Real education begins:
Those two years changed him - twice. First, here was true education at last. They were made to read 200-300 pages a day, analyse, quantify, conclude and present. Nothing could be learnt by rote. Interacting with bright students and faculty, this country boy thrived, amidst a high drop-out rate. At last his mathematical and inquiring skills were presented with challenges. He loved it there.
Then in the second year, he was changed again. "There was a maverick professor called S R Ganesh who made me realise what I should be doing with my life," says Vasi. Ganesh ran a course called "Internal Change Agent" that forced students to commune with themselves, facing questions like: who am I; how might my obituary read, if written today; what are my real strengths and talents; what'd I do if I had ten years left and so on. The crowning act was a report they had to write on their life's work standing at a point in the future. Vasi's life came together that moment and all his experiences fell in place. Life as a series of examinations to pass, was over. He had to work on the material he had been made a part of: primacy of rural India, the boom and the bust of rural economies and the wreckages they left behind in the form of depleted soil, penury and hopelessness of rural people. He decided that he was not meant for the corporate world.
As happens often, chance arranged for him to spot a brochure his classmate Trilochan Sastry, had brought back from his travels. It was of the Association for Sarva SEva Farms [ASSEFA] headed by S Loganathan. He wrote to ASSEFA. Shortly, Vijay Mahajan arrived to meet him. Mahajan is one of India's innovative development thinkers, a pioneer in micro finance. He was an IIT and IIMA alumnus and was working with ASSEFA in Bihar. He, Deep Joshi [then with the Ford Foundation], Aloysius Fernandes [an ordained priest who had quit the cloth] and a few others, proposed to form Professional Assistance for Development Action [PRADAN]. Its mission was to attact managemnt professional to assist NGOs. Vasimalai joined as founding staff member.
He arrived in Chennai deputed by PRADAN to work with ASSSFA. He was given a pay of Rs.1,800, less than a third of what the corporate world might have offered him. And the lifestyle was far removed too.
ASSeFa is one of those organisations that you wouldn't suspect existed, nor would you guess its origins. It is the keeper of lands handed over to Acharya Vinobha Bhave's Sarvodaya movement as Bhoodan [gift of land]. Vasi arrived and his rural upbringing at once made him comfortable among the ageing, austere Sarvodaya men. They were simple idealists with great empathy for the salt of the earth, but they were untrained as managers. Vasi as a professional manager took to writing proposals, raising funds, taking donors to villages and so on. He was drilling wells, planning livelihood schemes, working on education, hygiene and every obvious symptom of an unsustainable scene.
During all this time his native village was falling apart. It was in 1987, that the first realisation struck him with a numbing force. Where was the water to sustain things? He had busily biked through hundreds of villages but had barely noticed that traditional water works were being neglected. They had been drilling wells and installing pumps- but there was no water to pump. What was happening to Ezhimalai, his village was happening to all villages all over Tamil Nadu.