On giving something back to the needy and deserving

The thought of how disturbing a sight it is to see middle aged men and women burning the midnight oil working at a McDonalds or a Burger King has been stewing in my mind for a while. I see them and wonder, “man.. they must be having no other alternative than this to be here, at this hour..” They get paid the minimum wage and being in the fast food industry, don’t really see any prospects for receiving tips either.

Most of them must be having families too. So it is indeed plain sad that they are here at this hour when ideally, they would prefer the comfort of family and home. This vast disparity exists even in America and to an extent, almost unfathomable even by someone who is no stranger to these inequalities, coming from India. Sometimes even a curt smile might make their otherwise awful day. And believe me, they do that here – which makes me wonder of the situation back home.

And that’s when I stumbled upon this video.

Two gentlemen who had their charitable donation refunded, decided to do something novel. They decided to tip fast food workers each a $100 and videograph it to see how they react to it. No prizes for guessing, it made for a truly incredible video – got my heart full and eyes moist. Take a look!

PS: They have a really cool channel with a wonderful initiative too. So please subscribe and help the cause as well.

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Hello from the USA

Well, this is the longest since I haven’t written something here. 3 weeks shy of 9 months to conjure up a few lines has never been me. But somehow life had been taking centre stage in a variety of other ways and it just seems to be coming together now. Or so I think. In hindsight, the last eight and a half months have been quite telling of the crests and troughs that come upon us. Like a wave – which hits the shore and takes a part of the sediments with it, leaving behind a few other things which it will take back with it along due course. The last eight and a half months were fulfilling in the sense that this was a time when I ticked off a lot of squares – professionally and personally.

I worked for five months in Bangalore as a transport planner in a very well known organization. What was best was the fact that the tasks involved in finding interventions to common issues of urban mobility. Transport planning in the mega-cities of India has reached a saturation (with no certain end towards a sustainable solution) and the work to make mobility a better experience was thoroughly challenging. I met a lot of people who had the power to influence decision making in the country. Being a positive influence for change, like everyone, gives me a high too. Besides, work took me to the lives of few wonderful people – colleagues who had a lot of stories to share. I love story tellers. I would like to believe that I myself am one of that ilk too. Afternoon conversations with chai became a memorable affair, conversations were largely free flowing and there was no dearth of it. I was a happy witness to a friend overcoming her fears and anxiety about choosing a partner and getting married to her boyfriend. I somehow felt like I had a role there and it was brilliant.

And then USA happened. I already had applied for my doctoral degree in Transportation Engineering in the beginning of 2013 and I hit the North American shores in the month of August. If life in Florida over the past 4 months has to be summed up in one word, I’d say its interesting. I ended up switching research interests after some timely advice and I am still learning the nuances of Autonomous Vehicles (or more simply put, driverless cars like the Google car). PhD is a great leveller. You come in thinking of the wealth of experience that you have been witness to and it simply humbles you yet again. I guess this is what keeps you grounded and sane through the course of the study. Teaching is another element in that category. I am lucky to be appointed as an assistant instructor for an undergraduate course here, at USF. Tasks involve lecturing, grading and evaluating the students over the course of the semester. Not bad for someone who is just into the doctoral program. Teaching in US schools requires an attitude shift, especially if you are from Asia. It’s a nice change though and I am wholeheartedly embracing this.

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Learning to let go is something that has come up in my personal resume over the course of this year. When things are not going great, you understand and appreciate the fact that you are only in control of the one half of many things that you intend to be good at. So long as you are doing your bit about it, there’s only so much hope that you can pin on the conflicting elements that together make these things work. Essentially, I learned the important difference between being a bad loser and being a sore loser. I realize I am the former.

Tampa has led me to a newer set of wonderful people and life has merely become an optimization struggle – every time something happens to you, you go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate. Like a never ending SWOT analysis. Somebody told me I was too complicated and wound about, with my thoughts. I told them that they were too plain for my liking.

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PS: Hopefully, I have seen the last of prolonged inactivity here. Wishing you all a merry Christmas and a very happy & prosperous new year 2014.

A little something on what I am working currently (well, broadly..)

[Photo credits: self]

Facing death at the crossroads

Its quite normal to hear people say that they don’t fear death. That death is a natural process in the cycle called life and that we need to learn to deal with it, the way we deal with everything else. I say that too. I might never complete this post. Before I click on ‘Submit’, something extra-ordinary could happen in the blink of an eye that it would only take seconds for me to come to a grinding halt. There is nothing like being prepared for death to come. I hear people saying that too. Maybe its about facing adversities one after another, which creates a sense of closure in you that you learn to embrace it. Okay. Embracing death was going a bit too far, but more like accepting that one day it will engulf you and make you cease.

