Tushar and Mat thrived in America.
Tushar Vashisht studied at the University of Pennsylvania and spent three years working as an investment banker. Mathew Cherian's family migrated to the United States when he was a teen, and he studied at MIT.
Their paths had not yet crossed but in 2011, each made a fateful decision--to go to Bangalore to volunteer with the unique identity project (UID) under chairman Nandan Nilekani. The young men each felt a personal calling to return to India, to do good for their native country.
They would meet, share an apartment, and become close friends.
There was a problem, though...Tushar and Mat had each been away a long time. They didn't feel connected with the people of the India. They wanted to help, but lacked a real understanding of what life was like for the average Indian.
And so when Tushar suggested, "Let us try to understand an 'average Indian', by living on an 'average income'," Mat was all-in.
The mean national income, they determined, was Rs 4,500 a month--Rs 150 a day (today, this works out to $2.25 USD per day). Since we universally pay about a third of our incomes in rent, they were left with Rs 100 ($1.50 USD with today's exchange) to account for all of their other needs. Still, this was considered "average."
Determined to have an authentic experience, they moved into the tiny apartment normally reserved for their domestic help in 2012.
The pair found life quite uncomfortable. Straying far from home wasn't an option; they couldn't afford transportation. They had to restrict their hydro usage to five or six hours per day, including that needed to recharge their laptops and mobile devices. Finding and preparing affordable, nutritious and filling food to get them through each day became an all-encompassing chore.
Still, this was just average.
In India, poverty was actually defined at the time as Rs 32 for city-dwellers, and Rs 26 for villagers.
To be considered living in poverty, one would have to exist on just $0.39 to $0.48 per day.
They journeyed to Mat's ancestral village, Karucachal, where they attempted to survive on this paltry sum. They found themselves consumed each day with the quest to find food. Hunger became overwhelming and drove their decision-making. They could not afford communications technology, let alone medical care, and lived in fear of becoming ill. Rice, tubers, black tea and bananas were staples; a well-balanced diet was inconceivable.
Mat told Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, that they recognized that their efforts at living poor in Bangalore were somewhat artificial, but even so, they learned a great deal.
Here are a few of the incredible life lessons two professionals learned living in poverty in India:
Hunger can make you angry.
In his book Invisible People: Stories of Hope and Courage, human rights worker and author Harsh Mander shared excerpts of letters Mat and Tushar wrote friends after their experiment. In one, they lamented,
"Wish we could tell you that we are happy to have our 'normal' lives back. Wish we could say that our sumptuous celebratory feast two nights ago was as satisfying as we had been hoping for throughout our experiment. It probably was one of the best meals we've ever had, packed with massive amounts of love from our hosts. However, each bite was a sad reminder of the harsh reality that there are 400 million people in our country for whom such a meal will remain a dream for quite some time. That we can move on to our comfortable life, but they remain in the battlefield of survival--a life of tough choices and tall constraints. A life where freedom means little and hunger is plenty..."
Hunger can be so damaging to the psyche and all-consuming that the scars it leaves are lasting. Experiencing such poverty for even a short time can be transformational and alter your perspective forever.
"Empathy is essential for democracy."
Those are Cherian's own words. How can governments create policy without a meaningful understanding of what it is they're legislating? If we cannot put ourselves in the shoes of others, he says, "the rights of the minority or the less vocal will always be neglected."
Poverty is suffocating.
The pair were surprised at the extent to which poverty limited their ability to function. Their world literally shrank as they lacked to resources to communicate or travel.
Desperation spurs ingenuity.
In 2013, Vashisht partnered with Sachin Shenoy, a former engineer at Google's research laboratory in India, to put his life lessons on diet and poverty to work. The two launched an app called HealthifyMe to provide cloud-based fitness coaching, nutritional database and wellness services to users and in 2016, raised $6 million in Series A funding.
Have you ever intentionally put yourself in an uncomfortable situation in order to learn an important life lesson? Share your experience in the comments.