Rethinking the world with Manish Jain

What would Jainism in practice look like in today’s world? How could core Jain principles be translated into contemporary action? Anveshan sought answers to these questions and went to Udaipur, Rajasthan to meet Manish Jain, co-founder of Shikshantar, which is a ‘people’s institute for rethinking education and development’.

Before systematically rejecting thoughtless globalization and founding Shikshantar, Manish worked on education, social policy and other human-development issues with leading intergovernmental and transnational organizations.

Unlearn to learn
Shikshantar aims to challenge the monopoly of factory schooling and to regenerate our imagination about learning and living. The movement asks “Is a non-violent, harmonious world of ‘swaraj‘ or ‘self-rule’ really possible and how do we go about co-creating it?”

Manish thinks that it is necessary to question some of our fundamental assumptions around progress, success, happiness, development and education. He is extremely concerned with the loss of traditional knowledge and gift culture values taught by our grandparents and the force with which the youth are being taught masses of fragmented unrelated facts, soul-killing consumerism and competition, and the general disconnect with the nature that is rampant today. Manish believes that “the school system is actually dumbing down human beings.”

Manish JainUnlearning involves understanding the strengths and limitations of various ways of seeing, knowing and organising ourselves.

At its most basic level, unlearning starts with looking at the realities and possibilities of life from other points of view. Shikshantar helps foster the conditions where people can overcome this deep conditioning of contemporary society and then re-engage with society again in more meaningful and creative ways.

Unmaking the machine
Manish explained that most people whose inner core of being remains alive and active represent the modern school’s failures, not its successes. Indeed, what schools have succeeded in doing is creating people who want to compete with each other and ‘get ahead’ to serve the interests of global economic elites. We are basically taught to believe that money is the ultimate god of life and we must be slaves to it.

Manish is encouraging many families around India to consider taking their children out of schools and letting them pursue their own program of self-designed learning. His 13 year old daughter also follows this way of life. In the same vein, many parents have rejected the contemporary industrial rat-race culture that breeds ambition, competition, authoritarianism, village and are re-exploring important questions about their lifestyle.

As an alternative, Manish has designed a different kind of place of learning at Swaraj University. True to its name, it emphasizes the ideal of self-rule (or rather harmony of the self) and reflects many philosophical ideals of Jainism.


Shikshantar is a place that encourages working patiently with people, but which also addresses some of the biggest social issues head-on.

Although most of the work Manish has undertaken involves rethinking education, the Shikshantar community has undertaken other parallel movements in community media, organic farming, gift culture among others, which rethink the world we are creating for ourselves and for the generations to follow. He describes that many of the most powerful social movements around the world today are coming back to what can be seen as essentially Jain principles such as self-awareness, deep empathy, zero waste, voluntary simplicity and degrowth.

Community and change
As Jains, Manish feels that our generation of Jains holds a great responsibility towards the planet and that a lot of strength rests within the community to encourage large­-scale change. He gave us a small example; “Somebody was telling me that India has gone too far with chemical farming and we cannot go back, it is too big of a problem. I said in reply that the day the Jain community decides that they want to go fully organic, this entire country will change overnight! That kind of power is sitting within the (Jain) community.”

Manish Jain with his wife Vidhi and daughter Kanku. Manish strives to create a world that can support all kinds of families.

Raising questions of wastefulness and of conflict, both of which manifest in so many ways, Manish feels that Jains have countless ways of intervening and creating lasting value for the greater society. He is, however, struggling to understand how to deeply engage with the Jain community.

These ideas reflect Manish’s interest in addressing the central realities of human existence, most of which are being lost to contemporary industrial fast-paced life. Most of his real learning came not from his Harvard professors but from his ‘illiterate’ village grandmother. He notes that “For her generation (and generations before that) the concept of waste or wastefulness did not exist. It was not even an option. It becomes all the more important to raise these questions about what is means to live in harmony with our eco-systems in the 21st century where the culture of ‘use and throw’ has over-run the planet. She and many other so-called illiterate women know much more about living and practising Jainism in daily life than the educated new generations.”

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But Manish also questions the Jain identity and the risks it faces today.

Manish JainIf unlimited economic growth of wealth, military violence and exploitation of nature are so critical to urban life, what does it mean for the Jain practice of simple, non­-violent living?

