Sunday, September 25, 2011

Lia Diskin, the Gandhian in Brazil

Mahatma Gandhi's birth anniversary will be celebrated on 2 October this year for the 30th consecutive year by Lia Diskin and her organisation Palas Atena in Sao Paulo. This is a commemoration with a difference. It is not a one-day affair. It is called as Semana de Gandhi (Gandhi Week) and more often the celebrations go on for two weeks and some times a month. It is not a mere ritual or a show of garlanding the statue, paying eloquent homage in a comfortable hall and forgetting it till the next October. For Lia Diskin, Gandhism is a celebration and commitment throughout the year. It has become her mission in life. Gandhi is not history for Lia. She sees his message as relevant for the future. She believes that Gandhi's ideas and practice of non-violence are preventive remedies for the future of the Brazilian society which is facing serious problems of violence and crime. The criminalisation of young minds in the favelas (slums) is brought out vividly in the famous Brazilian film City of God (cidade de deus) which is based on real life stories. Lia Diskin has the firm conviction that sowing the seeds of Gandhian values among the children and youth will help to prevent the infection of their mind. The focus of the Semana de Gandhi is, therefore, children, youth and education. The venues of the events are schools, prisons, streets and public spaces. The events are organised in collaboration with educationists, intellectuals, government authorities, artists, civil society activists as well as with UNESCO.

Here are the list of their activities during the Gandhi week this year from 30 September to 27 October. ¨ The art of life consists in making of life an art ¨ is the Gandhian quote to inspire this year's celebrations and so there are more artistic activities this time.

- Drum Ensemble by the youth group Rede Beija Flor

-Words from Gandhi – talk by Hamilton Faria, poet and anthropologist

- Sketch: Gandhi receives Kasturbai’s letter in prison – actors Joao Signorelli and Meeta

- Indian Music – by Meeta Ravindra group

- Kathak Dance – by Meeta and Gyaneshree

- Play by actor Joao Signorelli who impersonates Gandhi and leads the audience through his life and ideas.

- Video-dialog by Luiz Goes who shows Gandhi videos and invites discussion

- Talking about Gandhi with mediator Joao Moris

- Poems of Rabindranath Tagore -reading by Joao Moris

- Instrumental and vocal music –by Krucis

- Culture of Peace in Education - Awareness Raising Walk

- Several sessions for treatment of delinquent youth

- Indian classical dance – Silvana Duarte

- Storytelling: An Indian Tale about Shiva – Tininha Calazans

- Sumi-e painting and crafts workshop

- Talk by Egberto de Almeida Penido, a judge

- Children’s Choir

- Floral offering to Gandhi statue. The public is being invited to come by cycle and avoid car.

Lia Diskin believes that non-violence is a practice and a constant educational process. She explains this to me, ¨ Within the culture of violence in which we are steeped, we hardly notice the abuses we commit on a daily basis. Violence is not a destiny. It is a choice. This is why it is important to add in the school curriculum itself Education for Non-Violence and Living Together in harmony with others¨. She is convinced that this education will bring about a change in the mindset of people in the same way as the education on environment has made us conscious of this theme starting especially with the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

Lia Diskin and her educationist collaborators have devised special courses for the government schools and teachers on development of ethics in their curricula and daily routine. Under this project, named as “Priceless Values and Gandhi and Non-Violence” 40,000 teachers have been trained in the state of São Paulo. They have a programme of monthly seminars called as “Values for Coexistence”. Both the projects have institutional support from UNESCO. Palas Athena is also involved in the UN “Human Safety” programme through projects such as “Open Doors” and “Peace Wants Partners”. These have been held in favelas and prisons.

Palas Atena has established Culture of Peace Committees to pursue the goals of UNESCO’s Culture of Peace Decade. This inspired the creation of the Parliamentary Culture of Peace Advisory Boards, active in the São Paulo Assembly, and in several other Brazilian cities, such as Curitiba and Londrina. These boards include representatives of the civil society, religious institutions and non-governmental organizations besides the members of the state or municipal assemblies.

Palas Atena has taken initiatives to apply Gandhian ideas in the health sector too. In partnership with the Municipal Health Department, they have trained over 5000 health professionals of hospitals and basic health units.

More information on Palas Atena in their website:

Lia Diskin with school children, in the picture below:

One of the most memorable projects of Palas Atena in which I had the opportunity (when I was the consul general in Sao Paulo 1996-2000) to collaborate, was with the military police of the state of Sao Paulo. We sent to every one of the 85,000 military police of the state a ten page write-up of Gandhi's message of non-violence in Portuguese. We organised seminars, workshops and essay and poetry competitions for the police personnel. The military police who faced violent criminals and dangerous situations in their daily job found the practice of non-violence by Gandhi as fascinating and inspiring. It provoked them into new ways of thinking and challenged their conventional wisdom. They started looking into the causes of the violence and minds of the criminals going beyond their professional instinct to catch and punish them. They saw possibilities of redemption for the criminal minds with a new Gandhian approach. They poured out their heart in the essays and talked about the difficult and painful situations they had faced in their work. Some of their poems were intensely emotional and moving. The Brazilian public was excited by the entry of Mahatma Gandhi in the mind space of military police. The police department was very happy with the project and its impact on the mindset of the police.

