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The importance of being a nobody

Meenakshi SheddeOne of the most exciting experiences I had in Ladakh recently was going on the local heritage walk. Ken San, the gentle Japanese man at the counter at Lala’s Cafe, the starting point, arranged for Vivek Aggarwal, an architecture student-guide, to walk me through the historic old town.

The Tibet Heritage Fund (THF), an NGO started by a German, the late Andre Alexander, Portuguese artist Pimpim de Azevedo, and others, organised the walk as part of its restoration work with its partner, the Leh Old Town Initiative. They have been restoring Leh’s historic quarters with their mud brick and stone houses that have withstood centuries — instead of ugly concrete blocks — as well as helped establish the Central Asian Museum in Leh. After a fascinating walk through the warren of lanes and houses in the old district (“this is the winter kitchen, that is the summer kitchen”), Japanese architect Yutaka Hirako showed me round the Central Asian Museum, and we returned to Lala’s Cafe.

      Japanese architect Ken Okuma serving at Lala's Café in Leh
Japanese architect Ken Okuma serving at Lala's Café in Leh

Ken San served me delicious cheesecake and apricot juice. Only later, I understood that he was actually Ken Okuma, a senior Japanese project architect with THF. He understood that restoring buildings meant little if you did not create community spaces that nurtured friendships, camaraderie, chatting, sharing and making beautiful things. So, he thinks nothing of working for hours, making coffee, serving customers, washing dishes and wiping tables. I thought this incredibly beautiful. Ken San had abolished hierarchy in his mind; he was content to be a complete nobody. You could see it in his warm smile, his keenness to help others. Indians know it theoretically as kar seva, but so few of us actually practise it.

Most religions have a tradition of voluntary service. In Hinduism and Sikhism, kar seva (service by hand) refers to selfless, physical voluntary labour for community service, often religious. Sadly, kar sevaks today have often come to mean insecure thugs out to build gigantic religious symbols, by destroying those of others. But in fact, community service is a powerfully unifying force. Once, I was in Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan, on an assignment with an NGO.

I arrived late, when all the restaurants were shut, and desperate with hunger, I landed up at a Sikh gurudwara langar. I sat on the mud floor, in a line with other desperates, beggars and lepers, and ate hot rotis served with watery channa sabzi and an onion. It was a moving, humbling experience — hunger is a great leveller and a powerful reminder that whatever titles and grandeur we may delude ourselves with, in the end we are all nobodies, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

In the US, job applicants know that community service and extra curricular activities are taken seriously, apart from the academic marks. Community service ties in nicely with Buddhist notions that each of us is responsible for all sentient beings — not just me, myself, my family, my backyard, which is what defines much of urban life today.

In India, boy scout and girl guide programmes are often naam ke vaaste school options. But these, along with the National Service Scheme and National Cadet Corps, are hugely underexploited opportunities for the youth to build physical endurance, character, team spirit and leadership skills.

St Xavier’s College’s Social Service League, for instance, has been doing sterling work in villages around Mumbai. The South Indian Education Society in Mumbai recently adopted Kawthewadi village, refurbished the school, built wells, toilets and sewage treatment. Many other colleges are similarly active. Only when university and job evaluations consider community service and extracurricular activities along with academic marks, will we truly value these as a society. If goodness must be matlabi in these cynical times, better that than none at all.

Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at meenakshishedde@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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