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My friend Jill, a volunteer at SAATH, is also a journalist for WBUR Boston.  She recently interviewed a family of musicians from the Manek Chowk area. Ahmedabad’s old city is a former walled city, of which only the 12 ancient gates still remain. In the past, musicians would play to signal the opening and closing of the gates each day.

This family still plays music every night at 11 pm, in honor of the closing of the gate. They call it their duty, an obligation from Allah.

Check out Jill’s story here.

Manek Chowk Musicians

Last night, I had an appointment with Dr. Tolia, a dentist by Commerce 6 Roads. The nurse gave me an 8:30 appointment. She gave the same appointment to 35 other people.

At 9:30, I went in to have my teeth checked for cavities. The nurse was washing something at the sink, which turned out to be the dental implements the doctor used in my mouth. So much for disinfection.

I do not have cavities at this time. 

I paid Dr. Tolia Rs. 50 and walked out at 9:35.

AIF recently released a slideshow of the Clinton Fellowship highlighting past fellows and the ethos of the fellowship. 

I am eternally grateful to AIF and to SAATH for the professional and personal experience that I have had over the past few months. Please check out this quick, 3 minute video to learn more.

I learned this one the hard way. 

You need the following to work in India:

  • Frugality – Where a litre of milk costs less than $ 0.50, you gotta get it done cheap.
  • Fearlessness – The ability to  face gundas on the street and in your head.
  • Blinders – Remember Arjun and the fish’s eye? You will hear no even after you succeed at doing something. Stay focused.
  • Ingenuity – Like MacGuyver, you will be required to make enterprises function with just two toothpicks and some dental floss.
  • Resilience – It will go wrong approximately 15 times for every once that it goes right.
  • A little crazy – Take all the crazy in you and put it together in a safe place because you will need to unleash it.  
  • Confidence – This can make up for a lot of things, including incompetence.
  • Optimism – So much shit is messed up in this country So many things work differently than in your home country that you HAVE TO trust it will work out, and it does work out.

This is not a comprehensive list. But remember to pack these along with your toothbrush and comb.  Though you can’t expect a pat on the head, you can expect to be fed to excess by coworkers and random aunties. Which may be just as good.

If you read my previous post on philanthropic and service opportunities in India for members of the Diaspora, you are familiar with my take on the role that intermediaries like AIF, Indicorps and others play in linking resources from abroad with need in India.

I recently read this article in the NYTimes, A Parish Tested, about Haitian American medical professionals wanting to volunteer in Haiti after the earthquake and finding aid organizations on the ground to be disorganized, unhelpful while the need is overwhelming. Still, they go. And they would go again. Diaspora medical professionals are getting organized, putting together databases of volunteer opportunities, creating links between Haitian students and New York medical schools, and building a hospital.

Similar to the way that the Kutch earthquake pulled together the resources and efforts of the Indian diaspora, I see this as a moment that will pull together and formalize the efforts of Haitians abroad in the pursuit of development. I am interested to see the fruits of these informal efforts 10 or 15 years from now. 

I hope that the Haitian community and the Indian diaspora community will take this opportunity to learn from each other and share best practices. The communities are neighbors all over New York,  in Elmont, Valley Stream and Queens and probably in hospitals throughout the tri-state.  Let’s see what happens.

I did a guest post for the South Asian Philanthropy Project on the challenges and rewards of volunteering in India.  SAPP aims to create a forum that inspires South Asian Americans to become more involved in philanthropy and volunteering. SAPP Bloggers Venu, Archana and Priyanka cover philanthropy of the South Asian Community across North America. 

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With the number of young non-resident Indian (NRI) volunteers at India’s NGOs today, it seems coming to India for service work is a new rite of passage. Manju Sadarangani first came to Kutch, Gujarat to provide relief in the aftermath of the 2001 Gujarat earthquake.  She has fond memories of the village boy who wanted to marry her and of the impact she made with just a laptop and a spreadsheet program. Manju was a member of the first group of volunteers sent to Indian NGOs by the American India Foundation. Today, Manju is a political officer for the American Embassy in New Delhi.

