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Written by Shammi Nanda      May 5, 2015


Thanks to NVC, Shammi Nanda is now able to process negative interactions and see the beauty behind them.


Around year 2000, I was living in Mumbai, working as an assistant cinematographer, smoking about 20 cigarettes and drinking five to 6 cups of tea a day, working on shoots, eating regular shoot food, no vegetables and fried stuff for every meal, paneer (cheese) dishes laden with oil, etc. On top of that, there was the stress from the shoots, the social hierarchies and politics, and deadlines. I often had headaches and taking aspirin once every two to three days was part of my regular routine. To top all that off I began to have issues in my marriage and ended up going through a divorce around that time too.


When I think of how my life was then, I think to myself “No wonder I developed wheezing or asthma”. With my then understanding of illnesses, the easiest and most normal answer was to use an inhaler, which now I know contains steroids.


Fortunately, smoking was no longer possible after that: as it was now a choice between smoking and breathing, the decision to quit smoking came easily to me.


Now, when I look back on how I was leading my life I marvel at how ill equipped I was to tackle some of the most essential things in life and how unmindful I was of the things that I was subjecting my body to, whether it be the food I ate every day or the unquestioning acceptance of the stress of working on those film shoots, where the power structures were systematically hierarchical, where it seemed to me that my voice didn’t matter, and I where I didn’t have a sense of true creativity and joy. On top of that, I now also realise how badly prepared I was to deal with my divorce at that time, and there was a total lack of guidance and support systems for those going through the divorce process.


My divorce was a painful process too. I didn’t have any many people to talk to about the pain that I was experiencing; I couldn’t talk to anyone at all without the fear of being judged or the fear that someone would judge my ex-partner. Fortunately, I did have lot of friends but I realised that in our friendship circle, hardly any of us were equipped to deal with such personal issues. It wasn’t just that there was a lack of such people, but I had my own issues as well: whilst growing up that I had been taught that it’s not ok to be vulnerable and so I couldn’t seek any support from the wider community. Sometimes I think about how when people get married the whole community comes, but when there is a divorce the couple is left alone with the lawyers in family courts of law. Luckily, when we reached the lawyer stage we could say that our divorce was mutually consenting, so at least that part was not too painful. But it was strange feeling to be dealing with such personal matters with people with whom I had no real connection. I mean to say that for some reason our support structures to handle such situations are at a bare minimum and there is lot of improvement that is needed if we want our communities to become resilient.


During the four months that I worked as an assistant cinematographer in Bombay, I must have worked on four to five advertisements, and each time I did started a new project I used to wonder why I was part of the team selling that item – something that was either not needed (Coca Cola) or if ‘needed’ it had such high environmental costs (pesticides), or some processed food which harms the body due to the way it is made (biscuits). Even though I used to criticise globalization, I could still do this work as I had created a definite separation between my work and my personal lives. It didn’t help us for long, though, and I didn’t find it fulfilling to be doing something I didn’t believe in. My heart felt heavy when I was doing that work. I could see that the costs that I was creating by being part of that work could not be offset by the financial gains that I was making personally. So I decided that I didn’t want to do anything else like that; no more of that stuff, no more mainstream Bollywood and no more advertising work. I began to work as independent documentary filmmaker.


Until then, I had never thought about caring for my body and my emotions and I can say confidently I was living pretty much mindlessly in that sense; it took me quite a bit more time to realise that my wheezing or asthma was an outcome of the sum total my lifestyle choices.



Whilst I was still in Mumbai, I met a group of people from Udaipur who soon became close friends of mine. They had created a community space called Shikshantar  and were looking at alternate ways of living and learning. Amongst them there were Manish and Vidhi, whose daughter, Kanku, did not attend school. They didn’t like the lifestyles that were being taught in the name of education. We collectively reflected upon the value of community, our footprint on this planet, and ideas of sustainable living; they used ash in place of washing-up liquids to wash utensils, natural home-made instead of chemical soaps, ‘soap nuts’ in place of detergents, cycled more often than using automated vehicles, struggled to grow some food on the rooftops, used cloth bags instead of plastic and many more small but significant things. These inspired me to connect with what’s happening to our planet and gave me a reason to work on my life choices; they and showed me that these were a powerful things to do with deeper ramifications. 


