Unlocking Subtler forms of Capital

Posted by Siddharth Sthalekar on Jun 1, 2014

This is an excerpt from the Connect India talk in London. It represents a few thoughts I shared for 15 minutes, before opening it out for an interactive QnA.

I've had some interesting experiences over the last four years of my journey. From someone on a trading floor, to a bearded volunteer, I've spent the first 29 years of my life chasing money, and the next three years avoiding it. The last few months though, have seen me trying to embrace it in more loving ways. No doubt, my experiments with money are allowing me to come into contact with it with a radically different perspective. A large part of this perspective is due to the often counter-intuitive approach I saw towards the outer world at the Gandhi Ashram. Of course, most of us are familiar with the non-violent approach adopted by Gandhi towards the freedom struggle, and most people across the world see the wisdom in it today, but it must have been such a radical approach to float back then. I saw the same thread of thought in the Bhoodan Movement that Vinoba Bhave floated in the 50's. It was during that time, that inflation had also become a concern in India. Even back then, prices of fruits and vegetables had begun to rise (I can't even imagine what they would have thought of today's hyperinflation) and there was talk all around about addressing this issue. As I read about this crisis, my mind raced towards more conventional approaches that I had come across while in business school . Maybe the Central bank should change rates, perhaps the government could have held a less expansive fiscal policy?​

But not Vinoba - he believed in a more intrinsic truth. 'The root cause of inflation', he said, 'was an addiction to money'. With this in mind, he launched a movement that he termed 'Kanchan Mukti' or 'Freedom from Gold'. Again, for my upbringing this seemed extremely counter-intuitive, but when you expand your definitions of what it meant to be human, you realize that it was extremely aligned with nature.

Amongst several transformational moments within the Gandhi Ashram eco-system was my tryst with the Seva Cafe. I've spoken and written at length about my experience there, but there's no doubt that this was my laboratory for testing these experiments in human nature. To me, it was the complete anti-thesis to the trading floor and hence saw me engaged for more than a year, every evening. 

With each passing week, it allowed me to examine my world view, and take radical steps in throwing them up in the air to see if they were still valid. More importantly, the space allowed me to take those counter-intuitive leaps in my journey. Initially, it was constantly letting go of my tendancy to strategize and speak to each guest based on what I thought they could bring to Seva Cafe - in terms of their ability to offer money, or volunteer at a later date. But very soon, due to numerous instances like this one, I was humbled to see the power of surrendering to a deeper intelligence at play. What if I could actually surrender to the tag line of Seva Cafe, which was to honour the divinity within each guest - so see each Guest as God! 

Within weeks, I began to see the true power of that sort of thinking, and inspired by some of these results, we found ourselves moved to take larger leaps. One of them including 'not asking for volunteers' on a daily basis. Since Seva Cafe runs 6 days a week, there's often a scramble for volunteers at the last minute when a few back out, and we end up reaching out to some of our usual anchors who live a few blocks away. 
What if we chose to simply work with whatever we had? What if we worked in the true spirit of an experiment, in that we accepted whatever Ahmedabad city had to offer? Sounded a bit crazy, but the counter-intuitiveness of it all.

The first couple days of the experiment went well, but just a couple days later, things went a bit awry and we found ourselves in a tricky situation. IT was a weekday evening and only 2 other volunteers had showed up. We looked at each other, acknowledging that sinking feeling that sets in when you regret experiments that you try.We questioned if we we should shut down the cafe that evening, but decided to continue. In any case, we initiated our customary circle of sharing, and resolved to take things in our stride. We tried an experiment, and this is what the result was - this is what the city of Ahmedabad sent our way. MAybe if we shared this with the guests they would be more empathetic towards the service we offered. But just then, genius flowed through the circle. 

One of the volunteers suggested that it was Thanksgiving in the US that day, and perhaps we could celebrate it with a night of Gratitude at Seva Cafe. Another volunteer added that we could do it in silence, to further create the ambiance for Gratitude to be cultivated. And so it was - the kitchen decided to cook and wash dishes in silence, us waiters on the floor as well. All around, we lit candles and dimmed the lights to offer that space for calmness. As guests entered, we explained the concept to them - and that if they would like to speak, they could do so in soft tones. Interestingly, all guests decided to honour the silence in the space and cherished their meals in silence. Even more interestingly, we found that just the two of us could do a great job of serving people on the floor. Since we weren't busy talking with the volunteer next to us, we ended up being more tuned into each others energies. From one end of the table, the other volunteer could notice that my table needed more water, or the cheque at the end of the meal. Just a slight nod and acknowledgement was enough. 

