I was so bored towards the end of the day during a short, official trip to Wellington last year that I started reading my own blogs. I soon ventured into my journal entries. For more than a year now, I have been diligently jotting down anything that comes to mind – thoughts, tasks, worries, ideas, incidents, insights – in a spreadsheet. A lot of stuff from work, home and social life. It has been a game changer for me. Many of my blogs have been composed of these random notes. I also learn so much about myself.
What struck me was, its all about me, “my” world: my family, my work place, my friends and acquaintances. I wondered if and when would I ever find time or energy to even think about the issues of others – those not related to me personally or professionally.
No, im not talking about throwing some money away for a charity. I am referring to the act of utilising our knowledge, skills, network and time to create something to make a small difference in someone’s life.
I didn’t know where to start. I had tried to look for volunteering activities previously: signed up for a mentoring gig but soon realised it was not fully engaging me. While I did not seek additional stress beyond what was already produced by work and life, I still wanted to push myself a bit intellectually.
I was searching for opportunities when I got reminded of this advice from Arunachalam Muruganandam – the grass roots innovator of low cost sanitary napkins for rural India – when he spoke as part of the panel that included Bill Gates, addressing the “great challenges facing the world” or something like that (scroll to 50 min into this video). “Don’t look for opportunities. Opportunities are lying in the form of problems. Take a problem, use your knowledge and be a solution provider”.
Think about people whose occupation is all about troubleshooting and fixing others’ problems: doctors, car mechanics, plumbers etc. Even astrologers and godmen. Though many of these professionals perform this as part of a transaction, there is a hierarchy among them in terms of value and respect accorded by the society. Medical professionals would be at the top of this pyramid, since we trust them with our lives. In my own experiences, I have often admired their ability to deal with our problems while being surrounded by a stressful environment.
However, the kind of problem solving I was thinking about was different: one that came with no obligation, expectation or judgement. Should inspire me, test me, but with no time pressure involved. Just the pleasure of doing something useful. Where no one’s watching me.
The previous week, I had watched a reality TV program which featured a kid from a poor family who was also blind. He sang so beautifully. That took me back to the school days and I remembered once writing a test on behalf of a visually impaired classmate (he would speak the answer to me and I would write it, verbatim). I had always wondered how he would read books which didn’t have the braille version.
I began a search in google: “Coimbatore blind”. It’s my hometown, after all. Clicked on the first link – which was a video interview with Mr. Saravanan who had sight until he was an adult but lost his vision completely over a period of time. I found his number from the video and called him. He spoke to me about his challenges to become physically and financially independent. About how he was promised many things by many people, organisations and the government, over the years. Though he had received some support and assistance, he felt he could achieve a lot further. He never gave up though. Living with his parents, he is independent however, running a coaching centre in the outskirts of Coimbatore, offering students a whole bunch of things: yoga, spoken English, communication skills, spiritual advice etc. He has a computer and a smart phone which help him get connected to the world.
I explained my background and the intention to help him in some way I could. His expressed his main challenge as being missing out on reading books. Only a small percentage of books have the braille version. He narrated his difficulties in having to travel some distance to read a book of his choice, but the library’s text-to-speech reader device was available only intermittently.
I found the problem I was looking for.
As an IT person, I thought it should be so easy to solve this problem. After all, Apple devices, Kindle and so many apps offer AI capabilities (SeeingAI from Microsoft, for instance) and surely, it must be possible for him to just place a device on top of the page and listen on.
Alas, it was not so simple. Obviously, not all books are available in the digital form. Definitely, not all Tamil books. I also realised, many of these technologies are proprietary, expensive and worse, not so reliable. Even otherwise, how would he read the contents of a letter posted to him?
After a month of research, I resigned to the fact that I just have to buy him the right product. A time-tested and reliable reading device (Pearl) which is used in schools and universities across the world. I also ordered the software that supports Tamil character recognition. It was a challenge for Saravanan to get this installed and configured all by himself, talking over the phone with the Mumbai based dealer that shipped the device. He later told me the Tamil OCR software didn’t work at all. Nevertheless, he was beginning to read English books.
It was a bit disappointing in the end that I couldn’t solve his problem fully; and the way I wanted to. With my skill, knowledge and all that. Living at the other end of the world, I was only able to afford some time and money.
It has been a year now. I try to keep in touch with him and occasionally call him. Earlier this month, during our trip to India, my wife and I met him face to face for the first time.
He “read” us a page from a book that was kept under the scanner.