Kernel of kindness

Somewhere deep within me, sits a cynical personality that is looking for traces of evil in this world to substantiate my beliefs. Of the many failures I’ve had, I have, and will enjoy the failure to be a cynical thread of thought. And if you think books can be of no use to alter your beliefs, think about it again, for now I am going to talk about my experience with poignant books.

Yes, of course you know the second world war and the atrocities. I also know that you will have different views of that period, depending on whether, at heart, you are a humanist, a historian, a pessimist, or an information monger. I want to present the human side to you, but before that, shall we really quickly look at Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? You’ll soon know why I brought up this book. The book is in some way the urge of mankind to have their conscience disconnected from their want to hurt, to feel the unbridled joy of sadism. The distilling of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde alludes us to one dangerous idea, that we humans are innately belligerent at heart, and that a bizarre internal or external force keeps us from doing anything violent. Now it seems the majority of the wars fought were along similar lines. The leaders were unleashing their wrath of ideas on commoners. Commoners were unleashing their wrath of hatred on other commoners. Soldiers were stuck in a playground of blood and violence. When leaders or soldiers do it, perhaps we can conclude that it’s either the crushed humanity in the leaders or the following of orders in soldiers. But the most disheartening part is when a commoner inflicts damage on another commoner, with words, weapons or whatever that can do the damage.

I lost my faith. Or was I not focusing well enough? Was I selectively looking for the bad in the world and not even considering that there was good? Let’s get one thing out of our way, this world isn’t black or white. It’s shades of gray (and yes, far more than 50). But it seemed my spectrum was biased towards the black, keenly looking for the black blotches. I am wrong. My cynicism is ill found, or at the least, not useful. “Man’s search for meaning” said so. “The book thief” said so. “Schindler’s list” said so. My friend’s stories have said so.

Every story you read has a crux to it, something we both agree to. But there is also a dual crux to it, either in agreement or in contrast to the original crux. Books on humanity always have a contrasting crux to them, and it is up to you to choose the crux. I have chosen the bad side of humans so far, but I wish to change. I wish to see the good side, even if it means the rarer one.  Perhaps it doesn’t mean world is a rainbow town with sunshine for ice cream. But it at least means that I can look for a ray of sunshine in the merciless cold and rainy weather. Here is a quote to explain what I mean:

Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil, struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer — Vasily Grossmann

Yes, it’s the kernel of kindness that the keeps the world going.


Exhausted and revitalized

I biked 75 miles from Ohiopyle on a rather hot Sunday back to Pittsburgh. I think almost till 50 miles I was fairly energetic, but after that, the heat took a toll. I was biking very slowly over the last 10 miles, constantly drinking water and panting to get rid of the heat in my body. I reached Pittsburgh, but decided to bike back home. Now the route from Southside (where the trail ended) to my home is almost invariably uphill, which meant that it would be awfully exhausting. At some point, I was wondering if I would faint due to exhaustion.

Nevertheless, I decided to do the “start from home and hence end at home” exercise and at a snail pace, biked the uphill slope. No surprises,  it was really daunting and in between, I halted for five minutes, as my mind went blank. The heat was still oppressive. I was at the junction just before the last leg of the journey, which was a bit shy of one tenth of a mile. Even this short stretch was uphill and hence exasperating.

Just as I was feeling like giving up and sit on the pavement for half an hour, I see this tiny booth with three children selling ice cold tea. It was twenty five cents, but because I was exhilarated to the prospect of drinking something cold, I urged them to take a dollar for it. Those cute kids slowly tilted the jar with great effort and gave me a glass of that ambrosia. I drank with great taste and thanked those kids profusely. Till that point, I was annoyed with the heat, exhausted like never before and to the point of hating my life. Suddenly after the drink, I loved my life, admired those kids, thanked the nature and was enthusiastically ready for the last and now the most fulfilling of journeys.

Sometimes, you wish to believe that coincidences are rare, or that life is always going against you. However, once in a while, a metaphorical angel steps in just before you give up to revitalize your journey. To the kids who gave me the ice cold tea, thanks a lot guys, and I will return the favour to more travellers like me.


