In Conversation With Parmesh Shahani of Godrej India Culture Lab

This interview was first published in The City Story.

It was a dark and stormy night.

That’s what Parmesh Shahani tells me with a laugh when I ask him how he developed the idea for the Godrej India Culture Lab. “I was selected as a TED fellow in 2009 and went for my first TED conference,” says Parmesh. “I really enjoyed the format of mashing up people from different fields and seeing what came out of it. I’m interested in contemporary India. I wanted to use this idea of cross-pollination, but only for India and all the time. Can we be in a state of TED-ness 365 days a year? What would it mean to create a new kind of space?”

We’re at a coffee shop on the Godrej campus in Vikhroli waiting for an order of bun maska. Vikhroli isn’t the first place that comes to mind when you think of a cultural centre for Mumbai, but Parmesh is trying to change that. “It doesn’t make sense why, in a city of our size and of our geography, everyone has to go to some southernmost tip,” he says. “Most of the city lives between Thane and Dadar or Navi Mumbai and Andheri. That’s where we are. We’re in the centre. We’re excited to create a space that serves the city and a space where some of India’s challenges can be debated in and found.”

I first met Parmesh in 1999 when he founded the youth website Fresh Lime Soda. Fresh out of school, I was part of a growing group of young men and women that was exploring this new, digital platform for communication. Two years later I left to study abroad. There were no smart phones or social media, and the Internet was still nascent in India. Parmesh and I lost touch.

Since then, Parmesh has attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, enrolled in—and dropped out of—a PhD programme, written a book, founded the Godrej India Culture Lab and been a TED Fellow, Yale World Fellow and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. Our paths have crossed over the years, and I asked him to meet me so I could find out how he went from Fresh Lime Soda to Godrej India Culture Lab.

It doesn’t make sense why, in a city of our size and of our geography, everyone has to go to some southernmost tip.

That’s why we’re here having coffee and carbs. “Very randomly,” he says. He knew nothing about media, so he went to MIT to study. He thought he’d stay in academia in America, but life brought him back to India where he was back in media with Verve magazine. He then went to the University of Pennsylvania for his PhD, but dropped out and returned to India again. “I was interested in building ecosystems,” says Parmesh, “in connecting the dots between the different disciplines I’d been lucky enough to be part of. When I look back, I realise it was all about building communities around certain ideas.” I have first-hand experience of these communities. Many of the writers from Fresh Lime Soda are good friends today, even though we’ve all moved on to other things.

Through Godrej India Culture Lab, Parmesh is trying to create a community on a larger scale. The audiences for their events consist of students, housewives and young professionals from all over India who connect over speakers like Japanese architect Tadao Ando or economist Abhijit Banerjee. “We’re a non-intimidating space,” says Parmesh. “We don’t compromise on the seriousness of what we do. Our talks are high calibre talks. But the way we frame it, we’re welcoming and exclusive. Everything we do is followed by a reception and free food. And that’s important because you don’t just come for a cultural event. You come to hang out with each other. We haven’t just created this event space but also this hangout space. People create friendships and collaborations. It’s been beautiful.”

Parmesh is the author of Gay Bombay, a 2008 book that looks at the hopes, dreams and aspirations of English-speaking gay men in India. It’s partly academic and partly personal, and Parmesh wrote it using research and his memoirs. “I realised when I left India that this was a part of me I hadn’t addressed,” he says, “so research was a way to understand myself and my world better. Because it was research I did in a community in which I belong, I thought it was unfair to ask people for their stories and not share mine as well. I thought it was quite fair that I share my life with as much openness and trust as these people who have shared their lives with me. The book is richer because of it. Today, seven years after publication, I still get emails every month from scholars, students or just people who’ve read it saying, ‘Thank you so much. It’s changed our lives.’ It’s a good feeling.”

The events at Godrej India Culture Lab are free and open to the public.

Godrej India Culture Lab, Godrej Industries, Pirojshanagar, Eastern Express Highway, Vikhroli (E), Mumbai 400 079.

Leave a Reply