"Form" Checking Adventures

Jul 24, 2005

I have had the opportunity to eat lunch with a homeless man, to console terminally-ill patients on their deathbeds, to stand on busy street intersections with a "Got Smile?" poster, to bring home a slum child and give him a shower, to approach a nun at an airport and given her my spare change, to bind books for a Tibetan peace ceremony, to dail a random room number at the intercom of a senior center and spend couple hours with an aged woman.

Each of these service opportunties has its own feeling, a soul satiating stillness.

Today, though, I did something for the first time in my service life. I volunteered to serve a group of 320 male students who would be meditating for ten days. At first, I got pulled into doing strategy and organizational development stuff, but after I insisted on "cleaning toilets", they let me. :)

My first task was "form checking". A mundane task, I figured.

Most of the applicants haven't done anything this radical in their lives -- give up ten days of their lives to do nothing but sit there in complete solitude! The general process for each new student is to register and fill out a two-sided form in Hindi or English. Following that, you get to be screened by a "form checker", i.e. me. :)

Form checking is just as it sounds. Make sure every applicant has filled in all the fill-in-the-blanks, crossed the t's and dotted the i's, and signed off in the right places. Outside of a lunch break, I'm gonna do this for 8-10 hours straight, so I expect a mental challenge.

I get "trained" by another senior volunteer. What I didn't realize about this role that it's actually a fun-yet-delicate role. I have to sternly ask all students to turn in all their reading and writing material -- books in the lockers and newspapers in the trash; yes, during the breaks everyone leafs through the trashed Mumbai Times, Mid-Day, Times of India, Economic Times, tons of Marathi papers and even a copy of Business Week to get their rare dose of worldly gossip (I read that Manmohan Singh gave a stunning talk in the US). I also have to confiscate each student's religious objects whether they are beads around their necks, threads around their wrists, rings around their fingers, or idols in their bags; sometimes if threads are tied too tight, I offer them a pair of scissors. Beyond that, I even get to play bad-cop as I attempt to look in their eyes and ask 'em (sometimes six times) for all their drugs like tobacco snuff, alcohol, cigarettes and any other kind of intoxicants.

Everyone is forewarned about all these things, but of course, that doesn't stop 'em for sneaking it in "just in case". :) Some get a little anxious when they have to turn it in, others are scared, and some smile because they saw it was coming.

At first, I wasn't really sure I could play this role. I mean, most of these people are double my age and I prefer playing good-cop over bad-cop. But then, I kind of start enjoying it. :) By the end of the day, it even becomes a group project with signals coming in from the gate, "Hey, hey, there's a man coming up who was just smoking outside the gate."

So I am really getting into my job. I'm enjoying what was supposed to be a chore.

Through all the fun, though, somehow, somewhere, something started changing inside me. I didn't see it coming until an innocent farmer looking guy came up to my table.

"Sir, any reading or writing material?" I asked him as a formality. I could sense he was illiterate.

"No," he says mildly.

"You didn't fill out this part of the form," I tell him pointing to the last question on the second page. As I had predicted, he can't read the form nor can he write. He turns around, slightly scared, and starts looking for help. Another man, a city looking guy with a small duffle bag on him, comes to the table and helps him fill it out; in fact, it turns out that he came here to drop him off and specifically help fill out the form. That's fine. You don't really need to know your ABC's to meditate in silence or to radiate compassion.

The thirty-something farmer comes back with a completed form.

Knowing that he can't read or write, I have to ensure that he understands the code of discipline and all that. I ask him all the questions from scratch. He softly responds to all of them. I wanted to tell him that I'm no cop, but just another volunteer, another seeker of the same Truth that he's after. Since I couldn't verbalize my sentiments in that context, I hoped that my presence would speak in silence.

"Do you have any reading or writing material?"

"Do you have any beads, threads, rings or religious objects on you?"

"Are you sure?"

"Do you have any tobacco on you?" (He didn't look like a smoker or an alcoholic. Actually, he didn't even look like a tobacco guy but anyways).

"Anything else?"
"No Sir."

I put a check on the form with my initials to officially ok it. I didn't know this guy, but somehow, I just felt like he was really good guy, a humble seeker of truth and someone for whom good things ought to happen in life. I got different "feelings" with each different applicant, but I didn't really have the time to analyze them in any detail so I just made it a habit to smile wide, say their first name (it is written on the form) and tell them to proceed to the next counter for getting their accommodations.

I am about to do that ritual with my farmer friend, when he interrupts me.

"Sir, sir. I do have a thread on me."
"I do have a thread on me."
"Well, no threads are allowed at this camp. So I'm afraid you'll have it to take it off. But if it's valuable to you, you can save it in the safe-deposit over there."

He looks a little confused, so I ask him to show me his "thread". Hesitant at first, he lifts his shirt up from over his pants and shows me a thread.

Oh man! His thread was serving as a belt to hold together his oversize pants that he probably found somewhere. He had a little piece of scrap wood tied into it for extra support too.

In front of me was a really poor, illiterate man who, with an innocently shameful demeanor, shows me his "belt" to make sure it isn't against the rules. He's poor, illiterate, and simple. And he's honest, seeks stillness, and wants to experience his true nature. Although we're in different physical circumstances, we are on the same journey. He IS just like me.

That realization hit me like a ton of bricks. All of sudden, I was no longer the form-checker ok-ing his thread but a seeker looking at his own brother. Tears gush into my eyes, out of nowhere. How can you not cry when you have a cloth belt around your waist and your brother has a piece of thread? I kept telling myself, "It's not fair. If he is truly my brother, than I wish he would always have more than me."

I am ready to trade him belts, but then I stare down at the form to hold back my tears. Bad-cops can't cry, especially not on duty. I frantically try to distract my mind, thinking of some newspaper headline that I had read earlier. It doesn't work, so I keep looking at his form, turning it over and over, until I regain my balance.

Then, I proceed with my ritual. I look him in the eye, smile and tell him, "Sir, have a good meditation course. You can proceed to the next table for getting your accommodations."

There's no time to rest when you have to process several hundred forms of male students, so I keep going. But now, I have new eyes.

I ask one guy, "You left your profession field blank. What do you do?" "Sir, I'm a coolie." Ok, he picks up bags at the train station to get a few bucks everyday and he has taken ten days off to get a slice of dharma. Alright, one more brother. Another guy said he was a rickshaw driver. I remember a warm dinner that Guri and I had at a rickshaw driver's house the week before (that's another story altogether). Someone else said they didn't know what a phone number was. Yup, these were all my homies.

And of course, there were the rich and famous. Youngsters around me start signaling like crazy when they spot a famous Marathi movie actor (I forget his name) come to the table. There were senior executives from corporations, political leaders, foreigners, monks, you name it. I saw one student write on his form, "I am sitting this course because I have a serious anger problem." Another middle-aged man wrote, "I can't get along with my wife." A traveller wrote, "I am seeking purpose in life. I need clarity." One rich looking executive comes in an hour past the deadline and before I could even ask, he says, "Yes, I just had a cigarrette an hour ago but I'm ready to give it all up now."

One after another after another -- the rich, the poor, the filmaker, the politician, the husband, the son, the professor, the student, the sick elder, the healthy army general, the weak cancer patient, the strong teenager -- every "form" is a repeated reminder: "I too am a brother on this journey. I too want to rest compassionately in serenity. I too am a brother in our shared human experience." It's an almost overwhelming realization.

Sure, we might wear different belts around our waist, but we're all aboard the same train.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."