing a gated community provides is security. What are they afraid of here, I wonder?

All these exclusive properties tout how sensitive they are to the environment. The Tata Housing site says “Never before has luxury been more sensitive in its approach and more evolved in the statement it makes about those who choose to live here. ” Strangely, none of them talks about how sensitive they are to the local people and culture.

Eco-friendly is better when it is also people friendly. And that doesn’t mean just a maid and a caretaker.

At the other end of this scale is Ashish Arora. He moved here from the city over a decade back. He has built a thriving business not by excluding the local communIMG_20170601_110934.jpgity but by including them. He actively helps all the village people in their issues. He was recently elected to the van-panchayat of his village. He works hard to save the forest, employ local people, and is an integral part of the local community. He is invited to every local celebration. He pays homage when any villager dies. His wife Deepa single-handedly employs well over 50 local women through their enterprise called Chandi Maati.

Arvindji is another great example. He moved up here and set up a library which the entire region benefits from now. And of course there are many who work and contribute to the local NGOs.

These and many other amazing people are not here as expats, but migrants – woven into the local fabric.

You dream of living in the mountains. Who do you want to be?

You can be the rich city Expat who lives in the gated community in the mountains, making exclusivity statements. Or you can be the migrant who makes a statement by making a difference. Someone who connects with and changes the lives of the people around you for the better. As a city-bred person with education and exposure you can do so much for the local community. In return, you actually get to be a part of a real community – possibly for the first time ever.

Please don’t tell me you will live in the gated community and integrate with the local community. That statement doesn’t even sound right, does it?

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About Chetan Mahajan:  Chetan is a full-time author and blogger who lives in a village in the Kumaon region of the Himalayas. The amazing creative influence of the Himalayas inspired him to start the Himalayan Writing Retreats: writing getaways for both novice and advanced writers. You can learn more about these retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com .  He also writes and edits this blog.

A new baby at 45.

A new baby at 45.

Moving to the mountains was easy. Figuring out what to do here was harder.

The clichéd “make your hobby your profession” was exciting but also scary. unknown. I love writing. It can be mind-numbing and frustrating. But getting even a fragment right – what Mark Twain calls “a glittering paragraph” or the “luminous flash of a single sentence” can be its own reward.

So in July I got the zany idea to host a writing retreat. The “Himalayan Writing Retreat” sounded so cool. I knew of aspiring authors stuck somewhere along the way.  I had been one myself before Bokaro Jail*. I started with no curriculum, no product, no material. But a fabulous venue (a friend’s house) was a great start. I asked my old pal Roy Abraham, a multi-award winning copywriter, for help. The two brains started firing and the product evolved. Roy came up with some brilliant communication, including videos.

On August 15 we hung out the shingle. And village Satoli at 6000 ft welcomed six brave

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Intense. Absorbed.

souls. With one American, one Brit & one Kathmandu resident, and the oldest participant touching seventy, boredom didn’t have a chance.

A forest walk and bonfire were a great warm-up. The next three days were a mix of fun discussions, writing exercises, publishing industry analysis. We ended with committing to a “book writing plan” to get our books going, if not done.

Along the way we laughed a lot : often at irreverent quotes like “Everytime I read ‘Pride and Prejudice’ I want to dig her (Jane Austen) up and beat her over the skull with her own

shin-bone.” We went for forest walks to meadows and streams. We hung around the fire,

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New friends.

we made new friends. I feel truly enriched with new writing wisdom – as much from the preparation as from the rich discussions with the witty, bright participants. I think I am now a better writer with the discipline to get my book done faster.

 

The participants echo that. The overall participant feedback score was 3.7 on 4 – cool for a first effort. Many great suggestions from them will benefit future participants.

Well-wishers helped in many different ways. Kiruba Shankar with brilliant advice, Arvindji and Mita Kapur with industry insights. Tim Sebastian helped by pushing the

retreat at the awesome iHeart café, Gagan by clicking great pictures, Annanya by putting up posters, and of course Ashish Arora by providing bread, muffins and free publicity. Topping the list was

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The man (Ladies, Roys the man. And he’s single)

Roy for, well, everything. And innumerable friends who spread the word and told potential attendees about the retreat.

 

The Himalayan Writing Retreat will now grow into a series of events to help writers across genres with many different interests. Specialist facilitators like Mariam Karim Ahlawat (an award winning  writer of plays and fiction for Kids and Adults) will enrich it even more. And Dr. Vandita Dubey (a clinical psychologist and published author) will help participants with techniques such as mindfulness to focus better and get more creative insights.

