Shaping Up Part 2

I’ve always been fascinated by the word gnomon. [nom-in]. The only time I’ve ever seen it used was by the literary maestro (and my favorite author)—James Joyce. The gnomon, which literally translates to an “unfinished parallelogram,” can be used to describe both shapes and identities: unfinished.

200px-Gnomon.svg

In my final entry before leaving India, I said I was shapeless, that I wasn’t a circle or a line, and as all good adventures should end—I was heading back to America with more questions than answers.

Well, I’ve realized in the past month that I have found a shape in fact, though it may not be finished, polished, or fit nicely in a pattern.

I am the gnomon, imperfect and inconclusive, yet insatiably hungry for completion.

My academic focus at Union centered on Joyce, which, in four years of studies, ultimately produced an essay detailing a ‘search’ for two of Jocye’s characters. This search is carried out in both spirit and affect; to paraphrase, the characters are searching for meaning with both their eyes and hearts. Joyce ultimately suggests that all humans are born incomplete, as gnomons, unfinished, forever searching for wholeness. What I attempted to explore was if we can ever find completion and finish our shapes – or, are we forever walking along a strand?

The most routine question I’ve been getting since I’ve returned from India is “have you changed?” The answer is layered; people change every day. Yet, in this conversation of shapes, it might be more seldom to transform – in essence, it is hard to ‘complete the gnomon’. One can’t just complete their gnomon by living in an Indian village, nor by getting a masters degree or PhD. What makes people intriguing is their varying degrees of wisdom, intellect, and in my explanation of shapes – either structural infancy or polished finishing.

I think back to India. I felt more complete than ever. I felt lost indeed, but evermore challenged. I had few friends, but was welcomed by new families. I felt overwhelmed by a foreign language embedded in ancient traditions, doused with color, and sprinkled with unidentifiable spices. And a wandering Indian I was.

So what does this mean? Certainly we are all gnomons at some point, and it’s up to each of us to find the path to completion. The most beautiful part is that it’s different for everyone. There’s no formula from gnomon to square—from A to B—or going from lost to found.

Shaping Up

If the last year of my life were a geometric shape, I don’t know which one it would be.

I’m a visual thinker. When presented with a complex situation or problem, I try to draw it out. For example, I summarized my entire senior thesis, titled: Power Without Agents? A Theoretical Analysis of Power in a Complex and Globalized World, with a simple drawing of lines and stick figures. Rather than reading my 120 page thesis on political theory, you could just look at a diagram. For me, it’s easier to show than tell.

I now find myself at a crossroads; the past year of my life has been nothing short of variant. Progressive. Exciting. Challenging. Sobering. The question for me is to how I can best display this – how I can show you how much I’ve learned, grown, matured, and endured?

My mind tells me to draw you a picture – a diagram that encompasses where I’ve been – geographically and metaphorically. And yet, as I type these final words in a dim-lit room and a somber cloak, I have no answer. I have lost my shape.

downloadThe first figure that comes to mind is a circle. I had a vision today that I’ve come “full circle.” It was over nine months ago that I waited outside the airport in Jaipur for three hours on a steamy summer morning. I was waiting for the next chapter of my life to pick me up. By lunchtime I had climbed into a scrap-wagon van and ventured to Bagru – a place that has now become my second home. By evening I had been introduced to my new woven bed, new diet, language, culture and family. By the next morning I became aware of smells that will remain in my nostrils forever – to sounds of horns, children and pigs that echo in my ears to this very moment.

Today I found myself sitting in that very bed with the same dirty feet and sweaty back, brushing the same cheeks of Yash and Chehika, my Indian younger brother and sister. I was more confident and comfortable than I was months ago, but with a tight throat and faster heartbeat. I couldn’t help but wonder if anything at all had been accomplished – if the circle had been closed, and I’m back at where I began.

It is my greatest fear that everything I’ve done here is for nothing, that I’ll be forgotten like the rest – that every person who has stared at me, glared deep into my eyes, will wake up tomorrow and forget that the white kid ever was. And, just like that, I’ll be gone.download (1)The line. Forever moving forward and backward, or stagnant in-place, depending on perspective.

The line has no beginning or end; natural properties that that don’t apply to human life. The line symbolizes a journey – a story that started in Bagru with one company, and has continued to Jaipur, where I’ve founded a new one. I’ve started a new venture with two other Union grads called Studio Bagru. We’ve opened a beautiful office in central Jaipur and are building an international brand.

I arrived in India as a 22-year old wanderer, and am returning with a flashy business card that says COO. And yet, it means nothing; if there’s one thing I’ve learned in India, it’s that the hardest work goes unnoticed.

While I may “change lives” by starting an international company, my proudest moments went unseen – teaching a toddler about the holocaust, lending a shoulder to cry on, helping fold fabric for tedious hours in unbearable heat, or, most of all, listening to a mouth that has never been treated with an ear.

I look at the person who arrived in India as a fool. I came to India with enough bug spray to eradicate misquotes from the Amazon, three different brands of malaria pills, more than ten bottles of sunscreen, enough immodium, pepto-bismol and anti-diarrheal pills that CVS had to offer, plenty of tape, band-aids, first-aid kits, ointments, rash lubricants, and gold bond to last a lifetime. I laugh at myself, now. What was I thinking? One would have thought I was going to live with savages – a place with no healthcare or doctors, just beasts, disease and contaminated water. It shows my ignorance – after all, this has been one of the healthiest years of my life.

download (2)The line has limits. There’s no fluctuations, no ups and downs, nothing to indicate change. When I look back, I see a story with distinct chapters. The beginning of my time in India was marked by solitude, heat, and curiosity. The middle was tagged with adventure, travel, and transition. The end was characterized by business, busy-ness, and comfort.

So, which one will it be? Have I come full circle, or am I continuing to trot along a line? Am I going up and down with troves and troughs? Who knows. None of these shapes can capture what has happened. No shape can cover what is to come.

What I know for certain is that I’m the same person. I expected this journey to transform me, which, in some ways, has happened. However, the world is still the same. I’m still the same guy, and always will be. Sure, I have a moustache, can speak a little Hindi, and can bond with anyone over a cup of chai. But, I’m still learning, still figuring out what all this means.

While I’m not shape-less – I have no shape for you. The world has become much smaller, but ever-more dense. Perhaps it’s just a giant web after all.

It’s good to be home.

Minerva Fellowship Part II


You can’t stop time. No matter what you do, it’s always there—hidden and forgotten—rarely noticed in day-to-day life. This isn’t about minutes or alarm clocks, appointments or curfews. It’s about the constantly flowing time, inescapable and ineluctable, a nonlinear reality that you embrace or refute. And in the end, it’s up to you.

My time in India has been precious and delicate, while also neglected and insignificant. The Minerva Fellowship program has a progressive and laudable approach: freedom, trust, and independence. There are no check-ins, progress reports, or evaluation sheets. I was sent on a flight to India with a handshake and “be safe, we’ll see you in nine months.” And, with those parting words, for the first moment in my life, my time became my largest adversary, and biggest tool for productivity.

I’ll never forget when Professor Hal Fried, one of the great minds behind the fellowship program, was discussing some past fellows’ experiences abroad. Many have done great things. Others, while certainly enjoyed incredible experiences, struggled with what to do much with their time. In Hal’s words, “x person basically lived in a tree for nine months.” The point Hal was trying to make, that I now understand, was that you’re on your own: completely, utterly, alone.

I have no supervisor, no boss, no daily responsibilities and no professors. There’s nothing stopping me from living in a tree, becoming a spiritual Guru, or starting my own orphanage. I can do whatever I want, when I want, and how I want. It’s a recipe for the most beautiful of disasters, for unrealized creativity—even boredom.

I didn’t realize the magnitude of this freedom until about halfway through my fellowship. I’ve always been a creature of discipline. When I left Union last spring, I had a clear set of goals, outlining what I was going to achieve and how I would do it. I had a list of people I was supposed to meet and where I could meet them.

I’d noted how much time I should be working, how much time I should spend in Bagru, how much time I should travel, and how much time I should spend reading, learning Hindi, and blogging. I had lists on lists, still saved on my computer to this very day. At times during the first few months I scanned over these lists. Have I met x person yet? Have I achieved x goal? Have spent enough time on x project? In the end, none of it mattered. I’m the only judge of how I spend my time; I’m a tough critic.

I sincerely think part of this habit to self-review stems from my education. For my entire life I’ve been judged, assessed, and graded on different sets of criteria. GPA’s, resumes, transcripts and feedback forms were once everyday realities – now, they’re distant memories. If you think anyone in India has asked me about my internship experiences or subject of my thesis, you’d be a fool.

I came to a point a few months ago when I asked myself the most difficult question:

What am I doing?

I wasn’t reflecting on the absurdity of my life here; I wasn’t thinking about the cultural differences, the food, the spirituality, or the stares I get eating lunch every day. I’ve moved past all that, accepting myself as an American-Indian HinJew.

Instead, it was a question about how I’ve been spending my time. In a recent conversation with my fellow Fellow in Uganda, Joe Hinderstein, he said, “I can wake up everyday and teach children English, sexual education or geography because I’m ‘supposed’ to. But, is that how I really want to spend my time?” There’s no right answer to that question. If Joe goes on a run or takes a nap instead of teaching English, that’s okay. He’s trying the best he can, looking at the big picture. And Joe’s right: we can’t only focus on the “now,” but rather look at the if, then, and how.

Most people advise me to “live in the moment.” While the cliché has its merits, at some point we have to look at time thought alternative lenses. What has the past taught us, what do I want in my future, and how am I using the present to get there? Time is layered; we can’t always ‘be’ in the moment, so let’s use it instead. Let’s think about it. Let’s build another step, ascending the ladder to the future.

I want to come home after this fellowship knowing that I spent my time wisely. That I had a balance of joy, hurt, comfort, and pain. When it comes the Minerva fellowship, there are three groups that my time belongs to:

  • Union College. (as a representative of the college, I am responsible to spend my time in accordance with the fellowship values).
  • ‘Selfless’ time: spending your time for others’ benefit.
  • ‘Personal’ time. Using my time to grow and learn, as well as travel and for my own leisure.

When I broke down these categories, I asked myself difficult questions about how I was spending my time, whom it was benefiting, and how I wanted to spend the remainder of my fellowship. These questions eventually opened the door to a whirlwind experience: My Minerva Fellowship, Part II: Studio Bagru.

A few months ago Jeremy Fritzhand came to Bagru. Jeremy had left his job at a large textile sourcing company in Sri Lanka, and wanted to get back involved with Bagru Textiles. When he came back, he was amazed at how much the company had grown during the three years of his absence. We had international clients visiting every day; we were fulfilling large quantity orders, receiving an unprecedented amount of inquiries, phone-calls, and press requests. In short, the business was booming, and it was wonderful to see.

Jeremy and I started to reflect on time.

We thought about what he came to Bagru in 2010 to accomplish, why he did it, and how far things had come. We looked around us; our neighbor Chandraprakash was completing his third addition to his home since 2010, all paid for by the success of Bagru Textiles. Six years ago his house was one room. Now, he had two-stories: three bedrooms, a bathroom, washing machine, and printing workshop. The rapid development was tangible – it wasn’t even a hoax. We saw that people’s lives had truly benefited from the creation, growth, and success of Bagru Textiles.

When I received the fellowship one year ago, I was told I would be the last Minerva Fellow in Bagru. Since the program is build on the notion of sustainability, Union’s role at Bagru Textiles was never meant to be permanent.

Jeremy and I thought about the Minvera Fellows Mantra, which states:

When the work is done,
the task accomplished,
the people will say
‘We have done this ourselves.’

We have done this ourselves. Six years have passed since Jeremy arrived in Bagru. The progress of the company is praiseworthy, and the five Minerva Fellows before me played a large role in that. But, at the end of the day, nobody from Union can claim the growth belongs to them. Bagru Textiles was never Jeremy’s company, nor was it Union’s, or mine for that matter. We realized the time had come for us to depart, that the company was prepared to function without us.

One of the biggest challenges of development work is taking a hands-off approach. At some point, there is a sink-or-swim moment. You can’t hold on forever. You can’t keep a bird in a cage forever – at some point it has to fly on its own.

I was sent to India with the mission to “pass the torch” – to give the business back to “the people” in Bagru, and to ensure that the company was ready to function on its own. I am proud to say that day has come. Bagru Textiles is now running without Union’s involvement. Mission accomplished.

Once again, Jeremy and I thought about time. Jeremy spent nearly three years living in Bagru, and has now accrued a total of six years experience in the textile industry. More importantly, he felt at home in India. Together, we made a good team, and brainstormed how to continue the dream Jeremy had in 2010: export block printed textiles from Bagru with a non-exploitive approach. So, we did what all good entrepreneurs do: took a leap of faith.

We started a new company called Studio Bagru. For both Jeremy and I, Bagru holds a special place in our hearts. We have fallen in love with the people, the art of hand-block printing, the sounds, smells, and warmth. We realize that, like many Indian sub-urban villages, Bagru is at a critical point in development. I estimate in ten short years, the “Bagru” that exists now will be flooded with tourists, large factories, and hotels.

Jeremy and I want to be a part of this development, but have a conscious strategy to it. I don’t want to use the word “help” here – that implies that artisans in Bagru are in need of help—which they aren’t. Bagru is a capable and thriving community. Instead, we want to grow the hand-block printing industry and ensure that the art does not die. We want to grow the Indian textile market. We want people, around the world, to know where their products come from. We want to continue the vision Jeremy originally had, and build a global enterprise, connecting Indian products to consumers around the world.

We are currently in the process of furnishing our office in central Jaipur – about 40 minutes from Bagru village. Both Jeremy and I live above the office in Jaipur. We are aiming for an opening date of April 1st, and I’m looking forward to sharing pictures with you. In our amazing office space, we plan on having a beautiful textile showroom, a conference/design room, and an administrative office  as well.

Studio Bagru will have varying service offerings, ranging from custom-made hand-block prints, sourcing strategies, and consulting services for foreigners who want to do business in Indian textiles. As the business gets off the ground, I’ll be sharing more about our products and content.

Jeremy and I have added two Union grads to our team, Curt Myers ’15 and Mike Williamson ’14, to complete our young, passionate, and motivated cohort. Last week my three partners were in the U.S. doing some sample sales and meeting with potential buyers.

As for me, I’m finding my life in Jaipur challenging and busy. Starting a business is no easy task, especially in a foreign country with a slow-moving bureaucracy. Everything is new, from incorporating the company and opening bank accounts, obtaining an export license, to designing our office and simply choosing where to place light bulbs. And of course, nailing down our business plan, social model, and investment strategies. Looking forward to sharing more about the business with you soon, so stay tuned.

 

The best journeys answer questions, that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.

180 Degrees South

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone. Dare to be more than average.

Goals

It was over six months ago when I left “home.” I said goodbye to my dog, Reggie, left family and friends and boarded a flight to India. I expected this journey would lead me to achieve new goals, reach new levels of cultural awareness, and be challenged intellectually.

Little did I know, the first goal I’d accomplish on this trip would be one I set long ago.

It dates back to December 2011, sitting next to my dear friend, and fellow fellow, Joe Hinderstein. Joe and I were hanging around one day and decided to make new years resolutions. Among them, admittedly, were prototypical resolutions like “bench press 240lbs,” and “ask ____ girl on a date” (both never happened). More poignantly, we also created a slightly more obscure goal for me: to cry.

From my memory, I hadn’t shed a tear since my grandmother passed away in 2002 when I was 9 years old. I had gone through my teenage years without an emotional breakdown, so Joe and I decided it was time for me to let some steam off (I guess this is what minerva fellows do in our spare time). Anyway, 2011 didn’t prove successful for my goal, nor did 2012, 2013, or 2014.

I’m happy to report that I accomplished my goal on the first day of my minerva fellowship, when I left my family at the airport. It completely blindsided me. I was a mess, overwhelmed with a stabbing pain that discarded life-as-I-knew-it, replaced with the unknown.

For someone who considers themselves a fairly mentally-sound person, I was unfamiliar with how to handle the uncontrollable feelings that were taking over my psyche. I surrendered, which has been a recurring aspect throughout my education here in India.

This occurrence made me realize just how hard it can be to unchain yourself, willingly, from what is most meaningful. These opportunities do not happen, but rather must be sought with conscious effort. Letting go means you must attach yourself to new pillars, new stabilities, and new people. You create new families and get enthralled in new literature. Interests and hobbies change, but you stay the same.

In my most vulnerable state, sobbing through security lines in Boston, sniffling my way through a blurry layover in Frankfurt, I began to identify myself as completely shattered; I was starting my journey at rock bottom.

I knew this wouldn’t be the first time that I would feel this way over the course of my time in India. I also understood that one must break to be rebuilt. One must confront their weaknesses before moving forward, stronger, with conviction.

Time has passed. I find it amusing how my perspective has changed.  I left behind my family, but have been welcomed into a new one; I left my country and have fallen in love with the soil in India; I left my school and am trying to run a business; I left friends and made ones of different skin color, religion, and dinner-table discussions; I temporarily entombed my past but now obsess over my future.

Today my family arrives. While I am not homesick, it has simply been too long since I’ve seen their faces. And while I’ve fallen in love with this country, I am also eager to see how I respond to surrounding myself with the people where I feel most belonging.

We will be spending a few days in Jaipur/Bagru, then heading to Kerala (southern state of India). Tomorrow is my birthday and we will be having a traditional, Indian birthday party in Bagru. I cannot wait to show my family how to dance like an Indian, eat like an Indian, and expose them to the subtleties of this culture. They’ll be pushed out of their comfort zones – that I can assure, but it will all be good fun in the end.

 

Does everything happen for a reason?

A Question.

I recently got an email from a student who asked, in short, “do you think everything happens for a reason?” The question stemmed from my post “A Balancing Act,” where I discussed economic inequality in this country, and the sense of contentment many Indians have with their social standing. So, do I think everything happens for a reason?

My answer is no. Things happen for reasons, many of which are in your control.

My time in India has opened my mind to the concept of karma. The theory of karma is deeply imbedded in Hinduism, though its general practice really exists in human action.

At its core, karma is a selfish entity. Any action that makes you feel good, contributes to your ever-fluctuating karma. People build karma their entire lives; with each action there is a re-action, an outcome, which decides the trajectory of your life.

I support an existential model where actions guide the hand of your future. This overlaps with the theory of karma, which is found in every crevasse of Indian culture. This is partly why, I think, my transition to living in this country has been one of belonging.

“Things” do not just happen – you make them happen.

 Indeed, good things will happen to those who deserve it. In essence, positives will arise if you work hard and meet the right people. Though, my support of karma does not discriminate. It’s an innocently unbiased and simple formula.

Bad things happen to good people as well. Didn’t receive a promotion? Got rejected from a university? Got rejected from the Minerva Fellowship? These things happen. Do they happen for a reason? Yes, they happen for many reasons – and you created them. The most important part is how you handle each adversity. How do you keep building karma, even when facing failure? The mirror of human action is the most genuine portrayal of an individual. It never lies.

Karma is inescapable and relentless. If you get thrown in a ditch, you have a couple options: you can wait for help, dig deeper in the hole, or start figuring how to climb out. Fate didn’t put you in the hole. You did. Now find a way out, then climb a mountain, and never look back. There’s endless opportunities in this world, so why get bogged down on one of them?

What’s he saying?

People who wait their whole lives for fate to rescue them are wasting time. We put ourselves in situations and often wonder, “how did I get here?” Only you know the answer.

Here, I am rejecting the concept of fate. Fate is a dangerous concept for its followers. Outcomes are never “supposed” to happen to fulfill a mystical prophecy. They happen because of reason, action, and consequence.

Relating back to India

Many people (not all) in India believe in a lot of spiritual “stuff,” (yes, that’s a euphemism). While on one hand this gives people purpose, it does so at their peril. Today, for example, I stood in line for three hours to enter a famous Hindu Hanuman temple in Rajasthan that preforms live exorcisms on site – the only one of its kind in India. It was a tedious afternoon of waiting in line at this temple. Everyone was barefoot on freezing concrete that was lathered in mud. And, since the temple is known to extract evil spirits, there were occasionally manic people yelling and pushing their way through the sea of people. Chaos.

After getting shoved in the back countless times, I finally arrived at the shrine inside the temple walls. Immediately, people began digging hundreds of rupees out of their pockets to give to Gods in the belief that their wishes would be granted. These were people with practically no money, giving everything they had in the name of hope and fate. I watched in awe for ten seconds before we were ushered away from the shrine and out the exit by some temple employees.


Karma also incorporates reincarnation. The notion goes as follows: If you are born into a poor caste, have a disability, or work a low-paying job, people believe this is a result of low karma in a past life. As such, many people are satisfied with their socioeconomic standings in India. Even if you’re dirt poor, people have the mentality, “I deserve this,” as a result of karma carried over from a past life. It’s the complete opposite of Western capitalism, where upward mobility is built into the societal agenda – or at least into our minds (still working on putting it into practice). Here is where I depart from my support of karma. I do not believe in reincarnation.

What I do believe is that India has taught me how to progress. By progress, I am talking about increasing my karma.

Karma doesn’t just appear at your front door like a newspaper. You can’t order karma for delivery like Domino’s on a Sunday night. Instead, you must create karma yourself.

Returning from the Jagriti Yatra to Bagru, I immediately observed how stagnant the village seemed. It was the first time I’ve noticed the community as lethargic, as though everyone was waiting for something to happen. Now it’s a glaring eyesore. People wait for days, weeks, years, and lifetimes. Generations have passed, and people have waited: for change, for money, for God, enlightenment, and more. It’s encouraged me to ignite more action from those who are waiting.

You control your own future. Now make it happen.

The Yatra Files

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I’ve categorized my journey on the Jagriti Yatra into The Yatra Files. There are four posts below in the following order:

  • Gallery. Check this out if you want to really see what my 15-day train adventure was like.
  • Basic Recap. Read this if you don’t know what the Jagriti Yatra is, or want to learn more about the physical aspects of the journey.
  • What Actually Happened? This is a free-style piece of prose that covers the entirety of the yatra. This encapsulates everything from things we saw, places we went, and what we talked about. I recommend this for people that get bored with normal blog entries.
  • Journal Entries. I’ve copied excerpts from my daily journal I kept on the train. I didn’t change any language to keep a visceral portrayal of the experience.

Enjoy! If you have any feedback, or want to discuss any of my experiences, feel free to email me at cutterd@union.edu

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