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US visit: 30-Aug to 07-Sep

September 9, 2013 Comments off

The excitement of coming to US for me is now-a-days dampened by the fatigue of the 24-hour air travel. While Emirates Airlines does try to make it as comfortable as possible, I think age is something I need to account for. As with my previous trips, I have now come to accept jet lag as part of my travel experience and it was no different this time too. The only difference was Arun Karpur, who usually makes me wait at JFK to be picked up, had come early and was waiting for me on Friday, the 30th.

We drove down straight to Dr Meena Murthy’s house at Princeton where I stayed for the first three days this time. Dr Meena and her husband are another special couple. They have two wonderful sons – Sandeep and Praveen. Praveen had come to SVYM as a student volunteer many years ago and impressed all of us with his humility and wisdom. Both are products of the Princeton University. Sandeep is an engineer doing his MBA and Vinny, as Praveen is fondly called, is studying medicine and wants to become an orthopedic surgeon. Dr Meena not only made sure that my stay was comfortable but also kept my focus on completing my book. It is now more than 4 years since I toyed with the idea of writing a book. Except for signing with a literary agent in New York, I had done pretty much nothing. But I had not bargained for Dr Meena! She was determined to see this project through and had also lined up a student assistant to help me with the same. Apart from regularly calling and emailing me to ensure that we worked together as a team, she was insistent that I spend at least 2-3 days with them, fine tuning the manuscript. Americans celebrate the Labour Day weekend with travel and leisure that they love, but Dr Meena had other ideas. She made sure I laboured away on my book!

The only exception was the time I spent at the Asha Conference on Saturday, the 31st. I facilitated the discussion on strategizing for their future before delivering my keynote address titled ‘Rediscovering Asha: Preparing India for the 21st Century Education needs’. Asha is another wonderful organization with which I have shared a special relationship. It was in 1991 that Mr Mahendra Jain, one of their early founding members wrote to me from Berkeley. He wanted to know if there was some way that they could partner in our work. And there has been no looking back ever since. Different chapters of Asha have consistently supported many of our education projects over these 22 years. At the conference, it seemed I was the only one with so much memory and understanding of the enormous good work that many of their chapters have done. After 22 years, Asha has supported more than 850 projects with USD 35 million in the area of education. It was a privilege for me to share some of my thoughts with them. Though the physical attendance was minimal, the talk was webcast to a wider audience. I am sure Asha will not only continue the good work but will also find more relevant ways of partnering with NGOs involved in India’s progress.

I could meet with Nitya, the student assistant and Dr Meena the same evening and we looked at the progress made and what we needed to do in the next few days. We met with many friends of Dr Meena who had been sent the excerpts of the book. These were people of all ages and professions – from housewives to professors, social workers to directors of professional institutions, and doctors to students. All of them had good things to say about what they had read. Importantly, they all believed that the message had to be told and loved the ‘story-telling’ way in which I had narrated it. What was encouraging was that everyone believed this was a book for a universal audience and I now felt very inspired to complete the manuscript. Dr Meena and Nitya made sure that we achieved substantial progress and I am now confident that we can have the finalized manuscript in the next 2-3 weeks.

On the 2nd Sept, Dr Meena took me along to an evening dinner meeting at the SKN Foundation. Dr Naveen Mehrotra, an Indian doctor, has started this foundation in the memory of his departed wife. They are deeply committed to ensuring the health and wellness of the South Asian, particularly the Indian communities living in the US. Apart from sitting through their discussions, I could share a few thoughts on Swami Vivekananda and his concepts of service, SVYM and other current challenges plaguing India as a country.

Catching an early morning flight in the US is a real test of one’s commitment to travel. Sanjeev was kind enough to take me to Newark airport at 4 in the morning. The drive was also very educative as I understood from Sanjeev (an expert in Material Sciences) how bio-materials were changing lives – from stents to warfare. Another thing I have come to dread is the inefficiency of the many airlines that exist in the US. I have somehow not been able to break the jinx of this last one-year. Each time I have had a different experience – from me and my baggage traveling separately, to missed connections and cancelled flights. This time, my flight into Cleveland was late and I missed the connection to Erie.

