Baroda's Smiley Street

Sep 26, 2005

Sep 24, 2005

It is Guri's birthday tomorrow. My 15 year old cousin asks me, "So what are you getting her?" Her mom adds more pressure, "Yeah, what are you doing for her? This is like your first birthday after marriage."

"What can one possibly get for a person like Guri?" I counter. Last year, her birthday was an excuse for us to take time off from our normal routine and spend the day just kind of "being". As I was walking at night to pick up something for Guri, I heard a faint harmonica sound; I approached the sound only to see an old man playing his heart out. No one was listening to him, so I just sat down next to him as if we were old friends. All of a sudden, you could hear his elated spirit singing through the vibrations of his harmonica sounds. I got up after five minutes and placed all the cash from my wallet -- one twenty dollar bill, I think -- into his empty bin. When I came home, the smirk on my face and the red in my eyes (blood rushes to my head when I give) gave it away. Guri retorts, "What did you give now?" That was her gift last year.

Most people don't seem to understand, let alone appreciate, such things. And certainly, my 15-year-old Indian cousin isn't gonna get it. She hasn't seen it in any of the TV shows, read about it any of the newspapers, or heard about it from any of her friends. Yet, it kinda rocks to give a gift of kindness, so communicating its value was the challenge in front of me.

Fortunately, inspiration struck. With a sheepish smile, I say, "You know, I know something we all can do for Guri." Within no time, the whole family was out on the streets of Baroda.

Our plot is simple -- make random people smile. And creatively share those stories with Guri on her birthday.

We figure that the simplest way to put a smile on someone's face is to merely ask them about the last time they put a smile of their face. To make things interesting, we even took an unobtrusive audio recorder with us to capture some of the moments.

Two girls outside a shopping mall -- "Excuse me, can we ask you a simple question?" "Yeah, sure." "Can you recall something kind that has happened to you?" "Huh?" "Something kind, anything kind, something that makes you smile? We are asking random people this question; it's a gift for my wife." "Oh, I see. Well, hmmmmm. I don't know. Actually, I don't think anything kind ever happens to me." "Really?" "Yeah, it's true." "Well, have you done something kind for someone else?" "Hmmmm. [Interrupted by a friend on a scooter -- "Actually, she gets me angry all the time but I maintain my cool and I'm still her friend. Isn't that kind?" "Yeah, yeah, that's definitely kind." Lots of smiles all around.

A middle aged couple is next. No response. They probably think we're doing some kind of a prank and we can't really blame them. :)

Four of us -- my uncle, aunt, cousin, and I -- huddle on the side to brainstorm ideas and clarify our mission statement. We are all a little tentative but increasingly gaining confidence.

A woman in her forties is walking down the streets with a shopping bag in her hands. "A kind act? Oh yeah, I'm in the middle of one right now. My pregnant maid was going through a tough time with her family, so I invited her to stay at my place for three months and now, I'm taking care of her and her new-born."

A watchman overlooking some haphazardly parked cars is next. In Gujarati, I ask him, "Sir, what makes you smile?" He smiles big. In fact, biggest smile we've seen thus far. And then silence. "Sir, nothing makes me smile since my wife died six months ago." "Oh, so sorry to hear that." "Yeah, I took her to Goraj and me and my three kids tried everything, but nothing worked." To lift him up a little bit, I ask him, "But you really gave us the most genuine smile we've seen this evening." With a smile, "Yeah, well, that's because you guys came with such smiles on your faces. I get happy when I am with people."

All of us are becoming increasingly clear that the journey is the outcome here.

Two upper-middle-class seeming men were smiling away so we thought we'd ask them what made them smile. "A stupid joke really makes me smile," one of them says.

Two young twenty-something guys on a motorcycle. "What makes you smile?" "Hmmm. A rose." The second guy clarifies -- "A red rose." Before a romantic novel starts, I interject a tangential question: "What about something kind? Has someone done something kind that has made you smile?" A pause. A rather long pause. "Have you given someone a ride, changed someone's flat tire, helped a friend in need?" "Well, one of my friends, she saved my life." "Really, how?" "She got me to stop smoking." Again, his husky friend in front of him adds, "Liar. You just smoked one today." Laughs all around. "Ok, she saved half of my life. I'm working on the other half." I ask the guy in the front, "What about you?" Now, the guy in the back seat says, "He's actually a really good person." "Have you ever helped someone?" "Yes sir." "Can you tell me one story?" "Well, recently, I saw an old lady fall down and so I offered her a ride on my bike." "Wow, really? That must've felt nice. How did she react?" "Well, after I dropped her home, she was so thankful that she blessed me for a long, long life. It was a really good feeling. She also gave me blessings that I find a great wife and all that." The guy in the back quickly retorts -- "And he's still looking." Again, laughs all around.

The motorcycle interaction was perhaps the most wholesome interaction of the evening. We were practically friends, in a matter of minutes. My uncle says, "You can be sure that by tomorrow at least 50 of their friends will hear about our experiment." For sure.

Now, we get a little gutsy. We approach a man with a frown on his face. My intimidated cousin and I walk through some puddles to greet this man with a question: "Sir, can I ask you a question?" He stares at us as if to say, "What do you want?" "Sir, we want to know what makes you smile?" Immediately, he cracks a short smile on his face. He investigates our motives and then he starts firing. "Some people like to laugh, someone people like to make others laugh. I get joy when I see a nice thing, when I buy a purse or something, when I go to INOX (a movie theatre), when I see a friend or a relative." "What about doing things for others, does that bring you joy?" "Oh yeah, that's the best kind of happiness" he says, transported into that space in himself. And then he goes off again about tons of stories.

Sometimes just listening is an act of service.

We see a lady with a kid, return from some vegetable shopping. At first, she looks like the type who will ignore us but we were getting bold anyhow. "Ma'am, what makes you smile?" Much to our surprise, she says, "Oh, I'm always smiling. This morning, a random person came all the way from the other side of the street to help me get a rickshaw. Just a random person who didn't want anything in return."

I ask the 12-year-old kid with a goofy cap and buck teeth. "What makes you smile?" As if he's on TV, he says, "Generosity and kindness." All of us are pleasantly surprised and press him further. "Do you do any kind things?" Without skipping a beat, he says, "Well, I help out my mom with chores and stuff. And I also help my Dad in the garden." Although none of us said it, all of felt like saying, "Awwwwwwwwwwww".

One girl we spotted said it is shopping that makes her happy. Another said it was flowers. A third person said it was working for his boss. And one after another, we felt like we were on Smiley Street.

Couple of energized hours later, my uncle treated us to a nearby McDonalds -- my first fast food experience in many months -- where we just couldn't stop talking about our experiences. And just naturally, we kept on scanning the room for more faces and smiles. Unfortunately, we saw lots of dazed faces looking out in the oblivion as if life is a numb chore.

"We need to do this more often," my cousin declares. My aunt says, in perhaps the biggest turnaround of the day, "You know, I think we should think of something like this for her birthday too," proudly pointing to her own daughter.

The next day, a bunch of us gather to give Guri a couple of small material gifts, several different kinds of cake and lots of sweets; in between are some audio clips from the previous night and lots of personal reflections. It is Guri's birthday and everyone is full of joy, the kind of joy that multiplies when shared. Somewhere in between, Guri and I exchange a glance -- she smiles. :)

Bookmark and Share


Projects I'm Involved With

"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."