THE POWER OF COMMUNITY: Connecting Living with Learning


While reading some of the Shikshantar publications I came across the idea of ‘learning parks’; people in Australia had taken over public places and were doing fun community activities with families and kids. I shared this idea with a friend from my neighborhood in Mumbai and we began to meet up with each other, bringing along our kids and families. We called it the ‘Sunday Club’. We would meet every Sunday just to chat and have fun, and every once in a while engage in some fun activities too. We would make pottery, cook, fly kites, play marbles, play music, go walking in the forest, etc.…it was through this that I saw the power of community. In a city like Mumbai where I had felt more or less alone, I felt empowered. It also meant that I spent time with children doing things that they enjoy; this led to learning, not only for them, but for us too. I began to question schooling and began to look critically at how it had removed so much fun from my life under the premise of ‘learning’. Now, when I think of the essential life choices that I was making, I realise that I was too ‘uneducated’ and ‘ill equipped’ to deal with any of these significant decisions. I began to see it largely as a place for indoctrination, which was creating obedient citizens, who would be subservient and end up serving the corporations and the dominant global neocolonial paradigm. As my friend Sudarshan said, a man who was active in the Sunday Club, “working for one corporation to pay the other corporation”. I do see the value that corporations have brought to our lives, by introducing products which could have been produced only by big establishments due to the huge investments they require, but I don’t want corporate production relations to extend to affecting those between people and with nature.


I saw people choosing to not send their children to school as a radical act. I also believed that in schools, just like in most offices, the power structures are designed so that the child has no power or influence. I could see that some of the parents who chose to ‘unschool’ their kids did so because they wanted to have a world of shared power, and they didn’t want their children to have to exist in place where they have no power in their world.


Connecting with Nature

One time, we went to a farm with some friends and, as it became dark, one of my friend’s children, who was growing up in the city, told us he was scared of the dark. He was also so scared of the dog that lived there, that it had to be tied even though it was very friendly. We reflected upon this, and wondered what was happening because of our sterilised city lives –  you could not even call it sterilised with the amount of pollutants that we are subjecting ourselves too… We then thought of doing a festival in a friend’s woodland and calling it the ‘Van Utsav’, with the idea being to just invite friends who live in the cities to just come and live in the forest for five days…


The power of the body to heal itself

That’s where I got spend time with Vinita, from Calcutta. She was into self-healing and believed that the body is capable of healing itself, provided we give it what it is meant to have as a natural being. She had given birth to her daughter at home and her children had not had any vaccines. She had also cured her malaria through fasting. These things were radical to hear and very inspiring too. She became my first mentor in healing, and suggested that I fast when I suffered with wheezing; I did it and it worked like magic! In fact, I remember doing the same thing when I had chicken gunia (a kind of avian flu). It was the first time I fasted for five days and the chicken gunia went away. I remember many who had it at that time and had taken drugs had had joint pains for very long time afterwards, but mine was perfectly fine. It was a new way of looking at illness: as the body’s way of restoring an imbalance, and the body doing its best to heal itself, providing we support it or let it do what it wants to do.


Being the Change

Vinita was, at one point, part of the Anti-Narmada movement. She used to collect interesting articles, got an idea for a book shop selling alternative books, and set it up more than 20 years ago – now they have an amazing book shop, “The Earthcare Books”, in the heart of Kolkata city, which boasts an impressive collection of books on alternative ways of living and learning.