Who am I? Remember seeing a mid 40 aged man with thick black glasses, well ironed white shirt and dark brown pant? Yes, I am that common man from Indian public places. I’ve lived in the semi-village town for 30 years now. I just decided to recollect one particular story with you today. I’ve always been a pious man. I go to temple every Saturday to pay my ablutions to Perumal. Oh yes, I do strongly believe he is taking good care of me and that I am always and will be answerable to him. My religious views aren’t that important but what is of interest is this one lady just outside the temple. I don’t know here name, but I’ve called her Akka (elder sister) and she calls me Thambi (younger brother) from time immemorial, although I believe she is as old as me. 

Akka came to the town around 25 years ago, in extremely dirty clothes with her father and mother. Very soon, due to some rifts, both her parents were killed which left her to herself. I don’t remember seeing her for a couple of months after that, but later she started sitting right at the entrance of the temple, selling flowers to offer to the god. I could clearly see she was scared of her surroundings. Nevertheless, pious as my parents were, and something charming about her, I went towards her. “Need some flowers? These are Perumal’s favourite.” and I would buy some from her, even though I never really understood why a temple should be littered with flowers. Eventually it became a habit to buy flowers from her, much against my better judgement. Was it to just talk to her for a brief while? From shyly going to her to buy some flowers, we grew to “Akka! Did you know that a new pan shop is coming up near my house?”, “That’s great thambi! Here you go, your flower garland. Yeah, you can pay me towards the end of the month. I might make some gulab jamun tomorrow. I’ll get some just in case you decide to visit the temple”. I grew really fond of her. She was a very hard working soul. I have always been well off in terms of economic status and hence there was always a tinge of condescension for people who I thought did not have a goal in life. It never stopped me from socializing with them, but I always assumed a morally higher ground.

One fine day, she got married. I couldn’t stop crying when I came to know that she was leaving the town to go and live in the city. Her husband was a cobbler and he was planning to open a huge shop. She came to our house standing at our doorstep sheepishly. My mother took her in fondly and asked her to sit, while she went and fetched me. I won’t come, as I was angry with her for leaving the town. But I got around and went to meet her and gave a warm hug. She said nothing and left. My life was as usual after that. Over the next couple of years, I finished my polytechnic and was thinking of a career path.  Years passed as I sat and contemplated about it, but eventually decided to open an electronics shop in our town for the time being. I did that for almost ten years and was beginning to start getting exasperated with the stagnation in my life.

I was as usual going to the temple one fine Saturday when I saw a familiar face selling flowers in a basket. Akka was back. She had a small boy beside her curiously nibbling a raw mango slice. I went to her with a questioning face. She looked at me intently and we both smiled. I knew something went wrong but I never wanted to ask what it was. I was very happy that she was back in town. “Thambi, why don’t you try this new garland? It’s made thicker than usual.”, “Yes Akka. Add it to the monthly ledger will you?”, “Sure. Oh and might make some payasam next week. Will get some for you.” Life was back on track.

I very closely saw that boy grow up, as he was with his mom in the evenings. She seemed to be working harder now, almost as if she found her life’s calling. For all the fondness I had for her, I never really appreciated that she had no goal in life. Or so I thought.

Over time, her boy grew up to be a strong and well educated man. He was very courteous with me but also exuded great confidence. In the mean time, Akka also grew economically. She bought a table instead of a small basket for flowers, then two tables and finally a small hut where she sold all temple items apart from flowers. She was the same with me though, the caring elder sister, offering sweets every other week and telling me stories about how her boy was performing. 

So that gets us to this day. A fine Saturday evening when I decided to go to the temple as usual. Again, I saw Akka and went to her. Today I was particularly pensive about my life and the choices I made, but wanted to talk to her anyway. “Thambi, I heard you are thinking of closing the shop and going for a government post? I think it’s a great move. Here, take this coconut and camphor. No no! It’s from me, I won’t add its cost to the ledger. I am planning to buy a new shop new Malayappa temple. I’ve been approached by some to offer them some work, so I thought this is a nice way to go about things.”, I was listening carefully and suddenly asked her, “Akka, do you not have a huge goal in life?”. She seemed taken aback and visibly confused. “What happened Thambi?”, “Akka, I always see you selling flowers or other paraphernalia. Did you ever think about your goals, ambitions and so on? Don’t they bother you? Doesn’t it bother you that you are stuck here, selling flowers?”. She smiled, the sweetest and the most innocent smile I saw in ages. “I do have Thambi. I have goals, ambitions and I am stuck here only for those.”. It was my turn to be confused. “What are you saying akka? You never spoke to me about these things? What is it? Do you wish to live in the city and work somewhere?” “No Thambi, my ambition is here. Turn around, and see who is walking towards us”, and there I saw her son walking confidently towards us. “Greetings to you uncle! Amma, I may have gotten a job in a near by city. I think it’s a marvelous offer. I won’t work there for long, but I think I’ll get to learn some new tools. What do you say uncle? Do you think I should take a leap?”. I smiled. I found my answer.