The 2001 Kutch earthquake proved to be a galvanizing moment for pan-Indian philanthropy.  In the decade since, a steady supply of diaspora volunteers has come to India’s NGOs to work on service projects, not necessarily in areas where they have familial or linguistic ties. Young NRIs, motivated by the opportunity to be a part of India’s phenomenal growth story, are enhancing India’s vibrant civil society institutions. In the process, they are finding out a lot about identity, development and what it means to “serve.” 

The NRI supply meets a demand among Indian NGOs for professional managerial skills, transparency and fundraising capacity.[1] Young NRIs help apply for funding, set up evaluation systems, and professionalize processes. Their expertise in everything from Excel to English is valued for shaping strategies and implementing programs. However, both the organization and the individual deal with the frustration of unmet expectations.  Indian NGOs can struggle to effectively maximize a volunteer’s skill and time, or resist change from the outside.  Former volunteer Sanjana says, “I sort of got lost trying to figure out how to use my skills [at the NGO].” 

NGOs are equally frustrated by the assumptions and priorities of volunteers. Volunteers in general have knowledge of how things “should” work, and may not be as open to figuring out how things can and do work in the Indian context. NRI volunteers in particular carry assumptions about India they’ve picked up in the India-in-exile of their birth. But because channels are open, learning takes place. The greatest, albeit tangential, contribution NRI volunteers are making is enhancing NGOs capacity to utilize outsiders. For example, Seva Mandir in Udaipur hosts over 100 volunteers each year, and has a formal training program, housing and support services for volunteers.

To meet a need for structured support on both sides, formal exchange programs for young people from the West facilitate volunteer opportunities in India.  Among the more professionally-oriented programs are the American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellowship, the Deshpande Foundation’s Sandbox Fellowship and the Asian Foundation for Philanthropy’s Paropkaar Volunteers program.  Identity and the search for self is a motivator for many NRI volunteers.  Programs like Indicorps and the UK-based ConnectIndia have a more explicit focus on personal development through service for people of Indian origin. As former volunteers go on to work in the development sector, exchanges help launch new organizations and social ventures, bolstering India’s vibrant civil society institutions and changing attitudes towards philanthropy and volunteerism. Back at home volunteers are also moving the diaspora’s giving to India away from financial support of religious and education causes towards strategic engagement for social and economic development.


[1] “Investing in Ourselves: Giving and Fundraising in India,” Asian Development Bank, 2002.

Charlie & King Tailor

Charlie & King Tailor

King Tailors is a little men’s tailoring shop on Vijay Char Rasta, next to Le Souk that new Mediterranean restaurant [btw – a good place for Hummus, if you need a fix].  I first met the proprietor when my fellow fellow, Charlie, visited Ahmedabad. Charlie wanted to make a pair of Indian formal clothes, in the Narendra Modi-style Indian politician look . After two days of Khadi shopping, we needed a tailor. So, I called my friend, Bernard, who referred us to King Tailor.  He knows everyone in this town.

King Tailor is the MAN.  His stuff fits like a dream, and he remembers people. With his unpatented, low-tech filing system, if you go back 5 years from now, he’ll still be able to find your measurements and cut you a perfect pair of pants.  He’s from Jamnagar, in Saurastra and his theory on tailoring is simple — if I give you great products in a timely fashion at an honest price, you will come back, and maybe bring your friends. And it works. To date, I have referred three people to King Tailors [including my dad, who is very particular about his clothing], and counting. King Tailor is a funny guy, talking about how hard it is to marry off daughters and how he used to keep workers in his 4′ x 8′ shop, except things would go missing. If you’re in the market for a men’s tailor, check out King Tailor. 

However, if–like me–you’re looking for a ladies tailor, I have no idea.

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