It was an interesting turning point for us. All along, we were convinced that we needed 8 to 10 volunteers a night to pull things off. After that evening, the minimum bar came crashing down to 2! All we had to do was a silent night! It was almost as if we'd discovered this hidden capacity within ourselves to serve with lesser resources! And all of this because of a few creative constraints we had placed on ourselves. It was as if we had unlocked this very subtle form of capital that we didn't even know existed. 

On that very night, I recall we had a newly married couple walk into the restaurant. They had no clue what the space was about, and were looking for a quiet place to eat on the otherwise bustling CG road. As they walked in, they were delighted to hear about the concept of Seva Cafe, and even more pleased to hear that it would be in silence. Anyone who's familiar with Indian weddings probably knows that it's not easy to get a moment of silence through the whole process :) 

The couple were served their meal and even offered their cheque pretty soon. And after paying the money, the walked over to me, and whispered, asking if they could help in the kitchen in any way. It seemed like the dinner in silence had allowed them to be more observant of the space and they probably realized we were running short that night. Something about the spirit in which they asked opened my heart, and I consented. For the next two hours, they took over the 'Chaat' counter in the kitchen - manning it like they had been doing it for years. After we wound up, they even stayed on and served the volunteers. At around 10:30pm, as we said our good-byes, I had this insight. The couple walked into Seva Cafe thinking it was just another restaurant, probably paid the same amount as any other restaurant - but also ended up working for a good 2.5 hours, and probably left feeling happier and more connected than they would have on an ordinary weekday outing. Conventional economics just didn't explain it. In fact, I could also argue that we had unlocked this beautiful relationship just because of the way in which they had been served. 

That brought me to a question I had been asked by a lady who was driving with me to the Cafe about 6 months ago. 'So I get the whole concept - the Gift Economy and all of that. But how is it different from a regular restaurant? At the end of the day, there is food being served and money received.' 

At first, when I heard this question I was a bit offended. Of course they were different, and intuitively we all understand the difference, but it seemed like it was important to articulate this. That night, I went home to my laptop, opened the excel files with the account statements and stared at them for a while. On the left - Income received, on the right, Costs, variable and fixed. They seemed to more or less balance out every month, just like every other restaurant. 

In regular restaurants, we pay the bill, but we leave feeling entitled. Almost as if the 500 rupees for the meal earned us the right to receive the food that we did. There is a status-quo of sorts. However, when the food at Seva Cafe was offered in an unconditional way - the fact that there were volunteers taking someone's orders or washing dishes when they could easily have been at the movies, or updating their Facebook statuses at home created a shift within people. Sometimes, it resulted in guests like that couple coming over and helping in the kitchen, on other occasions there were other ways. Whichever way you look at it, it resulted in a shift in equilibrium of sorts. And I believe it is that shift in equilibrium which changed the way people looked at the space around them. This shift often manifested as gratitude when folks went home, and the churning that resulted would manifest as transformation in their lives - either in their homes, or workplaces or back at Seva Cafe.

This transformation, would go about doing its magic, unlocking forms of capital that we did not even know existed - sometimes within us, other times within our communities. In general, it taught me to begin looking at capital in radically new ways. As a financial analyst, I had always been taught to honour very material forms of capital - eg: Financial (money in the bank) or Material Capital or Infrastructure (eg: Homes, buildings, offices, cars, machines). But what about the subtler forms of capital? A slightly less tangible form of capital could be 'Intellectual' capital - but what beyond that? Perhaps we could start honouring experiential capital, rooted in wisdom, or natural capital and more. In the case of Seva Cafe through the two stories I shared, it felt like we had fostered Social Capital and an Inner Capital (our ability to operate out of abundance with less).

