Conversations with People not like Us

Madan Padaki, co-founder & CEO of 1Bridge, a last-mile services platform for Rural India was right when he said, “Conversations today are having a different meaning altogether. There is so much of impatience and distrust in conversations these days”. He was in discussion with Arun Maira, Former Member of Planning Commission of India and author of ‘Listening for wellbeing: Conversations with people not like us’. The book talks about how to have conversations with people who are different from us and have a different perspective.

Arun says the trigger to write the book came when his grandson pointed out that he did not answer the woman who was knocking at his car’s window begging for money. Arun had not even realized that someone was knocking. He says it was a shocking self- revelation about how he has been conditioned to not listen. Effective communication is not just about conveying your message across rightly but also about listening to the message being conveyed. Communication is incomplete without listening. Arun says, his friend who was surprised to learn that his brother was an ardent supporter of Trump was probably not listening to the conversations with his brother during family gatherings.

Arun quotes Tagore from Gitanjali,
“Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls”.

He says the consequence of not having a conversation has resulted in the divisions of the world as it is today. The structures of social media are only making the walls tighter every day. People are friends with likeminded people and are not ready to indulge with people who are different.

He quotes from Tagore again,
“Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit”

He talks about how the mind today has been trained to think fast that we have lost the ability to thinking slow. Thinking slow, he says, helps you with empathy and compassion.

Arun remarks that the media houses today are yelling at each in debates and discussion. Everyone yells and it looks like a tribal war. He wonders which one of them is listening.

Dalai Lama who wrote the foreword for Arun’s book observed that listening is first of the two wisdom tools advocated by Buddhism. The other two being contemplation and meditation. The way yoga which is about conscious breathing can help in healing a lot of ailments, something as simple as listening can fix the problems of the world.

Arun leaves his audience with a very profound message about listening. In his own words, the cultivation of skills for deeper listening begins with the listening to the stranger within us. How true can that be!

Tagore’s Classroom

BoiTHEK is a bookstore in Bangalore that caters exclusively to Bengali readers in the city. The place also transforms itself into a cultural cafe encouraging many forms of art like music, dance and theatre. When a friend approached Bookstalkist to conduct a Yard of the Bard event in BoiTHEK, the first thought that flashed across our minds was Tagore. I have three copies of Gitanjali with me. One of them, I bought for myself and the other two of were gifted by Bengali friends, indeed.Thanks to my interactions with friends from West Bengal, I did know how Tagore, Gitanjali, and Rabindra Sangeet were celebrated by the Bengali speaking lot. However, being someone who weeps over Tagore’s The Cabuliwallah, I had to discuss the other aspects of Tagore’s mastery as well. So, we decided to discuss Tagore beyond his much revered Gitanjali and ask all those questions that have been lingering in our heads for long.

We began with “How do you connect with Tagore? ” The answer was almost unanimous – Rabindra Sangeet, except probably one who connects through his paintings. But just as we had feared not many of them had experienced Tagore beyond his songs. Interestingly, some of them had hated Tagore and his songs as a child and some of them learnt Tagore’s verses only to impress a girlfriend or partner. However, as they grew up they have come to look up to his songs as a panacea for all sorts of troubles in their lives. An important observation while discussing why Tagore was not read as much was that although Tagore never created for the galleries, the custodians of Tagore’s art seemed to have continued an ‘elitist’ approach and denied the masses an easier access to his works for a long time. Only in recent times have they opened it up for the public at large. While the statement might need to be validated with a larger audience, it was intriguing nonetheless. The above scenario also seemed to have paved way for people to appreciate writers like Satyajit Ray who came after Tagore. However irrespective of how much they had read of Tagore everyone clearly revered Tagore because he was the pride of Bengal.

The session was split into two parts. During the first part of the session we discussed the short stories of Tagore. When we introduced some of the short stories, some faces lit up in recognition. They had read a couple of them as a part of their curriculum and the group had the opportunity to go down the memory lane with those stories. Not only did we discuss the stories but also the hidden metaphors and messages that Tagore was leaving for his readers.Some of the stories that were discussed include The Cabulliwallah, Subha, Homecoming, The Child’s return, The Postmaster, Master Mashai etc. The group also dwelled briefly upon Gora and Chokher Bali. The short stories set the platform to discuss Tagore’s take on a lot of societal issues including women’s role in the society.

The second part of the session was designed to introduce the audience to the non-fictions of Tagore. Since it is impossible to talk of his works in entirety in an hour, we decided to focus on his collection of essays and lectures titled Nationalism. If there is one work of Tagore which need to be read thoroughly at this juncture of heightened nationalism and anti-nationalism, it must be ‘Nationalism’. We quoted for the audience few gems from the book. Some those quotes did leave the audience unsettled despite their adulation for Tagore. Nevertheless, we did have a bunch of open minded audience and the ideas from Tagore did leave them with something to ponder over. We hope that this pondering will help build a better society.

While the audience thought that they had not read much of Tagore, in reality they did start their first lessons in Bengali from Tagore. Even as we talk, Tagore’s Sahaj Path continues to be the first classroom for any beginner in Bengali. As we walked out of the discussion that evening, we knew for sure that at least some of them would take home a little more of Tagore to keep them company.