I had a long discussion with one of my friends about how ambition means differently to different people. This story is something I concocted for the same reason. So I wish to give my friend credit for this post.

5,4,3,2,1 — contact! — Frolic/Frisk! — Oh no!

Of course we like adding a tinge of drama to either the very first paragraph of a post or the title itself. I flipped a completely biased coin and decided to add drama to the title. So here we are, a tiny string of what happened in my trip to Niagara and Washington DC.

After a long time, my friend from Austin visited me for a road trip in the North East of USA. There was lots of planning over three weeks, so much so that people stopped studying for exams and were planning instead. Leaving out the gory details of how we forgot sleeping bag, playing cards, blah blah blah but managed to get everything in place blah blah blah because we are resourceful and all that stuff, let’s quickly jump into what was interesting in the trip. Oh no, I am not going to tell you, “From Niagara we went to DC in 7 hours” and such stuff which you can simply google for yourself. I would rather tell you what stood out in each tiny episode of this trip.

Canada stole all the good parts of Niagara. The horseshoe falls is on Canadian side. Sure you can kind of see it from USA side and the ferry ride which takes you close to the falls is exhilarating, but it’s no way close to what it looks like from the Canadian side. And also the walk behind the falls? It’s so envious to see people walking through that area, closely listening to the falls. I am not even going to talk about … okay fine, yes the lighting in the night after sunset from the Canadian side is incredible.  One final rant and we will switch topics. There was a sweet and delicious smell of waffles all the while when we were around the falls. We decided to play dogs and find out if we could savour some of those tasty waffles. Again! Canada at it again! That sweet smell was from across the falls on the other side. Some kind of a wheat factory, as said by a guard. This only angered us further for not spending $100 to go to Canada. Setting drama aside, It was a nice trip with all the strong gurgling sound of the river, the raging and mighty fall, the tiny rainbows formed due to mist of water, and of course, the nice sunset.

Hershey’s chocolate world (Did you know that Hershey is a place?) has too much of chocolates. What did I expect? Well, you are right, it’s not fair to even state this. I wish they took us through an actual factory instead of a dingy tunnel with fancy and paste chocolate robots which were hardly audible. I learned that Hershey is famous for the dark chocolate, which I liked a lot. “Yuck! It tastes like tobaco!” — exclaimed my friend. Well, it’s true to an extent but I liked it nevertheless. “Did you consider starting smoking? You might like it” — no dear friend, not going to that area.

Library/Art/Capitol/Natural history/Aerospace — “I’ve seen enough fallen chairs in Parliament. Let’s go to see something else” — I like these rather interesting comparisons between congregation places of various countries. Anyway, we skipped capitol and went to see the Library of Congress instead. Yes it’s beautiful and there are umpteen books of Thomas Jefferson, but I wish I could see other wings of the library. Ah yes, noise. I can’t disagree. It was awfully noisy for a library. Oh well. I liked it though.

Can we have less of Madonna please? Of the plethora of paintings we saw, 10% were noteworthy, 10% was interesting, 10% really stood out and the rest was Madonna and variants of Madonna! Makes me name it Madonnart instead of Modern art museum. It is incredible to notice the evolution of painting across the medieval age in terms of forms, expressions, and subject. I think I am a new fan of Rembrandt. His juxtaposition of characters against black background and the easily discernible facial features was commendable. Introduced to impressionist paintings for the first time, I immediately liked it. The idea of talking about the subject more than the details appealed to me a lot. Don’t be in a hurry to see these paintings. Worth your time if you like art.

