We host many stories here on Network Capital to share inspiration and resources. This story is one of a changing world, global issues, the importance of embracing uncertainty and complexity, and within this, two young people from opposites sides of the planet who met through art and music, and decided to leave their work, families and countries to spend two years on the road exploring the notion of a world united as one family.
“When Prashant Kumar was eighteen years old, he left his native Bihar to pursue engineering in the big city: a familiar story for many young Biharis. While at college he was no A+ student. He skipped class and spent time building cars, doing community work and playing music. His grades and attendance were questionable, but his college loved him. In his last term Prashant dropped out of school. Rather than do an unpaid internship—low on learning and void of meaning—Prashant decided to do something completely outside his area of experience. With a friend and mentor, Prashant started Rebirth, an upcycling design firm, creating products out of other people’s waste.
Meanwhile, me. I left home in Ontario at sixteen to study at United World College. Six years later I was completing my thesis paper for a Combined Honours in anthropology and sustainability. I was a scholarship student with top grades that could have taken me to any Ivy League school. But I decided to publish my thesis’ findings in Haiku, my department didn’t know how to react. I decided not to pursue a Masters. Six months later I was volunteering at United World College in India.
Our story isn’t a story of success, it’s a story of how and why we both decided to say NO to one thing in order to say YES to another. No to the conventional path before us and Yes to a different path. For Prashant, this meant a creating for himself a livelihood that could contribute to breaking an unsustainable linear process of extractivism, and instead bringing to life a sustainable, circular process of upcycling. For me, this meant leaving the academic world to instead search for meaningful forms of effective service work. In neither case is success, as we think of it, the goal. In fact, both of our journeys have been led by a determined moment of turning away from success to instead walk a path of great uncertainty.
After leaving college, Prashant started building himself a career as an upcycling artist. It started as a way to raise funds to build a shelter for street dogs in Pune, and from there it took flight. Since then he has brought upcycling design to new scales. He became known for (very) large scale work: creating India’s first animal shelter made of waste; designing the hippest locales in downtown Pune and creating the city’s largest scale upcycled art installation: a visual history of the evolution of tools, exploding in a massive lit-up sphere, 35 ft above ground. And his days building cars when he should have been studying? They led him to race in Supra and Baja, designing, building, driving cars and managing his team, who came in 1st place three years running.
For Prashant, it has been about seeing beyond the career options thrust upon him by society; working on things he loves; and working with creativity and without fear of taking on big challenges. In his work, Prashant has let his curiosity guide him, his former experience teach him and his zeal keep him exploring new areas of creation.
For Prashant the key moments in his journey have been: making the leap of faith into the unknown; building himself up from zero; and taking on challenges that appeared to be beyond him. As Prashant says:
“Always underestimate things. If you don’t underestimate big scale, you’ll never work big scale.”
The guiding force for Prashant has been addressing the needs he sees around him. And now Prashant is on a journey of from India to Scotland with a Canadian he met on a rainy night in Pune.
And my decision to explore paths of service: this led me to one year of volunteering at UWC Mahindra College, close to Pune, teaching International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge, taking students on expeditions in the Himalayas and developing the school’s approach to service-learning, experiential education and train-the-trainer programs. I decided to stay a second year, to get deeper into the work of making education a force for peace. This led to founding the Uniting for Peace Youth Festival (UPYF) and working with design thinking, systems thinking and nonviolent communication to teach UWC students how to address complex issues at their deepest roots: both political and personal.
I turned down a teaching contract and spent the summer designing a mindfulness programme, drawing on previous training experience and my own personal practice of meditation. For the following year, I worked closely with students and faculty, helping people to develop personal practices of mindfulness. My goal was to give people the tools they would need to commit deeply and work effectively towards addressing the complex injustices in the world around us (UWC Mission). With young people from around the world, we would sit and contemplate the importance of compassion, our role as change-makers and the joy that can be found in our responsibility to live a life of social service.
The birth of the Vasudhaiva Ride
And this is when Prashant and I met. Prashant was hosting an international artist residency in Pune, and I showed up to visit. He greeted me before anyone else, and we soon become fast friends. Months later, I told Prashant my plans to leave Pune and ride a motorcycle to Scotland, exploring different fields of positive work on the way. We talked long and hard. Prashant told me about Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, an old Sanskrit phrase reminding us that the entire world is one family. And so one person’s plan becomes two people’s mission, and the Vasudhaiva Ride was born.
In the months that followed we put everything we had into this work. I left my job at UWC and Prashant shut down Rebirth indefinitely. We moved in together. The maps went up on the walls, Fela Kuti albums play loud, and the planning of a transnational series of projects from India to Scotland began. Two years of collaborating with artists, educators, food growers, community organisers and more to explore the notion of One world, One family, and to bring people together in a transnational community of those working towards peace, sustainable living and community wellbeing.
With no source of income, the paralysis of demonetization and increasingly tight borders between many nation states, it was a hard season of preparing for a seemingly impossible task. The challenges have been real, but we’ve stuck to our guiding vision.
More than 50,000km, 20 countries and 2 years on the road.
At the time of writing, Prashant and I are nine months into the Vasudhaiva Ride. We have finished our first two projects in Bombay and Pushkar and are now building a model for self-reliant, sustainable housing in Arrah, Bihar, where we will be until December before setting out on the international leg of the ride.”
Since starting the ride in January, 2017, Ben and Prashant—and their dog Buddy—have covered 11,000km and are currently in Arrah, Bihar. Hear (much) more about the first projects of this journey in the next article, coming soon!