An Infinite Vision

Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai is such an illuminating example of selfless service, courage, vision and astounding efficiency that it has few parallels on the planet. The amazing story of its founder, the celebrated but ever so humble Dr Govindappa Venkataswamy and his dedicated team has been aptly chronicled in a book titled “Infinite Vision” which was recommended to me by someone I truly respect recently.

Renowned doctors and achievers from across the world have lauded effusively the 3 decade long story of high quality eye care that Aravind Hospital offers to the needy. A mind boggling 35 million patients, and more, have been treated at the hospital and over 5 million surgeries have been performed, most of them free!

Former President of India Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam said, ‘In the Aravind experience I see the path that we need to take – a transformation of life into a powerful instrument of right action.’ A case study on Aravind has been recommended to students of Harvard Business School too.

What emerges palpably from the saga of Dr V, the name by which the founder is known, is that a life lived for others is what each of us should try to emulate in our own little ways. Many of us have started thinking about the need to help others only in recent years. Most of those who grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s were rather self-oriented and could only think of their own careers, and their own families. But many of today’s younger generation have started working in the NGO sector and are thinking of others far more than we did. I have encountered several youngsters who have taken 2 years off from their fledgling and budding careers to work for “Youth Alliance” or ”Teach for India” to spend time serving those in need.

My daughter Spriha recently started her career and works in the social sector. She was delighted to be on the ‘Jagriti Yatra’, an all India train journey that is specially chartered for 500 young professionals annually. One of the iconic Indian institutions that the Yatra touches along the way is the Aravind Eye Hospital. Spriha has fond memories of her visit and reverentially recollects how Dr V’s passion to serve humankind has been transformed into an altar of kindness and brilliance.

My wife and I marvel at Spriha’s zealous levels of concern for those whom fate has placed in disadvantageous positions. We wish we could have been like her when we were younger.

Actually there are many religious and social organisations doing amazing work throughout the country. In North India too we find inspiring examples of charity and a sense of giving. But many of them could learn more from landmark projects like Aravind.

Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and even the late blooming philanthropic instinct in Amazon owner Jeff Bezos, have ensured that sizeable sums have been set aside for charitable activities across the world. Their examples should spur Indian CEOs to do likewise and not wait for the provisions of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) Act to catch up with them. But perhaps the materialistic rat-race has prevented hordes of successful people from donating to the larger humanitarian cause.

Mother Teresa famously said, “Do things for people not because of who they are, or what they can do in return, but because of who YOU are!”

A seemingly inane advertisement highlighting the repair services of a popular TV brand recently brought tears to the eyes of thousands. The repair man is shown arriving at the destination from where the complaint emanated only to find that all the young residents including the coordinator are blind. They simply wanted to tune in to a popular music show and listen to one of their own friends participate in the search for talented singers!

Empathy is not something that comes easily to all of us, but when it does, it can touch the hearts of even the most hardened of individuals. After all, as Kathy Calvin put it so admirably, “Giving is not about making a donation, it is about making a difference.”

Let us gear up to make sure that difference happens in the years to come.

Let’s Light Up Some Lights, This Diwali!

The scale of the razzmatazz that is on display is one aspect of Deepawali that has changed over the years. The glitz and shimmer of the festival of lights have become almost impossible to digest. And the Deepawali economy has attained such proportions these days that the scale of gift-bartering is almost as huge as the size of the wedding industry in our country.

Dash- a –minute visits to friends and clients, glittering arrays of lights all over town, shopping extravangazas, unending cacophony and late night card parties have replaced the simplicity of ‘mithai’ and ‘diyas’, ‘puja’ and piety as well as some of the warmth and bonhomie.

Yet there are some shades of the Deepawali that forever retain their joy. Families still come together as on no other occasion, laughter and gaiety still replace cynicism and drabness, and the plethora of electronic messages that stream in from long lost acquaintances actually add to the charm of the occasion.

Yet there is a sense of self-centredness that has crept into the proceedings over the years, which truly needs to be shrugged off. The festival has somehow taken on an overly commercial sheen. While it is logical and even justified for the market economy to capitalise upon the urge to spend that comes with festive occasions like Diwali and Christmas, the overall glow needs to come from genuine feelings rather than other considerations.

One way to ensure this is to literally think of ‘others’. In this case that would mean not-so-privileged who have no access to the goodies that many of us do on Deepawali. Donating sweets and cookies to a Home for the neglected or even some less-polluting crackers to a school for orphans is one way of course.

But can we actually get ourselves to make a lasting difference in the lives of those who need our intervention? We could start with a scholarship for a brilliant student perhaps, or a coaching programme for a talented sportsperson. Such ideas could actually fructify on Deepawali if we reduce our expenditure as a society on some of the frivolities that we tend to indulge in. Does that gift carton need to be quite as fancy or can we avoid some of our splurging while buying it? The resultant savings could be significant and enable us to light up some lives instead!

The fact remains that previous generations of Indians were largely hand-to-mouth, whereas these days many families can today afford to set aside some income for charity. The bent of mind that is needed to think of others is perhaps what matters most.

According to a Wall Street Journal report several Indians hesitate to donate even though they wish to, fearing that their hard earned money would dissipate through misutilisation if they donate. However, if they would only spend some more time and expend some more efforts in their search, there are many organisations that are credible and even incredible in their outreach and throughput.

An old lady who passed away last year left all her wealth to a soccer team from a neighbourhood government school, and not only did their ramshackle ground transform itself into a decent play area as a result, they also bought kits and equipment that greatly enhanced their performance.

When is the last time some of us made it a point to spend an hour or two visiting a school in a slum area? We would be surprised to note that the kids are bright and confident nowadays, even in such schools, and often more intelligent and athletic than their more sophisticated counterparts. One such visit might just change the way we think about society and our roles in it.

 It is for us to realise that by bringing iridescence to other’s lives we can actually light up our own. The Indian scriptures clearly postulate the fact that our real success actually depends upon how many lives we have touched through service to others. It is then that we find our own lives lit up with all kinds of lamps. And it is then that our Deepawali will truly be the festival of lights.