My great grandmother (amma‘s grandmother, ammama‘s mom) died a month ago. She was 97 (I still think she was 98 and that she celebrated her 95th twice, but anyways!). She was an exceptional human being. In the sense that, she had none of what could be commonly called as the reasons for death. All her vital parameters were perfect, perfect vision (until not-so-long-ago she used to read the newspaper without her glasses. Later on, she lost interest in reading when the vision on her right eye started on a gradual decline. Nothing good to read was another factor too, possibly!), black hair (at 97, she had more black hair than my dad), impeccable memory (good enough to know the names of the children of her grand-kids, the in laws of her grand-kids). She only had a minor issue with her hearing, for which she was using a hearing aid.

What struck me the most was the fact that she was clearly aware of her dying moments. Its common to hear people dying. The most common next question would be to know how the particular person died, was he/she conscious and such related queries. I was not with her during her last moments, but from what I heard (and assuming this was no melodramatic attempt at getting sympathy. Yes, families these days do these and much more. Qualifies for another post, some other time), there were tears in her eyes. She was struggling for breath for the last 10-15 minutes and for a conscious person, is quite an obvious sign that you may not make it to the other side from here on. Hearing this to grave detail actually got me thinking as to what were the possible things she could have been thinking of! Was she thinking about her children/  (great) grandchildren? Was she thinking on the things she hadn’t accomplished in her 97 years (wouldn’t be much, but still is a very valid thought coming in)? Was she flooded by memories of the life gone by? That last one, is an obvious first choice when I wonder as to the reasons behind those tears. She has been an exceptional pillar of strength – seen her own kids die tragic deaths (she had 11 kids, only 7 are alive at the moment), seen the wars, spent a lot of years in Ceylon separated from her children for reasons which were the trend during then amongst others. And despite all this, at that vital moment, tears sure did trickle down. And within minutes, she had left us all.

It actually seems scary and intimidating, to be aware of your dying moments. Now sample this: Recently, Hugo Chavez expired. The world needs no introduction to him, yet for the sake of this post, will profile him in brief. He was one of the most fearless, revolutionary human beings I have come across and I have been simply awed by the kind of things he had accomplished in his motherland. He stood up the forces of the world, fought for what he thought was right and stood firm by it. Most people wouldn’t be determined to his standards. He even showed a brave face to the world when he had been diagnosed with cancer. For the last decade and a half, he has been the messiah for Venezuela (who are still finding it extremely difficult to come to terms with his demise. A bit like how North Korea after the Kim-Jong-Il era). He has spoken openly about death staring on his face and as to how fearless he was, about it. Yet when the final moment of reckoning came by, all the much spoken about timidness and bravery had melted down. ” I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die..” were his last words. It wouldn’t be too hard to guess what were the reasons for his supposed statement, at his death bed. It is nevertheless an eye-opener as to how much people value life, despite not openly acknowledging it.

And now I wonder how people with suicidal tendencies tend to cross the line and finally make it happen!? Intriguing.

On the minority Indian – excerpts from Rome and Riyadh

I like to travel. By now, this is stale news. I don’t do museums and basilica’s so much as I do not relate so much to them. I try the food and being a foodie, there never needs to be a second invitation as far as that is concerned. Even for someone of my build, I take pleasure in walking around a new city instead of relying heavily on public transit. Ofcourse the temptation of using the public transit is very high thanks to the kind of work I do, but always remains minimal enough to make a judgement on the prevailing transport system and the (in)adequacies of the same. As much as walking around a new city is the best way to explore it, observing the immigrant communities and their ways of life in a new city, give a fair indication of how things work there. My short stints in Rome and later in Riyadh (on transit) were eye opening in that respect.

First things first, Rome could well be the next best thing to heaven. The city has a charm regardless of most of the ruins that make it up as of now. It is certainly a traveller’s delight in every respect – The Vatican, history, arts and culture, piazza’s and the ruins, the food, the gelati – all in all, a brilliant package of the old and new. Being the administrative powerhouse of Italy, Rome has tried its best to preserve the heritage that once made a civilization thrive along the city – outwards into Eastern Europe all the way into the Middle East and North Africa, which is a heart-warming sight. And ofcourse, Indians are aplenty in Rome. 5 minutes by foot and you inevitably bump into one. They are everywhere – on the subway (both the corridors and the trains), the sidewalks, running little shops, kebab places and ofcourse, traditional Indian places spread judiciously across the city.

