Finding Courage on the Streets of Mumbai
by Douglas Board
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
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
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
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.
Douglas Board (@BoardWryter) is head of Coachmatch Career Management and a
senior visiting fellow at Cass Business School. His latest novel Time
of Lies was published in June 2017 by Lightning
Books. This article was originally published by the blog Leaders' Quest.