The second project in which I had the privilege to collaborate was the publication of the autobiography of Gandhi in portuguese. Lia had got the book translated in modern Brazilian portuguese by four eminent Brazilian scholars who divided the work among themselves. The SESC Pompeia auditorium, where the launching event was held, was overflowing with more than 400 people. A delegation of Indian Parliamentarians who were visiting Sao Paulo at that time was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of the audience inspired by Lia Diskin. They could not believe that the book of Gandhi would attract so much serious interest in the distant land of Brazil. The book has been reprinted several times since then to meet the increase in demand.

The auditorium of Palas Atena is called as Mahatma Gandhi Auditorium, where I had made my first public speech in Portuguese language on Gandhi. Several Gandhian scholars of India have given talk there. The library of Palas Atena has the largest collection of books on Gandhi. They also have a publishing house, with many titles on Gandhi, non-violence,culture and peace. Palas Atena gives regular courses on philosophy and holds cultural and spiritual events, seminars and workshops. Education, art, human rights, environment, ethics and multicultural and religious exchanges are the principal themes of the activities. Yoga, meditation and Indian classical music and dance are also organised in the auditorium. Lia Diskin took the initiative in the establishment of Gandhi Square in Sao Paulo city with a garden and statue of Gandhi, seen in the picture below.

Lia is the author and co-author of many books on education, peace, ethics and culture. Her book, ¨Paz, como se faz? ¨( peace, how to make?) has been adopted by schools in six states of Brazil and has seen sale of 500,000 copies. Another book “Cultura de Paz – de reflexão à ação” (culture of peace- from reflection to action) was published by UNESCO and the Brazilian Ministry of Justice.

Lia Diskin is a true Gandhian in her public and personal life. She pracises what she preaches. Her favourite Gandhi quote is ¨ Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony¨. She has devoted her life completely and selflessly to social service. Like Gandhi, her mind and heart are anchored in profound philosophy, ethics and morality. With an open mind, she has imbibed both western and eastern wisdom and is an admirer of Dalai Lama. At the same time, she applies her principles pragmatically to find practical solutions to social problems. Her child-like smile, kindness, enthusiasm, energy and optimism bring cheer and inspiration to street children, delinquent youth and prisoners.

Born in Argentina, Lia Diskin and her husband Basilio Pawlowicz moved to Sao Paulo in 1972 . They established Palas Atena for social service and study of philosophy. They run an orphanage in Sao Paulo called as Casa de Pandavas (House of Pandavas). The orphans are showered with affection and personal care by Lia and Basilio who do not have their own children. Lia lives a simple and modest life with a strict Gandhian discipline. She is a vegetarian. She is not in the cocktail circuit nor does she use her work for any personal publicity. Her interest in Gandhi started early as a child after she read books on Gandhi. She was inspired by the autobiography of Gandhi and was totally taken by the idea of a person with such commitment to truth. She told me, ¨I never found a philosopher with such earnest desire and serious sustained effort to translate truth into daily life¨.

Lia Diskin was an invitee at the Satyagraha centeneray celebrations in India in 2006. She was one of the dozen global personalities invited in 2007 by India to address the United Nations in New York which declared 2 October as the International Day of Non- Violence. She was given the Jamnalal Bajaj award in January 2011 for her service to people in the Gandhian way.

Here is Lia Diskin with her Jamnalal Bajaj award at the Consulate of India in Sao Paulo

Mahatma Gandhi developed his method of non-violence during his stay in South Africa. Then he took it to India and practised it successfully to get independence for the country and uplift the Indian society. Lia Diskin has brought the Gandhian message to Brazil and made it relevant for Brazilian situation. This triangular Gandhian connection adds another dimension to the IBSA (India- Brazil- South Africa) alliance of the three countries which share democratic values and developmental challenges as well as common agenda and aspirations.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Pondicherry Tamil from Paris, born in Vietnam, producing Argentine wine in Mendoza

¨I am a foreigner in any country¨, This is how Aziz Abdul responded with a smile when I asked him to which country he belonged. ¨What is your mother tongue?¨. He smiled again, greeted me in Tamil, switched to English with heavy French accent and then completed the conversation in fluent Spanish. He was born in South Vietnam where he lived for the first fifteen years. He speaks Vietnamese like a native. His mother is half-Vietnamese and her mother local Vietnamese. His father, a Tamil from Pondicherry. When Saigon fell in 1975, his family lost everything. They went back to Pondicherry and started a new life running "Chez Aziz" a gourmet restaurant . Aziz went to the French school there and improved his Tamil language. He went to Paris for higher education. He studied mathematics and thereafter computer science at the University of Orsay. He fell in love with Najma from Madagascar who was studying Sanskrit in Paris. I raised my eyebrows … With his trade mark smile, he said Najma chose to learn Sanskrit since she wanted to get back to the root of her original country. She is an Ismaili muslim of Gujrati origin and speaks fluent Gujrati. They have two daughters. Aziz has named his wine Chateau Hana, a combination of the initials of his family- H- Hema his first daughter (his wife is a fan of Hemamalini), A- Anjuli, the second daughter, N- Najma, the wife and A for Aziz.