For this new journey we also have a shiny new website www.himalayanwritingretreat.com . It’s a new journey with many unknowns. Wish me luck.

*This blogger was incarcerated in Bokaro jail for a month in 2013 which is when he wrote his first book “The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail” which was published by Penguin. Since then he has relocated to the Kumaon Himalayas, and the fun stuff he does besides writing this blog, riding the Himalayas, running marathons and contemplating the universe now also includes hosting the Himalayan Writing Retreat.

The Uncity School of Simplicity

The Uncity School of Simplicity

Contributor : Chinmaya Vempati, 16. Volunteer. Bangalore Resident.

Over my two week stay in these mountains I have come to truly understand this blog’s title: Uncity. Ergo, a kind of detox from the city life. I’ve lived in a few places in my 16 years: Bombay, London, Qatar, New Delhi and now Bangalore. All of them are cities – meaning they all have an artificial nighttime glow of the metropolis in its office buildings and traffic lights, with the air tinged with exhaust and tarmac.

Satkhol, a village in Uttarakhand, is something else entirely. I’ve been staying with Chetan, Vandita and their family while working in a school managed by an NGO called Chirag. I’m sat here on my couch in Bangalore, and I’m still missing the leafy scent of the

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The heavenly view from my room

morning. I miss the view of hills on hills, layered on top of one another, with snow-capped peaks in the distance, even belonging to another country depending on the direction you look.

But the life inside the house stood out to me. Was it a normal life? Yes and no, depending on how you define “normal”. The family was one you’d see anywhere, with habits, inside jokes, and the occasional argument. As an only child, I discovered in a small dose how it would be  to have younger siblings. There were neighbours and a convenience store nearby. Except, the convenience store was an uphill walk on a driveway cutting through farmland.The neighbours, instead of being adjacent, were a 10 minute walk . From the city mindset of everything you need being at your doorstep, a thought stuck around. ‘Doesn’t this need effort?’ As it turns out, it’s quite easy when you’re not distracted by the city pace and glamour. You have more time to be useful and self-sustain. The pull of technology and easy, instant gratification is less powerful. I found myself more than satisfied by simply

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Freshly plucked fruit. Tiger Shroff style.

plucking fruits, taking them back to the house hanging from a stick. For once, I felt truly useful.

That desire of usefulness is what brought me to the Chirag School. The people called me “iPad man” – my job there was to set up their recently donated iPads with learning resources for teachers and kids to use. I ended up working on the computers as well, so the nickname limits me, but oh well. I came into the school nervous, because this seemed like a JOB job, with deadlines and other terrifying official things. But I had no reason to be – the entire atmosphere was relaxed. The principal and other volunteers were cool, and the school community were so polite and kind. I was talking to people from the NGO Ekstep, and before I left they told me that NGO work is characteristically slow. And oh, they were right. It seemed like the electricity or internet were barely ever working. That’s a bit frustrating for someone working with Wi-Fi enabled electrical devices. However, that slow pace was a blessing. It allowed me to appreciate where I was and just relax, no pressure involved – and that’s how I work best. After trial and error, I managed to deploy an offline version of Khan Academy, KA Lite, in the school which could be accessed with any device. I also found iPad apps to be used as learning aids. It was an uncomplicated job, but even in the simplicity there was value that I helped create for the school. At the root of it, casting aside the obvious college-application-benefits etc. etc., I took so much pride in providing Chirag access to these amazing resources. .

I suppose I always have liked the hills. The brisk air. Moist earth and hillside rocks. The burn in your thighs after hiking up a hill, and the amazement when you look down. The cliché most people come to know in their teens especially is that each experience contains a lesson. It was more of a learning than a lesson for me. I had evolved. Nothing really specific, but just a feeling of change, a trend I noticed in myself and my life. Everything seemed simpler up there. It was easier to notice the fine points of where I was. I found myself taking things as they come, not worrying too much about commotion. It wasn’t a complex life. I’m just hoping to keep some of that sensation safe here in the city.

Author bio:

I’m going into 11th grade of high school. I’m a music, parkour and urban dance enthusiast, and I’ve just  spent 2 weeks in Kumaon recently interning at Chirag. I don’t know what I want in my future, but nowadays I like volunteering with NGOs like Chirag and Ekstep, an organisation that has created a learning platform app called Genie, available for Android. (Sorry for the product placement, but seriously, try it out, it’s great.)