July 18, 2010

How do you feel when someone bows to you?

I was walking to my workplace, on a hot Sunday morning, when I was approached by this young man on the street. He asked me if I knew where the Veterinary school of NC State was located. I had a rough idea where it was but was not able to locate it on the map he had. He said he had arrived from South Korea the previous day and was keen on finding out where the Vet school was. He apparently had already visited a part of the campus looking for it but couldn't locate it. Impressed with his determination, I wanted to help him and so asked him to accompany me to my workplace, so that I could look it up on the internet for him. I was able to locate it on the Wolfline map (NC State's bus service) and pointed it out to him. I gave my map to him and told him to wait until the next day and take a bus to the place since it was pretty far to walk. He was extremely grateful and he thanked by shaking hands with me. He did something after that which I didn't see coming. He bowed to me, in the typical genuine East Asian style and said 'Thank you' again. I felt so weird being bowed to that by the time I could respond he was gone. Even though he was the one bowing, I felt so small in front of him, I don't know why. Its probably because, that was the first time someone bowed to me, though I have been bowing to my elders since my childhood. Another thing that impressed me was the young man's attitude of embracing a different culture but preserving his own culture even outside his homeland . That is definitely praiseworthy considering the many immigrants I see around me who have conveniently replaced their own culture and practices with those of the western world. This also reminds me of the recent uproar in the media when the US President Obama greeted the Japanese Emperor with a bow. He was most probably trying to imitate a Japanese way of greeting, and I see nothing wrong in it whatsoever. Anyway, by the end of it all, I was glad I could help the Korean student.

May 23, 2010

Service to Mankind-Why should it be hard ?

One of these past weekends I got an opportunity to be a part of a very special activity - volunteering for post-flood relief work at Nashville, Tennessee. How on earth did I get to do that? Yes, I am wondering too. Two days before we were supposed to go, I got a call from my friend Padma, a staunch Sai devotee, asking me what plans I had for the weekend. Frankly, I had nothing 'planned out' for the weekend as usual, so I asked her why she had called. She told me that she was planning a trip to Nashville to take part in flood relief work. I had read about the floods on some news website but I had no idea how serious or how destructive it was. My first reaction was to say yes, but given my nature of not making quick decisions, I didnt say anything. I asked her some details about the trip and came to know that a few Sai devotees from Raleigh, Charlotte and Alabama were going as a group under the umbrella of Samaritan's Purse, an organization that is involved in carrying out relief work in disaster areas. I also had my job to take care of on Saturday, so I told her that I would get back to her if someone agrees to take my shift on Saturday. Following our conversation, I shot an email to my colleagues at Bragaw Hall (my workplace) requesting for shift cover, without giving a reason. I just didn' t feel like giving this reason, not because I thought it was below my dignity, but because I didn't want people to think I was taking advantage of the situation . I then did some research on the flood situation and came across this article on Washington Post (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2010/05/03/AR2010050304401.html). It was pretty serious and I was touched especially by one of the residents' voices - " I know God doesn't give us more that we can take. But I'm at my breaking point". 13 inches of rain! 29 people had died! Following that I went to the Samaritan's purse website and found out that they were indeed a pretty big organization doing some amazing work. I then hoped for someone at Bragaw to reply back positively, for this was a very good opportunity for me to help someone in need.

Until the evening before we were supposed to start for Nashville, the trip hadn't been finalized, and I hadn't received a reply either, but I was excited nevertheless. Padma called to let me know that everything was finalized and I was the one who needs to confirm. This is when I had no choice but to shoot another email but this time with the genuine reason for not being able to cover my shift. Surprisingly, in a matter of just under 3 minutes, I got back a reply from Matt saying - " I will cover your shift man. Enjoy your volunteering and the summer". Truly amazing how powerful good deeds are! I informed Padma about it but told her I wouldn't be able to start until 2 PM the following day. They had no problem with that and things just fell into place.

The next afternoon we started at around 2.30 PM for the 10 hour long drive to Nashville. Everyone - Sridhar Sir, Prem Sagar Sir, his wife Swapna aunty, their son Anirudh, Harish, Padma - were excited and the moment I stepped into the car, I felt their warmth and affection. What more can one ask for? But there was more to come- Swapna aunty had prepared tamarind rice for all of us, I felt as though it was sent straight from above for, I hadn't had lunch save for a chocolate bar. All of us had tamarind rice with the 'healthy' Sunchips and Hawaian Punch. A perfect lunch! On the way we picked up Aparna from the 'non-functional' Hickory regional airport, who drove from Charlotte to join us. Here's what we did while we were waiting for her at the airport: Pose, Chat and Play...


The journey consisted of bhajan sessions, amidst the beautiful scenic drive along the Great Smoky Mountains. We stopped a little after entering the state of Tennessee at a Tourist Information Center/Rest Area where there was a room with a historic feel to it, with a nice fireplace, a grandfather clock and paintings hung on the wall. But, this had to happen (No offense meant to anyone in the pic :) ): Why ?? 
In any case, we reached Nashville at around 12.30 am. We had no trouble in finding accommodation thanks to a very kind Gujarathi family owning a motel who decided to give us place to stay for free. How remarkable! We met Kushal Seth and Sai Santhosh, who had driven from Alabama, and who were the reason behind this activity.

The next morning, we were all served with chai and donuts for breakfast, again, courtesy the motel owners and we started off to a church to coordinate with the folks of Samaritan's Purse. I was pleasantly surprised to see atleast 30 other volunteers at the church. No wonder Tennessee is called the Volunteers State, owing to the large number of volunteers it provided during the Wat of 1812 and the Mexican War. We were assigned an enthusiastic, strong yet kind, atleast 60 year old man,Marvin as our team leader. We would later come to know that he was once a US Marine and now working as a construction contractor.