I thought this was beautifully articulated through the work of Lewis Hyde in a book titled 'The Gift'. Very briefly speaking, he talks about his time with the Kula Tribes based on a bunch of tiny islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean between the American and Asian continents. Interestingly, each tribe occupied a tiny island in the ocean and the islands formed a ring-shaped formation, popularly known as the Kula Ring. Interestingly, the tribes had never gone to war with one another for thousands of years, which is not too common in the history of humanity. 

Lewis Hyde's curiosity got him to pay a visit an study how this was being effected. He found that the islands would regularly trade with one another through a system of barter. For example, if someone had excess coconut, they would exchange it with a neighbour who had harvested excess fish, and so on. Seems pretty commonplace. But they also had an alternate currency going - one that was rooted in the Gift. 

As a practice, the women of each island, would go to the beach and pick up seashells - found in abundance as you'd imagine. The women would then hand-carve these seashells, paint them, thread them on a string and create intricate bracelets and necklaces out of them. The chief of the islands would then take these gifts, and travel over to the next island in an 'anti-clockwise' manner (yes there was a system to this) and offer these gifts to their chief as an offering from the women of his island. Of course, there was no expectation in return, but if the chief who received these gifts was moved, he was invited to 'Pay forward' these gifts to the next island in an anti-clockwise manner. Interestingly, the necklaces and bracelets would circle around, and sometimes after 2-3 years, the chief who originally floated these gifts ended up receiving them. Just the fact that he received the gifts though, were a signal that there was a deep kinship between the tribes. By themselves, the necklaces were worth close to nothing in material terms. They were available in abundance on the beaches of all islands. But the spirit in which they were crafted, and the manner in which they were gifted allowed for a very different form of capital to be unlocked - a much subtler kind. And there in lied the power of the Gift. 

As a practice, I once decided to sit down and analyse all the different forms of wealth in my life. Back in 2010, when I had just quit the mainstream corporate life, I found I was pretty wealthy in the more tangible categories. As I was working on this graph for the year 2014, I initially thought it would be a pretty grim picture, since I hadn't been 'working' in the traditional sense for close to 4 years. However, I found that my wealth in some of the more subtler forms had shot up. In fact, even my material capital was now abundant owing to the gifts I had been receiving from my community. 

It made me take a step back and think - about how much I was truly receiving. It was as though the process of giving and offering myself in the last 4 years had regenerated me, as opposed to the conventional thought that 'giving depletes us' and is not sustainable. 

As I looked at my own personal wealth - a very interesting question dawned on me. While I was very adept at building material forms of wealth, how was I going to go about building the subtler forms of capital in my life? No doubt, the currencies used for building that form of capital are not much materially, in fact their worth is close to nil since they are rooted in abundance. But what about currencies that facilitate our subtle capital?  

I hope to hold these questions and collectively experiment with them in the years to come :)

Posted by Siddharth Sthalekar on Jun 1, 2014 | permalink

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  • Urmila Samson wrote ...

    Very inspiring - thought and heart provoking!

  • diego wrote ...

    Dear Siddharth This has been a delicious and inspiring read. I've been involved in working with traditional potters in southern Mexico. We support their craft through all kinds of activities: promotion, reseach, workshops, and of course, marketing, sales and distribution. One of our goals is to honour their tradition, learn from them, and make space for others to learn from them too. But one of the hidden or long-term goals is to participate, somehow, in the creation of new economies. We want  See full.

    Dear Siddharth
    This has been a delicious and inspiring read.

    I've been involved in working with traditional potters in southern Mexico. We support their craft through all kinds of activities: promotion, reseach, workshops, and of course, marketing, sales and distribution.

    One of our goals is to honour their tradition, learn from them, and make space for others to learn from them too.
    But one of the hidden or long-term goals is to participate, somehow, in the creation of new economies. We want to do this through understanding the traditional ways of relating to work, money, time and market. There are many great lessons to learn. One thing that I love is how much the artisans give for free, after one has bought something, or even just when visiting. We might visit the home of an artisan, buy one or two pots, exchange them for money and then get a meal and an extra pot.

    Anyway, we are trying to draw lessons from all these processes, but your article has helped a lot to deepen the ideas. Can you recommend other texts that could help us build processes to unlock these subtle forms of capitals?

    Exciting challenge!


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