Deccan Chronicle : He lost his sight but found a philanthropic vision

This article first appeared on Deccan Chronicle. It was written by Darshana Ramdev on Jan 6th, 2014

Naveen Lakkur looks very uncorporate-like, as he steps out of the Karnataka Badminton Association, wearing a faded blue kurta and a big smile on his face. “I’m going to the Chitra Sante,” he said, by way of explanation, “So I thought I would dress like an artist.” What Naveen does is very different – he now works towards sustainable growth and a new brand of social work – social entrepreneurship, a model that seen increasing popularity over the last couple of years.

To give a man enlightenment, give him despair first. It was a very Camus-like story that unravelled itself, as Naveen talked about his life. The author of Inseparable Twins, which uses a dozen paired-principles to inspire young minds, a book that was seven years in the making, Naveen has nurtured over 1,000 startups across the world. Inseparable Twins was his first significant foray into philanthropy – all proceeds obtained from the first print went into buying cows for a rural dairy farm, a water purification plant in Anantapur and the construction of a free school.

Six months ago, Naveen was approached by British publishing house Bloomsbury (which has titles like Harry Potter to its credit). The proceeds from the second edition of his book, which is being published by Bloomsbury, will go to charity.

“They will only make up for the cost of the book,” said Naveen. Each book that is sold will contribute to two meals in a mid-day meal scheme in Delhi. “Prosperity and happiness go hand in hand, have you heard anyone say, ‘I’m broke but I’m happy?’ or ‘I’m rich, but terribly unhappy, so I’d like to be poor?’” That profit and social service need not be separated from one another is still a nascent philosophy, however.

“How can you see two sides of a coin at the same time,” he asked, suddenly. When I provided him with a number of absurd answers, he responds with a smile. “You can see one side with your inner eye,” he said. This blatant proclamation of philosophy seems surprising, at first. This he explains with the story of his life.

Now 42 years old, Naveen lives what he calls “a bonus life,” with only 15%of his vision. When he was 27, a freak accident caused a major retinal tear, causing his eyesight to degenerate almost completely over the next fortnight. For Naveen, whose startup had just begun to establish itself, this was a terrible blow.

“I was at a water park in Chennai. I went down a slide and there were people in the pool at the end, splashing around. When I arrived at the bottom, they splashed me too.” Naveen, who had always been a good swimmer, didn’t think much of this at the time. A week later, he found his vision growing blurry. “I was watching a film with my wife, when the image got so bad, I covered my right eye to find I could see nothing,” he recalled.

A visit to the doctor revealed a major retinal tear. “I went in for an operation the next day,” he recalled, his face troubled by the mere memory of that time. Always a sports buff, Naveen spent three months in bed, lying face down so his retina could heal. “I thought that was the worst time of my life,” he said. He was wrong. Six months after he recuperated from the first surgery, doctors told him the other eye was degenerating too. Today, he has sight only in one eye. “The doctors couldn’t tell me whether or not I would ever see again,” he said.

Naveen is now the Joint Secretary of the National Association for the Blind, which works toward spreading awareness about blindness and also preventing it in children. “Over 80% of blindness in children can be avoided altogether,” he said. This they do by conducting regular eye camps, at which free spectacles are distributed to the children, along with medicines. Cataract operations are also provided at a subsidised rate.

Naveen’s physical condition had deteriorated to such an extent that all his doctor had to say was, “We’ve done all we can, what you need now is God’s grace.” The search for God began then, from Infant Jesus Church to Satya Sai Baba’s ashram. Are you a hardcore Sai Baba devotee, I asked? “I think, once we transcend levels of spirituality, we realise we’re all the same. I am him and he is me,” he said, remarkably. Glimpses of infinity, indeed!

The only thing Naveen didn’t explain was what triggered his entry into philanthropy. “That’s always been a part of me,” he said. His association with the National Association for the Blind also happened seemingly by chance, when the secretary and treasurer, Srikanth Rao walked into his office one morning. “He didn’t know me at all,” said Naveen, who was, by this time, recognised as one of the rising stars in the IT industry. “He came in asking me to contribute,” Naveen explained.

“I don’t know why I’m telling you all this,” he said, suddenly, snapping out of a sort of reverie. The story of his life is the making of his second book – “The worst part of that ordeal with my eyes was that I couldn’t cry,” Naveen remarked. “I woke up one morning to find the fourteen people I had employed had all quit, they hadn’t even bothered to tell me.

There was nothing I could do. I was blind, my eyes had been reduced to jelly (those were the pre-laser times).” Determined not to be a burden, he persevered on. “My friends quit their jobs and began working for me, just to keep my company afloat,” he remembers. “In six months, we had doubled our output.” To quote Camus, “In the depths of winter I realised that there was in me an invincible summer.” As Naveen puts it himself, “There is sight and there is vision. I had to lose my sight to find vision.”

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