Aziz produces high-end wine which sells for 90 pesos ( 22 US $ ) in the wine shops of Argentina. His wine is served in the upscale hotels such as Park Hyatt and in exclusive restaurants and high-end wine shops in Buenos Aires, Bariloche, Mendoza, Mar del Plata, Cordoba and Rosario. Info on his wine

He is planning to start exports soon. How about exporting to India?, I ask him and he beams with yet another smile. When we served his wine at our embassy receptions, the guests were ecstatic. We told our guests, it is an Argentine Wine made with Indian hands and spirit.

Picture: Aziz in El Paraiso ( paradise ), his house on the left, winery on the right and vineyard behind.

Aziz worked for 20 years in the IT department of the French multinational group Lagardere. But he did not want to end up life staring at the computer screens. He wanted to become his own boss and longed to have a quiet life in countryside. He was saving money to pursue his dream- to own a vineyard and make his own wine.

Aziz Abdul…drinking and making wine? I could not hide my puzzle. Aziz smiled again and started another story. It was his father, a Muslim who enjoyed alcohol and let his son also follow. He was liberal and cosmopolitan and inspired his son too. While studying in Paris, Aziz tried wine and liked it. He was a frequent visitor to the cellar of the home of one of his university friends. He was very excited to drink a 21- years old Morgon on the 21st birthday of his friend. The taste for wine lead him to explore the vineyards in France and beyond. He visited the wineries and got to meet wine makers such as Alexandre Thienpont and Denis Lurton. He studied viticulture and enology.The taste for wine became a passion. As soon as he had the minimum savings he started looking to buy a vineyard. The French and European ones being expensive, he tried India. He visited the wine growing areas of India hoping that he would be able reroot himself to his fatherland. But it did not work out.

Thereafter, Aziz came to Argentina, the fifth largest wine producer in the world. He bought a 15- hectare vineyard on the outskirts of San Rafael city in Mendoza province in 2008. He put up a brand new boutique winery, with a capacity of 85, 000 litres. He is into his fourth crop this year. He grows malbec, cabernet sauvignon and bonarda varietals. He manages the farm himself with the help of a local husband-wife pair who live in the farmhouse. During harvest season, he hires extra help. He takes the help of an Argentine enologist too. He uses certain French practices in the growing of grapes, pruning of the plant and in the making of wines, different from the the local Argentine way of doing things. He enjoys taking care of the plants and the processing with an eye for every detail. Aziz's favourite quotation ¨God had created water, men the wines- Victor Hugo¨.

Aziz has integrated well in the small town San Rafael society. He speaks fluent spanish and has made a number of friends. While he makes upscale wine he himself leads a simple life. He enjoys working with his own hands in the vineyard and the winery. He literally breathes the aroma of his wine every day and night since his house is full of wine cases all around. When he gets time, he plays tennis and goes for skiing in winter. He is connected to his family in Paris by skype. His wife shares her time between the husband in Argentina and the daughters who live in their apartment, a few blocks from Eiffel tower in Paris.

Like Aziz, many foreigners are investing in vineyards in Mendoza for the pleasure and pride of having their own vineyard and boutique winery. Of course, it is a solid investment too, given the constant appreciation of the price of the land and the profitability of wine business. Aziz had bought the vineyard from an American investor. A few retired people also settle down in the farm houses surrounded by their own vineyards or spend a few months every year. The Argentine prices are affordable and vineyards and land are available. There is no restriction on foreign investment. Aziz's own investment in the vineyard and winery is about 500,000 dollars. The cost of living in Mendoza is low while the quality of life is excellent with peaceful atmosphere and friendly local people. The climate is perfect for the grapes with warm days and cold nights and sunshine throughout the year.

The Argentines have started producing and exporting more wine in recent years. Their exports reached 864 million dollars in 2010. The Argentine wines are getting more recognition in international markets. It has overtaken the Chilean wines in the US market. Malbec has become famous around the world as the signature wine of Argentina.

I spent two days last month visiting his vineyard and listening to his stories over many glasses of Chateau Hana wine. After this, I have become an admirer and started calling him as Che Aziz. In Argentina, Che is a colloquial way of saying ¨friend¨, as Che Guevara.

Cheers…Che Aziz…