Eleven years’ on from one of our India Open Quests, Douglas Board reflects on the life-changing impact of an encounter on the streets of Mumbai.
It’s 2006. One November morning – early, probably before eight – a handful of us pile out of a minibus on a street corner in Mumbai. We’re about to be introduced to migrant construction workers living on the streets. A crowd has gathered around white plastic chairs. Many of them are women, wiry and strong. Some climb scaffolding with babies on their backs. They are curious, but they have jobs to get on with – jobs called getting food, staying alive and trying to live another day as a human being. They have these jobs, but they don’t yet have work.
Helped by a translator from a Leaders’ Quest local partner, the women ask us what we are doing here. In effect, we ask the same thing in return. We repeat the encounter three times in different places. By 10.30 the tropical sun is giving us its full attention, and we have lived a biblical lesson in the flesh. These workers are hired by the day, and the later we meet them, the more likely they are to go hungry.
Everyone who took part in that week-long Quest had individual, contrasting experiences. The women in Mumbai changed me. I went back to my job as deputy chairman of a London headhunting firm thinking: so many billions of people cope with so much insecurity every day. If I, decked out in financial, educational and social advantages, can’t face the insecurity of saying goodbye to a monthly salary and exploring what else might be possible in my 50s, how shameful. I resigned the following summer.
The subsequent 10 years yielded a doctorate, two applied research books on leadership, six years chairing the Refugee Council, and growing a practice offering career coaching. But the path which has demanded the most courage is novel-writing.
When I started, I had no experience, no credentials – and no clue if I would be any good. What I did have, however, was a hunger to write and a ticking ‘life clock’. I approached Guy Meredith, an internationally rated comic writer and editor, for help; we agreed that he would look at a story outline and the first few chapters.
I still remember the walk to his house on an autumn day, the cold London air hitting my lungs in gulps. Whatever courage had rubbed off on me from the ladies in Mumbai, I needed it all just to knock on Guy’s door. Thankfully, he gave me the encouragement and constructive criticism I needed to keep going. Six years later my first novel MBA – a farce about business leadership – was published, and I found myself well and truly bitten by the creative bug.
This summer my second book came out. Time of Lies is an exploration of the gulf between ruling class and ruled in near-future Britain. I never dreamed, when I got off that minibus in 2006, that I would write one, let alone two, novels. It seems only right to acknowledge the life-changing impact of the women sleeping on the streets of Mumbai, who inspired me to be just a little bit braver.
A sceptic might say that writing novels is fiddling while the world burns. What does my personal story show, but the endless self-indulgent options open to the world’s privileged? Possibly; but cynicism can all too easily be a form of cowardice. For me, writing – and reading – a novel can be a form of Quest – a way of exploring what it means to be fully human. In our supposedly ‘mature’ democracies, I think that’s an urgent task. I hear something ticking: it may be something more dangerous than a clock.