Saturday, August 8, 2015

Common Ground

Sunday Night Life by Lake Fatehsagar.

I have been struggling with writing this post for the last week since the idea came to me.  The seed came from a picture I saw for dating.  The picture was situational, so describing it may not come across as cleanly as I’d like, but centered were two drinks on one cocktail napkin.  A caption labeled, “Common Ground.”

The idea at first made me laugh, but then flooded my sensibilities about the concept of common ground.  For me, everything in India is common ground.  Shared autos.  Shared sleeping rooms.  Shared meals.  Shared bags.  Shared roads between cars, rickshaws, bicycles, motorcycles, pedestrians, cows, dogs, water buffaloes, and goats.  There really isn’t a moment of my day that has personal space (in all its dimensions of meaning) and I doubt the phrase would even make sense to my village friends.  Some of these thoughts stem from an earlier post on sharing culture, but what I hope to get at here is different.

Closing down the food center by Sukhadia Circle.

When I first started thinking about this idea of common ground in India, a book that has been sitting in my Amazon shopping cart for sometime came to mind:  “Tea Time with Terrorists:  A Motorcycle Journey Into the Heart of Sri Lanka’s Civil War.”  In the book Mark Meadows chronicles his time as a journalist interviewing key actors in the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict.  Though the conversations described took place on the pearly island to the south, the title, symbology, and conversation-place seem to fit perfectly for my thoughts.  I haven’t read all of the book, but it looks like now I must.  

The idea of tea as common ground is where my head’s at, currently.  I think there is a lot of potential to capitalize on the ever-prevalent ritual of having tea as a piece to creating spaces for dialogue on concerns in India (South Asia?).  The practice is already shared on a (inter)national scene, why would it not make sense for some NGO to focus efforts on utilizing an already inculcated habit for productive cross-cultural, or interfaith, or gender, or socioeconomic exchange? 

Let’s take two commercial institutions to analyze a “model of common ground” around tea.  
1. Local.  I am currently writing in a coffee shop near to SM and sitting among three lunch dates going on.  This coffee shop was started by three men who left hotel management service together with an entrepreneurial spirit and the ambition to expand.  In the words of one of the three, “We brought the coffee culture to Udaipur.”  With that comes the expectation of a space to gather.  And what a gathering place this is — known to every NGO worker in Udaipur, this shop has a steady flow of patrons and appears to be providing a solid outlet for couples to share that one-knapkin common ground.  I can personally attest to the thought-provoking and question-searching conversations that are held here over tea.
2.  Global.  Starbucks.  I actually learned a bit about Sbucks India as I flew over from the States and have since maintained a peripheral interest in its output.  As copied from  “Our mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup, and one neighborhood at a time. . . It’s not unusual to see people coming to Starbucks to chat, meet up or even work. We’re a neighborhood gathering place, a part of the daily routine – and we couldn’t be happier about it. Get to know us and you’ll see: we are so much more than what we brew.”  The takeaways here are the values that Sbucks embodies:  community space, gathering place, neighborhood, and thus facilitated conversation, exchange, and getting to know others.  For you readers inclined to Sbucks, think about any time you sit down in one of the stores.  How many minutes do you spend there? What types of interactions do you observe from the patrons?  What types of interactions do you engage?   

The mechanism for sharing (tea) is already deeply placed in India, there just needs to now be the facilitation (a non-imposing space and encouragement to engage concerns and issues).  I see this as being different than the encouraging work done by many inter-faith workshops, seminars, and roundtables whose intention is to come together with a focus on differences.  The possibility with cultivating a culture around tea is coming to the table with a focus on the shared which then allows the different to emerge in an organic, approachable, and open manner.  That’s always the general rule in getting to know someone, right?  Finding a shared interest?  Tea seems like quite the shared interest.     

I believe that we can follow Meadow's precedent in Sri Lanka by first establishing and humanizing a space to explore the challenging questions and topics that fill and fuel tensions.  Meet you for tea, soon.  

A past day of sharing thali and exploring Dilwara.

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