September 23, 2008
Kavita provides the comic relief, mocking Sheela’s sorry attempts at an Indian accent or my consulting-speak. She is the only Indian national on the team besides Shaheen (the CEO), making her a scarce and precious resource.
Mariyam is both the realist and the team mom, helping us navigate the confusing world of Maharashtra (the state containing Bombay and Pune). She serves as the liaison between Teach for All, a network designed to support the launch of the TFA model in other countries, and the team in India.
Shikha is the social butterfly, the only person on the team to successfully branch out so far. She has spent most of her career in the non-profit world, and is the first person I’ve ever met who is from Las Vegas.
Shaheen is the passionate advocate for poor youth. She dropped out of Tufts University at 18 to work with slum children in Bombay and her network of supporters – in the slums and in board rooms – has been growing ever since.
Sheela is the spark plug, the organized chaos. Her boundless enthusiasm coupled with her planning ability is one of our most valuable team, especially when the work week spills into the “overwork” week.
Surjeet is the diplomat, carefully navigating the complex political waters that we’re encountering in these early days. She has a background in non-profit and government, having returned to non-profit in what she describes as an effort to save her optimism and idealism from the bureaucracy monster.
That leaves me. I’m the consultant. The only guy. The white kid. The youngster. And, as Kavita has charmingly dubbed me, The Teej.
I spent two hours yesterday evening in a Bombay slum, commonly called a “community”. When I first heard this term a voice inside me shouted “euphemism!” After my experience, I can tell you that the term community is incredibly apt.
A community is a city unto itself – twenty thousand people living in the space of a large city block. Every inch is occupied. People, dogs, and bicycles flow around one another like water molecules.
A small boy, no more than four, slipped in a mud puddle as he walked past us. His sister, perhaps six, firmly admonished him. When you have few clothes and no running water, it’s important to stay clean, even if you are surrounded by filth.
A tailor sat in an alcove he’d fashioned with a tarp and a small table, a light bulb dangling over his sewing machine, a bin of cloth scraps at his feet. We bought 5 colorful handkerchiefs from him for 10 rupees, about 22 cents.
We followed Shaheen into a dark alley just wide enough for two people to squeeze past one another. After just 100 yards or so winding left and right, up and down, I had a moment of complete disorientation and felt anxiety wash over me. Then I turned around and noticed I was being accompanied by three smiling little boys.
We arrived at the home of a young woman and her daughter, who proudly invited us in. Shaheen explained how the woman had been one of her first students, only five or six years old at the time. Her one-room home was immaculate, and we pulled our shoes off outside the door, awkwardly trying to avoid stepping in the wet alley without falling over. This home was relatively spacious and comfortable, which is to say it was about the size of a large cupboard, with a solid roof overhead and a small, buzzing TV mounted to the wall. The six of us barely fit inside.
As we walked back through the alley, I peeked into another home where half a dozen kids sat on the floor, learning to write. Their huge smiles beamed out at me. “Keep studying!” I told them.
September 18, 2008
Today I met briefly with Shaheen and then took the first of many 4-hour train rides between Mumbai and Pune. Upon arrival, I met Shikha, Kavita, and Mariyam, which leaves just Sheela. The team is all young Indian and Indian-American women. Oddly, this will be by far the most homogeneous work setting I’ve been part of.
Post-dated, September 10, 2008, 19:16 IST
Mumbai is a bewildering and amazing place. On my cab ride from the airport to Surjeet’s apartment, there was a “close call” on the road every 16.3 feet, and a horn honked every 0.6 seconds, approximately. I’m guessing that we covered at most five miles in the 90 minutes we spent weaving in and out of traffic. Note that traffic is used loosely to include trucks of all sizes, cabs (miniature in nature, my head was firmly pressed against the roof), auto-rickshaws (smaller yet, with a buggy-like character), motorcycles and dirt bikes (fearless), cattle-drawn carriages, bicycles, pedestrians, and stray dogs. It seems that it’s normal for a ten-year-old girl to weave through six lanes of moving traffic.
Post-dated, September 6, 2008, 10:27am EST
In preparing for India, I have accumulated far more of two things than I had anticipated: advice and books. Two observations therein:
- Indian-Americans are far more prevalent in my life than I realized. In the past few weeks, at least 30 emails have been sent on my behalf by Indian-Americans who are within two degrees of separation from me.
- Books are really heavy. I fear my intellectual eagerness may have been excessive – I brought approximately 60 pages of reading per day of my trip, excluding a massive GMAT study book. We’re talking Tom Friedman, Jeffrey Sachs, Ayn Rand, Amartya Sen – yikes.