Manish Freeman and the power of gift culture
Just keep doing what you want to and know how to do. Ask for what you want,” says Manish Freeman. “Experience has taught me that everything else will fall into place.”
The first time I had seen Freeman, he was choreographing a group dance at the Learning Societies UnConference 2017 on the Bhoomi College campus in Bengaluru. A very happy and rather uncoordinated group of about 70 people was following his moves on a dusty field. I watched in awe.
The next time I met Freeman, we were at the Families Learning Together meet on the Swaraj University campus in Tapovan Ashram in Udaipur. He came up to me and said, “ You are a writer?”
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s one thing I struggle with,” he said. “Writing.”
I almost gasped. “But you are a dancer, Manish. That’s everything!”
The next morning, I woke up at sunrise on the terrace to find members of Udaipur’s Ultimate Frisbee team, Flying Foxes, throwing discs from one hill to another, at a distance of over 200m between them.
Manish Freeman, 27, is the man responsible for creating Udaipur’s Ultimate Frisbee team and putting it on the world map. This exciting, non-contact game has its beginnings in the counterculture of America in the 1960s. Over breakfast, I met Sarwagya, Rahbar, Burhanuddin, Saloni, Sapna, Payal, Komal, Nishant, Riya and Ashish—young women and men whose lives have been transformed since they have started playing the sport of Ultimate Frisbee.
“It all started from my own need for a community,” says Freeman. “I came to Udaipur as a student of mining engineering, and, four years later, graduated knowing that I was never going to work in the mining industry. I was desperate for connection, to belong to something meaningful.
“I would go to parks on Sunday mornings and organize non-competitive games for whoever was willing to join. On subsequent Sundays, more and more people began to turn up. Over the next five years, we had created a cycling community, organized Free Hugs Campaigns and game-athons—all of which became tools that create sustainable connections. I discovered the Shikshantar Resource Centre and received a lot of support from its co-founders Manish and Vidhi Jain.”
After a day spent facilitating workshop sessions and games, Freeman was surprisingly solemn as he recounted his journey to me. It was the last night of the get-together and in the distance we could hear loud, enthusiastic group singing. The moon was bright enough to illuminate the trees and paths on the campus.
“In the course of my travels after college, I was introduced to the frisbee. That unlocked something inside me but Udaipur didn’t have a team to play Ultimate. I decided to create the team I needed. I wasn’t really trained myself so I travelled to Ahmedabad, Pune and Hyderabad to train with teams that already existed.
“I had no money. I just had me to offer. I began to volunteer with schools and non-government organizations. A growing web of friends and acquaintances supported me. I would turn up at people’s homes at mealtimes, and that’s mostly how I fed myself.”
“Were you dogged by doubts and fears?” I ask him.
“It was hard but it taught me to believe in random acts of kindness. In the power of the gift culture,” Freeman elaborates. “In Hyderabad I found a family with Ramgopal Koneripalli and Prabha. I had shared my room in Udaipur with Ramgopal for one night, and in return his wife and he welcomed me in their home for months. They bought me my first professional frisbee sport disc. Their faith in me made me determined to keep going.
“When I offer my gifts with humility, I find that my needs get fulfilled in return. My parents weren’t sure of my actions, but they offered me silent sustenance. So many others became my extended family, supporting me emotionally and financially.”
I ask Manish about his name—Freeman.
“My name is Manish Kataria, but I am Manish Freeman,” he says. “When people ask you your full name, they don’t really want to know you, they want to know your caste. They judge and slot you. I was tired of that. Plus, I wasn’t fitting into any system—not the education framework and not the job market.
“I am Freeman because that’s what I aspire to be. Free of the caste system, of capitalism...of every other oppressive system. I announce myself free.”
The more Freeman travels, the more he gets to travel. He has organized game sessions in schools, corporate settings, youth leadership programmes, and in frisbee communities. He has been a trainer with a regiment of the Indian Army in Pathankot.
We joke about having to use fancy jargon to describe the work he does. “People want to know what outcomes to expect. What will they get in return for their time? My outcomes are—you will play, you will laugh, there will be masti and mazaa (fun and frolic). When I thought deeply about it, the terms that emerged were team-building, participatory leadership, trust, connection, communication, safe space, oneness.” He laughs. “People want to hear newfangled terms to be convinced.”
When I spoke to the team members of Udaipur’s Flying Foxes, there was a common theme in everyone’s testimony. “When I first came to college, I used to feel that I don’t exist,” Saloni shares. “Now, after becoming a frisbee player, I have become alive. I can feel my feelings.”
Everyone said it differently, but the underlying story was similar. Each one had been quiet, introverted and shy, and they now felt they had found their voice. I ask Freeman about it. “How can throwing a frisbee produce these results?”
“This is where the non-competitive games and dance moves come in,” says Freeman. “Most of us are afraid of making the first move, of rejection and ridicule. The games and dance work like an ice-breaker and create a safe space. We have group sharings that we call the “spirit circle”. What one says is heard by all others and remains confidential. There is no need for comments, debate or judgements.
“We hold the space for everyone to be themselves, to be accepted. That becomes a turning point for many. Frisbee makes you take ownership for your actions. There is no referee. Players make their own calls and they are guided towards accountability and responsibility.
“I’ve never really said this in so many words before,” he grins. “We are not just throwing frisbees. We remember that we are together to have fun. It is important to support each other. That changes everything.”
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
She tweets @natashabadhwar