A Gift Carnival in Kochi

Posted by Siddharth Sthalekar on Jan 8, 2014

The power of simple smiles and hugs never ceases to amaze me. Sheetal and I were invited for the Giftival 2014, to be hosted in Kerala in the first week of January. On the first day of the gathering,  35 participants from across the world got together to deepen our journeys in the spirit of Gift. Jayan, our local host thought it would be best to begin the night with an evening of inspiration with about 60 guests from his community in Kochi.  A beautiful talk was scheduled for the evening, with 8 of us sharing stories. But any evening is incomplete without the love flowing through :) To welcome all guests, 35 of us put together a 'Gift Mela' starting with Welcome hugs and smiles, Gratitude Trees, Kindness Tables, Inspiration through the poetry of Kabir and more :) 

We were initially told Kochi's a very introverted city, but something told us there aren't too many people who can resist the smiles and hugs from spirited souls. Of course, there were a few awkward moments and hugs gone wrong, but by the time Sheetal explained the principal behind the Gratitude Tree there were smiles all around. 

The love poured into the hall as we all shared stories from our own journey - the shifts we've had to make while thinking Gift, how our inner and outer worlds have changed and more. At one point, our MC Manish even asked the entire audience to stand up and hug the person on their left and right :) So much for rumours of Kochi being a non-hugging city! 

As we opened things out to the audience, I saw something I've not seen too often. One of Kochi's most successful entrepreneurs shared a story of how he gifted his kidney to an ordinary truck driver for a transplant! A gentlemen who's been a supporter of the Leftist party in Kerala stood up and gestured to the entrepreneur with a smile and spoke about how we all have ideological differences, but in the end, we're united as humanity. Sheeba ben, shared how she lost her 28 year old daughter to Leukemia 6 months ago, and that process has moved her to serve more youth through her non-profit Solstice. All through this she realized how service had been an expression in empathy, to dissolve herself amidst those who she served. As Manish closed the circle, he brought out an interesting reflection - We might find our expressions in different ways, but it's not often that we see leftists, businessman and social workers holding each other in such compassionate ways.

Post circle, Sheeba ben comes up to Sheetal and me and offers us the most heart-felt words. 'I've lost my daughter, but today, I feel like I see my sons in you. You now have a home in Kochi whenever you visit - in fact I will even pick you up from the airport when you come next!' Sure, there's impact oriented work and development needed in the world today, but how do you measure the depth of what Sheeba had to offer? Lakshmi, a young lady comes up to us to share her work through the Good Karma Foundation - just the name is enough to put a smile on our faces :) She shows us these beautiful products made with love that have the fragrance of Wisdom Crafts emanating through them! All through the next hours, people came up to us with stories of how they resonated and would be overjoyed to serve in some way! 

And such was the tone of the circle for the next two days. Even as we held space at the retreat room at the Pepper House, through shared vulnerabilities and dreams, we felt like we were in a constant sense of offering to the spirit of Kochi. And these things always end up manifesting in the most beautiful ways. Over lunch, we were being hosted by Thomas and his family who run a beautiful space called Dosas and Pancakes. A few years ago, Thomas felt a desire to infuse his life with meaning and shifted focus away from his successful career in IT. He came back to Kochi to create a space that supports the culture of the region and the restaurant was born out of an intention to host people with more love. Over lunch, he soo realized this wasn't an ordinary bunch of people that he was hosting! Over small conversations we shared stories from our journey over lunch. And as you'd expect by now, Thomas was moved by the spirit of Seva Cafe and Karma Kitchen that run across the world. Instantly, he was moved to bring this spirit into his space.

'Sure!' we said- 'How may we support you?'
'Let's start right away' came the reply!
Ofcourse, my mind was resisting, thinking about how we're actually going to pull off something like this, but Sheetal, who tends to be more in the flow of things jumps at the offering and says 'Let's do it!'

And just like that, we decided to run a Karma Kitchen right there in the city of Kochi! 

'Don't worry about bringing too many volunteers!' he said. It's a weeknight so we won't have too many guests. Just as well, since most participants would be tired by the evening. But the moment we shared it with the group, we had the most thunderous response! Immediately people stepped into action. Merve, Ivan and Hafeezbhai set up a corner for 'Art with Heart', creating inspirational posters and quotes for all guests. Manish, Sheetal, Jayan and Joseph took charge of the floor and hosting, while Aishagul, Mukund, Abhilash and Herman drew up some posters with smiles and went out on the street! Within twenty minutes, we had people streaming in, curious to see if an experiment like this was actually working. As we welcomed guests, the Rickshaw drivers at the gate got a bit curious. They were initially convinced this was only for the privileged lot, but after a lot of coaxing, we managed to invite two of them in.

Soon enough, some of their friends came in as well. Initially, there was some awkwardness as they had never been in a space like this before,  but our smiles and love opened everyone's hearts. All my concerns about them feeling included were washed away when one of them gave me the warmest hug on their way out! It didn't end there - my face was lit up with an even bigger smile when we saw him pick up one of the posters for the Cafe and hold it up for the passers-by for the next 30 minutes! Talk about spreading the word in organic ways! This was rippling out in a matter minutes :)

The atmosphere was electric. A bunch of kids strolled in, initially excited at the prospect of 'free chocolate cake!', but Ivan's sketching inspired some of them to run back home and bring their own collection of drawings. Only a field of love and emergence could enable an artist from Spain and young wide-eyed boys from Kochi connect over pencil sketches :) Two of the guests were even moved to stand up and offer a song for the entire restaurant! Smiles were all around and we closed the evening with a circle of sharing and dance that even guests decided to join - no one wanted to leave, but eventually, we had to :)

The next morning, I made my way back to the Cafe to settle accounts with Thomas. We had promised him to pay whatever the charge was for the evening. Serendipitously, the bill was almost the same as the collection. I'm still amazed at the way nature works! Worked out well I thought to myself, only to be in for a shock! I saw a revised number below the original estimate. Thomas had decided to give us a 50% discount! As he saw my puzzled expression, he said with a big beam across his face - 'I couldn't bring myself to charge you guys! I've received so much!'

I couldn't help but smile in humility for the gift that we had received! How can you explain these ties between people that had met just a few hours ago? It's incredible how the field of love can emerge in the most unlikeliest of ways. All I could do was to simply trust and keep the ripples flowing, I thought, while also honouring his gift! As a request, I asked if he could offer the excess to his kitchen staff who had toiled so tirelessly for us the previous evening - may they pay it forward in some way too! What an offering for us as a collective to receive from Kochi. Sure, we may spend hours sharing and talking about the Giving, but this was the Spirit of Gift manifesting for us right here :)

~ May the spirit of Generosity keep flowing and transforming us all ~

Posted by Siddharth Sthalekar on Jan 8, 2014 | permalink

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    Wow.. this brought back such beautiful memories.. you sure have a gift to bring out the essence of the gathering