Kanthari, an eco-friendly institute in Thiruvananthapuram, trains young people with special needs to be agents of social change in distant parts of the world.

For years, my mother spent her afternoons reading textbooks to blind girls at the Women’s College hostel in Thiruvananthapuram. Books in Braille were impossible to come by and none of the girls had access to computers, leave alone expensive software that converts text to speech. Mother returned from many of her reading sessions with not just a sore throat but saddened by the numerous challenges her young students faced, especially since most came from disadvantaged families that had struggled to get them this far. She ended up sponsoring living expenses for a couple of them, one of whom — thrillingly — managed to get a job with IBM in Chennai while another went on to teach at a college in Kudangalloor.

Not that either story ends neatly there, as new issues inevitably crop up along the way such as getting safely to and from places of work and, in the case of the college lecturer, finding local readers who would enable her to prepare for lectures.

With blindness therefore lodged deep in my psyche as a deeply debilitating condition, I could barely contain my astonishment when I met Sabriye Tenberken, a blind German woman, who had come to Thiruvananthapuram after cheerily overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles in Tibet in order to get a better deal for its blind children. Over further conversation, I found that Sabriye had for some years been running an institute on the banks of Vellayani lake to which people from across the world came to receive an unusual kind of training. I had to see this for myself and friends who live across the lake from Sabriye’s institute offered to facilitate a visit. It was thus that we set off recently for the peaceful environs of the large, lotus-filled freshwater lake I had once seen on a trip back from Kovalam.

On arriving at our friends’ house, we were told that Sabriye was coming with two boats to pick us up as “she worries about all of us getting lost without her being there to guide us”. And guide us she did, blowing through the door like a small whirlwind that instantly whipped up the atmosphere with bright chatter and laughter. Completely at ease with her disability, Sabriye swiftly made it possible for us to acknowledge and engage with her blindness in a manner that was so positive I found myself continually surprised by the many shifts my previously-held opinions were being forced to make.

In a pair of pedal-boats (I soon found that Sabriye and her partner Paul are also keen and uncompromising environmentalists), we cut a leisurely swathe through sparkling water and lotus pads to Kanthari, an eco-friendly institute that for the past five years has been training and empowering young people, often themselves disabled, to become agents of social change in distant parts of the world.

Sabriye explained the name: the Kanthari chilli plant is ubiquitous in Kerala, she said, found in every backyard. The sharp spiciness and medicinal value of the chillies are not dissimilar to the attitudes that this institute attempts to instil in its graduates, as they are guided into disseminating a powerful and empowering message.

I had lunch with a few trainee Kantharis who, midway through their course, were preparing to leave for their internships.

A young man from Nigeria called Bash told me about his past work in a prison back in Lagos where he wanted to return, enabled by his training, to launch an innovative educational initiative that would not merely educate but also reform prisoners before they returned to society.

Another man, partially sighted, was hoping to go back to his native Zambia in order to help disabled people make a decent living out of livestock farming and management.

A young Nepalese woman told me about Blind Rocks, a remarkable venture that would show blind people how to have fun despite their disability.

Even though the kappa and meen curry served in the Kanthari canteen was delicious, I barely noticed the food on my plate for the surging elation each of these ideas set off in me.

Wandering around the campus later with Sabriye, at one point squeezing my eyes tightly shut and trying with encouragement from her to use her white cane, I noticed laptops in the common room verandah, a film editing suite, a broadcasting console… all signs of the worldwide community Kanthari graduates are encouraged to tap into for cultivating synergies and keeping in touch with mentors and donors. Sabriye described Kanthari’s success rate, when graduates went on to successfully start their own projects, as being about 50-60 per cent, laughing that a friend who worked at the World Bank had told her it was better than theirs of 10 per cent. But it remains an ongoing point of concern to the Kanthari staff that, despite all their efforts, recruitment procedures continue to bring candidates from all over the world except India. Even Nepal and Bangladesh were responsible for a healthy proportion of the applications they received every year, but Indians remained strangely elusive.

I was not particularly taken aback to hear this. Last year I’d attended the launch of a book written by Jacqueline Novogratz, a woman who had turned from a lucrative career in banking to set up a non-profit venture capital fund. Both she and Rohini Nilekani, who chaired the event, spoke inspiringly about their experiences as social innovators but, in the Q&A that followed the launch, a young man in the audience stood up to say that his keenness to do social work was constantly mocked by his family with reminders of how much he could earn in other “better” careers. In that setting, having just heard two women speak movingly about the desperate need for social change, that young man’s confession could have sounded a terribly discordant note. But I heard no sharp intakes of breath for was it not natural for well-meaning Indian parents to channel the youthful zeal of their offspring firmly away from airy-fairy notions like social work, particularly in as difficult an environment as India’s?

No money, no glamour, no fancy designations and promotions… who indeed would wish a life of struggle and penury on their children.

For Indians, the urge to make money is deep-seated and normalised; we think nothing of worshipping a goddess of wealth for instance. And yet, seemingly at odds with that, we raise to iconic status the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa, even, until recently, the unlikely podgy figure of Anna Hazare, all figures who stand for big ideas and extreme personal abstention. Why, even our younger, modern-day foreign-educated politicians eschew designer labels to don the professed self-denying garb of khadi, carved deep into our collective psyche as a symbol of high-thinking abstemiousness. In this, we are unlike any other people I can think of, finding unique and arguably dubious ways of navigating the moral territory that lies between making money and being seen as unmaterialistic. In possible recognition of this dichotomy, business schools like the IIMs now offer courses in social enterprise and organisations like Novogratz’s Acumen run year-long fellowships to develop a cohort of “moral leaders” whom they hope will pioneer a new kind of management ethos in India. Rare initiatives, but signs that attitudes may gradually be recalibrated.

Social work — previously only good as a stop-gap arrangement or retirement activity — may just be rendered respectable by no longer being devoid of business skills and entrepreneurship. Well, that’s one way of making it an attractive career option to a people as pragmatic and astute as Indians.

I make no moral judgement. After all, a country is still relatively young at 66, and more than half of India’s population is under the age of 30. Perhaps it is that which gives us a brash, forward looking and keenly aspirational sort of character. Perhaps our young people need to surge ahead and grab with both hands the many things that were lost to us during the long colonial era. The kind of idealism that was in the air during the freedom movement has long dissipated away but perhaps another kind of dreaming will follow once the frenzied feeding is done.

At lunch that day in the Kanthari dining hall, Bash, the young man with the dream of reforming the Nigerian prison system, told me that he was getting ready to travel to Vellore to present a Tedx talk. The subject was “Dream Again”. When I asked him what that meant, he explained that, while many young people felt fired up by their dreams, it was important for them to also realise the difficulties of seeing a dream through, the patience and persistence that was required to keep from giving up too easily. “The path of every social innovator is beset by failures and disappointments,” Bash explained. “Even when progress is made, it is slow and difficult to quantify and measure. But, if I am not prepared to get up and dust myself down after every disappointment and dream again… and again, and again, how will my dreams ever become reality?’ Bash’s face was shining as he spoke and I felt a pang of regret that, when his course ended, he would pack his bags, and his dreams, and say goodbye to India.

(For more information on the Kanthari programme, see www.kanthari.org)

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