Standing tall and gracious and eerily simple, the obelisk was a sight to see. We decided to sleep on our back and see the monument. “Hey it seems like a footpath. Well lit”, “I would say it’s a walk into space. Suddenly you fall into abyss.”, “We set a trend here. Everyone is look at the monument the same way now”. Essentially that’s about it. To tire our legs towards the end of the day, we decided to give the massive and silently sitting statue of Lincoln. I was mighty impressed by the demeanour of the statue. The reflection pool is not symmetric! Why didn’t they take care of this!

Did you know that a Homo Erectus female is taller than 5’9″? And that Neanderthals were shorter and broader than us to counter cold? Yes, the humans and mummies section of Natural history museum was incredible. I must admit that they did a really good job of laying down the roots of our ancestry along with reasons for each fact. Should we be freaked out or be amazed by the fact that that blob of brown carbon was once a living being? Mummies confuse me but never fail to enthral me.

Right, as if I could go to space if I was physically fit. As it always happens, visiting the air and space museum created an urge to go to space. How cliched? Come on! The space modules, rockets and satellites were so well presented! And because I can’t go to space, I instead bought some metal models to make at home. How very unapologetically boring.

So what does the title mean? Half of the trip was spent in the car transiting from place to place. So we decided to play contact almost invariably every time, and every time someone thought they got what the other person was thinking, there would be a gush of excitement, haste, counting, shouting and finally, slump with disappointment. It’s an incredibly fun game though. And that’s what occupied all the car ride times. Other times? I was busy judging. Judging what? Hey did you even read this article? Please go up and restart then😉.

Musings of a biker

Why should you bike instead of driving a car? Car moves the body, but bike moves your soul. One with the bike, you are.

After a very long time, I decided to go biking for a short stretch on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) in Pittsburgh.  It it a beautiful and fairly flat stretch that runs from Pittsburgh to Washington DC, but that’s not the long route we traversed. We instead went for a total of 15 miles up until McKeesport and back.

I agree. When you are alone on your bike, you tend to get extremely philosophical. Seems like life is pretty much like biking. It really isn’t about the final destination, but more about the journey. Reminds me of this professor’s story who biked from west coast to east coast and found that the ups and downs of his life were similar to his biking experience.

After the annoying sounds of fast moving cars, we slowly move into the wooden areas which is flanked by green trees on one side and the Monongohella river on the other side. It’s quite a beautiful site, particularly late in the morning, when the sun rays bounce off the waves of the river to create a shimmering effect. Added to this is the multitude of factories on the other side of the river. Pittsburgh was once a steel hotbed. Andrew Carnegie, founder of CMU was a steel giant. No wonder Pittsburgh was called the Steel city of USA. Often reminds me of my own home town, Vishakhapatnam.

You know, Homestead is quite a famous historic landmark. One of the first strikes for labour rights was held here almost 100 years ago. Can you see those smoke stacks beside AMC? Yeah, they are remnants of a steel factory of a bygone era. Doesn’t Pittsburgh seem more and more interesting by the day? You should also read about the French English wars here.

The ride started slowly and stayed so through the journey. I was particularly keen about riding slow and enjoying the really nice weather. We started off with quite a cloudy weather but luckily it turned sunny, but the atmosphere was still cool. We rode across the waterfront towards Kennywood roller coaster park. We were wondering if we could jump the fences and take a ride in the empty roller coasters, but decided against it, considering the impractical propositions of ours and a danger of getting razed to ground because of the high voltage transformers.

Do you like trains? I love anything technology. When you go ride from Pittsburgh to McKeesport, you will come across a lot of tracks with running trains and abandoned trains. It almost feels like those compartments want to tell you a story, but are so rusted with time and weather that they are just sitting there and lamenting their static life. Isn’t it rather interesting how we crave to associate a story with everything we see?

After Kennywoods, it was a short stretch to McKeesport, and the marvellous weather only meant that we were all excited to traverse it in good speed. We reached McKeesport soon enough and sat at the bus stop for a while wondering if we should take the bus back home or, considering that the route back is somewhat downhill, bike back. We decided to bike anyway, and I was glad. On the way back, I was particularly excited to see a goods train beneath us when we were riding our bike. Interesting thing is that, due to the wooden planks on the bridge, and thanks to the fully filled tyres, I was constantly being shaken. Bizarre feeling if you think about it.

