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.
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.