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Day Two TED India: A Colourful Prologue of Ideas

4 November , 2009

A little analogy on assumptions

 “A Japanese man asks a New Yorker in Manhattan what is the name of the block they are standing on. The New Yorker looks puzzled and says this is Park Avenue and that is 69th street. The block has no name. Streets have names, not blocks.

“Two years later, the New Yorker is in Tokyo. He asks a Japanese man what the name of the street is. The Japanese man replies that the block on the left is 18th block and that on the right is 16th block. Blocks have names, streets have no names”.

I “borrowed” this quote from one of the afternoon speakers who used it to illustrate that whatever assumptions we may all bring into our daily lives, the exact opposite may equally be true.

Assumptions, questions, Cuba

An apt example fell into my own lap today, not once, but three times. Those familiar with these pages know that, whilst I am very far from being a “Castro sympathiser”, I consider that there are degrees of complexity behind today’s Cuba that are not easily painted into the black and white that politicians, particularly, prefer. People matter more than ideologies, though often the impact of ideologies on people leaves both open to valid criticism. Questions I have asked many times before present as real as ever as I re-visit India, and in particular as I confront the diversity that is India today, seen starkly in the astonishing technology and modernity of this university campus contrasted against the slums that lined the furthest edges of Bangalore away from the eyes of international visitors. Both are real, both form polar lines of this vast constitutional democracy. But, I ask again, when villagers have no access to clean water, hygiene or food, and when the right to vote is so easily bought with a grain of rice, where does the human right to participate freely in our electoral choices sit against that basic human right to subsist, with water, food and healthcare? I have never offered up Cuba, with its basic failures to promote democracy or freedom of expression as, a plausible alternative. I have, however, argued strongly, that clear lines and questions of “Freedom, American-style” are not to be answered lightly or easily in a population that is so well educated that a road sweeper could quote Shakespeare, and beyond the years of the so-called “special period”, where the majority of the population has access to the most basic commodities of water, food and a roof, however unsatisfactory.

Enough on Cuba, this is TED India

But this is no article about Cuba. This is a blog on TED India and I step back from unfinished comments and questions with an interjection about why this conference is special. The least likely place, you may say, to meet three individuals at different times of the day with healthy Cuban connections. The first encounter, over breakfast becomes lunch, was with, let’s call him J.  His connections link him back to the wealthiest family’s in Batista’s Cuba, pre 1959. His venom against Castro and today’s Cuba is powerful, perhaps it informs much of what he says and does. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that we came dangerously close to clashing.

A littany of truths

But to revert to the Japanese street-block example, one truth does not make another truth wrong. There can be so many truths. It is true that wealthy families in Cuba lost everything. It is true that they remain in rage against the man who removed it from them.  It is true that, personally, those losses are impossible to bear and those of us who stand aside have not had to bear them.

It may also be true that they were part of the system that led to the gross disparities in wealth that led to popular support for the Revolution, even if today with hindsight, many of the objectives that Castro and his guerrillas fought for in the Sierra Maestra are as far from reality as most Cubans live from prosperity.

It may also be true, as another Cuban émigré from the States told me today, that part of the American irrationality against Cuba lies in the memory of the Bay of Pigs missile crisis, a genuine fear that this tiny island may permit nuclear war onto the shores of Miami.

And as a Brazilian émigré to Miami told me also, Cubans in Miami have brought all those fears and wrapped them up into Republican politics of the day. And so there are many truths that we have to respect, fold, unpick and choose from. As a mini-advert in the day told us, you sometimes miss what you aren’t looking for.

What are you looking for amongst the trees?

And in the astonishing forum that is TED, we were all able to look for something we weren’t looking for. Or be faced with it in any event, For this is a place where you can converse, discuss, disagree and then kiss each other good night, a place which almost has cult status amongst its devotees, who return time and again for the sheer fortune of being able to meet such fascinating people all in one chemical reaction.  In Uganda, it is said that if you throw a seed, a forest grows. In TED, there seems to be a forest of seeds everywhere, sprouting with ideas and new growth. The IQ quotidient here must be extraordinary. But its real genius lies in gathering together people who in many ways have nothing material to gain from each other but knowledge, inspiration and a lot of laughter. People, of course, are on the lookout for someone with whom they can work or foster a new relationship, but the diversity of people and their backgrounds necessitates that the audience, participants and speakers alike, are here to learn, think and sow new seeds.

A global forest

In one day, I have met and had in depth conversations with Cubans of opposing political views, an Armenian American who is going to work for a micro-financing project in his country of origin, a Greek-English woman who lives in Athens and has set up a foundation with a local orphanage where she volunteers every year, South Africans about to set up a kibbutz-style green initiative in Johannesburg, Indians who work for Google all over the planet it seems, corporate New Yorkers, and the most wonderful Indian couple from Hyderabad whose romance, it seems, fell out of a Rohinton Mistry novel where she, a glamorous professional dancer with cropped hair and a majestic orange sari, worked for the Indian Railways when she met her husband, who now works in software, but who then went to sell her a Xerox machine. He sold her his machine and his heart altogether. Now their experiences take them all over the world. She has travelled the length and bredth of Latin America to perform Bharat Natyam to audiences who knew nothing of India. Then there are my IMAK friends, and the TED fellows who are making such a difference to communities across India and of Indian origin all over the world, whether they are developing health initiatives or baking pastries or catching snakes in Delhi – oh yes, and the last guy told me for sure that my snake phobia is genetic, not curable – got it, all of you who say I need to get into a snake pit? And what of the writers, activists and film makers from Pakistan who have endured hours of daily police reporting just to get here and share their stories with their neighbours, stories of art and suicide bombs, politics and love? These are just a handful of the people I met today, the list honestly grows every hour with people with whom meaningful conversations are exchanged, not just a brief hello.

The pre-conference speakers

Of the speakers at the pre-conference events, a few stand out. The teacher in Bangkok who is revolutionalising the class-room through innovative use of technologies that allow people to zoom in and out of timelines and information scenarios, to be shared with people across the world. A lesson in the ten most important Indian artists creating waves in the 21st century. A scientist who claims that his discipline and the humanities meet through his research of mirror neurones, or Gandhi neurones as he termed them somewhat tongue in cheek, which make each of us connected to everyone else, leaving us without any distinctive consciousness. The guy who produces industrial warehouse shelving in California that is becoming a model for slums, with structures that take just a few days to put up and can be dismantled without any environmental impact at all. Is this something that could be used for refugee camps, I wonder? Might the Sri Lankan government think about this too, I find myself thinking..The lack of efficiency in India’s tradition of dynastic succession, the practical approach of telemedicine which is bringing healthcare to India’s rural masses…

A throat lozenge and bed

This has been just a little taste of what the conference, which starts proper tomorrow, is to bring. It is intense, surreal and yet somehow a blast into an actual reality from which we are divorced in daily working life patterns – the ability to communicate, to talk to just anyone, just to talk, just to learn. A time for Ideas.

 Good Night.

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