Is following a few rituals enough for the Jain community to preserve their culture, or do they have to find new ways to live the philosophy more deeply in the modern world? If people keep being taught that the West has all solutions to our problems, what value or meaning will the Jain philosophy itself continue to have? Should Jains try to enable more people to live a holistic life and build an alternative non-violent economic and political system? Should Jains send their children to factory-schools? What role can Jains play in the development of natural and sustainable agriculture? How can they enable more localised control of resources, production and consumption?

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As he gave us some questions to ponder, he explained that these are not issues unique to the Jain community.

Jains in deed are Jains indeed
According to Manish, there are many people in the Shikshantar network who live in a way that is similar to the Jain ideal. Many of them are not born Jains and are not living in the Jain community, but often their daily lives are ethics are much more austere and truthful than what is followed by ordinary lay Jains. Manish says, “And that is actually the thing we have to remember that you are not born a Jain but are (Jain) from choosing to work with the core principles.”


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He adds, “I find myself inspired a lot by Jain philosophy and the questions we are asking always have some seed reference point from those. But as community, I do not know if the ‘Jain community’ makes sense anymore as an organizing entity for evolving Jain thought. People will not like when I say that the biggest obstacle to evolving the Jain philosophy today is the Jain community itself.

Because it has become deeply steeped in only some rituals and formalities, I do not want to say ‘hypocritical rituals’, as it is not my place to judge them. However, not everybody outside the Jain community finds these rituals meaningful or inspiring to the challenges they are facing. We need to bring systems level thinking to our personal actions.”

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Manish JainWe must continue to ask what are the economics and politics of Mahavira? Indeed, Jainism gives us intellectual permission to even explore game-changing ideas about the whole concept of private ownership, the military and nationalism.

He says “We Jains should have used our consciousness and wealth to be leading the non-violent movements for rethinking the money system and interest/debt, eco-architecture, zero waste, natural farming, renewable energy, deep democracy, ecological conservation, etc. Instead, many others have taken the lead while Jains are way behind the game. Unless our spirituality also engages questions of how we live in this material world, it will be irrelevant.”

Manish unlearning with other learners at Shikshantar.

Manish says, “Many people outside also find Jains to be very self-righteous and morally arrogant about their vegetarianism. We need to let go of this false superiority and embrace a more loving and humbler path of co-learning and partnership with many other communities, particularly Dalits and Tribals.”

“I think that there is another level of depth that we can go to, which we are not yet going to, and hopefully with different projects that are happening around India and the world, we can try to bring that up and highlight it for ourselves and our community,” he adds with a glimmer of promise.

Manish points to the work on forgiveness and non­-violence by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as shining examples of what may be viewed as Jain processes.

Questions first, answers later
We went to Manish Jain for answers, but he urges that we should ask even more questions. And learn to hold the space for deep listening to these questions open.


Manish JainWe need to evolve a powerful Jain critique of modern institutions and their control over our lives. I think we even should design a Jain alternative to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Just as Jainism encourages many perspectives, Manish also suggests that we re-look at this whole system of wealth, militarization, consumption and economic growth. We need to shake up the story of the god of money.

Any person today can create meaningful social change by first deeply reflecting on these things, and then acting on the realizations thoughtfully and with deep integrity. Even the new Pope has raised a different level of thinking about the future of the planet in his Encyclical.

Manish encourages working from the depths of the Jain worldview and radical rethinking both using and within cultural frameworks in general.

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Change begins at home. Manish Jain’s daughter, Kanku is designing her own learning path at Shikshantar instead of going to school.

A hundred years ago, Gandhi ji unleashed the power of Jain thought in service of a new vision of swaraj and freedom for India which rippled and continues to ripple across the planet. Perhaps, it is now again time that we also learn to apply the old ideas of self-­restraint, harmony and forgiveness in new ways to bring society out of the slumber it is in and help forge a new story for the well-being of all life on the planet.

Manish Jain speaks about the economics of happiness
Below is one of the several talks by Manish Jain. Here he talks about farming, land, education and the loss of tradition and human nuance.

Manish Jain speaking in Audio inCite by Andrew Geller.

Click the image above to hear a podcast from Audio inCite by Andrew Geller.


Text: Simar Kohli
Photographs: Anveshan

Manish Jain holds a Bachelor’s degree in Economics, International Relations and Political Philosophy from Brown University and a Master’s degree in Education from Harvard University. He spent several years trying to unlearn what he learnt from these Western universities. He was an investment banker with Morgan Stanley, but he quit his corporate career and worked as a consultant in several developing countries in the areas of educational planning, policy analysis, research, program design and media/technology with UNESCO, UNICEF, UNDP, the World Bank, USAID and the Harvard Institute for International Development. Manish went on to co­found Shikshantar and Swaraj University. He has worked with Shikshantar for the past seventeen years. He is passionate about organic farming, slow food cooking, filmmaking, cooperative games, gift culture and bicycling.

