Imagine a restaurant where there are no prices on the menu and where the bill, after you have had a hearty meal, is Rs. 0.00. What would be your reaction to this kind of an experience?
You will probably think what kind of topsy-turvy reasoning is this! How is this possible? And that too in today’s selfish world! Impossible! But, yes, this is happening and that too in a consumerist and materialistic country like America.
Well! Ok, let’s begin at the beginning. This is an idea of a Gujarati youth. There is a restaurant called Karma Kitchen in Berkeley, California. This restaurant has a menu card, but prices are not written next to the items on the menu. Anyone who goes to this restaurant and can have a hearty meal but is presented a bill of zero dollars with only a footnote: "Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. To keep the chain of gifts alive, we invite you to pay for those who will dine after you."
In other words, if you wish, you can pay the bill of the person coming to the restaurant after you. This kind of arrangement or management of an enterprise would not make sense to any economist or fit into any of their theories. But it is a fact that Karma Kitchen has been operating successfully in this fashion since 2007 and has, to date, served twenty-six thousand meals! This project is the brain child of a Guajarati by the name of Nipun Mehta who put his ideas into practice. Originally from Gujarat, but brought up and educated in the USA, Nipun does not admit that this is his original idea. He credits various persons such as Mahatma Gandhi, Vinoba Bhave, and even Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and Martin Luther King for his idea.
Idealizing Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodaan Movement (donation of land), Nipun Mehta says that Vinobaji travelled 70 thousand kilometers and obtained 50 lac acres of land from landowners for distribution to the landless. Mehta asked himself what was it about Vinobaji that made people part with their land? Today in this selfish world, people’s concern is for themselves and they ask “what about me and what is in it for me”, Mehta talks about giving away what he has. He does not use words such as donation, charity, nor talks about these things.
Whenever we perform an act of charity or give something to someone out of compassion, we feel a sense of superiority; that we are in some way above them, better than them or more powerful than them. But when we ‘gift’ someone something, then we do not feel that we are a ‘giver’; but act out of a sense of love and affection. There is an emotion of sharing. Also, we give gifts to those from whom we expect something in return. But in giftivism there is not even that expectation. Whatever is gifted is for our own pleasure without expecting anything in return. We give for the sake of giving.
In our culture, those who donate even for constructing toilets do not miss an opportunity to exhibit their names on the board in the toilets. Whereas Nipun Mehta says that what you get when you give without expectation of return is priceless which creates a kind of happiness akin to a dance inside you; not physical literal dance, but your heart starts singing. Giftivism talks about this happiness and enjoyment of such type of music inside you.
Nipun is not associated with any organization nor does he run any institution. He has earned a degree in philosophy and computer science. Nipun, who in his youth, used to dream about becoming a tennis player or spending his life in the Himalaya as a hermit, completed his education and joined Sun Microsystem. He says he used to earn more than he needed. He started distributing his surplus income. After he exhausted his money, he started distributing his time and gradually he started ‘selling himself’. At the age of 25, he gave up his job to propagate his philosophy and today he has more than four lakh members from all over the world on his website.
While normally couples go for a honeymoon to different parts of the world after they are married, Nipun and his wife Gauri instead went for a different kind of journey on foot. When this American couple started their journey from Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad they had resolved that they would spend only one dollar per day between the two of them, eat whatever is available, sleep wherever they find accommodation. This way this couple walked 1000 kilometres in three months. Nipun gives a lot of importance to what is called ‘walking’ in English. When we travel by car, we travel at a fast pace when the surroundings pass in front of our eyes so fast that we cannot absorb what we see. But when we walk, we have time to see things around us, have a vaster canvas in front of our eyes and are able to absorb the details in the surroundings.
Talking about this walkathon, Nipun says that during these walks he had time to see the beauty and spectrum of colours of sunsets and enjoyed the music of chirping birds. Instead of making friends on facebook, we made friends with real people while sipping piping hot tea at road side stalls. We normally keep running on this highway of life, but when we stop and ponder as we walk at a slow speed a new world opens up in front of us. Then we realize that we modern urban people keep asking for more and more material things and forget to value what we already possess.
What one simple villager taught Nipun during this walkathon was something that volumes of his philosophy books could not have taught him. This simple man told him that you cannot compel the clouds to give more rain nor can you order the sun not to shine too bright. These are gifts from nature. Take them if you want or leave them. During this walkathon Nipun had many such experiences and different kinds of reactions from people. Some places he was even made unwelcome and at such times his ego would get hurt. He thinks that this kind of experience was an important learning for him. He faced many problems but that also gave him the wisdom to accept whatever life served up to him; to accept whatever he had to face with equanimity. When we learn to gracefully accept whatever comes our way without complaining, the changes that takes place inside us is unique and indescribable.
One of the important things he learnt during this walk was that it is not true that you can give only when you possess a lot. On the contrary you can give only when you do not want anything for yourself. This lesson he learnt when while passing through a village when the sun was spewing out heat. A simple couple invited them to their home and served them water and also fed them. The significance of this small act of kindness lies in the fact that this woman had to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning and trudge 10 kilometers to fetch one bucket of water. This simple unlettered woman taught him the lesson of giftivism, that you can give something without expecting anything in return. This woman was well aware that this couple was not going to return to give them anything for this gesture of hers. She only acted out of her values of humanism and nothing more.
Greatly influenced by Gandhi and Vinobaji, this youth is using social media to spread this new economic theory of giftivism worldwide. Nipun Mehta is neither running a charitable organization nor collecting any funds. Small things in life can bring about great changes for example the ‘smile card’. Perform a good deed and leave a ‘smile card’ with a message: please continue this chain of kindness and goodness with a suggestion of a good deed one can do. One such example of a good deed is to offer your seat in the bus or train to another passenger.
When these days newspapers are full of negative news about loot, accidents, scams, the website www.servicespace.org provides inspiring and worthwhile positive news of things happening in the world which reaches millions of people. The news may appear simple, about nothing uncommon that their volunteers may be engaged in, but they believe that this is a cycle and the ripple effect will continue to spread the good word.
Talking about Udaybhai, a rickshaw driver, Nipun said, that this rickshaw owner has not installed a meter in his vehicle. He does not argue or haggle with his client over the fare to be paid. Udaybhai is no millionaire; he is an ordinary man with a family to feed, but has faith in human beings. He reaches the passenger to his destination and informs the passenger about the distance he travelled and leaves it to the goodness of the passenger to give him a reasonable fare. The surprising thing is that Udaybhai has never been underpaid and has never made a loss.
If one wonders what does Nipun want to achieve through his concept of giftivism? The answer he gives his, I just want to see a smile on the face of all human beings and a sense of peace for myself. Quoting Gandhi, he says, “There is enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” Nipun’s giftivism has been taken note of by the UNO, Forbes magazine, Financial Times, as well as reputed international media such as CNN and BBC.