I distinctly remember the first day I met Yash. It was three days prior to formal orientation through a program designed specifically for travel-weary international students, unaccustomed to the intricacies of the American college experience. My only introduction to America had been through American Pie movies and overly enthusiastic college admissions videos, featuring perfectly calculated ratios of Black, White, and Asian kids.
The words “PREPARE pre-orientation program,” emblazoned on the banner outside Robert Purcell Community Centre, heralded me as I walked into the building. After a round of nervous greetings, I looked up to see a moustachioed man, dressed in a half-sleeve collared shirt with a neat pair of khakis, topped off with a fanny pack, baseball cap, and impressive sideburns that could give Elvis a run for his money. My first thought was to politely address him as “uncle,” a term of respect often used in India to refer to elderly gentlemen, thinking he was dropping off his child, but his youthful demeanour belied his avuncular appearance.
The moustache, soul patch, and fanny pack disappeared within the first semester, but cosmetic makeovers did not transform the compassion and genuine warmth that attracted other folks to his side during our four years in college. Between his bird watching treks to his decision to major in natural resources, he was playfully referred to as the “tree-hugger” among his crew of friends. On our 745-acre campus, it was not unusual for us to run from class to class, only to see Yash whizzing past us on a mountain bike- baseball cap turned backwards, one earbud attentively placed in the ear, whistling to himself.
There were few people in Browntown, as the South Asian community in college was affectionately named, who did not know Yash. From the video gamers to the Bhangra crew, everyone seemed to share their own unique story with him. Despite the hustle and bustle of college life, he somehow made time for everyone- lunchtime was reserved for intense one-on-one lunch dates, while the afternoons were often spent chasing sunsets with his West Campus crew.
It wasn´t always sunny, of course. Yash had always been particular about the things he liked and disliked- he preferred a…certain rhythm and structure to his days, and deviations would be met with a challenge. I would learn later that this was a childhood quirk- an anonymous source informs me he never lent his Harry Potter books to anyone. Classic Muggle.
And yet, he has always been a fiercely loyal friend and a constantly available shoulder to lean on, not just for me but for anyone who ever needed him.
When I finally had a chance to meet his parents at graduation, the roots of his kindness and warmth suddenly became clear. They carried the same air of openness and generosity that he wore on his sleeves.
Born in a “solidly middle class family,” Yash spent most of his afternoons playing cricket with his neighbours in the suburbs of Mumbai. Many of the holidays were spent visiting extended family during the myriad Hindu festivals. His connection to the outside world, however, was cemented early on through his parents, who not only travelled abroad frequently as globe-trotting, working professionals, but also bolstered his curiosity through books. “I was never turned down for a book,” he tells me. “Even if I didn’t ask for one, I would get it. The aptitude was encouraged- to be curious, to read.”
In fact, his favourite memory of his father growing up is the ways in which they were so attuned to his needs and desires without him ever asking. “I remember, as a kid, we had gone to Hyderabad, and there were many book shops. One day, I woke up and he had brought me the Britannica Encyclopedia 7-book series about the world, even though I had never asked for it. In 10th grade, he bought me a camera out of nowhere.” That camera would go on to be a defining part of Yash´s college experience and beyond.
COMPASSION, POSITIVITY, AND PATIENCE
Today, the formerly moustachioed and soul-patch inflicted Yash has paved the way for a wiser soul, one who looks decades younger but carries the wisdom and dedication of a seasoned development professional. Through his work with One Acre Fund, Yash works tirelessly with farmers in Malawi, combining his keen sense of equity and justice with his passion for environmental conservation. In more ways than one, he embodies the modern-day, good man. When I ask him what it means to be a good man, he doesn´t hesitate:
“As I’m living my life every day, I think being a good person would mean that I approach everyone and every situation with an open mind and hopefully a positive frame of mind…whatever it is that I can do that is within my power to make someone else’s life easier or better or happier, I can do or I should do.”
This drive to spread compassion and positivity to other people’s lives stems from his parents, according to Yash. “My dad, you know, he comes from a very, very poor family. He lived in an 8×10 feet room with 8 other people until he was 18. Having come from that background, he appreciates hard work a lot and I have always seen him appreciate the goodness in people and
always aware that it is out of sheer chance that I am where I am. Some people get opportunities, while others don’t.” It’s these privileges that shape how Yash interacts with the world in both the personal and professional realms.
THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF OUR TIMES: WELL-FORMED BUT NOT WELL-INFORMED
In the trying times we live in, it can be difficult to remember what it means to be a truly good man, a good human being. The qualities of being a good man play an important role in solving the most trying issues of our times. “8 years ago, I probably would have said climate change [was the most pressing challenge], and it still is in general, but at this moment, the challenge is not listening to each other and not giving each other the benefit of doubt. Partisanship manifests itself in little ways—when you are trying to get onto the train in Mumbai, everyone yells at each other, but in the end, we need someone who has a higher priority to go ahead and board. No one listens or thinks about that. Of course, there are still good people, and there is still goodness in the world, but I feel we are increasingly coming into things with well-formed but not well-informed opinions that we are not ready to give up on. That is precipitating and compounding everything else, including factors like climate change.”
Yash’s role in this quagmire of a hyper-partisan atmosphere is not lost on him. “I think, on a professional level, through the work I do, I can be a more responsible listener. For example, through my work, it is my responsibility to listen to the farmers we are working for and be open to their ideas and needs, rather than coming in and saying this is how we are going to do things. You are letting that feedback build into programs, because a lot of these issues lead to other larger issues like poverty and health.”
As we wrap up our discussion, I’m left feeling a bit more hopeful about our future. On a macro scale, it feels as though our leaders are making rash decisions without proper care and attention, but in our day-to-day lives, there are still people like Yash who constantly strive to listen and make well-informed decisions on a micro-scale in their own lives. And yes, while it may seem that the impact of such decisions is irrelevant or rendered invisible in the larger scheme of things, they are the very foundation of creating a socially-conscious generation that strives to make a difference, one conversation at a time.
The role of men is changing in the 21st century. Want to keep up?
Photo of Yash Gharat provided by the author.
(via The Good Men Project)