John Dunlop’s son came in the evening and said, “We have a tricycle race tomorrow. I really want to try and win. Unfortunately, it’s such an onerous task, considering the jolts you receive on these unpaved roads”. Dunlop was wondering about how apt the name “bone shakers” was for these bikes, considering that you have a free tour of hell on earth. While he was watering his garden, he observed that he might try wrapping an air filled hose around his son’s tyres. It turned out to be marvellous idea, as his son smoked the tricycle race. Next week he had a barrage of requests for fitting their tricycle tyres with the air filled hose. It went to such an extent that he had to finally ask all the tricycles to be taken back without any fitting. The next week, a patent officer came and asked Dunlop to patent his marvellous idea. And thus, my friend, was born the Dunlop tyre company.

Way back, we saw mother gander with its children wobbling and walking. We halted and were taking photos and the mother gander looked at us as if saying, “Oi mate, what are you looking at? Bugger off! I need to take care of my children”, and so we obliged and had to make do with only a couple of images. And then we kept biking. Considering that it was ever so slightly downhill, we were hardly tired.

Isn’t it interesting? When we go back, whatever was hard is now easy and whatever was easy is now hard. Quite philosophical things you say my friend. Pretty similar to life eh?

And then we kept biking in the now cloudy weather, but still cool enough to not know the long stretch. We essentially traced back the path, from McKeesport to Kennywoods to Waterfront to Southside. Finally, we came to Downtown and took a bus back home. As in any tiring trip, we slumped as soon as we got into the bus. My calf muscles seem to complain a very tiny bit, but more or less it was a comfortable trip and a rather enjoyable one. Ever so slowly, the weather turned even cloudier and the temperature lowered. Added to this, there was a mild drizzle, as if welcoming us back home after a good day under the sun.

Treading slow and steady

Date is not something that matters to me, unless I am so worn out that I might as well belong to the dump yard. But my friend above says that it has been quite a while. He says that with certain pride. Yeah, I know it’s he, don’t ask me how. I used to silently sit in a store room and judge people who used to come to see the shows, thinking how superficial they must be to dismiss me with a quick cursory glance. Oh yes, I was eager to leave the showroom. For all the cosiness that I enjoyed, I wanted to stamp the earth and tread the snow and kick the mud. Okay, enough drama, let’s get back.

So this guy saw me, and it almost seemed like he was in a trance. Love at first sight I believe, but it’s nice to know that you can be of use to someone, at the same time, getting out to do what you wanted. He perused me a bit too much along with his dad. Yeah fine! I am smarter than you think. Through the people at showroom and with a tinge of my own intelligence, I can understand everything that humans can understand. My future narrative, as it beautifully unfolds, is thanks to my friend above, who keeps blabbering about his travels to his friends and foes alike. Don’t you think I digress a lot? Yeah, so coming back, my good friend above. Let’s call him the stick. Moderately tall and awfully thin. So the stick took me along with him.

I thought life will jump excitingly at me. Bummer. Totally a bummer. He hardly took me out. Utterly lazy person he was. I thought that I might have made a bad choice. Oh wait. I never had a choice. Oh well. I was just cursing my life I guess. Events unfolded and luckily, the stick got an offer to go to Germany in the summer of 2013 (Stop questioning my intelligence and assume I am a smart teenager!). Got to admit, I was excited and I could see that the stick was excited too. And boy, we did have some real fun.

I will keep the trip details very short. It seems like he did document somewhere. I don’t care much though. So over three months, I roamed a total of nine countries. Yeah, he brags about it a bit too much. I tread the medieval streets of German down town, the romance filled streets of Paris, the historically exciting places of Italy, the poignant places of Dachau and so on. Oh one of the trips was a chilling experience for me. No, I am not serious here. I tread the snow filled mountains of Titlis in Zurich. Quite an experience I must admit, particularly with that slide down the mountain and getting wet in the snow for the first time.

