I was born in Hyderabad, India, but my family immigrated to the U.S. when I was two years old. My father was a surgeon, part of the "brain drain" of the 1970s that drove many Indians to seek their fortunes overseas, and my family settled in Schenectady, in upstate New York. I had all the trappings of a comfortable, suburban childhood: soccer games, Cub Scouts, and birthday parties. I was so American that I called myself "Vic" instead of "Vikram" in high school. But although I lived in an insulated, suburban bubble as a child, I witnessed extreme poverty firsthand during visits to India, and I vowed early on to do something about the sheer injustice of it.
My family visited India regularly during summer vacations and I was often struck by the startling sight of extreme poverty all around me. One memory remained especially vivid and sobering. When I was 12 years old, we attended a family wedding in India. For the middle-class and wealthy in India, weddings are lavish, over-the-top events, full of extravagant clothes, decorations, and gifts. There was a sumptuous wedding feast, which included endless amounts of chicken biryani, curries, meat, and sticky sweet jelabi for dessert. Food was piled high on traditional plates made of pressed leaves.
When the guests had finally eaten their fill, we rose and headed to an adjacent tent to continue the festivities. I happened to look back as the plates were being cleared and saw two young boys about my age, quietly making their way into the open-air dining tent. They snatched up armfuls of discarded leaf plates and quickly carried them a short ways away. Then they began eating the leftover food, ravenously scooping our leftovers into their mouths, as though they hadn't eaten for days. I couldn't believe the desperation of these hungry boys who, except for their circumstances, seemed no different from me. It seemed so unjust that I had so much and these boys had so little. Surely there was a way to help people ascend from poverty.
I didn't know that, for me, the answer would eventually be microfinance. When I graduated from college in 1990 I only knew that I needed to work with the poor in India. While I was still at Tufts I wrote letters to a list of non-profits in India as I searched for a job after graduation. Only one wrote back: the Deccan Development Society (DDS), based in Hyderabad. I spent more than a year working with DDS on a variety of projects, ranging from immunization to organic agriculture to education.
But in spite of my education, community service experience in the U.S. and extensive reading about philosophy (I was a philosophy major at Tufts), I knew little about solving poverty in India. I spent the first month observing DDS community organizers and their projects, improving my Telugu (the local language spoken in Andhra Pradesh), and soaking up all I could about the rhythm of life in rural India. I was a wide-eyed idealist, but I was making progress. After my first month of volunteering, the head of DDS decided that I deserved a monthly salary of 1,000 rupees. That was worth about $55 in 1990, or a bit more than $20 today. It was a small sum but I was elated.
My next milestone came when the head of DDS let me lead an expansion project in a remote village that lacked the most basic amenities. There was no running water or electricity, and the village was miles away from any town. Luckily for me, no one else at DDS wanted a position in such an inhospitable village. I had no idea how humbling this experience would be. The DDS driver dropped me off at my new home: an abandoned two-room building in the middle of a field. I later learned that the building used to be part of a weigh station for trucks on their way to a nearby quarry. Inside, the room was completely bare, bereft even of windows. But most notably, the house lacked a door. There was no way to keep out insects, animals, or whoever happened to wander past. I had no idea how to install a door — there were no Ace Hardware stores in rural India. I relied on a local villager who told me he would stay with me while other locals set about getting me a door.
I quickly realized I didn't know how to do the simplest things in rural India. Someone helped me gather wood to build a fire and cook some rice and dal for dinner. I didn't know how to draw water from a well, wash clothes, or even go to the bathroom without plumbing. Village women instructed me on washing clothes by soaking them in cake soap then whacking them on the stones of the well. For the bathroom I was directed to the nearby quarry and told to carry a small pot of water to rinse and use my left hand. Anyone who thinks poor people are lazy should spend a week living as they do. Without the modern conveniences that the developed world takes for granted, the most basic chore becomes a laborious, time-consuming task.
I learned many important lessons in my time at DDS. One major realization was that whatever DDS project I was working on, whether immunization or agriculture or education, villagers were most interested in money. Whenever I entered a new village, people most wanted to know if I was the guy who gave out microloans. They cared about social initiatives such as education and health, but their foremost interest was in loans to help them with entrepreneurial activities. They wanted to take care of themselves; everything else was secondary. I realized that the poor must control their own ascent from poverty and that money was the root of self-empowerment, not government subsidies or grand plans that NGOs made to help the poor. This realization set me on the path toward microfinance. But it took a few more years for me to realize that even microfinance, in its form back then, wasn't enough.