There, I had also met Navina, although I didn’t speak to her much at the time. She was working with her mother, Vijaya Vnekat, and they had a space called The health Awareness Centre in Mumbai. Vijaya ji was also part of the Anti-Narmada movement, and had gone with a team of people to convince the Japanese Government to withdraw funding from the dam. There, she had met Masanobu Fukuoka, who was an organic farmer and who had inspired thousands (or lakhs) of people to look at natural farming. He talks of ‘do nothing’ farming whereby all that is needed is to be there: a farm needs nothing more than the footsteps of the farmer. He was inspired by how forests sustain themselves without any human intervention. He thought that we should farm the way the forest does. and came up with the idea of ‘do nothing’. Vijaya ji was inspired by him and adapted his vision to the healing process; she set up her counselling center, where people were also supported by food provisions, when a wholesome tiffin was provided. They used oil in place of oilseeds, steaming in place of boiling and frying, jaggery in place of sugar, lots of raw foods and local grain instead of wheat to avoid gluten. She has healed thousands of people over her life with an approach to wellness where food forms a significant part.


These people like Vinita and Vijayaji, who were connected to larger movements, now make their own choices and bring that vision of Swaraj to healing, both in their personal lives and sharing it with the communities around them.



My Journey with Conscious Cooking

Some of us had organized a family gathering: we had invited families who were looking at alternative ways of living. There, I was part of the cooking team and we worked under guidance of Navina. She not only worked with us on the menu and the details but was there during the cooking process, chatting with us about its impact on our bodies and about the larger picture surrounding food: the political and ecological impact of our food choices.  It was a great learning experience. My asthma had somehow subsided when I moved out of Mumbai, but then it began to come back. With my newfound knowledge, I began to fast whenever I had an attack of wheezing, and would fast for four to five days. I also changed my diet as per learning from Navina.  I then began my own self learning journey, and continued experimenting with food. 



Connecting my film work to my life

I also happened to be making a film about organic farming, self-healing and ‘unschooling’, the three things very close to my heart. It was screened at the Film Institute in Pune in 2008, the place where I had studied film making about 11 years previously. After seeing the film a student called Ganesh asked me if I would work with them, at the hostel mess kitchen, to help them serve healthier food. I was skeptical, as I had my pre-judgements of film school students and was not sure if they would be interested in ideas like health and sustainability. I thought I would give it a try for a little while. I began by making some salads and supporting them in sourcing organic rations, and then I slowly became more deeply involved in it, and almost came to manage the kitchen; we began to serve largely organic food. My idea was also to see if we could serve organic food at a reasonable price – we succeeded! The other very exciting prospect was the idea of bringing these changes not just within the intended communities, but also within other places, such as the Film Institute.



Establishing sustainable practices and institutions

We put the accounts in order, transformed the workers’ relations from being contractors to cooperatives, brought in the element of students volunteering at the kitchen (as it would create a greater sense of dignity of labour), connected with the larger network of organic farmers around the area, began a kitchen garden, and started composting kitchen waste. We were kind of creating forward-backward sustainability linkages with the community and the ecosystem. The mess kitchen ran like this for about two years, but there were many challenges along the way. At the beginning, there was a certain amount of resistance from some of the mess kitchen staff members, and from some of the students, who were used to a particular kind of system, but it was generally accepted after a while. Our farming experiments were very much inspired by developments after the oil crisis of Cuba, where, after the withdrawal of Russian support, there was an oil crisis which led to a reduction in farming production and there was a food shortage. People began to farm organically, taking over all available land, even governmental departments gave up land in the cities to provide more space for growing food. It was Gandhi ji’s idea of swadeshi and self-reliance that some of us were trying to bring in, or what is now being seen through localization movements in the west.


Challenges with connecting with others

At some point friction between the students and the staff increased, and some students wanted me to stop managing the mess. It was disturbing for me to see that my efforts were not recognized and my intentions were not seen clearly. Firstly I was volunteering and not taking any money for my work as I thought it was a way for me to pay back the institute, and secondly I was inspired by the idea of a ‘gift culture’ where one trusts the cosmos to take care of any needs. I wanted them to have healthy and organic foods as well as to make the mess financially self-sustaining. In fact, we started in debt, and after two years we had left the mess with Rs. 70,000 in its account.


