small is beautiful
This is a cross-post of my newsletter, which you can receive via email (monthly-ish) by subscribing here.
Man is small. Small is beautiful. To seek gigantism is to seek self-destruction. — Sudhakar Ram (“uncle”) in The Connected Age.
Hours after Joe Biden gave his victory speech in Delaware, my closest mentor passed away in a hospital suite in Bombay, thousands of miles from the parking lot where I was car camping in the Colorado sand dunes. I woke up to a text from his daughter Sam — call me when you wake up — and I knew that uncle was gone.
My year, till then, had been an abstract spectacle of headlines about politics and the pandemic. My weeks had dissolved into the hypnotic infinite space of my Twitter feed. I had scrolled through generalized columns about crises that transpired, in reality, at the scale of a single conversation at a kitchen table like the one where I am writing these words.
Uncle’s loss, however, shocked me back to a visceral world — one of tears on toilet paper, my roommate’s arm around my shoulder, and my mother’s voice on the phone. I started to pay attention to the rhythms of the lives underneath the banners of the news, starting with my own.
Uncle, more than anyone, taught me that the biggest changes come from the littlest stories — that rooting in the practicalities of your neighborhood is the best way to imagine a better world. His absence has made my life feel soft, vulnerable, and small. As he would say, though, small is beautiful
Uncle listened with his whole self. He left open long spaces in conversation. He loved yogurt rice, chocolate, and anything sweet. He watched thousands of films at the neighborhood theatre and planned to direct one someday. He had a wardrobe of simple polo shirts, always untucked. He was the leader of one of India’s top companies, the father of my best friend, and the mentor of a long line of children. He shaped us slowly, like wind on rock.
When I first landed in Bombay to move in with uncle and aunty, I was cresting high on academic adrenaline, set to help research and write India’s national education policy. I knew nothing about them besides the fact that they were respected business leaders willing to house their daughter’s college classmate. Wheeling my suitcase to their thirty-fifth floor apartment, I expected a sterile flat but arrived instead to chaos and children’s laughter.
On a wide floor scattered with toys ran four siblings, ranging in age from toddler to teen. Uncle cracked pistachios with the youngest in his lap, bouncing to Ranvir Kapoor songs on the iPad. Aunty flitted around with pages of homework while the kids’ mother, the housekeeper Surekha, cooked breakfast. The happy commotion of toddlers’ English, Bollywood songs, and nursery rhymes became my daily ritual.
Each afternoon, uncle returned from work and sat with me at the glass dining table over a homemade Tamil Brahmin lunch. That first day, over parboiled rice and sambar, I told him about my project, with a head full of ideas about scale and impact. I wanted to make changes as deeply and quickly as possible. He conveyed little in response besides a trademark quiet smile, and I wondered if he was disillusioned. That night, I received several brief email introductions from uncle to educators, simply titled you need to meet.
I spent the next few weeks reading piles of reports on Indian education that frayed my assumptions about top-down change. Roundtables discussed the same problems that had been rehashed in decades of forgotten documents. Different experts pushed their own idiosyncratic pet projects, despite the fact that most middle schoolers lacked basic literacy and numeracy. Subject committees of six wrote the textbooks used by thousands of slum children like Surekha’s daughters. The Maharashtran board decided on a curriculum of Tennyson poems and lessons on volcanism, written in clipped British English for schools full of students who spoke only Marathi.
In contrast, the people that uncle introduced me to reimagined their world from the bottom up. They invested in communities without superimposing their ideas of success. At a Montessori school run by the Sriramachandran Trust in Chennai, I met educators who believed deeply in nurturing children as individuals. In the most cooperative classroom I have ever seen, students of all ages helped each other add sums, solve puzzles, and do chores. At home, uncle was always a steward and never an owner. He was careful not to let the kids’ schooling come at the expense of their local relationships. I assumed that each child would attend college, but he wanted to support them through their own visions of success, whether that meant someday learning a trade or getting a degree.
Behind uncle’s silence at our first lunch together, I realized, was never disillusionment. It was a deep belief in the beauty of helping individuals find their personal calling.
Most evenings, uncle and I took a humid dusky walk in the parks that lined the apartment complex. As the sun settled onto Bombay, we listened together to the ambient noise of the birds, cars, or street hawkers.
I remember, in particular, walking with uncle the day after I had received the latest in a series of fellowship rejections. I was anxious for a future where, for the first time, more school was not the default option. Most people I spoke to advised me to mimic their own paths, deriding either corporate or nonprofit careers. Instead of proffering advice, uncle let me speak.
In his stillness, I answered many of my own anxieties. I talked about what mattered to me, which relationships had shaped my world, and who I wanted to be. I found, on my desk, books like The Four Agreements and The Art of Possibility, which I have dog-eared and carried with me ever since. My favorite line reads, “We are about contribution — that’s what our job is. It’s not about impressing people. It’s not about getting the next job. It’s about contributing something.”
Uncle made me realize the absurdity, to quote Anand Giridharadas, of worrying that I might ever only help people in the hundreds and not the millions, before I had really helped anyone at all. The best thing I could do for the world wasn’t to attempt to pre-plan a career of scale — it was to reflect on my values, reach a hand to a neighbor, and listen for what matters.
This election day, an Uber driver I had met two years ago in Bombay called me to ask who would win. He didn’t, however, wait for my answer.
“Who cares,” he said. “We need money to live, and no politician has ever helped with that. We are forgotten.”
Uncle had a rare gift for making everyone he met feel seen and heard. Around him, people never felt too small to matter.
Feeling forgotten is a sentiment that sparks resentment and narrow-mindedness. I watched the pattern play out in my own home this year: my parents grew insecure about India’s place in the world, Trump became more anti-China, and my dad became more pro-Trump. The same person who’d sat me on his knee to memorize Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” started to scoff about liberal snowflakes.
The opposite of being forgotten is being asked for help. Not only did uncle hold space for a multiplicity of opinions, but he also treated the people holding them as his collaborators. He sent me articles and books about everything from politics to spirituality, and he always asked me what I thought. Despite being much younger and less experienced than him, I always felt like I, too, could help him better understand the world.
A few months after I gave up on talking to my dad about politics, we walked to a vigil for George Floyd in my town square. People asked for his voice and his assistance. We depended on each other to move forward. Months of local pain and interdependence changed his stance, which no amount of debate had been able to pierce.
Uncle dreamed of a world organized around smallness, interdependence, and empathy, where people were seen and valued. Now that he is gone, envisioning this world is up to the rest of us — Sam, aunty, Surekha and her children; his colleagues, friends, and me.
I think often about my place in it all. I have always thrived on being a borderless flâneuse, reimagining the world with changing ground beneath my feet. Since leaving uncle’s home in Bombay, I haven’t lived in a single place for long, hopping from the Gulf of Guinea to the Himalayan mountains. But the problem with the flâneuse, as James Wood writes, is that she usually exempts herself from the general condition. I’ve observed the patterns of polarization around the world, but I’ve never attended a town council meeting.
What is the balance between a narrow and broad lens upon the world’s problems? Most of all, what does it mean to be independent but rooted, as local as possible and as global as necessary? Uncle left me, as usual, with more questions than answers.
The path is unclear, but it will always center on what he taught me really matters: expanding our circles of love, trusting those who look and speak differently, and making our lives feel, at once, important and small enough to be part of something greater.