To learn more about Manish Jain and Shikshantar, log on to www.shikshantar.in and www.swarajuniversity.org.




Prayers and pigeons in Kerala

In November, I traveled through Kerala with my parents on a sightseeing trip, where I took them to all some of the ‘must-see’ places like Munnar, Alleppey and Fort Cochin. This trip was five days long, and we went at break-neck speed, sleeping at a different location every night, so it wasn’t in the plans to see any Jain mandir in Fort Cochin—until it actually just happened.

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My dad had asked our local guide about temples in Kerala who mentioned that there was a small one in Fort Cochin. Before we saw the rest of the city, we went to the temple. I wasn’t expecting a large Jain community in Kerala and wasn’t surprised when I was told there are only about three hundred Jain families in and around Fort Cochin. These Jains migrated decades ago from Gujarat to set up businesses in Kerala. However, this community is vibrant and committed, and the temple has an interesting story. The priest told us that the statue of Dharmanatha, the fifteenth tirthankara, was lost during the reconstruction of the temple. Somehow, in the middle of the monsoons, the same statue found its way back to the temple.

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When we arrived we met some of the trustees of the temple. They told us about Praful Shah, a stanthakvasi Jain, who is famous for coming to the temple every day for almost twenty five years for one purpose: to feed the pigeons who live at the temple. Praful Bhai’s dedication is a remarkable reflection of the Jain idea of parasparopagraho jivanam, which states that all beings are connected through the service they extend to each other.

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The pigeons at the temple bring to mind some famous research by the American psychologist B.F. Skinner, which postulates that pigeons can exhibit ‘superstitious’ behaviour. In this temple, it seems that the pigeons recognize the sound of Praful ji’s motorcycle. When they see him, they know to circle the temple three times before they are made to listen to a prayer, after which they are fed.

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Over the years, this feat has also become a tourist attraction. By the designated time of 12:30 PM, there was a large crowd who had gathered. I noticed that many people were interacting with the birds already, posing for pictures and feeding them. At one point, the temple volunteers asked the visitors (most of whom were Indian) to stop feeding the birds. This did not deter them, as they were determined to get their new Facebook profile pictures in first.

My parents were not happy about this. My mom commented, “No one is listening. They were asked not to go the area where the pigeons were waiting, and they’re still doing it.” I decided to ask Praful Bhai about it when we met.

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At 12:30 PM exactly, he came in with his helpers. As promised, the pigeons really did circle the temple exactly three times, and then listened to a prayer, after which Praful Bhai and others fed them uncooked grains.

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They go through thirty kilograms per day, and Praful Bhai has paid for most of it himself, or through his family and friends. “When I started doing this, there were ten birds, then it went to fifty, and now it’s in the hundreds.”

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I spoke to him about why he’s been doing this, and how he feels about the tourists who come. He smiled and said, “I do this because I feel I have a duty to help these animals. However, we can’t speak in anger, it defeats our purpose here. If you are going to serve others, do it with a peaceful mind. Yes, it’d be nice if people listened, but maybe its because we weren’t able to communicate properly. In Jainism, the biggest thing is to try to live and let live.”


Text and photographs: Sweta Daga




A film festival in the hills

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The third annual Dharamashala International Film Festival (DIFF) took place in bustling McLeodganj between the 30th of October and 2nd November this year.

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DIFF is curated and organized by Ritu Sarin and Tenzin Sonam as a platform for contemporary independent cinema with a focus on encouraging young Indian and Tibetan filmmakers. Renowned filmmakers in their own right, Ritu and Tenzin have been making movies together since the early 80s.

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Opening night was headlined by the screening of Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi, followed by a short Q & A session with him. Over the next three days, films were screened at two venues most of the time leaving the viewers spoilt for choice.

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There were also interaction sessions with some of the filmmakers which led in to interesting discussions on their personal processes and gave the audience an insight into the artist’s process.

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One of the biggest crowd pullers at DIFF this year was Khyentse Norbu’s Vara: A Blessing. This visual treat portrays the story of a young devadasi (played by Shahana Goswami) who falls in love with a low-caste sculptor in her village. Shot in serenely beautiful rural Sri Lanka, the narrative blurs between the real and the fantastical as it draws the viewers into a subtle world of temptation and transcendence.

