On my way out the building in the morning, I search my pockets for 5 rupee coins. If I have one, I go to the shop downstairs and buy 5 packets of Gems– an Indian version of M&Ms. There are 3 Gems per packet, giving me 14 chances to make someone smile (there would be 15 but invariably the first Gem ends up in my own mouth!).
On the first day, I gave one each to the two youngs sons of my dhobi (washerman), and to the boy who lives in the makeshift shack in front of my building. Their hands were really dirty so I put them straight into their mouths. I thought for a second about giving them an impromptu lesson in hand-washing, but they are too young to understand Hindi and I haven’t learned enough Kannada to explain properly. Next time I’ll pick up the basics, and use gesturing like Jayeshbhai.
Our receptionist is often a little frazzled by the whirl of traffic coming through the lobby and the troubleshooting in multiple areas simultaneously that she’s often responsible for. I walked up to her and said,
“I have a surprise for you!” Instantly she smiles.
“What is it?”
“Your favorite,” I say, as I give her a whole packet of Gems.
“Hey, how did you know!?” she says with genuine surprise.
I actually didn’t, but I said, “I know everything,” in Hindi, donning my pretend tone of a wise man. Next time I’ll be totally truthful with her, and tell her that I just like seeing her smile, instead of puffing myself up even if in jest.
One of my students figured out how to import computer-generated forms into the Java application on the one specific model of mobile phone he had scoured the city for a full day to find. It was a small but important piece of the project he’s working on, and he was struggling for hours to reach this little breakthrough. He lets out a joyous cheer for himself, with the exclamations of accomplishment, attracting the attention of the other students around him. I roll my chair over and give him a Gem, along with the student sitting next to him. It so easy to add fun and smiles where there is already a smile. Next time I’ll remember to work harder and add some joy where there was gloom before instead of instantly taking the easy path.
A colleague from the foundation comes down the stairs and sees me waiting in the lobby for a meeting with one of the officers.
“You’re just the guy I wanted to talk to!” he says, as he launches into trying recruit me into helping with an upcoming job fair for the Fellows.
Schedules were incompatible, so I apologize and redirect the conversation to more personal topics. This guy has noticeably come a long way from the first night I met him in town, and I call him out on it and compliment him. He’s grateful, somewhat surprised that a relatively distant observer like myself noticed. The conversation takes an even more pleasant detour. Suddenly, I get called away for my meeting. I get up to leave, take a couple of steps, and then turn back.
“Hey! I have something for you.”
I pinch out the last Gem in that packet, and say,
“You just hit a homerun!” before the candy hits his hand. Luckily it was a green gem.
“Do you remember those M&M commercials from the 80s?” I ask.
He gives me a wry smile. Next time I’ll not try to make something small and sweet into something grand and spectacular.
A local Fellow from last year has started a social enterprise in town, and I often spot her walking around from the different sites where her employees are posted, regardless of whether is 6am or 10pm at night. It took me maybe five attempts of asking before her busy schedule finally enabled us to sit down for lunch with her partner. On this particular evening, she’s leaving the foundation at the same time I am, and happens to have a meeting at my guest house. I take my chance to escort her back in the dark and the light monsoon rain, holding my umbrella over her head even though my backpack had a laptop in it. We get more than 80% of the way back before she discovers that I’ve been keeping her dry instead of myself! (Any my laptop still works!!)
During conversation, I discover that she’s coming to the guest house to be interviewed by a foundation intern on the origins, challenges, and lessons of her fledgling social enterprise. I launch into a persuasive case into conducting the interview in our common kitchen so I get the benefit of hearing the story as well. She hasn’t had dinner yet, so I bribe her with the idea of cooking a little more for myself to share with her. She tells me that the intern is very shy, and may not want to do an interview semi-publicly. I convince her that its in both of their interests for her to make the request, at the peril of my relentless curiosity forcing them both to answer roughly the same questions twice. Not sure if I’ve made my case by the time I get to the kitchen, she’s halfway up the second flight of stairs when I offer to bribe them both with one pack of Gems each for conducting the interview in the kitchen. Five minutes later, they both come down the stairs smiling, and sit down at the table to start the interview. I throw in my own questions every so often, and enjoy a pleasant dinner conversation over a home-cooked meal afterwards. Dessert was of course, Gems! Next time I will remember how much kindness is its own reward, and won’t try and distort that reality by ‘bribing’ people with something meant to be so pure. Kindness is always a gift, and I will be mindful to not turn it into an exchange.
What I’ve discovered in my Rs. 5 experiment is that this tiny bit of kindness goes a long way in making my own day more joyful– regardless of whatever else may have gone ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Its like the salt in my dal that makes it go from bland to savory– or the sugar in coffee that takes things from bitter to sweet. I’m still not practicing kindness perfectly, and I am making some mistakes along the way, but that doesn’t matter as much as trying in the first place, and watching myself so I can improve. And I’ve come to feel that though my tiny acts of kindness seem so small and insignificant, its very important that I do them.
Besides, who would have thought that the formula for joy only costs 5 rupee?