Monday, May 15, 2017

Inspiring Happiness

Vaani and AVIS. Image from here
What strikes you first about AVIS and Vaani is the vibe of calmness they bring into any space they become part of. Their effervescent smiles, kind disposition and simplicity is a product of life’s many experiences and the lessons life offered them at different points in time. Coping with bankruptcy, AVIS and Vaani found in themselves a sense of resilience that then shone the path on a greater purpose in life: “Inspiring Happiness.” Here is their story in their own words.

The journey
Avis: Back in 1996, we set up a consulting firm with the intention of making it global. The firm had a mandate from an MNC that was unethical, as we were to discover later. For ethical reasons, we decided to close down that association. We had a 60% revenue exposure from that one customer. When we separated from them, we had to bring in debt to pay salaries, capital, operating costs and office rents. We expected business to pick up in the time that the debt would be brought in and sustained, for some time at least. But that didn’t happen for about 3 or 4 years. The debt had ballooned and began to create its own problems, because when you carry debt in any form, you are paying interest. So there is a principal amount and interest. For a whole year, all that we were doing was to struggle to meet capital needs.
In this time, we had remodeled ourselves. Our business model had undergone a change and we had separated from some customers. That put pressure on the business. We had also laid off some people towards the end of 2005, because we felt we were not doing the kind of business that could support these people. We were in the process of reinventing ourselves. It was cathartic, but it was going in the right direction. In 2006, we actually got three new customers which meant that our new business model was good and profitable. Soon, we hoped, our debt would be cleared if this positive trend continued.
It looked like things were going on track, which is when 2007 hit us. It was a particularly devastating year. We went through a whole calendar year without a single client, so we didn’t have a billing on all 365 days of 2007. When a consulting firm goes without revenue for a year, it is like an aircraft flying empty or a hotel running with empty rooms – it’s like dead inventory. That year, all I personally did was to borrow from Peter to pay Paul because the loans simply had to be paid off. But that only increased our debt burden. Chennai is a small market for borrowing and doing business in comparison with other places, so word got round quickly. The lending market got to know that we were running a firm and had run into trouble because of over-leveraging ourselves in the market. Soon, the lending stopped, too. We couldn’t bring in more funds. What seemed like a house of cards then came crashing.
Vaani: Though AVIS has a way of saying that his decisions led to the problems, the fact is that I was also a part of the company. I was a director on the Board with the company. Initially, for the sake of the children, I stayed at home. I was into some freelance writing. Being a home office, I got into the company. When we registered, I was a director and was involved in running the company, and in the decision making process. Right from the beginning, we had our tasks pretty neatly cut out based on our choices. Anything to do with work would be AVIS’ domain. If there was anything to do with family, I was in charge. Accordingly, we handled the crises that arose in each side. It was very difficult at home and at the workplace when we were facing the financial crunch. Some people have a rough time at work and have home to seek solace at, and vice versa. But for us, we were facing flak on both sides. It was a difficult thing!

Facing a tough reality
Avis: On December 31, 2007, we were left with Rs. 2000, and were left with a debt pile of about Rs. 5 crores – which amounted to a million dollars at that time. 179 people had to be repaid. We didn’t know what to do, because we were in a situation where we had no business, we had this debt, we had children who were growing up. Aashirwad, my son, was 17 and getting ready to go to college. Aanchal was 13. We had no money. All our bank accounts ran on a deficit. Our credit cards were blocked. All the insurance policies that we leveraged closed. There was no health insurance to fall back on. There was a lot of fear, insecurity, anger, denial and grief. It was a very dark time.
Vaani: It was a difficult thing to face. There are some people who go through cathartic situations – but at least the spouse is working elsewhere, so there is financial stability for the family. But in our case, because we were both in the company, we faced it entirely. We did try for jobs but that didn’t happen.
Avis: We met our lawyer, Mr Vijayaraghavan, who was a very good friend, as well. We had known him for about twenty years already, at that time. It never occurred to me personally that I should go to him. This is what happen when you are in the throes of a problem – you don’t think you need help.  I went through that phase, and the next morning, when we saw we had Rs. 2000 – not that we didn’t know we had no money, but the physicality of being left with that much stared us in the face. When we went to Vijayaraghavan that day, he said we were bankrupt. That was the first time I applied that word in my context. He told us we had to go to court and deal with police complaints and such – things we didn’t want to deal with. He told us it was going to be part of our everyday lives. He told us that we had to be strong. If we could promise him we would be strong, he said he would protect us legally to the best of his ability. He told us we didn’t have to pay him right away. It was difficult to internalize what he was saying, and to digest it. We were in a dark place – and he wasn’t telling us that it would disappear, though he assured us he would be there.