Introspection and Reflection on my own ways of functioning



But now, when I think of those times, I am grateful to all those who spoke up against what I was doing. At the time their aggression hurt me, but now I see that they were in pain too: they did not feel that their voice was being heard. Of course, some students and staff were happy with what was happening, but some were hurt, as they felt they were exluded. I also realized that some of the resentful ones had been supportive of the changes at the beginning. After leaving the mess I wondered why this shift in opinion had happened, I did not want to take refuge the standard of seeing those opposing me as villains; I wanted to understand the occurrences on a deeper level. I tried to put myself in their shoes and could see how I was blind to their needs. It could be that someone didn’t like unpolished rice, but I told them it was good for them so they should have it: I hadn’t realized the importance of them having a sense of choice and power in their world. They wanted familiarity in their food. Besides, when they told me these things, I would give them the reasons for doing what I was doing without listening to their needs. They didn’t have neat arguments like me, but instead they were bottling up something and it had to come out… This is what happened when some of them came up to me and said, in a student body meeting, that they wanted me to leave the mess. There were arguments and counter arguments coming from the students; the passion and volume was often high. I chose to be silent and let the students decide; besides I could see that the meeting was ‘engineered’ with some people forming a clique. I could have intervened but I didn’t want to, not in the way it was happening there. I had seen these methods used enough times when I myself was a student, during strikes, and it had left me with bad memories. There were so much hurt and labeling of each other, there used to be no genuine listening but rather trying to win and make the others lose. It reminded me of the way things happen in our parliament, and I knew that wasn’t the game I wanted to play. I also realized that this method of ‘democracy’, with decisions based on majority rather than consensus was outdated and had lost its meaning.


Democracy: tyranny of majority or all-hearing consensus?

When I was a student at FTII in 1996, I was also the President of the student body; we held lots of strikes. We used to get the majority on board, by hook or by crook, but by doing this we would leave fellow students with so much hurt and resentment. There were handy labels for strikers and non-strikers, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ people and all that. I later realized that they were people too, people who had questions of their own, and just because they didn’t agree with our methods we saw them as another species. Now, after so many years when I think of it I feel sad and lament upon how our actions created so much pain for people in the institute. In addition to their hurt, there was loss for us too as we missed out on their company and friendship while being on campus and later on too. That’s what I guess had happened before the meeting about my running of the mess, judging by the discomfort that some of the students displayed. Any hurt can be silenced, but I believe, now, that it will show itself, sooner or later, through some kind of major outburst. I did not want to go on with the cycle of escalating violence and resentment, so I decided to leave the Institute. I moved away from those who were against my ways, I didn’t want to see them as opponents or to make them feel like losers in this game. Also, I didn’t speak as I didn’t have any other way of speaking, so I chose to remain silent but that silence was painful., I so desperately wanted to express my pain without sounding like I was blaming them, but I couldn’t do this, so there was also a kind of helplessness and anguish.


A need for alternative ways of communicating to create another world?



Now, when I think of it I am grateful for whatever happened. I learnt a lot. I saw that I had figured out alternative ways of farming, cooking and learning but I didn’t know any alternative ways to communicate or create dialogue. I realized that our language is also a victim of our culture of domination. If one view things through Marxian analysis, one would see that the language is our super structure, the moral values and social structures that run the society. Just as for certain productive forces we have certain production relations: for example, in the Stone Age hunting and gathering was the technology and community living was the super structure or the value system. While in the modern technological, capitalist relations have become the norm, and free market and meritocracy are the superstructure. According to Marshall Rosenberg, who developed Nonviolent Communication, the morality of right-wrong and motivation through punishment and reward, or carrot and stick, has become a tool to control people and to keep them away from self-connection. From this sense of morality has come a certain language, within which we have taken refuge in blaming and judging others or ourselves, rather than looking at unfulfilled needs in those situations and expressing them.


That’s what I also learnt from the works of Marshall Rosenberg, who said that no matter what people do or how they do it, we have to meet some needs, and when we begin to look at the universal needs which motivate people’s actions we can start to connect with their humanity. and feel an empathetic connection with them.


