Reviving the fabric of India

FabIndia is a reputed brand and success story in India. As a company, it links thousands of craft based rural producers to modern urban markets, to create a base for skilled, sustainable rural employment, preserving India’s traditional handicrafts in the process. I feel good as a consumer placing my pennies in their coffers – as I buy great products that benefit India’s most marginalised. Win win, right? Not quite – according to Dr Kshama Metre, founder of CORD and recent winner of the Guardian International Development Achievement Award. On a recent visit to London she explained her approach to reviving traditional handicrafts in rural India,“We empower women to reach their potential – to take control of running their own business activities”. Dr Metre believes in empowering poor, illiterate villagers to become better than they ever knew they could be. Distributing sewing machines to offer the poor the chance to earn a meagre living isn’t enough. So she guides rural villagers to become entrepreneurs in their own right, as an alternative to working as a subordinate within a large commercial enterprise – be it rural or urban. It means the modest shop opened by Dr Metre’s village women will struggle to ever create a brand that rivals FabIndia – but really, that isn’t the point. One woman living in abject poverty taking control of her life inspires many more to do the same, catalysing a cultural shift in India’s impoverished villages. Dr Metre takes the long, hard path to creating change for the better in rural India in a variety of ways, and she does this very effectively, by living and working...

A fashion statement

I couldn’t count the number of times I have bought an item of clothing that creeps its way to the back of the cupboard with the tag still attached, only to be placed in a black bag a year later, destined for the charity shop. Yesterday I met a woman in a small Ugandan village, lets call her ‘Judith’, and she was roughly the same age as me. Judith was abducted by rebels during the widely unreported insurgency in northern Uganda in the mid nineties and wore a t-shirt much like one you might find in my heap of unwanted clothes, relegated to the charity shop pile. The 20 year long conflict in northern Uganda ended in 2005 but resulted in a very severe humanitarian crisis. The Lord’s Resistance Army is accused of widespread human rights violations, including mutilation, torture, rape, the abduction of civilians, the use of child soldiers, and countless massacres. I fail to fully understand what exactly the LRA is fighting for. Throughout its guerilla campaign in Uganda, the rebel group abducted and forced an estimated 66,000 children to fight for them, and internally displaced over 2 million people. Judith is one of the thousands of young people for whom memories of the atrocities will take a while to fade away; it is difficult to for me to begin to imagine the world she has lived in. She spoke with a straight face about her life. The abduction, the way she was forced to kill, the children she brought back after her time in the bush – who are now ostracised for being the offspring of...

African Asian Affair

A sharp business mind recognises the intrinsic value in something that others can’t see and creates systems and processes that produce enough of it to generate and sustain its demand. Indians descended upon Uganda in the early 20th century, mostly uneducated; to work on the Uganda Railway under British rule. Many never left, and capitalised on untapped resources, becoming industrialists, businessmen or traders. With interests in sugar, tea, coffee and rice – Ugandan Asians pretty much dominated the economy by the early 1970s. Resentment and racial tensions bubbled under the surface culminating in the famous 1972 expulsion that brought tens of thousands of Ugandan Asians to Britain in one huge sweep. I recently travelled to Uganda almost 40 years on, to follow the trickle of British Ugandan Asians who have returned to the land from which they were expelled, to find out why they went back. The UK offers obvious benefits of free education, healthcare, good transport infrastructure and more importantly political stability and freedoms that are unimaginable in other parts of the world. So why leave all this behind to go back to a land from which thousands of your people were forcefully ousted? It seems like a risky and slightly absurd thing to do, but as I settle back into London life gawping at the unavoidable lifestyle costs of living in the capital– I can see what might have lured some of these expelled Asians back to Africa. Africa is experiencing growth rates that are exceeding the global average, and foreign direct investment has increased by more than 80% in the past decade. Uganda’s relaxed lifestyle, daily...