Moving on
Avis: We came out of that meeting, when a friend asked me what we were doing for New Year’s Eve, since it was December 31. I asked if he was crazy, asking me this when he knew what my situation was.  He told me that it was all the more necessary at this time. I told him that he could come over with his family if he wanted, but we weren’t going out anywhere. That evening, when he came over, we spent time together, talking, singing a few songs, even. But my mind wasn’t in it. When they went away, I locked the front door and went to the bedroom. I found Vaani there, and I told her, “I am sorry, Mom, that all this happened. In a way I am responsible for this. I am sorry for the choices I made, which brought us here. I don’t know how long this is going to take and how far we have to go. But, I know for sure that if you are with me, I will be very grateful.” She said, “I’ve been with you all along. However long this takes, I will be there with you.” It was very beautiful, because it was more powerful than the moment I proposed to her and she accepted. It was more meaningful here. We were in a very real situation where nothing was perfect. In a moment, it appeared like all our problems could be dealt with. There was strength, courage, romance and a sense of invincibility at that moment.  But the next morning, when I woke up, and when we looked at our situation again, it felt like we had no idea what to do. We stumbled through 2007 to 2012. Primarily, we dealt with many constituencies – fear, led by some real action against us. Court cases and police complaints, menacing creditors with collection agents of an unsavoury kind and unorganized lenders and people who use underhand methods to recover money. Fear was a dominating theme. We didn’t know where we were stepping. Every direction we stepped in felt like a landmine. We tread each day as it came – and that taught us to live in the moment.
Vaani: We had this unwritten rule in place and followed it pretty much. There were a lot of times when we discussed and agreed – sometimes didn’t agree. And it was okay. When things went terribly wrong, we ensured that we could get through by talking to each other a lot. Conversations helped amply. If you don’t talk, however bad it is, if you don’t talk about whatever it is that is on your mind, it can give rise to a lot of misunderstandings. Talking about it is very, very important. We had a lot of conversations – and sometimes, we wouldn’t, too, and that was perfectly okay. The discussions we had, led us to understanding what happiness and success mean. 

The Ripple Effect and a Treasure Chest of Miracles
Avis: In this time, the other constituency was Aashirwad and his graduation. We let him go to University of Chicago – without a thought, honestly. People from different walks of life, rank strangers included, came many times and bailed us out with regard to his education. The third constituency was business. We needed much more than came in, and something was coming in – so we struggled and stumbled. Somehow, Aashirwad graduated, and we also went, miraculously, to witness his graduation. It was completely incredible. The outside world didn’t take it kindly – even as the miracles continued to happen. Witnessing his graduation was a big turning point for us. We discovered that while battling our issues, we had completely let go when it came to Aashirwad. We sent him, and decided, “Let anything happen.” On many occasions, he came close to being thrown out of his dorm room, or his swipe card wouldn’t work. And out of nowhere, some bounteous individual came in to bail us out. So when we saw the theme of letting go truly play out, we learned a lot. We learned that we could make our efforts, and then trust the process of life.
Even as we set out to employ the theme, life turned very dramatically. Whatever little income or projects came in, stopped for 30 months between June 2012 and December 2014. In 2007, we went through 12 months. In this period, from 2012 to 2014, we went through 30 months of not a rupee coming in. We were dealing with eviction proceedings on one side, with execution proceedings on the other side, and complaints in other states – some of our creditors wanted to pressurize us by going to another state since recovery was easier there. That’s when Vaani’s sister saw a bunch of cops come home one day, and she freaked out. We were staying at a friend’s apartment since we were going to be evicted from the apartment we were living in, earlier. Vaani’s sister told us to move into her flat. We navigated those 30 months with a roof over our head and little miracles in the form of friends helping out – every gadget in the house is a gift, be it the microwave, the television, the phones we use, the washing machine - you name it. We struggled a lot.

