First day in India

(written Wednesday, posted Thursday….this might be how most of my posts go from here on out)

Just before I arrived in India, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s *Outliers*. (Note of warning: don’t read the chapter on cultural reasons that planes crash WHILE FLYING OVER THE OCEAN….I kept praying, “For all their faults, God, make sure that British Airways communicates in direct and assertive fashion so that the plane lands safely.”)

Gladwell’s premise is that there’s no such thing as a self-made person. Our situations, our context, and certainly our drive equip us, as does the sheer luck of circumstances. In the list of the 100 richest people in all of history, 25 were American, and of those 25, 14 were born in the same 5-year period. (Yup, if you want to express gratitude for Carnegie Mellon University or Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago, now’s the time to thank that remarkable window of opportunity for profiteering.) That combination of drive, circumstance, resources, context and particular windows of opportunity are what make for the statistical outliers we lift up in society. (Bill Gates, for example, and Steve Jobs and a really cool guy called Bill Joy who rewrote linux or unix or something like that and gave us a lot of the programming that brought us the internet….btw, did I mention they were all born at the same time, too?). And hard work turns out to be a better indicator of success than sheer aptitude, which is good news for all of us with less than a 150 IQ.

So what does all of this have to do with India?

When I arrived in Kolkata (and still got overcharged even though I took a prepaid taxi; go figure), my first stop was to meet the person I’m staying with, Reena Bose (I call her Reenapishi, or aunty on father’s side, even though there’s no blood connection between us, because she helped me navigate my three months in Kolkata as a volunteer at Emmanuel Ministries back in 2003, and her family adopted me as their own while I was here). I met her at the nursing school she has established between the last time I saw her (2004/2005) and now. Yup, as in from scratch. As in, graduating their fourth class and about to become financially independent.

Reena Bose is a registered nurse and very high up in the Church of North India’s Synodical Board of Health Services. She lives in an area of Kolkata called Behala, and her home is about ½ mile or so from the Oxford Mission Campus. For ten years, the orphanage space has lain empty (lush and green with a fish pond and jackfruit, mango, coconut, betelnut, banana and pomelotrees grow in abundance, and a slice of tranquility 5 yards from the chaos of the main road running through Behala to the shopping area of Sakher Bazar). She convinced the Diocese of Calcutta to help fund it, took out a sizeable loan herself, and built up a nursing program in the space.

Oh, and the students can help themselves to any of the fruit for free, except the coconuts, which require someone climbing a tree to cut down the young ones—those are five rupees each (on the street these days they’re up to ten rupees, or about 20 cents). I bought 12, which are sitting in my room waiting to be punctured so I can drink the juice at my leisure. It may not be mango season, but there are still plenty of reasons to be happy to be in India, hot humid weather and regular power outages notwithstanding.

My original point is that the Sister Florence School of Nursing is making a big difference. And it appears to have sprung out of nowhere. And it’s driven by committed teachers and generally willing volunteers (I watched Reenapishi demanding that her mechanic donate some work to the school since she was a longtime client—they finally agreed he would install backup generators in some of the rooms and the main office). And it’s the vision and passion of Reena Bose that brought this project into existence.

And that happened, Gladwell might argue, because of the class and religion she was born to and parents who didn’t believe she should dream less because she was a girl, and lots of remarkable mentoring and training, and decades of work helping to set up smaller but similar projects in the field to train health aides in rural areas and lots of time spent mastering the art of nursing administration (Gladwell also argued that it takes about 10,000 hours to master a skill—turns out Mozart was a bit of a late bloomer, having logged in more hours than that before he wrote his first masterpiece).

So that’s my first reflection on India.

Gladwell’s ultimate argument (and this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read the book; he’s much more compelling and engaging than this summary might suggest) is that if more people were given more access to opportunity, we might end up with more “outliers,” or the outliers might even someday become the norm. How great to experience one of those outliers living into the goal Gladwell articulated, reducing the number of outliers in the world by making them the norm.

Now go out and buy that book. J

Comments (2)

  1. Danny Bradfield

    Thanks for sharing your reflections….and btw, I ALWAYS pray when I fly!

  2. Bill Shive

    Your “aunt” sounds like a very remarkable lady. She reminds me of Louise Stoltenberg, who was a member of University Christian Church in Berkeley, and established projects like hers in Bolivia.

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