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Through the festival the atmosphere was abuzz with people passionately arguing about their favourites while lining up in queues.

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Aspiring and young filmmakers as well as plain old movie buffs had travelled from all over the country to make it for the festival. Through all of this, DIFF was backed by a band of diligent volunteers who saw to it that everyone was having a good time.

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In a chat with Ritu and Tenzin, both emphasised how heartening it was to see the festival grow bigger every year. We at Anveshan couldn’t agree more because it’s exciting to see such initiatives provide opportunity for narratives outside the mainstream.


Text and photographs: Gayatri Ganju

 




All the way to Timbuktu

Anantapur district is one of the driest areas in all of India.

Here, in October 2014, We found ourselves amongst a group of activists, experts and concerned citizens who had gathered from all over India to talk about a range of issues, including gender rights to alternative education politics and ecology.

The gathering was at a place known as the Timbuktu Collective.

This is a place of growth and creative transformation. As their latest annual report states, “A piece of dry degraded land 24 years ago, Timbuktu is today a green wilderness and an agro forest habitat. Timbuktu has been our learning space where strategies for eco-restoration, organic farming, alternative construction, alternative lifestyles and alternative education were developed.”

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I had the privilege of attending the first ever Vikalp Sangam at the Timbuktu Collective over a weekend. ‘Vikalp Sangam’, or ‘Alternative Confluence’, is a people’s movement “providing a platform to constructively challenge and learn from each other, build alliances, and collectively evolve alternative futures.”

Vikalp Sangam was created by several different organizations, from Kalpavriksh, to Deccan Development Society, Bhoomi College and Shikshantar to name a few.

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Ashish Kothari with Manish Jain, two of the co-hosts of Vikalp Sangam.

Three days were spent trying to understand each others’ work and experiences, and how overlaps can be made. In the process, I managed to speak to a number of them.

Many people spoke about creating a society of trust, instead of what today seems to be a society based on fear-driven decision making.

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Manish Jain, a co-founder of Shikshantar, spoke about how we have all been conditioned through various mediums to think that there is not enough in the world for everyone, so we must compete with each other to get the most. “We have to change this thought process. Vikalp Sangam wants to talk about abundance and not scarcity. When we think in terms of abundance, we don’t have a reaction of needing to collect things, we are free to use only what we need because we know that there is more.”

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One of the participants, Sangeetha Sriram, shared her thoughts on her social business in Chennai, called Restore. “I started Restore as a space where the community could gather and gain positive energy, and build together. Restore sources only pesticide-free products, and all at fair prices for the farmer. We don’t follow the market prices, because they are falsely created, but go by what inputs the farmers has put in. The community who comes to shop at Restore also knows that our products are organic, even though we don’t have the label. They trust us, and the farmers we work with, and it is that circle of trust that we are trying to restore. If we can’t trust our farmers, who can we trust? Anyway, at the end of the day, we don’t own anything, we’re just using it temporarily.”

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Another participant, V.B. Chandrasekaran of the Chatti Mahatma Gandhi Aashramam, spoke about using ahinsa in his activism. His newest initiative is a walk for the Polavaram Project which is a proposed dam coming up across the Godavari River located in Andhra Pradesh, while its reservoir spreads in parts of Chhattisgarh and Orissa States.

The project will displace several hundred families and Chandrasekaranji hopes to march to the villages and start a dialogue. “I don’t want to do any negative dharnas, or protests. That has not solved anything. Many times as activists we’re always reacting to things, and it can be exhausting.  I want to go to the villages which will benefit from the dam and ask the village, ‘Can’t we do this without submerging your neighbours? If it is benefiting you, can you help your fellow man?’” When we asked him if he thought this would work, he smiled as said, “What do I have to lose?”

Through these conversations, we sensed that there is perhaps there is some urgency in affirming that we are not alone. That we not only share ideas with like-minded individuals across the globe. That we are intimately connected to many different kinds of people through our day-to-day lives.

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The sense of isolation, some aspects of which is magnified by urban life, are assuaged by sangams like these. Places like Timbuktu refresh this trust of community, creating oases for alternative ideas to thrive.

We went to one of the driest districts in India, and yet it had plenty to offer. We came back with the sense that there are larger communities ready to welcome anyone who is willing to participate in a holistic, thoughtful way of life.


Text and photographs: Sweta Daga
Additional commentary: Dhruva Ghosh




An eclectic electrician

In September 2014, we were meeting people, scouting locations, and visiting various temples to get a sense of the Paryushana festival as is celebrated in the city. We managed to get our story, and in the process, we met a number of people who make for intriguing anecdotes.

