Nandan's Experiments With Shoes
Posted by Somik Raha on Apr 2, 2010
[An inspiring story by Meghna Banker. We added the photos and links to their work, contrary to their insistence on being invisible. :)]
It all started with a Wednesday meditation night that Madhu and I were hosting in Bombay. As we all shared our "aha moments" in the second hour, there was silent contributor in the room -- Nandan. It was his first time and not knowing what to share, he gently says, "I don't know how appropriate this is for the circle of sharing, but for the last few months, I've been donating slippers to the needy."
Everyday Nandan would see barefoot beggars on the streets, and he would give them 'chappals'; if it wasn't the right size, he would take them to the store to gift them a pair that worked. As Nandan is describing his experienced, he focused more on how he was moved by it instead of the act itself or even the need.
By the end of it, we were all just floored. Shocked, to be honest. How many such incredible, untold stories must lurk amidst our midst?
The following Wednesday, Nandan couldn't make it -- but his sister did. Quite naturally, we spoke about how amazing and thoughtful it was of Nandan to be doing something like this. Much to our surprise, his own sister was shocked. Nandan had never even told anyone in the family that he was doing something like this! He was truly an anonymous warrior.
So inspired, Madhu thought that we should "tag" him. We decided to surprise Nandan with shoes/slippers for him to gift to others, as he always has been doing. We posted information about our "shoe collection drive" on Metta Media with the idea that whatever of tagging Nandan on the next Wednesday.
It was a simple act of kindness, or so we thought. :)
With just moments of that online post, Madhu started getting calls from every possible major newspapers, radio channels and TV stations like NDTV to interview Nandan. He quickly came to be called 'Shoe Santa'. Of course, Nandan was completely unaware of the shoe collection drive, so he was in a state of semi-shock, especially since his final exams were just 2 days away!
The next day, after gruelling interview sessions with fake photo-poses and skeptical questions, he came to meet us. We asked him about his experiences and he came up with such small observations that I felt to be the most important part of the whole process.
For example, why he did he prefer slippers over shoes? "You know, these people, who I refer to as needy and not poor, are so used to walking bare feet that their feet expand and are quite wide. Most normal shoes don't fit them. Its difficult for them, so slippers are what they appreciate. For us, slippers/shoes are a fancy but for them, its a necessity to protect their feet from scorching heat and rain."
Nandan also mentioned a few other experiences. One day at Kandivali station (where he normally hangs out to look for people barefoot) he spotted an old lady barefoot. He immediately went into his bag to get the right size for her (something which he strictly follows). Not having found her size, he took her to the nearest shoe stand and bought her a decent pair of slippers, just fit her perfectly. Happy to see her content, Nandan went home. Next day, he spotted her barefoot again. He went upto her and asked her, in the most compassionate tone, why she was barefoot when she was given slippers yesterday. She said she had to sell it for food. He said "Ideally such answers make people go mad. First of all you do a favor for them and then they do this. But I feel, if you observe, these kids who beg, all they've seen their life, is begging. We learn so much from our parents and our surroundings. Their entire surrounding is based on asking. Even if you give them rice and vegetable, their immediate response will be to ask for chappattis.. the point being.. asking. So instead of getting mad at them and thinking of you doing a favor on them, the best thing to do is simply be patient and go get them the chappatti that they asked for." So at that point, he went and bought her another pair of slippers and some food so that she would not sell it. Since then, the lady seems to have kept the slippers.
When more reporters were calling Nandan to get his soundbyte, this 21-year-old did decided to engage them in the "giving" process directly. He gave reporters some money and asked them to buy a few commonly-used sizes and asked them to personally give it to the needy. He said, "The reason why I asked them to do it is because the experience I had will be completely different from what they will have. And then they will write about that giving, and not just about Nandan giving. It will come from a whole different space, and it might something they carry along with them in the future." The reporters were TOTALLY moved after such experiences and it came across in the articles (like this one in Times of India).
One day, Nandan encountered a mentally ill woman on the street. She was dressed in rags, and hardly any part of her body was covered with cloth. "Such people are very fragile and can get scared easily. The point is to always give them their space and always be compassionate," Nandan said as he shared the story. He went up to this woman and asked her if she wanted slippers since she was barefoot. Because she wasn't mentally stable, she did not respond. So Nandan left the slippers right where she could see them near her feet and left her without further probing. From a distance, when he turned around to look at her, he noticed that she had put on those slippers. :)
Another interesting experience was that of a man near Sion station. Seeing a familiar old man, Nandan walked upto him and inquired about the slippers that Nandan had given him the day before. The old man said that he had hid them under his blanket so noone would steal them. So all day he would sit to beg barefoot and in the night would wear those slippers to walk home. "Many times we assume that these people sell off things we give them, but such things also happen in their world and we should just give them benefit of the doubt instead of blaming them and tagging them as 'not worth it'."
While the stories are being covered in the media, Nandan is continuing to stay true to his spirit. And the people are responding by the masses. Now, instead of a few donations of slippers from MAM Movies, it felt like the whole country was tuned in! We had collected piles and piles of shoes, right outside our office! Several people offered to donate money, to which Nandan kindly replied, "It would be nice if you could buy shoe sizes 7,8,9 for adults and 3,4,5 for kids and send them across or donate them yourselves. It will feel very liberating."
To this day, well over year since the original Wednesday sharing, the collection drive is still on! :)
No doubt, I learned so much for this crazy ripple effect episode. In fact, everyone was learning from thie experiment and we asked him to create a blog where we could continue reading his stories. In the tradition of Gandhi, he hopes to call it: "My Experiments with Shoes" :)