We right away left for the first house we were supposed to work on. The destruction, which had evaded us all this long, started showing itself. As we started getting into the residential locality, piles and piles of 'trash' were seen in front of every house. This 'trash' consisted of everything from furniture, electrical appliances, wooden planks, to clothes and carpets. The sight of all the personal belongings lying in a lump outside the house burnt my insides. I couldn't stop shedding a tear for all those families whose lives were not going to be normal for atleast another two years. This was the first time I was visiting a disaster site and all the disasters I had read about in the news came rushing back to me. Take a look at a typical scene on the right.

On reaching the first house to be fixed, most of us had no clue what was to be done, but thanks to Marvin, we were all brought up to speed and everyone started contributing without further delay. What surprised me the most was an old lady named Eva, easily 65 years old, joined us in doing all the work, which was mostly physical. This lady, we later came to know, had also suffered great damage during the floods. But, she was so moved by all the volunteers going to her house and helping her out with everything, that she had decided to do the same! She had lost her husband a couple of years ago and to top it all, she was a cancer survivor! Does anyone need any more motivation than this to serve others? I don't think so. We continued working on the first house till afternoon, the work mainly comprising of destroying walls upto a height of 3 feet, removing the insulation from within, moving appliances, disconnecting the drainage connections and the like.
This was the team (minus Sai, who was the photographer), posing with the owner of the first house. The boxer in the picture, was Tiger, Eva's best friend and her only constant companion.

We reached the second house after a light lunch at a nearby Sub. The house belonged to a Spanish speaking family and Eva was of great help in communicating with the home owner. This house was a complete mess compared to the first one. The water level apparently had reached a height of 8 ft.during the flood and basically everything had to be redone. The home owner had done a lot of work by himself, and we concentrated mainly on the flooring. We had to remove every single wooden plank on the floor, and the insulation underneath the floor. Due to the lack of light, cross-ventilation and the nature of  work itself, working on this house felt much more tiring than the first one. Marvin ended up teaching every single one of us on how to use an electric saw. The enthusiasm and goodwill of Marvin and Eva kept us all going. Women volunteers were no less strong than the men, and this truly surprised me. None of them showed any signs of tiredness, not even that old lady! Truly amazing!

At the end of a truly productive day all of us thanked Marvin and Eva for being so wonderful throughout and we parted ways. As though God wanted to appreciate what we had accomplished during the day, he gave all of us an opportunity to visit him at the temple. The Ganapathi temple at Nashville turned out to be the perfect place for all of us to relax, contemplate on and thank the Supreme Being for having taken care of all of us without the slightest glitch. We were all the there at the right time to witness Mangalaarthi and listen to the chanting of the sacred Veda mantra.

We then proceeded to Dhiraj's place, who was a friend of Kushal, and who had invited us all for dinner. Again, as though God knew that we are after all mortals who gain maximum satisfaction out of material things, he had the perfect dinner waiting for us. First came the samosas with pudina chatni. Before starting the main course, we recited the Brahmarpana mantram. It had been more than 10 years since I had chanted that, and so was able to chant only the first 2 lines, but I promised myself to learn the entire mantra and cultivate the wonderful habit of reciting it before having my meal. This is one of the many many things that I learnt over the weekend. Then came the main course consisting of chapathi, dal ,soybean curry, lentil curry, chinese manchurian, vegetable pulao, raitha and badam barfi. Can anyone ask for more !? We all had a sumptuous meal thanks to the kindness shown by Mr. Dhiraj and his wife, not mention his little daughter, Vedika, who entertained us all for a while. Dinner was followed by a surprise(to Sai, of course) celebration of Sai's birthday, and we all got to have a delicious cake for dessert.

The next morning most of us had a nice Indian-style breakfast at the motel owner's place and started back to Raleigh. This is a snap with the super kind family who gave us accomodation and breakfast on both the mornings.
All in all, a weekend extremely well spent, I would say. Not many people get such opportunities and I was fortunate to get one. I would like to end it by asking myself the question, why should social service be hard, after all? The toughest part is making the first decision, after which everything will be magically taken care of.

March 23, 2009

Can we say technology at its best yet?

Last week I came across two really fantastic videos.
The first one is called World Builder, an amazing short movie by Bruce Branit "in which a man uses holographic tools to create a virtual world for a woman he loves". Supposedly, the filming of the movie was completed in 1 day, but the post production computer graphics took two years! I was amazed at what you can do with all the animation tools you have today. I must say the programmers who write such software have to be just too good. Watch the video in high quality...

Now, the second video is about REAL world and it is about something which makes you say "I cant believe it!". The Sixth Sense, as it is called, is a device that comes real close to equip you with exactly that. Yes! I too did not believe it when I looked at the title of the video, but the video itself left me in such awe, that my jaws literally dropped on looking at this technological marvel. This is one of those things you watch in 'high-tech' (the 'high' has to be relative to the current times) movies and makes you think 'I wish I had one of those'. This gadget was unveiled at one of the TED talks in Feb 2009 and was supposedly one of the most hyped about. There has to be something in the device which prompted everyone in the audience to give a standing ovation to Mr. Pranav Mistry, the guy in charge of the project. Watch the video to know what that was...

For a computer engineer and a tech enthusiast like me, it is natural to get excited about such things. I am sure most of us would have a basic idea as to how it should work, but how many us would have confidently said - yes! such a thing is possible!-before watching this video? Not many, I would say. Moreover, it is about DOING and not just saying that it can be done. Hats off to Pranav!
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