This also meant that I arrived late into Meadville, where Allegheny College is located. My lunch meeting started embarrassingly late but everyone was very understanding. Erie is a beautiful city and the view of the lake from above was spectacular. Moreover I had a fellow traveler me who insisted on giving me a running commentary throughout the journey. Thankfully this flight was only 25 minutes, but by then I had got a fair idea of the importance of this lovely city and its people.

I loved the two days I spent here at Allegheny College. All the people I met were so friendly and hospitable. They were all keen on building a partnership with VIIS and SVYM. It felt like home here. I was even staying for the first time in my life at an American ‘Bed and Breakfast’, something similar to our own ‘Home-stay’. Both the dinner lecture on the 3rd and the lunch lecture on the 4th were memorable. I found the intense engagement of the students very enriching. Allegheny College is among the top-25 Liberal Arts Colleges in the US and is home to around 2700 students. Jenny Kawata, the person overseeing international programs was my contact person along with Joe Christiano, the Dean of Students.

Balu with Allegheny students

I left this picturesque 200-year-old college on the afternoon of 4th to catch my flight out of Erie to Los Angeles. Boyd, who drove me around on both the days was another interesting person and had his share of stories to share with me. Owning around 50 acres of land and having been a CFO of a Corporation locally, he seemed to be well-informed of all Global Affairs. He always carried his Kindle loaded with all the classics with him. He now bought old homes, refurbished them and sold them for a profit. Amidst his farming and his new vocation, he also doubled up as a driver on request for the Allegheny College. So much to learn from all of them!

This visit of mine to my sister’s house was memorable in a different way. Apart from the joy of meeting family, I seemed to be getting roasted in the heat. The temperature was touching 45 degree celsius and it was probably the hottest time I have ever experienced in my life. Visit to the United States has to include some bit of shopping for the family back home and dining in atleast a couple of my favorite places. Having done this, my trip feels complete before I return here again for my semester teaching, later this year in November.

Balu

Categories: Travelogue

A week in the United States…

May 27, 2013 1 comment

Becoming a parent is indeed a very different kind of feeling. The emotions that one feels are indeed difficult to describe. It makes one afraid, anxious, happy, proud and confused. It does leave one feeling incompetent and struggling to cope with the changing demands – physically, emotionally and intellectually. But beyond all this, it does change a person for the better. It makes one feel responsible, mature and changes the way we see ourselves, our roles in this world and in how we interact with our spouse and our friends. On this whirlwind, week-long tour of the US, I had the unique opportunity of seeing two young couples who recently became parents. As soon as I landed at JFK on the 18th afternoon, I knew that I would have the dependable Arun Karpur to pick me up at the airport. Arun has been an active SVYM member and has worked hard to set up and sustain the relationship with Cornell University. He has made a mark for himself in the Employment & Disability Institute of the Cornell ILR School and his well-known for his research knowledge and skills. He and his wife Radhika were blessed with a baby girl Aradhya, three months ago. Watching him talk and play with his daughter makes one realize how well endowed he is with skills other than research. Suddenly he seems so evolved and different.

With Arun's daughter Aradhya

With Arun’s daughter Aradhya

What awaited me at Shrewsbury, a city near Boston the next day was something similar. One always equated Satish (another SVYM member) to a life that is easygoing and devoid of anything stressful. He had a calm demeanour that could rarely be ruffled. Satish and his wife Manjula are dear friends who made my life so comfortable during my year-long study at Harvard. They were another couple who have a special place in my heart and I found them overflowing with joy at having had a daughter four months ago. Their daughter Chirantana seems to love conversing in baby language with anyone and everyone. Watching Arun and Satish share notes and update each other on how infants behave was like watching young children describing the new toy that they had just come to own!

