Deepak Ramola is a polymath: writer, actor, teacher and lyricist. Originally hailing from the hill town of Dehradun, he is now a well-known artist and founder of Project Fuel.
Network Capital caught up with him. Take a look at his thought-provoking interview.
What do you do?
I run an organization called Project FUEL. FUEL stands for Forward the Understanding of Every Life Lesson. And what I do is, I document design and pass on human wisdom. I try to celebrate it through the tool of life lessons. And once we have the data, I try to design it into interactive performance and curriculums and activities and creative projects, just exploring ways in which we can pass on people’s learning of their lives. So in short assisting and ensuring that every person in the world has an opportunity to be able to create an impact with what they know best! Other than Project FUEL, I am a writer, published poet, my first collection of poems titled ‘Itna Toh Main Samajh Gaya Hoon’ recently released. I write songs for Hindi films and ideate over creative ideas. I am an artist. What I really do is try to be a constellation in a world full of stars and that’s my answer to the question.
Why do you do what you do?
You know I read somewhere that sixty billion people have lived on Earth ever since life originated. And to think of how much do we know of that sixty billion learning or wisdom is very very miniscule. It’s only what Quentin Crisp calls people from the golden society of every era that have passed on their learnings and their intellectual understanding of the world to us through their arts, through their creativity, through their science and all that. But there are so many people who we will never know about, whose names we will not know, whose faces we haven’t seen and yet, there is a validation that they have lived as authentically as the ones we know of. I do this work primarily because I feel that not every person in the world will have the opportunity to be a CEO, an artist, a journalist, an interviewer, an interviewee. But every person who has lived a good life and is willing to share the understanding of that life with the other people needs to be remembered, recalled and celebrated for generations to come. You never know my mother’s or my grandmother’s life lesson would be the perfect understanding or solution to someone’s problem in Afghanistan. Today, there are more than seven billion people on Earth and there will be no sustainable development if we cannot learn from each other. So my work rests upon the philosophy of being able to create that exchange modus for everybody who is participating and also taking this local personal insight of living in the world to people at large and see how that fits a cultural context, how that transcends a geographical context or a demographic context. And through these contexts we will be able to see our reflection in each other’s stories and find hope to do better. And as Maya Angelou said famously,” When you know better, you do better.” I do this work to allow people and myself to know better and create more impact.
What is one thing you believe to be true but others rarely agree with you on?
Wow, that’s a good question. What I genuinely, genuinely believe to be true is that there is more hope in the world than there is despair. There is more silence in the world than there is noise and I don’t necessarily feel that people disagree with it. But I do feel that some people in the world haven’t come into terms with accepting that as a notion. And because of that there is the lack of optimism that originates within that they see as a reflection in the world. I say that because with every single community that I have worked, whether it’s the tribals in Maharashtra, whether it is the sex-workers in Kamatipura, whether it’s the kids studying under the Taliban in Afghanistan, whether it’s the Syrian refugees smuggling themselves through boats and through the Bulgarian forests into Europe, I have seen hope in the most subtle and in the most serendipitous way in people’s faces and in the way they conduct themselves. People shirk away from that optimism because the popular media, the pop culture tries to create phenomenon out of people and situations. And unfortunately the world we live in, what sells is negativity, what sells is pain, what sells is doubt more than optimism. I also believe this because kindness doesn’t have an upper limit. There are millions of people on planet Earth who need help, who need support, the things you need to do to save the planet and so many causes that you have to fight for. You can do it for as many people you can do it for. You can do it for twenty thousand, you can do it for twenty million, you can do it for a billion people. But kindness does have a lower limit. And the lower limit is one. If in your lifetime you can make a contribution to someone’s life in a way that from that point something powerful and positive can be traced, then you have done the best for that person. And because the lower limit is one, everybody has the potential and the capacity to contribute in making the world a better place. And that’s a hopeful thought, I think.
Which apparent failure set you up for success?
Ever since, I was a young child growing up I was heavily bullied for my voice. I was constantly targeted with lewd jokes, with derogatory comments, with remarks that were damaging. And as a young person you have to really find ways to like yourself and present yourself when everybody is bullying you for something they disagree with or consider to be your weakness. In my case, that happened to be my voice. I was always told that you are sounding like a girl, a young kid or not sounding at all. You don’t have the right pitch, the baritone, the bass and all of those things. And that led as a snowball effect to multiple other comments that would really be hurtful. But I believe that a very young age, understanding for myself that what people consider to be a weakness could be turned into an advantage, could be turned into a strength – was a stepping stone to, I don’t know if success but was stepping stone to feeling empowered and feeling confident. This allowed me to ask people questions, be curious about why people behave in a certain way, in protecting my own dreams. That’s one of the lessons that I have learnt very strongly that you cannot let people dictate your terminology, your thoughts in a negative context because you need to own your story. You need to be proud of who you are and where you come from and how you sound like and the way you look like and bring that into a room. And when you do that, you are bound to feel at home no matter where you are in the world and you are also able to create inspiration for the next person in the room.
