We’re sitting in a darkened auditorium in an upmarket conference centre in Cochin. Outside, the sun beats down on the palm-fringed waterway that separates some of us from our hotel bedrooms. This is Kerala and everywhere the backwaters, as they’re known, probe in from the ocean like long watery tendrils, carpeted with lilies.
Up on stage a Hungarian-born frontline photographer shows us an image from Afghanistan. Against the backdrop of a wooded ridge, a US Marine looks on as a small explosion sends up a cloud over the scrub ahead. In one of the most arid places on earth, it’s half a ton of bottled water. The supplies have arrived late and now the Marines are pulling out. They don’t want to leave the water for the Taleban so they blow it up.
Balazs Gardi, who took the photograph, later looked into the journey the water had taken to arrive at that remote place. He worked out that at the time of its destruction, it was worth $60 a bottle. As a result he now also reports from what he calls ‘the waterfront’, photographing the effects of water scarcity around the world.
Moments of personal epiphany make for great stories. They’re the staple of the TED-format presentation where speakers have a set amount of time, from five to 18 minutes, to tell the story of something they are passionate and knowledgeable about – ‘ideas worth spreading’ as TED describes them. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) has been going for around 25 years and some people think it’s starting to lose its edge, though if you’re new to it you’ll find it a treasure trove of inspiring talks on every subject under the sun. I always recommend people to start with this one, which for very good reasons is one of the most-viewed ever.
Whatever your opinion of TED, there’s nothing lacklustre about INK (Innovation & Knowledge) which is TED’s little Indian brother, and the reason we were in Cochin. In two–and–a–half days we heard more than 50 speakers, and if that sounds like an endurance test, it wasn’t. The format of the talks, the range of speakers and subjects, the staging and set design, the musical and other interludes, the evening activities, all conspired to keep us on the edge of our seats throughout. All That Matters was the theme of the conference, and all of it seemed to matter.
There were speakers from the West – from the worlds of politics, space exploration, oceanography, technology and design, philosophy, music and film-making. But by far the majority were Indians, and young Indians at that. My lasting impression is one of youthful energy and enthusiasm, broad smiles and eyes alight with passion for the venture at hand. These young speakers were entrepreneurial and visionary, polymathic, boundary-breaking and socially responsible. There was a deep and infectious current of possibility, a pervasive sense that the old world order is up for grabs, whether the speaker was making printer ink from soot or running a women’s shelter in Mumbai, developing digital dictionaries or intelligent shoes for the partially sighted.
Whatever India’s problems – and in a country of 1.2 billion people, where there are more mobile phones than toilets, they are undeniably enormous – if these 20- and 30-somethings are the future, there must be cause for optimism. To be a bystander at such an outpouring of creative energy was hugely inspiring. The most common refrain we heard was this: if you are going the right way with your life, if you’re following your heart and passion, the right people will turn up and interesting things will come to pass. It was no idle supposition. These young speakers were bearing witness to it time after time. It was a scintillating and life-affirming message to hear.
Sarah and I left feeling we had been surrounded by kindred spirits, united rather than separated by our cultural differences, warmed by the connections we had made and full of hope for our own new venture, The Stories We Tell. My friend Pramod, who is a founding supporter of INK and has personally masterminded landmark developments in the Indian business world – in other words a man who bas been round the block more than twice, said in an email today: ‘it woke me up as well in terms of thinking about the future and getting inspired by so many young kids willing to experiment and try and change the world!’
If the tigers we had seen the previous week stood for everything that is old and wild and elemental about India, the young INK speakers stood for everything modern, visionary and humane. Both experiences in their own ways nourished us in mind, body and spirit. How privileged we were to have them.