The Kennedy School and Harvard Square will always be a special place for me. The 20th morning saw Arun, Satish and myself drive down in the morning. While I went about my meetings at the school, the Center for Public Leadership and at the Hauser Center, Arun and Satish explored the Harvard University campus. We then had lunch with Melli Annamalai of ASHA at a Thai restaurant close to the Harvard Square. Melli is another dear friend who is very committed to improving the state of education in India. She hails from Mysore and has been supporting our various programs from a long time. She is very active in ‘Asha for Education’ and has been one of its Presidents in the US. We could catch up and discuss many programs and I also used the opportunity to update her about all that was happening at SVYM. I have always felt that nature has been very kind to the United States and the drive back from Boston to Princeton was scenic and pleasant.

On 21st morning, I left very early to catch a flight from Newark to Minneapolis and the whole day was spent in meetings at the University of Minnesota. Teaching and having faculty positions in universities in the US has left me with a better understanding of the relationship that exists between teachers and administrators. Faculty is so focused on the academic content, while administrators are always trying to balance budgets and make things work.

Another SVYM member in the US who continues to be engaged and involved is Shailendra Prasad, or ‘Shailey’ to his friends. His company is something that I cherish a lot and I always end up learning something new whenever I meet him, and this visit was no different. Staying with him is always enriching and gives the time to share notes on leadership – a subject dear to both our hearts. During the dinner he hosted, I could meet with Mark and Susan, the faculty and resident who will accompany the next set of students to our Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies (VIIS). After more meetings at the University regarding new and upcoming programs in collaboration with VIIS, I left on the 22nd to Washington DC. Prof Govind Rao of the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus (UMBC) met me at the airport and I stayed with him for the night.

23rd was another day of great learning. Visiting Govind’s Center for Advanced Sensor Technology exposed me to an altogether different world. Frontier Research is something that I have not been exposed to and it was so overwhelming to see so much that is happening in this domain. Govind Rao and his team are developing products that one would imagine belong to the world of science fiction. Seeing his lab and the product demonstration to the GE team left me with a better understanding of how things work in this domain. From ideation to proof of concept to product development and commercialization is indeed a long and expensive journey. One longs for India to also join in this pursuit to make human life better and the world a better place to live in.

It is strange how we take our friends for granted and never really make the time to meet and interact with them when they are close to home. Ashish and Mikul were my classmates from the Kennedy School who work with the World Bank in New Delhi. 24th morning started with having breakfast with Ashish in a downtown bakery and catching up with old times. Lunch was with Dr Rao and his friends Vaidy and Srinivasan in an Indian Restaurant and we had to have the difficult conversation about the Premavidya project. A lot of water has flowed in this project over the last year and as donors, they needed to be updated. A lot of misconceptions that arise out of incomplete communication were cleared. Communication and Public Relations are not strengths of NGOs and SVYM is no different. Meeting with Dr Rao, a committed supporter, showed me how much more needs to be done. Mikul met me for a few minutes at the Union Station just before I boarded the train. I have never been able to come to terms with why train travel is more expensive than air travel in the US. I took the Amtrak Acela Express from DC to New York and was disappointed that the promised wi-fi never worked on board the train.

The postponement of the Asha conference and inability to advance my travel meant that I had to stay with Arun over the weekend. This left with me with time to catch up on my work and writing. I holed myself up in Arun’s office, a true ‘den’ that permitted me to complete quite a bit of all pending tasks on the 25th. Arun and I then went to dinner at Dr Meena Murthy’s residence and made ourselves time for some shopping too. How could I return from the US without contributing my bit to their consumerist economy?! Every restaurant I go to, every flight I take gives me enough indication of the reviving American economy. In this age of globalization, this will have its impact around the world and one is relieved that things are indeed improving. Hopefully human greed will not reverse this again to 2008 levels.

What stands out in this visit of mine is the inclement weather. Wherever I went, it was wet and raining. It was cold too with one minor exception. If it was 80 degrees Fahrenheit in DC, it was 45 degrees in Minneapolis. Everyone I met had the same explanation – climate change and its consequences. Hopefully, we will learn as a race to mitigate this and understand that every one of us has to participate in not destroying our precious environment and leave our future greener than what it is today.

Traveling back to India is something that I have always looked forward to – reaching home to my family and loved ones. The flight today, the 26th of May, gives me time to reflect and be alone with myself. It also gives me time to catch up on another favorite pastime of mine – watching old English movies. I intend doing all this on the Emirates flight, an airline that I have come to like and depend on.