Bringing my learning to healing personal relationships

At this same time there was a conflict happening in my family. At one point my brother hit me. I was traumatised by it for a long time and didn’t visit him again as I was scared that I would hit him back. But then, I received the support of some practitioners of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) which was a scheme thought up by Marshall Rosenberg; with their support I could see that he had some unfulfilled needs. My brother wanted desperately to see my father’s pain. When I saw that, my heart opened up a bit, but I am still holding on to some other needs of my own, which I don’t want to give up without being heard. I have not been heard until this point, but at least I can hold a space where I can be with my brother without getting our emotions being triggered.

Working on the default mode of our language

The incidents at the Mess inspired me to get more deeply involved with NVC. I do not regret my actions while managing the Mess, however I also believe that if in that situation, either I or the students who resented me, would have come from the NVC consciousness, and seen the intentions or needs behind each other’s words and actions, things could have turned out differently. Unfortunately, none of us could do that because we had been educated and socialised in the same dominating culture, and our language was part and parcel of that. As a result, sometimes even with our nearest and dearest, when we want to express the compassion in our hearts, our language betrays us and we are left hapless when we are not understood. It’s easier to tell someone that they are arrogant than to let them know that one is feeling vulnerable and wants some support and consideration. In other words, we think that by telling someone what they are, they will understand what we need, but unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. It’s like fish not knowing the water; we don’t know why sometimes things don’t work despite our best intentions, and that our language is not our own creation – we must understand how we use it subconsciously.



Conflict as a gift

Now after working with NVC I am no longer scared of disagreements, as I know that behind disagreements there are needs. I don’t jump straight to judging who is right and who is wrong, but instead try to focus on the needs as unfixed or unattached to strategies or ‘solutions’ to meet these needs. I have seen that when we approach each other with this kind of openness, the world is much more beautiful; by doing this, more often than not we are able to choose from an infinite number of solutions, and in doing so to meet needs of everyone. if they are all out on the table for all of us to be seen and heard and we could mover a deeper stage in our connection. If all our cards were out on the table to be seen and heard by everyone.


Reconciliation with past hurt

In fact, I resented my primary school teacher who saw me playing with paper in class, and asked the monitor to put the paper on my head and parade me round the other classes. I hated her for 35 years of my life, but then, a year ago, I began to think about what she wanted back then; I realised that she just wanted me to study well so I could do well in my life. With this realization, the resentment of the last 35 years melted in an instant. Of course, I also had needs at that moment which were not met, and if I saw her now I would be able to communicate with her without resentment, as I know s her intentions were good.


Restorative Justice: Working on conflict transformation with communities

These questions further attracted me to the work of Dominic Barter, which is based in the favelas of Brazil. For the last twenty years he has been working on the idea of Restorative Justice, and, together with the communities there, has created a process of ‘Restorative Circles’. This means that when an ‘Act’ (not a crime) occurs, anyone in the community can call a circle and the community will sit with the ‘Author’ (not the offender), and the ‘Receiver’ (Not the victim); by doing this the facilitator supports listening in the community. The process works through re-establishing the importance of listening, which is the first casualty in any conflict, and thereby trying to rebuild connection and trust within the community; reparation happens instead of retribution. Once the trust is restored, the Author of the act might offer to do something, or someone else in the community can come up with an idea which could bring them together. I believe that the process of the circle can bring the community closer than where it was before the circle was formed.



Holding a dream of harmony for the world

I wish, when my conflict happened, there had been a process at the Film Institute or within my family, to help us access each other with the support of the community, I wish there had been a healing space. After hearing about NVC and Restorative Circles, I moved to Auroville for a while where Laura and Jason had initiated this work with the community there. I, too, experienced the magic of it as I spent time with them, and am now focusing on sharing it with my friends and communities. I am often available to support a friend who is going through a crisis in their marriage or relationship, or some community where there is conflict. I also share this by holding workshops on community living, and I tell them that we are learning to have ‘good fights’. One of my motivations for sharing these ideas with others is that, hopefully, one day there will be enough people to support each other in family conflicts, when one’s nearest and dearest are fighting each other in the courts. I am hopeful that one day this will happen, we will be able to create that healing space within our family. Yes, it’s a dream and I can again sing with John Lennon…
you may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one”.



To find out more about Shammi Nanda, click here.




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