What is the best investment you have made in yourself?
I have always been a seeker. A person who is curious about why someone lives the way he does or what’s logic to certain human behavior, amongst other things. And in the light of that understanding I am most proud that I have allowed myself to have as diverse experiences as possible. It is popular to say that travelling teaches you a lot, which it does. But one can start from right where you are. I began that way. Immersing myself in lives of other people in the community or communities other than my own helped me observe and absorb insights that are not only personal but valuable. From the experience of teaching differently abled children at 17 to performing poetry for survivors of human trafficking, I have always attempted to experience complex and even bizarre opportunities. Sometimes, the opportunities came themselves and for all the other times, I had to create or discover them.
The other investment I am keen on sharing is a life lesson that I trace back to every once in a while. I have learnt that your talent is not your gift, it’s your responsibility. When I act with that awareness I no longer treat my skills as mere hobbies, interests or weekend pass-time activities. I try to polish and hone them to serve a person who necessarily doesn’t have the same ability or talent. This has made me more humble and present and has ignited a willingness to serve. When I know I can write poetry, I will write enough to have a book ready. When I know I can paint I will use that to express my disgust for injustice through an art campaign.
Has your career been planned or a function of serendipity?
The trajectory of my career is ‘structured serendipity’. Which simply means that you put as much effort to create what you desire and then allow for things to surprise you. I couldn’t have possibly stumbled upon the calling of documenting life lessons. It was a series of consistent efforts in the pursuit of unearthing new myriads possibilities that have resulted in my role as an educator and artist who teaches human wisdom.
The magic of serendipity comes into play once you have done the ground work. It’s like deciding to go on a roadtrip. You plan as much as you can to feel secure and strategic and safe. And yet there is always room about how you will feel/react to people you meet, circumstances you encounter and lessons you learn. My career is a validation of the roadtrip I signed up for. It’s evolving every week and that keeps it fresh and fulfilling.
What is the role of mentors in your life?
Mentors have been my guiding light. From my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Shraddha Bakshi who ingrained in me a belief that I could write and speak well to my 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Pragati Kapoor who convinced me that my story was worth telling to my friend and colleague, Apoorva who holds the space for me every single day in decisions I make, I have been blessed with people who are so comfortable in being themselves that it invariably inspires me to be more of myself.
Fortunately, when you are collecting life lessons for a living every story teller gets to play the role of a mentor in that moment. An old woman in Nepal whose relationship advice I still follow to a monk in Bhutan who helped me resolve my conflicts to a young boy in a remote village of Uttarakhand who taught me how to retain innocence – all are my mentors. Teaching/Mentoring was never about giving students some marks; it was always about assisting them in discovering their own magic.
I feel my thank you is only a glimpse of my gratitude for the mentors I have had the chance to learn from.
What advice would you give to your 18 year old self?
The fact that I was heavily bullied during my teenage years, I had this indispensable need of pleasing people. I always wanted to do a good job and cause no harm. Yet an additional desire to make everyone happy existed. Over the years, particularly at age 18, I realized that it is beyond control and also not practical. I consider it as a defining moment in my journey of owning my story and not going overboard with pleasing people. I would say to my 18 year old self – You are right about that fact that you will be alright. The passion you have for people will serve you wonderfully. Remember to drink enough water, read more poetry and to not be harsh on yourself.
How can men and women work together to create a more equitable and conducive workspace?
Any human being when hired, is hired for the ability or skill they bring into a work environment. But it is who they are and not what they do that allows them to contribute to the growth of the organisation and help themselves grow. In my view, it is imperative that both men and women introduce themselves with love and speak from the truth of their being. It allows people to connect with them easily, makes them more relatable and dis regards any room for misinterpretation.
Also, being confident about your own individuality is key. If one gets easily influenced or manipulated, it is hard to stand firm on decisions. Providing co-workers their space helps in gaining their trust but most importantly develops in the workspace a room for people to be vulnerable in a powerful way.
Up next, I am painting a remote village on the foothills of a glacier in Uttarakhand. I am beyond excited. This is second edition of our treasured ‘Wise Wall Project’ under which we document rural wisdom and showcase it through art and murals on the walls of the houses in the village. Other than this, a whole new book on life lessons from the refugee camps I stayed in Europe, lot of new poems and learning how to weave on a handloom is line up. Each year, instead of formulating a resolution list, I choose a theme/feeling I want to live for the whole year. My theme for 2018 is ‘Celebrate’. I am looking forward to celebrating my curiosity, conversations, work and even my time off.