Disturbingly though, many of these minority Indians are on the sidewalks selling one thing or the other, in every nook and cranny of the city – ranging from imitation goods to fancy items along the sidewalk. You might wonder why just Indians. Well, its not just them – there are Pakistani’s, Bangaldeshi’s, Sri Lankan’s as well – all in unison and in the effort of making a living. I wonder how they survive solely on these. Not having any bit of a steady income and considering how expensive the city of Rome is, it doesn’t make their predicament any bit easier. I might not have been surprised seeing this trend in Lisbon or Sofia, two of the cheapest and most affordable European capitals of the modern day. But fact remains that the sidewalks and the subway corridors in Lisbon are infested by the blacks – probably due to the close proximity to Africa and also due to the relation with the former colonies. Certainly the stance of the Vatican to safeguard the interests of those who come seeking protection also should be playing a role in this mass exodus. But seeing the economic climate of Italy and most of Europe, it is just about alarming.

I infact happened to meet a Malayali guy (they are just about everywhere!! ) who works as part of the nursing staff in one of the hospitals in Rome. He was telling me how difficult life had become, over the past 2 years. He started working at EUR 9/ hour, but was soon forced to cut down his wages to EUR 6/ hour in order to keep his job because there were many takers for the same position, even at this rate. And this decline, at a time when the inflation has kept taking the upside trend is surely not meant to help. The only way he manages to keep the boat from sinking (in his own words) is to work night shifts since they pay you more. Those have impacts on the long term as well. But everyone has a story at home to quote in their defense of such punishing schedules. The average minority Indian’s story goes on similar lines – whether he is in Europe, Asia or America.

Riyadh was pretty much similar as well, if not worse. I did not get to explore the city like Rome as I was on transit, but the time spent at the airport and on the flight to Chennai was good enough to gauge the situation. The boarding gate clearly resembling the open flood gates for prisoners who were out on parole. Many of those bore relieved looks, some were sporting wry half smiles, others were clearly trying to hide signs of fatigue (I was initially wondering all the whys ans the hows and later realized) from what most likely were punishing schedules again. It all got worse when the B777 I was in, had its cabins so full that the flight attendants had forced some of the hand baggage to be kept on the under belly because that was only half full, apparently.  For people who were going home after 2-3 years, this was supposed to be very unusual. Most often what we see are the big suitcases laden with goodies, stacked up one over the other in a taxi, home bound. Movies, ofcourse. But then, the reality of it was such.

My co-passenger was someone who hailed from Tindivanam dist, south of Chennai. He did not know his date of birth (even the passport acknowledged that), in his 50s and going home after 7 years. 7 years!!! I don’t even know how that feels. Misery got compounded when I was asked to fill his immigration form (he only knew Tamil). He was a very warm person, so I obviously obliged. I filled 22 more of these forms during the course of the flight. The lure to make a quick buck was taking many people out of the country. Most of the people back home in India are unawares of the kinds of jobs these guys are doing. They won’t be, so long as there is some trickling in of the funds and its a natural thing. But where they really building up stone castles or just as far as those with sand?? It looked more the latter to me.

Master Degree, check!

Successful defense of the Master Degree Dissertation (Thesis Report) happened last week. Although it got a bit debated on the nuances, still made for a grand stand finish. There is a huge sigh of relief right now. and its a good feeling. But then, you are not so much into relishing the relief that apprehension starts once again. Thoughts of the next step grab the attention of the voices from within. And that ofcourse doesn’t get any help or a move – on when you have a lot of people showing a whole lot of concern (untimely, unnecessary and often with ill motives) on what is going to be the next step. Anyways, some things that I think I have learnt deserve to be penned down here.

  • Everyone has his/her way of working through the research work. No hard and fast rules, some slow starters, some lift off and then subside. All the same towards the end. 
  • Spoon feeding never made you a good academic or researcher. Being constantly told what to do is not something anyone should be proud even if that comes in the way of “guidance”. Your work, your rules.
  • Extensive literature review always helps in building a strong case. A lean literature review is always like a sand castle. Just a matter of today or tomorrow.
  • Know your capabilities well and only then commit to anything on the abstract. Big words such as micro-simulation, econometric modelling etc should be backed up by your abilities (unless you pride in being a quick learner and get it done).
  • Confusion is always a good thing to have. Being confused tells me you have been thinking.
  • You have to fail once or twice to win. You have never won it hands down, unless you have failed and then won over your failure.
  • Be on time and stick to your limits. Your superiors may not agree to listen to this, but you do your bit. A 20 minute presentation can be of 19 minutes, but not 21 minutes. Again, these rules may not hold for your superior, but never mind.
  • Lastly, have a life while you are at the thick of things as well. Occasional breaks during the midweek, football weekends (if you are me, ofcourse), time spent with people whose company you enjoy should never be compromised over work. After all, there is more to life and more often than not, all these may not matter in 20 years if you are alone and depressed.

Next on the agenda is to complete the official formalities, take a break from everything, go on a holiday (Rome for me) and then back home to be with family. And then go on a holiday again for some much needed peace and calm, sort your life and get back on the grind.