During one such expedition, we met a most interesting electrician.

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At the svetambara Jain temple to the fifteenth tirthankara, Dharmanatha, at Jayanagar in Bangalore, adherents of the Jain religion were deeply immersed in the annual festival of Paryushana, which is centred around the Jain ideals, and is seen as an annual gathering for contemplation and forgiveness.

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During one of the rituals, most of the participants were inside two halls, gathered inside to contemplate, first through a small number of rituals, and then through silence.

In this interim, I was documenting the location, taking pictures and notes. After a while, I was sitting on the stairs of one of the auxiliary buildings inside the temple complex. There was a gentle tap on my shoulder. As I looked back and up, I saw this gentleman standing there who said “Why don’t you move your camera-bag, someone may trip on it.” I was glad for the heads-up.

As I moved my camera-bag, we began speaking to each other. I quickly discovered that he is not a Jain, and, my initial assessment was the he didn’t seem particularly religious. He is forty years old, and he said that though he is a Marathi, he is based in Mandya, near Bangalore. He explained that he is the electrician for the temple complex, and that he has been in Bangalore for eighteen years.

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After each of us got an approximate sense of what the other was doing in that temple complex in the odd afternoon of a weekday, we exchanged names. Rajiv, I learnt, in these eighteen years, has seen a number of different trades.

He started earning a living as a worker in a cycle shop, and eventually became a projectionist at a movie theatre. Then, he was an auto-driver for a while and also, later started doing some electrical wiring work. Ever the entrepreneur, he eventually shifted to doing electrical wiring full-time and also started taking larger contracts involving end-to-end electrical work and decorative lighting.

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The entire wiring of the temple complex we were in was done by him. In addition to this, he still sometimes drives cars and cabs and also brokers real estate to supplement his income.

On being asked if he thinks of the colours and the aesthetic aspects himself, Rajiv responded that “I do the entire design of colours and arrangement and also the technical structure myself. I have not studied it or learnt from anyone.” With a combination of gestures and a unique, abbreviated Hindi, he added “My work stands on the basis of observation and thought.”

I asked him about his family. “My parents are alive, and I have a wife and four kids,” Rajiv said. “What about siblings?” I asked, with a natural curiosity, but with no particular agenda. “I had a brother and a sister-in-law,” Rajiv added “but they passed away in an accident some years ago.”

“Actually,” he went on, “out of my four kids, two are his children, and two are mine. But I have raised them all the same.”

I asked him what his kids do, and he explained “Both the boys — mine and my brother’s — are in the 10th standard. The girls are older; they are married.”

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Our conversation turned to religion, and the sense I got was that Rajiv isn’t a particularly religious man and doesn’t know much about Jainism, either. He observed, however, that in his opinion, the Jain community is not as religious as many others, but the Jains who do follow religion often tend to be generous with donations and charity.

He locuted back to work and said “What really matters is the work you do, and it must be done well. We are in this world to perform some task. That task may reside in a shop, in a house, in a temple, or on the peak of a mountain. But all work is work, and merits respect.”

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“In a sense,” he added, “a wealthy person running a big leather industry and a poor cobbler on the pavement are doing similar work. They are both artisans.”

On the subject of art, Rajiv insisted that I should see the decorative lights in the temple complex, all of which he has set up. He gave me a somewhat guided tour of the place. Besides the main temple, there was also smaller temples and other buildings, including prayer halls and places of residence for monks and nuns.

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At the time, it was late afternoon, so most of the lights were still not switched on. However, inside the temples, the idols were inside chambers which were closed on three sides. Here, the lights were not a spotlight or anything that resembled a fixed arrangement of illumination.

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Each idol chamber was lined with colour-changing lamps, hidden from view. But their light washed the idol and the space around in successive tides of blue, red, yellow, violet and other colours, sometimes in combination.

I asked him that whether working in a temple has impacted his life in any way. Rajiv said that the purpose of a temple is to have a place where one can be in peace and quiet, and where one can contemplate. To him, this is more instrumental than rituals or worshipping any deity.

“There may be many different gods,” Rajiv concluded “but all temples are the same.”

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It was well after sunset by the time we left, and I made sure to witness Rajiv’s handiwork come alive after dark. It was not quite a sombre affair, but nor was it excessively grand.

Lamplighters, like places of contemplation, are found in many places of this world.


Text: Dhruva Ghosh
Photographs: Dhruva Ghosh and Sweta Daga