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Day 26

July 26, 2013

Let me tell you about the founders of the ashram we’re staying at. Sri Aurobindo was a British-educated freedom fighter for Indian independence turned spiritual leader. Mira Alfassa, or “the Mother” (as she is now called) was a French lady with a strong sense of spirituality. She had visions of a guide she called Krishna and when she met Sri, she recognized him from these dreams. She devoted her life to spreading his teachings, building the ashram and guiding its work. The ashram is meant to bring people together to discover and create a better future together, guided by a deep understanding of the Divine’s power and committed to realizing the perfection of all its members.

When Pradeep told me about her story he said “She came here from a foreign country. She took his ideas and made them real.”

“Wait a second,” you say. “You’re not going to make some contrived analogy to your own journey to India, are you?”

“Absolutely not!” I say, a little too quickly. “Where were we? Ah yes, morning in Pondi.”

I woke up at 6. I had promised to wake Pradeep up so we could go for a walk as the sun rose. We had been up late the night before preparing for a presentation he was slated to give the next day. I was his spell check and prodder (someone had to keep him awake, after all). When he opened the door, begrudgingly, I could tell he had stayed up even after I left.

So, I walked the seashore by myself. In enjoyed the fresh sea breeze, seeing Indian men doing calisthenics on the benches and against the railings and the fact that the road by the waterfront is closed until mid-morning.

We had breakfast with the other conference participants and met Vijaybhar, who manages the ashram. He was educated in their innovative, inclusive school (which I am sure you will hear more about later). In short, there are no exams, no curriculum, all aspects of a child’s self are developed (emotions, sense of purpose, physical strength and knowledge). It sounds pretty awesome.

We listened to a presentation about the palette of activities of the ashram. They have their own school, yes, but they also run programs advancing similar values in other schools. They practice holistic medicine, have a branch about rural development, management, communications, women and youth empowerment – even technology development. It is as if they are trying to live the future they want for the world in the present. It reminds me of a quote I like: “The future is already here; just not evenly distributed.”

During a tea break, I was lucky enough to talk to one of the members of the ashram who is heavily involved with the education programs they run. He told me about his decision to leave his expected path and start a new life here. He talked about the strong sense of purpose he found, followed and nurtured. He told me he thinks that we can never learn anything about our external world unless we work on our internal world first. We can never fully appreciate beautiful music unless we awaken a sensitivity within ourselves. His wisdom married so well with the trajectory of my thinking about the Social Innovation Lab. Unless people unlock themselves; unless they start to think and live their own lives with a bolder sense of purpose, they won’t be able to provide bold and different solutions to the world.

Then, it was time for a nap. I was running on a sleep deficit and these tend to make me nauseous. (“Too much information!” you say. “Sorry.”)

Dinner was a car ride away, in a swanky blue-lit hotel. I am still not used to luxuries (like air conditioning in my hotel room) after living simply but comfortably in Bhopal. It’s incredible and a bit scary that in a day and a bit of being in Pondicherry these luxuries are seeming normal to me again.

Anyways, it was the opening reception of the conference. This conference is not the one I’ve been telling you about. It’s actually a different conference that is happening first. Innovative NGO leaders and professors who have won funding from the ashram for their education-related projects are coming together to figure out how they can use assessment and evaluation to really help them do their work better. Instead of being a formality, can assessment be viewed as a necessity? This is the question (at least I think it is the question) that the conference/workshop aims to answer. It is being partially sponsored by HP, who is doing a fair bit of work in the technology for education and social development sphere.

What this means for me is that I get to be surrounded by inspiring people. I heard some of their stories tonight. One left a law practice to form an NGO that addresses environmental issues through education. Another discovers and documents inspiring teachers, searching from village to village. Another started his NGO when he was 18, to the great disappointment of his family. 18 years later, he runs a hospital, a women’s shelter, educational programs and more. One woman spent 8 years wandering around on the streets, trying to understand the lives of homeless children. Another has convinced governments to upgrade the educational quality of their school buildings (that is, to treat the school room itself as a teaching aid – painting a protractor-type angle measurement on the floor near a doorway so that opening a door can teach about angles, for example).

I’ll be able to learn even more tomorrow.

I came back to my room before heading to Pradeep’s balcony (he has a sea view) and watching the waves and the bats. There are lots of insects buzzing near the street lamps, so the bats were having a feast. “I did not know about your fascination for bats!” he said, apologetically. “I would have shown you all the ones we have in Bhopal.”

Ah well, as they say, you can’t always get what you want. Unless of course you are Brianna, because then you are a darn lucky person.

Have a great day!

“I think you’re forgetting something.” You say.

Ah, right. All you have to do is slightly squeeze the cap of the bottle so it will fit inside the mouth of the bottle. Once it’s in, it will be nearly impossible to get out. No one will be re-using that bottle any time soon!

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