Metaphysics and Narcotics

For me, one of the beautiful aspects of the sublime Vedantic philosophy is its all-encompassing, non-judgemental spirit – its doors are closed to no one. Yet it has always only ever appealed to a minority who seek to explore its Sanskrit-encrypted secrets in greater depth. Vedanta is rooted in the ancient Indian scriptures, but has been revived again and again throughout history by some who are unknown, and some who are respected as great Masters. It stands above the boundaries of organised religion, and is perhaps more closely aligned with the esoteric facets of the world’s major religions, such as Sufism and Kaballah. California-based writer and blogger, Philip Goldberg (author of American Veda) appears keen to bridge the gap between the essence of eastern philosophy and the widespread condescending view many young educated liberal-minded folk hold towards religion in the modern day. I see Vedanta as the heart of the Hindu philosophy – within its vast scheme of study it propagates principles of disciplined living such as self-control and non-violence…yet spirituality often finds itself entangled with conduct that conveys quite the opposite. I find myself in a remote ashram in the thick of the Redwood Forest in Humboldt, Northern California. Geographically, this is the marijuana heartland of the US. Apparently they grow some of the best in the world here. You only have to glance at a local paper (e.g. – the West Coast Leaf) and chat to a couple of people to know that the local economy is pretty much sustained by its growth and production – which is undertaken both legitimately and illegally. Most people here work...

Ashrams, slums and fine dining

It is amazing how much we assume about a person from the way they eat. I write about this as I pay attention to the way I feel I’m being observed as my full cutlery set is laid out before me in my business class seat (lucky upgrade). This is happening on my way back to London after a couple of weeks spent in Indian ashrams. Plane journeys are often wonderful opportunities to reflect. Of recent I’ve found myself immersed in environments that range from the simple to the high life…and often wonder where I best slot in. The ashram I was staying in over the last few weeks can be found atop a leafy hill in Powai, Mumbai. It is wedged between an opulent 5 star hotel and a typical Mumbai slum area. Over the years, I feel I’ve had broad exposure to all three such settings. It seems we have to adapt or adopt a ‘code of conduct’ according to whichever environment we find ourselves in. For example, in some ashrams, and indeed in many street-food settings around the world…eating with your hands, licking your fingers and making a mess is the norm. In fact you’re more likely to find yourself frowned upon for requesting a fork and serviette in moments of dirty street food indulgence. I feel this can often be the case in South Indian canteens too, where asking for a spoon to eat whichever variety of rice (tomato, lemon, curd etc.) you are being offered on any given day is somehow seen as a weakness. If your elbows aren’t deep in daal (lentils) and...

Keeping the ancient ever relevant

It is not often that business tycoons, academics and orange-robed renunciates join forces to discuss innovative ways of working together. But I have found myself slap bang in the middle of such a wonderful blend of individuals on the outskirts of Mumbai this week. One project that has particularly captured my imagination is Anusaaraka; a form of opensource (freely available) software designed by academics at Bangalore University who have been drawing upon the wisdom of Swamis who’ve studied the intricacies of the Sanskrit language for many years.     Sanskrit is often referred to as the ‘language of the gods’. The word itself means ‘perfectly formed’ (Sam + Krita). Many (if not all) modern languages have their roots in this most beautiful language. In fact, it is considered so precise and accurate that it has been used by scientists in artificial intelligence modelling. The ancient grammarian Panini codified Sanskrit in such a way that it can never be corrupted – it remains to this day an exact science. Its evolution dates back thousands of years, from Vedic Sanskrit into the Classical Sanskrit. The team who are creating this new software are harnessing the logic of this ancient classical language to develop a digital translation tool of greater accuracy and precision. Sanskrit is being used as the medium to develop a more robust form of machine translation. ‘Anusaaraka’ produces a layered output, which allows users to access information at various levels of the translation procedure. It’s hoped this will ultimately rival free software such as Google Translator – which is widely known to be a relatively flawed freely available online...