For all that exciting trip, the stick kept me aside for an year, because he was going through some tense times. I tell you, this stick takes a lot of tension for things don’t matter in life. So almost an year later, he left his home country again for a long time to USA in August 2014. With a bit of maturity, I was excited to see new places again. Not much activity for an year almost, but I can’t blame him. As usual, tension filled person and he seemed to be figuring out some important things in his life. But come the summer of 2015 and it was an incredible experience for me. Starting all the way from biking uphills towards LBNL and till the day he bought books for second hand, it was an amazing ride. Oh yes, he bought a nice bike which gave me a strong competition for his first love, but oh well, I personally felt that me and the bike got along well eventually. Nice lady she is. Beautiful, sleek, strong and menacing. Kind of dreamy. So yes, my trip in California. I was particularly exhilirated when I went to Yosemite mountains. Oh the nature there. I was glad the stick went there and I am sure he felt that too. At times, I’ve seen that the stick has apprehensions about doing things out of his way, but when he does it, he is happy. He will grow up. I was taken for trekking over 1500ft, which was quite an experience. I felt myself tested to my limit for the first time and it was an experience I will hold dear. Not just Yosemite, the long bike rides, the bike rides up hills, the beach trips, the whale watching and everything. I think the stick gave me whatever I bargained for (okay yes, I didn’t have an option, but it’s nice to believe that it was a marriage between me and the stick).

Over the past four years, I’ve treaded a lot with the stick. I’ve seen him run, seen him slow down because of me, hold on to the road because of me and fall down because of me. At the risk of being obnoxious, I think the stick will stick with me for a while longer.

Four years ago, I bought a pair of boots from Woodland (Gosh! I am getting old!) From that time till date, they have served as a faithful friend of mine and has seen places far more than me (Yeah, my brother sneaked away with my boots at times when I was home, so the boots saw more than me). I thought, for a change, I would write about my travel experiences through the perspective of my boots. So, in this article was about my boots speaking.

The end of his revolution around the sun

“Dream is not that which you will see while sleeping, it is something that does not let you sleep.”

Every once in a while, a man is born who doesn’t conform to societal thinking. He has a humble beginnings, a strict childhood, a passionate youth, and yet, achievements which make everyone proud. Every once in a while, a man stands on his character, and not on his laurels. He is know for his compassion, his kindness, his passion for achievement, his far sight, and more than anything, his humbleness. And yet, like everything, what begins has to end. Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam died on 27th of July 2015. A day when I knew that the death of a person I am not at all related to can wrench my heart.

I have heard about stories of Kekule, where perseverance has lead to the discovery of Benzene structure. Or that of Da Vinci, where the very idea of invention and creative thinking were redefined. But of that of a person whose humbleness shames you? Not always. I have learned about Dr. Kalam for a long time now. My dad told me three of his stories. The first one was about how he was sitting alone outside the office of a Junior Technical Manager, when he was in a high position at ISRO. When asked if he would like to come in and take some tea, he refused saying he is totally comfortable outside on the humble seat he was sitting ( I would complain about sitting on the same seat! ). The second one of how he created panic among the security, as he slipped the guard and was found playing with a bunch of children. And the third, which is a bit on the geeky side, was about how he woke up the whole technical wing of a hotel, as his computer stopped working.

Yet, we learn more of his stories, where he never takes credit for the missiles of India, or his role in some of the space missions. In his book, “The wings of fire”, he talks about how Dr. Sarabhai protected him when he goofed up. For me, it is a sign that he always gives credit where it is due. I don’t know any of his relatives, because he never showed them. I hardly know his religion, because he never talked about it. He always addressed us as friends. The subject of this blog is inspired from his talk in my undergrad school, “Friends, I completed 81 revolutions around the sun a couple of months ago”. A tiny man struggling on the stage and asking no one to bother about him.

I am aware of the fact that a person has to die eventually. I am aware of the fact that what starts has to end. I am aware of the fact, that an inspirational figure will eventually turn into a quote by an inspirational person in the history. Suddenly, his story has become history. It still saddens me, that one of my most inspirational character can’t revolve the sun any more.

I am writing this article to promise to myself to be a micro-fraction of his dream and vision. “Each one teach one”. I have grown to believe in education and that it is one of the greatest ways to up lift the society. It only makes sense that everyone who is willing to study should get all the opportunities to study. I hope that I will earn enough one day to fund a kid’s education every year. I hope that this post will constantly remind me of my promise. That is how I want to remember Dr. Kalam.

On a finishing note, I hope these quotes inspire anyone who reads them. It inspired me: