Building Bridges & Breaking Walls. One Story at a time.

August will be the curtain raiser month of sorts for me. I along with Stephen Berkeley will be working with interested and interesting participants at a one day Pre-Conference Workshop at the International Association of Facilitators‘ Asia Conference and exploring the power of stories in bridging the world.  The IAF Asia Conference 2017 is happening in Seoul in August 2017.   What better of a setting for a topic like  “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls. One Story at a time”! I think it fit to build context the IAF Asia Conference 2017 Seoul Pre Conference Workshop titled: “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a time” through a series of posts here.  This then becomes a space for conversation and dialogue on the power of stories.

IAF Asia Conference 2017 Seoul Pre Conference Workshop

IAF Asia Conference 2017 Seoul Pre Conference Workshop “Building Bridges and Breaking Walls, One Story at a time”

Stephen and I have been bouncing ideas off each other for a while now on a variety of topics. From Systems Thinking to organisational structures. The power of local communities.  Change processes in organisations. Process facilitation. And a variety of other topics. Even as the conversation evolved, we realised that we were very different individuals with a different take on most topics that we discussed. United only by a strong idea of staying engaged with pursuits that are meaningful.

Even as we discovered more of our worlds we saw how similar they were, despite having completely different contexts. Set in different times, time zones. As much as we had our differences, we were united in our openness to share and exchange stories from our respective worlds. Over time this became to be the fulcrum of our friendship. It was but obvious that the willingness to listen to and share each other’s stories bridged gaps.

One day as we sat on a rock after a small hike, a little idea came upon us.  We perhaps could work with larger groups to explore the power of telling and listening to each other’s stories too. Perhaps, we thought, that would bridge larger gaps in the world that surfaced in our conversations many times over. We ran a few experiments, ran the idea past friends and colleagues.  The idea seemed to have currency. It kept growing. We wondered why and came up with our own set of hypotheses.  The set is only growing.  Here are the five that I connect to the most.

a. There are too many wedges in the world we live in. Cultural. Political. Generational. Economic. The trouble is that those wedges are seeming to appear like irrevocable divides. Walls of steel, so to speak!

b. The world has newer tools and additional power to communicate in the modern times. Sadly these tools find increasing use in amplification of these divides.

c. Listening to each other’s stories helps understand points of views and helps explore our world views.  Examining these with an open mind brings greater awareness and possible shifts. Stories are integral to these shifts.

d. Shaping and shifting of the narratives and stories, both inside our minds and in the world around us will determine the shape of the world our kids will inherit

e. When whole systems engage in deep listening to each other new realities emerge for the whole system that can be infectious. Systemic change will bring about lasting impact for the system and its constituents.

For now :

Armed with the first-hand experience of leading change initiatives in large organisations and communities, we seek to further the conversation to see what more is possible. Would it be a new set of skills and abilities? Perhaps a deeper understanding of the process of change? Maybe a clearer way to harness what emerges from a story? We don’t know for sure what else the questions are. And thus begins this journey.

While it is a personal journey to take the ‘story of the story’ to newer areas, new bridges will perhaps get built. In the telling and retelling of the stories, new ways and connections have greater chances of emerging. All of us who jump into participate are going to be better off depending on how much we are willing to give and take.  Seoul in August ’17 will be the first pit stop. And we intend continuing the conversation, armed with whatever comes from the previous pit stops. This space will curate the journey and will continue to evolve.

This is work in progress. And this is far from complete. Wonder if we will all ever be. So, do jump into the conversation. Spread the word. Let’s see what stories emerge.

My experiments with Instagram

Picture stories have been the nerve centre of this website. It is in the long hard look at images that the words and stories have emerged. Over several years. As my Instagram page begins to hog a dab more of my attention than it did earlier, my experiments with Instagram embolden me to weave more stories.

Ever since the shift in career trajectory, there have been many experiments in the recent times that I have been running. When the view of life in itself is viewed as a series of experiments there is only discovery and learning all the way around, experiments and learning on social are also default. Several of social ones are on my Instagram page.

To try and bring a story alive in what is essentially a siloed and image based medium has been a bucket of work with droplets of learning here and there. I have learnt the power of images and how much they can chew up everything else. The importance of filters, lenses, hashtags and what all they can stand in for, and gently gloss over is omnipresent. But to spot the story behind the dominant narrative, has been such fun.

This house, where many of the young are permanently stationed is often viewed as an abode of narcissism by the old. Ok, older. I am finding it to be a very interesting and different platform. I try and keep the play with filters to the minimum and add some shade, contrast and brightness with words. Especially about the places and people that I encounter. If at all it is about me, it is only through the micro accounts stories that I tell there. “Thats not how the medium works” many have told me, shaking their heads with a smug smile lurking in the corner of their lip. Perhaps, they are right. For the way I use Instagram is not what Instagram has bet its shirt on. Instagram’s soul lies in its filters and the words are clearly optional extras. In more ways than one, I am harbouring some old fashioned beliefs. Some of them go like this : Good stories draw people. Good stories are often a combination of pictures and words. etc. etc.

But who cares. Its never about a platform as much as its about the users, their imagination and what they do with it. So I believe. So my page there is become something of a mini blog. Needless to say, my difficulty in adapting to the ready-shoot-filter-publish model is evident in every post. At least in my head. Sometimes though, I receive appreciation. Like the one today from this gentleman whose work I admire hugely, which read  “Love the stories behind your posts. Amazing patience and ‘care’ “.  That chuffed my heart and set me thinking.

The missus added some sense into the dose of kaapi on an otherwise busy Sunday evening to suggest that I need to consider the fact that some of the ‘short posts’ and pictures merited a ‘fuller’ post on the website. “Not everybody is on Instagram you know”, she began. And then quickly went on to other things like “assuming too much” etc, which I thought was fresh brew from another world.

Promptly this blogpost was thought of and some quick-fire decisions were made. Some pictures and accounts from Instagram will get here as well. Some of it shared on other platforms. In any case, its all experiments. So, if you are still reading, do follow me on Instagram and let me know how the page is evolving. My page on Instagram is here :

For, am going to be at it. Chasing a bunch of hypotheses and relishing whatever emerges. When you don’t break into a  sweat on the numbers of likes or followers and are focused on being present with people, their pictures and their stories, there is joy.


The Pink Pony

Days turn into nights. And nights lead to day. The repetitive patterns that lead to the next day, the next week, the next month and the next year form a beautiful facade that keeps in obscurity the years that speed by.

Then the years reveal themselves. Sometimes the mirror tells the story.  As a stray strand of grey morphs into a lock of plentiful grey. When a parent passes away, the realisation is stark. When a friend passes away, it is pronounced.  The parting of the beautiful facade, often comes in a reality check, happening in sorrowful environs.

Sometimes they do in moments of pure joy. Especially, if you have a little daughter like mine.

So the little miss has been going to school. She enjoys it and has had a great deal of fun thus far. One day in the last week, after a long and tiring day, I creep into bed.  Long after the little miss’s bed time. As the silence beckons me further into slumber, she wakes up. Realising that I have crept in and wakes me up too, demanding that the lights come on.

She is all excited and she wants to show me her ‘Pink Pony’. She opens her palm to reveal a small piece of plastic. I see the effect of her clutching it hard are showing on the palm too. The Pink Pony spread some pink to her palm as well.  She obviously has been waiting to show me. ‘Aryan gave it to me papa’ she said. In sleep soaked excitement. I gave her a bear hug ad asked ‘was it his birthday today?”


“No Appa”. She says. A tad disappointed and perhaps surprised at an antiquated line of thought.

“He gave it only to me”. She says with emphasis on the ‘only’.

“Ah”. I say.

With curiosity dripping out of every word I ask , ‘That sounds like fun. Tell tell me, tell me more’

“Because I like pink colour Appa”.  And that was that.

With those words she slips back into sleep. Clutching the pink pony and happy that her little secret was no longer just hers. I stare at her for a while and switched off the lights.  Her innocence and joy override my tired mind.

The next morning comes with the precision that is customary.  The missus catches me shooting darts into the clouds. “Thinking of the Pink Pony?”, she asks. “It is some toy that they give out in a Fast Food chain”, she says. I smile. I am thinking of something else.

She knows me well by now. She jumps tracks and joins my train of thought.

“She is no longer the tiny toddler that you carried on the sling” she says. I smile. “She is not the toddler who would purr like a cat to get some milk”.

I nod my head in silence. Even as I soak up the Pink Pony moment, I realise, it was riding away into the inner whorls of memory.  The simplicity of childhood, the sincerity of affection and the joys of watching kids growing up, can be the best way to age gracefully. Even as day turns to night and night to day, children add a rich melodrama to a vague momentum.  And that is precious.

Connecting dots

There are several riches the internet has offered me. One such is the opportunity for coffee and conversations with a multi hued spectrum of people that makes the mind soak colour from a rich palette. The limitless pleasure of conversations with a ton of interesting people is quite something. A fascinating array of stories have been exchanged.  Stories that bring alive our coruscating lives of arresting colours, often glazed over by the sad tint of the daily humdrum of existence. Needless to say, much coffee has been drunk, with this as an excuse. But that’s a story for another time.

For now, here is a story about stories.

Filter Coffee

Last week, work took me to Bangalore. Meeting Jaya (@nohrgyan on twitter) was forever on the cards and circumstances lent themselves rather well. Soon a filter kaapi flowed down the alimentary canal as the stories that we told each other filled the air and hogged her tastefully done up home. In the flicker of a few lamps with many wicks, characters, instances, incidents all seemed to flutter to come alive with a spontaneous flutter.

Her story. Her mom’s story. My story. Our dilemmas. Our hopes for the future. Our origins. Speaking of origins, I spoke, like I usually do, of Madurai. ‘Madurai’ adorned prima donna status, in the conversation for  a bit. In some time, a gentleman that Jaya and her mother knew, drifted into the chat. The man they knew was from Madurai.

This gentleman, called Krishnan, had beaten the odds before the odds got even with him. Many accounts of the awesome man he was, flowed, while I listed in awe. Like his dogged determination to learn. Of how he would assemble kids to spread the word about the environment. His doing his PhD and his quest to learn in rather trying circumstances, to put it mildly. His cycling to work and his innate grasp of what it was to learn and to be of value to any and everyone around.

One particular story of how he guided Jaya’s mom to watch birds fly in formation at 5.45 AM from a particular angle at the terrace was narrated with such energy, that what was left was hearing birds flap their wings, in the warmth of the home. He seemed to have created so much difference not only to his body of work, but to an entire community.

“And then, one fine day, he went home to Madurai, had food, watched a movie and went to bed”. In a matter of fact undertone she said, “He didnt get up the next day morning”. A gasp broke free. He was all of 35. The memorial service had people from around the world pour in their messages. Jaya said she too went to the memorial and spoke about his helping her mom to spot birds fly in a formation. As I got more and more curious about the man, she fiddled with her phone and pulled out this page. A tribute of sorts.

My heart beat faster and beads of sweat congregated from nowhere. I went still, when I read on. For the Kannan she was talking about, I knew as Ramesh. I knew him pretty well. He was in the class I used to teach more than a decade ago. Memories of him came flooding back. A tall handsome bloke, with sincerity as a middle name and a bright outlook to life and living. Twelve years ago, I taught a class of awesome students pursuing a Master of Science in NGO Management, from Madurai Kamaraj University. I went blank for a bit.

He and the conversation stayed with me long after we said our goodbyes and moved on. Many cobwebs in the mind got cleared as I had a dull dinner at the airport.  As the plane took off that night, the pilot announced a thunderstorm had hit Bangalore. He could have well spoken of what was happening within me.

The next day, Jaya called me. She said she had bumped into Ramesh’s wife and told her about me and my visit. ( She was a student in the same class as well). Apparently Ramesh’s wife had some very kind words for me and my work and went on to say Ramesh had great regard for me, citing incidents. And as Jaya narrated the incidents she had heard over the phone, I noticed them emerge from piles of other memories that were stacked on top.

As we were hanging up, Jaya said, “I wanted to tell you this, for otherwise there is no way you would have known”. I couldn’t agree more. Since that rainy evening of Bangalore, my mind constantly darts to wonder how small yet how large, how simple yet how complex, how similar yet diverse, how cruel yet joyous, our world is!

The thrill of the success that Ramesh, a small town young man, had achieved, hasn’t died down. Not in a merely materialistic way, but in a much larger wholesome way, making a difference to an entire community of people around the world. Even as it stands tall, the fragility of life makes its silent presence felt.

I will never ever forget Ramesh now. Or how we met and later took different paths, only to emerge at an intersection caused by an interaction! The tapestry of our lives is often a fast moving assortment of people and moments. Every interface is a dot that we leave somewhere. Sometimes, the dots come back to connect and spark a fire of wonder. That fire is often lit by two flint stones called ‘Stories’ and ‘Conversations’. The insanity that surrounds our routines, can nibble our souls. The wounds that are laid bare by the nibbling, are often soothed by gestures like Jaya’s and in the power of sharing and listening to each others stories.

So people, heres something you could consider doing. Sit down and talk to people. After they have shared their story, go ahead and share yours. Talk to someone. You never know which dot will connect or what it will lead you to.

PS : You may want to give this a read sometime. I wrote it in a seamless flow a while back and realised that it tethered emotions together, more than thoughts.