India, I cannot wait to return and be amidst the excitement and energy, the challenges and problems, the opportunities and battles! Well, one has so little to give her, but then she gives back so much more.

Balu

Categories: Travelogue

Visiting the USA

September 21, 2012 2 comments

Update-17: 10 to 12 Oct’12

Finally, I am flying down to another city within the same time zone! Orange county is one of the important counties of California and Fullerton is a city in Orange County. I had started this trip of mine with a visit to my brother’s place in Windsor, Canada and ended it with another family visit. Fullerton is where my sister and her family lives and my mother has also made it her home now. Was good to be with them and my sister Nandini attended to my dental needs. It was also good to see one of my favourite nephews Arvind who has recently graduated from Columbia University.

Dechu Puliyanda (whom we all fondly called Amul) is not just an SVYM member but we have also grown up together in Bangalore. We have known each other for more than 45 years and she is a very popular pediatric nephrologist here in the USA. Our families were neighbours in Vyalikaval, Bangalore and visiting her and her family was very nostalgic and we could catch up on our old times.

Finally, the day to leave has arrived. I always intend traveling light but somehow my suitcases find stuff to get filled with. Traveled along with my brother-in-law Murthy who was going to New Delhi on a consulting assignment with the NHAI. The Dubai airport is a busy and a well-built airport, though my only complaint here has been that it has too few public restrooms for the number of travelers it caters to. After a very brief layover, I took the flight home. Always good to be back and Bangalore was so welcoming. The road trip back to Mysore could not have been more pleasant as there were hardly any vehicles along the way and rain kept us company throughout.

Update-16: 09-Oct-12

Looks like I am spending more time in planes this week than on the ground. From Minneapolis I came to Seattle taking an early morning flight. The body is now beginning to complain as lack of sleep, disoriented circadian rhythm and constant travel has begun to take its toll. While I enjoy the lectures and teaching, I must confess that the body is not able to keep up pace with the spirit.

Seattle University is a well-known private university in this part of the country. Founded in 1891, it is a Jesuit Catholic University and has a very scenic campus located on the Capitol Hill and around 8000 students are studying here. This university is also known for its religious studies department and I could spend time in an inter-faith dialogue with the Associate Provost, Ms Victoria Jones. She was very keen to know all about Hinduism and Swami Vivekananda. We also discussed on ways to build partnerships. What strikes me as I travel around is the focus and intent of University administrators to enable an environment that gives their students a global perspective and some sort of international engagement and experience.

Discussion on Study Abroad Program

Had a good talk and interaction with senior faculty and administrators of the University regarding Study Abroad and Global Service Learning. Increasingly, American universities are becoming sensitive to the fact that their students need to undertake these engagements in a spirit of partnership rather than take on the role of a provider. SVYM-VIIS has always maintained that both of us give and take in these exchange programs and this view is becoming more accepted nowadays. Americans do realize that one needs to be equivalent and respectful of their partners and we did have a good discussion on how we could do this. We are also appreciated for our organized offering of programs that are both flexible and relevant to the increasing demands of a global world order.

As the day nears an end, I can surely look back on a very satisfying and fruitful trip. My fever is starting to show up and these are the times one is thankful that man invented paracetamol (acetaminophen). Need to retire early to catch the early morning flight again tomorrow to Orange County, California.

Update-15: 08-Oct-12

Spent the morning discussing with Shaila about the new course that I am planning called ‘Leadership and Global Citizenry’. I am intending to teach this course to undergrads and a few graduate students at Cornell in the first week of February. We discussed at length our views on culture, multicultural settings and how culture impacts one’s leadership abilities. I am hoping that this course will be something that today’s students who are intending to be global in their perspective, vision and approach will benefit greatly from. There is also interest from other Universities and we need to make this a very enriching and engaging exercise for young people.

Had a very productive meeting with senior administrators of the University of Minnesota. This University is the Land Grant University of the State of Minnesota and is the second largest in terms of number of students in this country. It has a long list of noble laureates and was made well known in India by its alumnus Norman Borlag, the person who brought high quality wheat to India.

