My high school mathematics teacher always said, “there are three sides to every story, your side, the other person’s side and what actually happened.” What he means is that we shouldn’t be quick to form an opinion based on hearsay. We should look at a scenario objectively and find the truth. A few years ago, I found myself in such a situation –there was my side of the story, there was the person’s side of the story, and the truth.
It all started ten years ago, when while attending a meeting of our community non-profit organization, I was introduced to Pradip Sarmah, founder of the Rickshaw Bank. A Rickshaw is a vehicle commonly used in India to provide transportation for thousands of commuters in cities and towns. Sadly, the pullers live a meagre existence. They labored every day from morning to night. Since they did not own the Rickshaw, they had to part with most of their daily income with the vehicle owner. Mr. Sarmah stepped in. With the help of a few micro financing organizations, he organized loans to these pullers so that they could own the vehicle. Mr. Sarmah took another step –that is to redesign the vehicle. Hs persistence paid off when he received technical services from MIT and Yale. I was so moved by his story that I nominated him for the Tech Awards. Presented by Applied Materials, it is an annual event that honors 15 international laureates who are using technology to benefit humanity. This award is known as the Oscar of Silicon Valley. I was thrilled to learn that Mr. Sarmah won this prestigious award. My friends, well-wishers and everyone in our non-profit were ecstatic. But suddenly the celebration turned sour.
Art work by Prachurya Baruah
A professor staked a claim to the award alleging that his idea was stolen. He demanded that I resubmit my nomination to include him. He also laid claim to half the award money. When he realized that I disagreed he called a Press Meeting. The following morning the headline news read – “The Tech award was manipulated by a US Based non-profits and some people through fake claims.” My non-profit organization asked me to submit a press release to clarify my position. Meanwhile, I was contacted by a popular TV journalist who asked me to tell the true story. I told him about the selfless and dedicated work of Mr. Sarmah to help the destitute Rickshaw pullers. A few days later he contacted me and demanded me to join a TV debate with the professor. I refused to which he said “I am on a truth finding mission and I will not stop until I find the truth.”
By that time, I was physically and emotionally devastated. I wondered what the truth, the professor’s, the TV journalist’s or mine. One day while taking a long walk I was remembering my mathematics teacher. He spoke of life as an mathematical equation p=Np. Just as equations have variables and constants, life is a mix of positive and negative elements. Our perspective and approach to these variables determines the overall outcome of our lives.
I tried to solve the equation:
The professor – his claim was that it was his idea about a better Rickshaw design. But had he ever worked with the Rickshaw pullers, had he ever arranged the low-cost loans to them, had he ever thought of facilitating the medical coverage for these helpless workers? The variables in this equation are only about a person’s selfish needs: the award money.
The journalist- He wanted me to debate the professor. Why should I, to defend myself or to talk badly of the other person? Once again, the Rickshaw pullers were not into the equation.
The truth, one day I called Pradip Sarmah who was teaching a short-term course at Yale. I asked what the Tech Award meant to him. “I think about the rickshaw pullers and how much joy this award will bring to them. I dream when they will gain a bank account, valid ID card, license, and insurance and when their children can go to schools.” It had been more than a month and for the first time I heard someone talking about rickshaw pullers. I realized I overburden myself with others even though the truth was staring me right in the face. The mathematical equation p=Np set me free.
Pradip Sarmah ( Second Row , First from right)
On 20th October 2011, at the Santa Clara Convention Center, in the heart of California's Silicon Valley, more than 1400 people attended the Annual Tech Awards. I had the great privilege of attending this prestigious award. It was a touching moment when Mr. Sarmah went on stage to receive the Flextronics Economic Development Award while a short video about the lives of Rickshaw-pullers by acclaimed Hollywood Director Sandy Smolan was played in the giant background screen.
Ankur Bora served as an executive member of Assam Foundation of North America. Between 2011 to 2018, he successfully nominated four individuals from Canada and India to the Tech Awards and Women’s World Summit Foundation Annual Prize.
Pradip Sarmah: Flextronics Economic Development Award, 2011
Suchismita Majumdar: Women’s World Summit Foundation annual Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life 2013
Peggy Carswell: Women’s World Summit Foundation annual Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life 2016
Birubala Rabha: Women’s World Summit Foundation annual Prize for Women’s Creativity in Rural Life 2018