On the move: a brief moment of brilliance

Heavily influenced by years of travel and work in India, the American "philosopher, hippie, tech innovator and UN doctor who helped eradicate one of the worst pandemics in history," visited Abu Dhabi last month. He has also released a memoir about his extraordinary story

Larry Brilliant speaking at the Reaching the Last Mile conference in Abu Dhabi in November. Mina Al-Oraibi / The National
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I’d been wanting to meet Larry Brilliant since reading Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, which gave brief but tantalising details about their travels in India in the 1970s.

Larry and his wife Elaine, who had changed her name to Girija, had travelled overland to the Kainchi Dham ashram near Naintal, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Both had been followers of a guru called Neem Karoli Baba ('Maharj-ji') and had deeply immersed themselves in Hindu teachings over many months.

In 1974, by which time Larry was based in Delhi, working for the World Health Organisation's smallpox eradication programme, he met a 19-year-old Steve Jobs, who had visited the ashram after the guru had died. All along, it was Larry who had travelled much more extensively – travels he has detailed in his new memoir Sometimes Brilliant.  The "sometimes" is unnecessarily self-effacing for someone who has spent his life eradicating smallpox, saving thousands from blindness and is now tackling polio and numerous other issues while he leads the California-based Skoll Global Threats Fund – among myriad other achievements. As well as the meeting with Jobs, which led to a lifelong friendship, the book he describes how the guru forecast that Larry would get a job at the World Health Organisation and help rid the world of smallpox, a horrific disease that was rampaging through India. As much an exortation as a prophecy, it came true.

Last month, when I learnt that Larry was in Abu Dhabi for the Reaching the Last Mile conference, in which global health leaders focused on the total elimination of diseases such as polio and malaria, I contacted him. On the phone we connected over the uncanny similarities between him and my father, who had both travelled in Russia and subsequently fallen out of love with communism. Larry invited me to meet at Louvre Abu Dhabi, where his encyclopedic knowledge unfolded as we toured the museum’s cultural treasures. “This is wonderful,” he said of the museum experience.

Larry Brilliant at Louvre Abu Dhabi. Hania Abu-Eid

And for me, what a joy it was to be there with a person who could compare the quality and condition of one particular South East Asian bodhisattva with others he’s seen, and speak in Hindi. We discussed the Buddha, India, Nepal and Bhutan, the wars in the Middle East, Vedic chanting, the US West Coast and Ibn Battuta. Hania, a Palestinian-American and Larry’s colleague at Skoll who accompanied us, also lent an interesting perspective.

Alas, before too long I had to get back to the office, but Larry was upbeat. “See you next in San Francisco?”

Eventually, in travel, many things come full circle.


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