My evening public lecture hosted by the Center for Integrative Leadership was well attended by students, faculty, administrators and physicians. Was also happy to meet with Humphrey Fellows from India and medical students who will be interning with SVYM.

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Categories: Travelogue

Recounting my US sojourn…

November 5, 2010 1 comment

Traveling by air always seemed enjoyable for me when I was younger. It now clearly is a burden, especially if you are traveling 18 hours or more and changing flights in between. I am always fascinated how despite the intense stress of air travel, people seem to be so well-behaved and conform to the normal social standards! The stress of making sure you have the right sized suitcases, packing not more than the permissible weight, remembering (in my case) to take your passport and arranging for all your travel papers including insurance, and half stripping at the airport security, clearing immigration and customs, the messed up food on board…and the list could go on. I have left out the failed entertainment system and the lost baggage and some of the discourteous staff at the airport. All this leaves me wishing that air travel could be like the old days, when I still liked to sit in an airplane for long hours and sleep through most of the travel.

My recent trip to the United States was indeed a difficult one. I chose an airline (Emirates) that flew almost non-stop to New York, but still could not get myself to sleep en route. I was groggy and tired when I landed on October 17th at JFK. I had another 8 hours to wait before catching the flight to Ithaca. I thought that paying a visit to my nephew who is studying in Columbia University was a better thing to do and it was good to see him back in school and immersed in academic work. The flight to Ithaca restored my lack of faith in airlines. As I was about to board, the gate-agent told me that I was being bumped off to keep the weight within the permissible limits on this small plane. After much haggling and shouting, I finally managed to get on the plane and reach Ithaca half awake and desperately needing some rest!

The next few days more than made up for this ordeal. The warmth and hospitality that the faculty and administration of Cornell University extended to me was very touching. The schedule was very hectic and I was moving from one lecture to another, from one meeting to another – but at the end of the day, it was very productive and engaging. Arun Karpur was with me all the time making sure that we were able to accomplish what was planned. I was impressed with the manner in which Joe Grasso, the Associate Dean at ILR, and his team had planned the meetings. The interest in India, the genuineness to build partnerships and the seriousness with which the conversations were made – all stand testimony to the intent of these wonderful people at Cornell.

Amidst the brilliance of fall colours at Cornell, Ithaca

We left Ithaca on 20th by the campus bus – bus is an understatement to describe this state-of-the-art vehicle fitted with wi-fi and snacks on board for the hungry traveler. After another meeting at the New York Campus of the University, I moved on to Boston where Sadath picked me up at the airport.

Meeting friends like Sadath and Vani, and Satish and Manjula is always a treat. They were people who had made my stay at Harvard tolerable. Vani and Manjula had ensured that I did not miss out on any Indian food. The next two days spent in Harvard were memorable. Meeting with the faculty, giving talks at the Hauser Center and the Kennedy School, and the seminars at the Harvard Medical School were indeed very fulfilling. Meeting some of my classmates who had stayed behind at the Kennedy School doing some more fellowships or being teaching assistants was nostalgic. The Harvard campuses and the Charles River brought back fond memories. I recognized how much I was missing all these the last few months. Spent 24th (Sat) at Satish’s place, relaxing and catching up on writing.

From Boston, I flew into Philadelphia on the 25th, where Akhila met me at the airport. Akhila is the daughter of Usha Vasthare and has all her mother’s goodness in her. She has always impressed me as a young person who knows her mind and is full of compassion and concern for the less privileged. She has got the infectious enthusiasm about inspiring those around her to serve mankind and I know she is going to achieve a lot in her life. Despite her busy schedule as a medical student, she had found time to organize a talk of mine. The talk was at the residence of Devender Peer. This could easily be one of the best-arranged talks that I have given in the US. The house had all the facilities like a well-furnished auditorium and the talk was well attended.

Talk at the Peers' residence, Philadelphia

I met with Karthik, a young professor at the Wharton School, and Devesh Kapur, the Director of Center for Advanced Study on India (CASI) at the University of Pennsylvania. We had an interesting conversation regarding the research focus of CASI and he was keen on collaborating with GRAM (Grassroots Research and Advocacy Movement; my new venture) after it was fully established.