Picking up Strings
Avis: There was a lot of pain. But there was a difference between 2007, and 2012 to 2014. There was pain in both places. There was suffering in 2007, but in 2012-2014, there was absolutely no suffering. There was complete equanimity. The power of reflection really helped.  I did an hour of mouna (silence) every day. Vaani comes from a more spiritually evolved background thanks to her education at J Krishnamurthy’s Rishi Valley. I learned it fast, and realized that there was no point fighting this. You do your duty – and that is where the art of happiness is about letting go, about doing your bit and not worrying about the results. Non-suffering was key – we stopped asking why, and led everyday as it came. It was a beautiful process of dealing with catharsis and pain.
In 2015, we got a small project which barely covered some parts of our living expenses. There was something meaningful. That project ended that year. In 2016, we struggled, and 2017 has been no different. Creditors ask me for a repayment plan, but I tell them that I can pay them only when I have enough to pay my rent and living expenses. I don’t even have that much, yet.

Vaani: The definition of success in the world is very different. People think that success is some kind of a destination – owning a car, owning a three BHK or an x salary figure. If you don’t get these goals you set out for yourself, in their books, you are not successful. Those kinds of happiness that are related to achieving things are good – but, you have to understand, that sometimes, life has a mind of its own. Two plus two is never equal to four. There are sometimes no answers to questions in life. That’s when you get frustrated, because you are trying to find an answer. There is no answer – that is just how it is meant to be. You can’t define why some things are the way they are. So then, instead of asking why, even in this happiness thing we talk about, we suggest, we can accept.

Avis: We are still struggling, we stumble and we go on – but we are not suffering. We totally believe that things will turn around. This is my ten year old story – with absolutely no end in sight. Our vision is to be zero debt and to repay all 179 creditors. We don’t have a deadline, because we have not even gotten enough to cover our living expenses in these ten years. If I have three months of consistent income, in the fourth month, I can say I can start repaying. But that hasn’t happened so far. For 42 months out of 120 months, we had zero income. Recently, someone asked me if there was anything I regretted about my life so far. I reflected on the question and said that I wished all of this had happened sooner in my life, so that I would have had a longer time to spend with the lessons and enlightenment that the experience gave me.  So many more years of life would have been lived happily without worry and frustration. Pain is inevitable, but suffering isn’t. It would have been beautiful had it happened earlier.

Vaani: Depression and frustration set in because you think you control life. The point though, is that you are not in control. A lot of equanimity settles in the minute you realize this, and you stop asking the debilitating question of “Why” in situations beyond our control. Life is not a straight line. You start with the goal of studying well. Why? To go to the next class. Why? To go to grade 12. Why? To get into a good college. Why? To get a good job. Why? To earn a good salary. Why? To get married and to run a family. Why? To have kids. And then, there, you teach your kids to do the same thing – which means that the cycle continues, continues and continues. It is not meant to be a straight line. It is a circle. What goes up comes down, what goes down, comes up.
Avis: Many creditors have been taking necessary steps legally and otherwise. I think it is also very gracious of them to recognize that the two of us are genuinely trapped in a situation and whatever they say or do, they have to say or do in a real world. If money was not an object, they wouldn’t do these things. But because money exists, they are doing what they are doing. Barring ten or twenty, all the creditors have been gracious and understanding, and have been very patient. We have a reason to wake up every morning and work harder at all that we try to do, so that we live up to that faith and trust.

Vaani: It is quite easy – because you don’t have to worry about anything when you surrender and stop asking why. It is not you - it is just that things are happening and you happen to be there.
Avis: I don’t think we can every repay anyone with the gratitude we have. That is one point I would like to amplify. This is also the phase where we understood that success is very relative. To us and to the real world, one definition of success is that anyone must achieve a target. In our case, the target is about becoming zero debt. When that is elusive and not happening ,frustration and depression can set in. It is a natural response. We question that response. We ask why we are depressed. If we are depressed or frustrated, we are not trusting the process of life. We decided to be useful. What makes us useful is the understanding that facing life itself is success. There is a situation, but that situation is not you. And that you face it, with all your courage and strength, in itself, is success.
We are bankrupt. But only financially. We are not bankrupt spiritually, physically or mentally. So, we can be useful. Success is really, then, about facing life.