DAY FIVE TED INDIA: FOOD FOR THOUGHT
November 8th 2009, Mysore
In a climax of compelling speakers, TED India got everyone out of bed (no mean feat when the final night was such a riotous affair) and back into their increasingly delirious brains. A lack of sleep, a lack of food because there was just no time to eat, somehow the intellectual sustenance remained the food for thought. The ability to let us listen to stories. Stories which have the power to transform.
The girl inside
I have to start with Eve Ensler, and her vibrant description of what it means to be a girl in “I am an emotional creature”. She roused the stage with her passionate description of a society which had stolen its girl side, both men and women, and left itself inept and broken by placing value only on those hardened characteristics which associate themselves with male victory. The language that correlates vulnerability and emotion with weakness has been displaced. The language that allows men to sell women and their daughters has been strengthened. The verb “to please” which is encouraged in women from such a young age that they forget to defy, create, activate has been planted. Eve’s declaration that being a girl is so powerful that the world has had to teach everyone not to be like that struck a strong chord. She talked about the mass rape of women in the DRC, and their use of taboos and traditions to force peace talks onto the table. She talked about the Masai father who was ready to sell his daughter to an old man for some cows and blankets, and disfigure and disempower her with mutilation as part of the bidding, a father who was proud of his daughter when she ran away to seek help and returned a year later, educated and with new ambition, promising never to cut her whilst she promised to fight her father’s corner always.
Soft power and the cellphone revolution
The subject of Shashi Tharoor’s talk, a charismatic compelling political speaker who painted a picture of a world in which India’s ability to use its influence and values to attract others could be a force for good. He described India as a country which works partly because of its government, and partly in spite of it. A country which has been selling fifteen million mobile phones per month, emerging from a country where the phone was a rare luxury just a couple of decades ago. Who is carrying those cellphones, he asked? The man who climbs a coconut palm to bring down the right number of coconuts, the fisherman out at sea who can get the best price for his wares in the best market, and the farmers (who have been committing suicide in mass droves) who also can find a way to sell their produce more efficiently.
Soft power. The ability of Bollywood and Indian music and television to have the same influence that MTV, Hollywood and McDonalds have had for the United States. The popularity of Indian entertainment, for example, in Afghanistan where the country stands still enough for robbers to know when to strike, as everyone sits down to watch the Indian equivalent of Eastenders. The economic value of Indian restaurants in the UK who now employ more than the coal and mining industries together.
He talked about Indian influence in the region through its pluralist democracy, in a country which an Italian-origin Roman Catholic woman, Sonia Gandhi, was elected with a Sikh Prime Minister, sworn in by a Muslim President. That, he said, was India being itself, sustained above all else by its pluralist democracy.
He is right, of course, and he used the power to tell stories compellingly. They are all true, although as previous articles will tell you, I fear that India’s ability to propagate is pluralist democracy without coming to terms with its State-sponsored violence and failure to account to itself and its people is also its biggest barrier to progress. You can’t please all the people all of the time, but you have to ensure at the very least that you don’t kill them.
The power of children to transform society
Soft power, through Sesame Street, or Galli Galli Sim Sim, changing children’s lives across the sub-continent. Soft power through the Riverside school in Ahmedabad, set up by Kiran Sethi whose favourite word “contagious”, in these days of swine flu, has inspired her to allow children to make a change, shutting down the city’s main streets once a month to allow it to be transformed into a children’s playground, inspiring children to teach their illiterate parents in rural Rajasthan to read and write, bringing children out onto the streets to demand an end to child poverty by making the pupils roll incense for eight hours so they understand what it feels like.
The power of children and sport, developed by Matthew Spacie who founded Magic Bus, who in searching for a way to engage girls in the slums, developed a football league for their mothers, which led to the grandmothers demanding their won league and ultimately which led to them coaching the very daughters they initially sought to engage.
Ring the bell and end domestic violence
Bell Bajao. An advertising campaign encouraging neighbours to ring the bell when they hear the strains and shouts of domestic violence from the next door house or street. Step in. Help. Don’t leave everything to the State.
Will you change my world?
Change the world, or let the person next to you change it for you, if you are open enough, said Balasubramanian, an installation artist, painter and sculptor who sought to answer philosophy through sculpture hanging off the walls of a gallery. How do shadows define our sense of self? Where there is dark, must there be light?
And where there is blindness, individuals with passion can bring light to thousands of people in one of the most inspiring talks of the session. Ravilla Thulasiraj whose Aravinda eye hospitals have been inspired by the founder’s philosophy to create a McDonals of eye care, breaking down access barriers to the poor in innovative ways that reduce budgets and costs dramatically, provide transportation where required for hospital treatment and using technology to deliver telemedicine in the most rural places.
The power of serenity
And finally, to His Holiness, the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, who brought serenity to our twisting minds at the end of the conference, looking for positivity out of negativity. Talking about the Bamian Buddha statues which had been felled by the Taliban, he talked of looking for the positive, as though the action may bring about some peace between two religious communities helping them to understand each other without the barrier of a physical wall.
He told us that we had taken a million collective breaths this week, and although we may not see coarse changes, we needed to watch out for the subtle changes. The little symbols of happiness in every breathe that we took. He asked us to take the good, the momentum, the positivity of the fortune of such a diverse group of people coming together to form a strong approach, and to plant those qualities in every corner of the world.
And so these are not the articles to consider more deeply the consequences both of what we heard and what we did not hear. This is the place simply to note some of the people who left the biggest footprints this week. It has been an intense learning experience from which I am bound to take the positive.
The future beckons and India is ready to take her place at the front of it. There are people ready to seek creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems that perpetuate and expand poverty, whilst recognising that there is a long way to go. There are people all over the world who seek a common framework of inspiration.
I am not ready to leave, but I am certainly ready to sleep.
I am all for the soft power of new friendships and transforming ideas. Stories which have the power to transform.
I am a girl, an emotional creature.
Food for thought, indeed.