My next stop was Iowa. Flying into Cedar Rapids – the small airport close to Iowa City is always challenging. What made my flight frightening were the winds that were blowing at 25 mph. The flight felt like a roller-coaster ride throughout! The warm and friendly smile from Dr Lisa Skemp who had come to receive me at the airport made me quickly forget this turbulent flight. The longest relationship for SVYM has been with the University of Iowa. I remember my last visit to the University more than 10 years ago, to speak at one of the classes of Dr Paul Greenough on Global Health. Iowans have a reputation of being one of the friendliest people in the US and all the people I met at the University stand testimony to this. After 4 wonderful days in Iowa (26th to 29th), I left for Detroit.

Prof Ram Balachandar and his wife Vidya received me at the airport and we drove down to Windsor, Canada. Chayapathi, a good friend of Dr Nagaraj Rao had organized my talk at Framington Hills, Michigan on Sunday the 31st. The well-attended talk was followed by a good vegetarian South Indian lunch at the nearby Udupi restaurant. The discussions that followed over lunch were indeed very meaningful.

The weather was turning colder and the temperatures dropped to around zero degrees Celsius. There were indications that it would start snowing. The University of Windsor is known for its engineering sciences, especially automotive engineering. I had meetings with the faculty for formalizing the existing partnership with SVYM. They were also excited to hear about GRAM and the possibilities of working together in the policy research area. I also gave a talk to the graduate students and faculty at the School of Social Work at the University.

The last few days were very intense and tiring – moving from one meeting to another; one talk to the other. Very satisfying indeed, but very demanding too! Its also strange that I never really recovered from the Jet lag. The final day (Nov 3rd) saw meetings at the Weil Medical School and another at the NY campus of Cornell University.

I ended my trip to US this time with a walk through downtown New York. New York, very much like Mumbai, has a life and vibrancy of its own. It does not take much for any person to fall in love with it!

Balu

Categories: Travelogue

The UK experience – inspiring and rejuvenating!

July 23, 2010 3 comments

A visit to London and the rest of UK is always an exciting prospect. The unpredictability of the weather, the opportunity to meet with old friends and the warmth & hospitality of our SVYM members enthused and left me filled with expectation. And I was not disappointed. London was reeling under an unusual absence of rains and was at its hottest best. It was 31 degree Celsius when I landed at Heathrow on July 9th evening.

Devaraj was there to pick to me up and took me to his house at St.Albans. His two lovely twin daughters were asleep by the time we reached his place. The next day was to be a long one. Devaraj and his wife Jayalatha were busy with the last preparations for the charity event later that evening. Sindhu drove down nearly 220 miles from Manchester to pick me up and take me to the talk at Basingstoke. I was to speak in the afternoon and we thought we left early at 12.30 itself. Little did I realize that construction activity in preparation for the 2012 Olympics has left London’s main motorway, the M25, congested and a virtual parking lot. What should have taken us one hour took us nearly two and a half hours. The organizers of this Kannada Balaga event were gracious and had moved my talk to 4.15 p.m. The response at the event was indeed very positive and forebode well for what was in store. Thanks to Mohan Arkanath for creating this opportunity for us to present SVYM at this large stage. Kannada Balaga has supported us many times in the past and I was surprised to hear that they had made me an honorary member of the Balaga many years ago.

The Charity event in the evening was a well attended one. Balaji and Vivek had come in from London. Chandrappa and his family came in from Cambridge. It was past midnight by the time we settled for the day. I was woken early at around 5 am by loud metallic noises. Devaraj was up early cleaning all the utensils that were used the previous day. Cleaning them himself meant that he could save an additional 50 pounds for SVYM. The same commitment from the same old Devaraj! I remember the early days, when Devaraj was the treasurer and how he always made sure that we got value for every rupee spent.

Charity event at St Albans

We had originally planned on visiting London the next day and meeting up with Swami Dayatamanandaji there. Both of us were so tired that we just could not get ourselves to do anything.

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Categories: Travelogue